DIY alterations: How to slim sleeves + armhole & raise neckline

I mentioned in my review of this printed dress that there were slight issues with the fit. If it fits you perfectly off the rack – excellent. If not, here are three possible DIY alterations (I went with #2) that beginners can do, even if you have to sew by hand. However, learning to sew can be a waste of time if you don’t first learn how to identify proper fit—a concept worth mastering for women of all shapes and sizes. A bargain unlined dress is the perfect piece to practice on!

If you don’t own this dress, the general concepts below can easily be applied to various garments – blouses, tank tops, dresses, etc. I’ve done the shoulder part in #2 quite a bit with tops that are too low/gaping/long.

Alteration # 1: Slimming sleeves and making armholes smaller. 
Problem: Armpits are too big and sleeves are too loose. If you are taller or have a longer torso, then this may be the only alteration you need.
Solution: Measure out how much you want to take in – you want sleeves and armholes to be fitted but not snug. Stitch in one continuous line (on each side of the dress) as shown below…

Secure both ends of the stitch by knotting your thread, or by back-stitching on your machine. If you have a serger machine, trim off the excess fabric and re-serge the raw edges.
Difficulty Level: Beginner. Takes about 10 minutes by machine, longer by hand.

Before you begin any sewing project…having an iron ready is key. After you sew on the inside-out garment, flip it back to the right side, iron down the seams to smooth out the area, and try it on. If the alteration doesn’t look right, remove stitches, iron the fabric smooth again, and re-sew as necessary. I like to use fabric chalk to mark my measured lines, then secure the fabric with pins before sewing.
NOTE: The sleeves of this dress are gathered and banded at the hand opening, and is more narrow there. You need to taper the slimming to be less and less narrow as you get closer to the opening.

Alteration # 2: Slimming sleeves, making armholes smaller, raising the neckline and hem.
Problem: In addition to the two issues above, the length is too long, the waist hits too low, and the neckline is too low. These are symptoms of how regular-sized garments often fit on women who need petite sizing.


Solution: Instead of taking the dress in at the armpit, take it in along the shoulders. This will effectively raise the neckline, torso, and shorten the total length. In the “after” pic above, the resulting higher neck and waistline on me are not distinctly visible, however one sign is the better-flowing A-line shape of the skirt. In the “before” pic, I had to wrap the dress so tightly to conceal the gaping neckline, that the skirt started to lose it’s flowing shape.
Difficulty Level: Beginner. ~10 minutes by machine, longer by hand.
NOTE: This alteration is a simplified shortcut (that will make some professional sewers cringe), and will result in a new seam along the upper side of both arms. I don’t recommend this for solid garments, however I think the pattern on this dress hides the new seam fairly well.


Alteration # 3: Alteration #2, the proper way.
Problem: You want to achieve the effect of alteration #2 but you don’t want new outer seams down the arms.
Solution: 1) Using a seam ripper or tiny scissors, take apart all seams connecting the sleeves to the shoulders. 2) Take in the shoulders from the top. 3) Slim the sleeves from the bottom, pre-existing seam, making sure the new width will align with the newly-sized armpit hole. 4) Re-attach the sleeves to the torso.
Difficulty Level: Intermediate.
If this were a more expensive dress, I definitely would’ve gone this route. However, I’m not a great sewer so it would’ve taken me hours versus 10 minutes (for alteration #2). Either way, I just wanted to show these methods for anyone with little to no experience sewing, as an option to do easy fixes at home and save on $$ alterations.

On a separate note, I’ve always kept comments open on this blog to encourage the sharing of ideas and constructive feedback. I value comments as a means for interaction and read every single one. I understand that clothing choices are a subjective matter, and there will always be differing opinions. All I ask is for common courtesy when expressing your thoughts. Just because we’re on the Internet doesn’t mean we can’t show the same respect and decency to each other that we would in real life.

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  1. Tried out this dress today thanks to you. Neck line its so deep. Wish I had your talent for diy. Too scared tob attempt it. Maybe next time.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  2. newpetite wrote:

    You have explained it so well! The dress looks lovely on you and cant wait to see you style it!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  3. AUBS* wrote:

    if it was me, i'd probably go for #1, but low neckline would be an issue. appreciate all the choices.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  4. Ping wrote:

    jean, you are such a diligent worker bee. the alteration you did makes the dress look even better. can i send mine over for you to do? hahaha!!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  5. Annapurna wrote:

    Boston area readers….inspired by Jean, I am going to take beginning sewing at Grey's Fabric and Notions in the South End.

    Not affiliated (I just rang up the owner, who was very sweet, but I don't know her at all and cannot vouch for the classes…yet!) But she also teaches how to do hems and simple alterations and has more advanced classes too. Affordable for the area.

    A few years ago I took BCAE classes and they were rubbish – they have since changed the teacher but I am reluctant to pay $200 to get disappointed again….

    Hope this helps someone : )

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  6. Efbe wrote:

    Thank you for this post, it is so useful !
    I also have the problems of too long length and too low waist and neckline, so usually I don't buy any dresses, even if I like them (but I buy skirts ;-). And I find it a pity because some dresses are so feminine !
    But now that you have shown how to do, I will change my mind, many thanks !!!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  7. Anne wrote:

    Thanks for posting step by step instructions on how to alter a dress. I bought a sewing machine a year ago, and have yet to use it. I also don't really sew all that much. But this helps a lot!

    xo annie

    ps Agreed about your last paragraph. 🙂

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  8. Anonymous wrote:

    you're awesome Jean. Thanks for the informative tutorial. I've always wondered whether if its really that simple and it is!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  9. TerranceJ wrote:

    This is amazing. Do you think this same concept can be applied to mens blazers and shirts? I'm all for trying this out <3

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  10. Molly wrote:

    Holy cow, those sleeves were huge. I'm so annoyed with Old Navy screwing with sizing just to accommodate the ridiculously huge and growing waistlines in this country.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  11. I need to take sewing lessons and invest in a good sewing machine. How much would a good basic sewing machine cost?


    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  12. Annapurna wrote:

    Thank you so much for this clear and approachable tutorial. And for taking the time to show three different ways to do it. There are so many shirts and ddresses that I have been meaning to take to the tailor…you have inspired me to learn to do it myself!

    That having been said…years ago I bought a sewing machine (on super-sale) but have always been so scared to use it. I took a beginner's sewing class at the BCAE and it was useless. So, I was going to sell the machine…but now I think I may keep it! Any tips for people like me and Anonymous above who are scared of them?

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  13. Anonymous wrote:

    Great job on the alteration, and thanks for sharing it with us! I'm lucky to have a professional tailor as a sister (and I pay her in cookies and cupcakes), but for me, I can't even get a sewing machine to work. The sewing machine just intimidates me. I wish there's a simple one with just an ON button. 🙂

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  14. Anonymous wrote:

    Great post! One thing to keep in mind about negative comments is that they usually become more plentiful the more overt success you achieve.( I used to compete in pageants and didn't get any negative comments/ feedback until I actually won a major statewide pageant). You handle them well, but understand that they "come with the territory" of increased success and visibility of your blog.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  15. Lisa Ng wrote:

    You are a genius!!! And did you rip apart that dress just for the last picture and then resew it using alteration #2? WHAT A BLOGGER!!!!!!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  16. Tina wrote:

    This is very helpful Jean! I stopped by an ON and picked up this dress in both colors (the only ones left in xs too!). I will have to try either #2 or #3…might have to get my mom to help me actually lol.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  17. Kat wrote:

    This is super helpful! I'm always too chicken to cut up my own clothes. Do you have a sewing machine?

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  18. Janki wrote:

    Hi Jean,
    I love this! I have always wanted to learn to sew and am saving up for a machine and lessons. But I love how you have given tips for us hand-sewers too. Thanks for showing the fit issues. I always have dresses that just don't seem right… and I figured it was the length but now I see that it's also the arm holes and the waist (now THAT is why so many dresses are so low cut on me and I have to wear camis).

    Keep up the great work. And ignore the haters… sheesh, some people are just such weirdos. Try to focus on the tons of followers you have that love your blog and rely on you. Even though I'm about 10 years older than you, whenever I follow your dress advice I get tons of compliments. Thanks for posting, even with your busy work and study schedule!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  19. Anonymous wrote:

    Wow! Thanks Jean. You're so talented. If only I knew how to sew…

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  20. Anonymous wrote:

    I love how your DIYs and tutorials are always so clear with just enough detail. You're a great teacher!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  21. Annie wrote:

    I love your mini DIY alteration tutorials! So SO helpful, thank you! You did a great job altering that dress! 🙂

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  22. My Style wrote:

    Amazing tips! Thank you for sharing!


    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  23. Ahhh thank you for sharing your alteration skills Jean. #3 is inviting…maybe I'll pick up a "practice" clothing from the thrift shop. (The skill might come in handy when my petite daughter hits her teens LOL)

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  24. Ria wrote:

    I read your other blog about this dress and loved it so much I went out and bought the dress for myself (along with other pretty dresses that were also on clearance). I wasn't able to score the dress for $10.99, at my Old Navy it was on sale for $12.49 (but then they did have 10% Tuesday when I bought it so I guess it came out to about that price). This was so informative thank you! I wish I could sew. I do have one question: The sleeves and armholes on my dress fit perfectly but the neckline is too low for me, would you have any suggestions on how I can readjust it? I was thinking of just wearing a white bandeau but it might ruin the look of the dress. Would love your input.

    Thanks, Ria (

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  25. OMG!! you're so good at altering your clothes. you should teach me the basics of altering clothes. I tried alter my dress once, it ended up like crazy.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  26. Anonymous wrote:

    P.S. This dress looks polished and lovely on you particularly after you altered it.

    Bela Anzu

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  27. Anonymous wrote:

    Hi Jean,

    Thank you so much for these new posts showing us how to alter clothes ourselves. I learned a lot from you by looking at these photos because it made what you were explaining easier to understand and follow.

    This is an awesome post!

    Bela Anzu

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  28. Jen wrote:

    Thank you for this post! Very clear instructions and seems like a simple way to take care of such common fit issues.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  29. Cheryll wrote:

    Thank you for taking the time to post something that's very helpful and easy to understand. It is very much appreciated!

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  30. ahahaha – I was ready your Alteration #2 and I'll admit I did cringe a little. But after seeing #3, you KNOW how to properly do the alteration, and seeing your AFTER in #2, I'll admit, I can't really tell. You're quite the seamstress and designer Jean!

    xx Vivian @

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  31. Anonymous wrote:

    You're so skilled! Thanks for sharing.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  32. Kiwi wrote:

    Thank you! This was really helpful =D

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  33. Krecipe wrote:

    Oh you did a really good job!! Love love love it!!! <3<3<3

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  34. Xuvious wrote:

    This is really helpful! I do small alterations on my own, like bringing up the neckline but not stuff like this.

    Posted 3.22.12 Reply
  35. Anonymous wrote:

    You are so good at sewing! I could never do something like that without messing up the garment. Mad props.

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  36. Awesome post, Jean. I love the dress post alternation. Your DIY is very helpful and informative. I want to alter my dress but I am afraid too.

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  37. Anonymous wrote:

    You're so talented!! Thanks for the informative tutorial. You look gorgeous in that dress. 🙂

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  38. Jen wrote:

    This is a very clear and easily understandable tutorial, Jean. Thank you! I also want to mention the impressive level of grace you've shown in addressing the negative comments on your site. You are a class act and we could all use a lesson from you!


    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  39. lin wrote:

    great diy! thanks for the tutorial. you're always so informative. even though i'm not petite, i sometimes have problems with the fit also so your diy tutorials come in handy. 🙂

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  40. Moussia wrote:

    i love your blog! i can really relate being slightly less than five ft and having to get everything tailored to fit! im def following your blog!

    check out out how i try to make it work

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  41. Jean your tutorials are always so informative and useful so thank you for posting them!
    Sorry to hear about negative comments you've been receiving on your website. I just received my first negative comment today 🙁 I agree I wish people would follow the saying "if you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all" Hope you have a great rest of the week! Cheers – Phoebe

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  42. Anonymous wrote:

    WOW! You are amazing Jean! Love your blog as always!

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  43. Really great job Jean!!! Gah why can't that dress be available in Canada?!?!

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  44. wow that's really good!

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  45. Anonymous wrote:

    Wow, interesting. I need to learn to sew, but this was the clearest tutorial I've ever seen.

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  46. Mary Ann wrote:

    Good job with the alterations – you'd really like a dress I altered last fall. It's a Calvin Klein dress that's lined. I took in the top of the shoulder seams and lining seams. Overall fairly easy, but hard to explain! 😉

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  47. yuni.k wrote:

    The alterations look fantastic! I would have just sighed and put it back on the rack!

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  48. Just wanted to add one tip to alteration #3 – when reattaching the sleeve, make sure to start at the armpit. If there is a slight misalignment of size, a little bubbling here will not be noticeable.

    Great post, Jean! I do kind of like the more form fitting skirt in the pre-altered version but since it's just a matter of wrapping it more tightly, you can still achieve this look if you wanted. 🙂

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  49. I love your dress post alterations. Your DIY posts are always so informative and helpful. I wore my dress today. The sleeves did not bother me too much but I will try to do alteration # 2 this weekend. Thanks for sharing, Jean!

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply
  50. Nng1987 wrote:

    Great info Jean. I never thought of doing alteration 2 but it makes so much sense!!

    Posted 3.21.12 Reply

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