How to Shop for Clothes Like a Seamstress

With a seamstress's eye, you can determine if something is worth buying and if it's salvageable through a quick alteration.
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Publish date:
January 5, 2015
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shopping, tailoring, seamstress, alterations

As a child, my mother — the second-youngest of seven — watched her big sister sew clothing for the family. Soon after, she was doing little tasks to help the process along, and she eventually became an excellent seamstress in her own right. Like, one of her first jobs was making wedding dresses. That takes skills.

You’d think that I would be inheritor of such knowledge. This is what actually happened:

Mari’s Sewing Education, a Dramatization

Scene: Me, working on a little project and fucking it up.

My mom: “Do you need help?”

Me: “Yes.”

My mom undoes my work and redoes it properly.

End scene.

What I did manage to pick up has been really helpful, though. When my mom wasn't making clothes, she was shopping. With her seamstress eye, she could evaluate whether something was worth buying or not, and whether something was salvageable through a quick alteration.

What do you look for? What can be fixed? What can’t?

The first thing is that SIZE DOES NOT MATTER. Ignore the tags! The only thing that matters is fit. Try on the garment and start from there. Do you look good? That’s your size. Does it look slightly strange? A tailor may be able to fix that, but they’re not miracle workers (though they come close). Got it? Good. It will save you a lot of heartbreak. Wearing clothes that fit is really important, people! Clothing that fits looks better on you.

Look to see that the seams lay flat (no weird puckering) and straight (hangs straight, doesn’t twist). Fabric has grain, like lumber. If it’s not cut on grain, the garment will hang funny. Don’t buy it.

There are also some pointers that are garment-specific.


Jacket/shirt: Fit at the shoulders and bust.

You can take in the shoulder a tiny bit, probably not more than an inch. Any bigger and you’re in for some major surgery: the entire thing will have to be taken apart and sewn back together again. It might not work, and you’ll pay a lot for it.

There is more hope for sleeves, but only if you want to shorten or narrow them. But have a look at the way the cuff end is made: If it has a buttoned placket, how much you are able to shorten it will be affected by how long the placket is, as well as button placement (if it has a button). Of course, it would be possible to take it apart and put it back together again, but $$$.

Check the buttons. If you see a thread hanging or if they don’t seem to be sewn on well, then you’ll want to reinforce them. And if you have a four-hole button, you want that sucker sewn in an X, not as two parallel lines. That’s stronger. If you’re looking at buttons sewn onto a more robust fabric (like on a coat), see if they’ve sewn a little button on the other side of the main button. That’ll stay on better, too.

It’s possible to narrow a top at the waist with darts at the bust, the front, and back. This is good for the well-endowed who might get a good fit around the chest but end up with a billowing curtain of fabric below. A jacket or shirt can also be shortened as long as there aren’t any pockets in the way.

Pants: Fit the hips.

Waistbands can be taken in, maybe about two inches.

Legs can be shortened and, depending on the style, you may also want them narrowed or tapered. Short-girl pro-tip: Ankle-length pants for normal people are full-length pants that you can buy off the rack without alterations.

I know what you’re saying: "But what about the bum area?" There’s bad news and good news. If you are blessed with a lot of curve here, you need to mind the fit. Again, it’s easier to take something in, and consider pocket placement since this may change. They can even compensate for a flat bum with darts.

Dresses: Fit at shoulders, bust.

With dresses, you have a bit of leeway on the bottom parts if it’s flowy or A-line. As long as the top part fits (with only minor alterations, as with shirts and jackets), you're probably good to go.

For something fitted, you’ll be able to take in the waist and hips a little.

The skinny

You’ll notice that generally it's easier to make something smaller than to make something bigger. You might be able to make more room, but you’re limited by how much fabric you have as seam allowances. Look at the width of the flappy part on the reverse side of the seam. That’s how much leeway you’re looking at; if the seam allowance is quite big, then you can get a bit more room. If not, you’re out of luck.

And yes: The smaller-but-not-bigger rule is extremely unfair to those in the larger sizes. This is why we have to agitate for a wide range of sizes! We are taught to evaluate our bodies not as they really are, but as value-laden failures held up to impossible ideals, and so many bodies are ignored or in poorly fitting clothes as a result.

Let’s go into this new year with a resolution to only buy clothes that fit well, wear clothes that fit well, and brings us joy.