A Guide to Suit Alterations

February 26th, 2015

Suit alterations are really quite simple.

The first thing you need to know is that a garment can only be altered on a seam. You can either “take-in” a seam or “let-out” a seam.

“Taking-in” means making the garment smaller. This is done by unsewing the seam then re-sewing it deeper into the garment, away from the edge of the fabric. The complications come from balancing the proportion of the garment, and re-shaping the connecting pattern pieces to correctly accommodate the desired change. If the shoulder or chest need work, for example, this could include removing the sleeves and lining, recutting the front & back panels, and possibly reshaping the armholes. This can add up to hours of skilled hand work, hence why shoulder alterations in a tailor shop usually start north of $100.

“Letting out” means making the garment bigger. This is done by unsewing the seam and re-sewing it further out, toward the edge of the fabric. The problem is, you can only let-out an area of the garment if there is additional fabric available to work with under the seam – and most ready-to-wear manufacturers cut costs by leaving as little excess fabric in the garment as possible. (On a side note, this is one of the advantages of a bespoke suit. It’s usually built with enough fabric to allow for more extensive alterations, if needed. In some cases this happens during the initial fittings, in others the fabric isn’t used until years later when the client ages and their body changes.)

To illustrate the basic idea behind altering a garment, below is an example of how a tailor would mark a seam during a fitting.

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First, if the area is tight (notice the horizontal pulling above between the shoulder blades), then the garment should likely be “let-out” on the seam nearest the pulling. A dual line “hash tag” is the international tailoring symbol for “let-out”. The two horizontal lines signify “out”, and the amount to be let-out is shown by the distance between the vertical chalk lines.

Looking at the example above, the tailor would let-out the upper back roughly +1/4″ (+1/8 on each side of the seam), the mid-back roughly +1/2″ (+1/4 each side), and the lower back another +1/4″ (+1/8 each side). The top and bottom horizontal chalk marks are the “start” and “stop” points to guide the tailoring or seamstress, who creates a fluid sewing line between the marks.

Below, we have an example of the opposite problem; the jacket looks a little too loose in the back (notice the uneven pooling of fabric that could be smoothed out). According to these chalk notations (with no hashtags across the vertical lines) the tailor would “take-in” the seam, in the amount measured between the vertical chalk lines. In this case, it would be roughly: upper back -1/4″, mid back -1/2″, lower  back -1/4″.

Tailor chalk, if you’re wondering, comes off instantly when steam is applied.

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We get a ton of questions about specific alterations, even pictures emailed to us sometimes.

I tried to summarize all those questions with easy answers below, as a “Simple Guide to Alterations”.

If I missed anything, feel free to ask specific questions in the comments section below.

Shoulders & Collar

Can the shoulders of a jacket be extended (made larger)?

In theory, yes. But few jackets are made to accommodate this alteration, and it’s a lot of work, which means it’s expensive.

Can the shoulders of a jacket be taken-in (made smaller)?

Sure, but there are limitations and it’s a lot of work, which means it’s expensive. The more you take-in the shoulder, the more you have to reshape the armhole, sleeve head, and chest to accommodate. The sleeves also get shorter by about half the amount you take-in the shoulder point-to-point. 

Can shoulder padding be removed?

In theory, yes, but this involves re-cutting the shoulders to accommodate for the missing pad. You will likely not achieve the same effect as a jacket that was built with a “natural shoulder”.

Can the “roll” at the back of my neck be removed?

Yup, we covered that one in detail as part of our “Garment Doctor” series in Menswear 101

The collar keeps gapping off my neck, can this be fixed?

Also covered in detail.

Chest & Stomach

Can a jacket be let-out (made roomier) in the midsection?

Sure, if there is fabric available. If the jacket is just a touch snug in the belly, you can also cheat it by moving out the front button a 3/8″ or so. 

Can a jacket be taken-in (made slimmer) in the midsection?

Yes, of course, but you can’t take-in the front side if they intersect any of the pockets.   

My chest is making the lapels bend and “pop”, is there a way to make them sit flat?

The jacket is likely too small in the chest, or you stand with your arms slightly back. Either way, consider going up a size to find lapels that sit nice and flat, then trim down with the tailor from there.

Sleeves

Can the jacket sleeves be lengthened?

In most cases, yes, but only by the amount of fabric that is available under the cuff, up to the beginning of the sleeve lining (the lining is attached to the edge of the fabric). Also keep in mind that if the jacket has “working cuffs”, or “surgeon’s cuffs“, the buttonholes cut into the fabric cannot be covered or moved. Sometimes the sleeves can be lengthened from the top (again, if there is fabric available in the sleeve head), otherwise you may have to add a buttonhole or two to balance the additional length you created below the buttons.

Can the jacket sleeves be shortened?

Of course. But again, if the sleeve buttonholes are functional, shortening the sleeve will bring them awkwardly close to the edge of the sleeve. Handle proportions with care, and consider paying a little more to have them shortened from the top. 

Can jacket sleeves be “opened” (made working)?

Yes, if the sleeves were made with enough fabric inside the decorative “vents”. 

Can the sleeves by slimmed down?

Yup. But the armholes can rarely be raised, which limits the amount you can shrink the circumference of the top of the sleeve.

Can the sleeves be made wider?

There is usually not much additional fabric in sleeves. If the upper arms are tight, you might want to try sizing up, then trimming down where needed.

Jacket Length

Can a jacket be made longer?

No.

Can a jacket be made shorter?

Yes, a jacket can be “chopped” but this is risky because it can throw off the balance of the jacket. The pockets will be closer to the bottom of the jacket (they cannot be moved unless they are patch pockets) and the button closure (which also cannot be moved) will be noticeably lower in proportion to the overall garment. 

Trousers

How much can the waist be let-out (made bigger)?

Look at the inside of the center back seam. That is the fabric that can be let-out in the waist, seat and hips.

Can the rise be shortened or dropped? 

Hardly at all. To do this right would mean re-cutting the entire pant, inserting a a new zipper, etc. The rise is the foundation of the trouser, sort of like the collar and shoulders of the jacket.

Should I buy the correct waist size and let-out the hips, or buy the correct hip size and take-in the waist?

Def option number 2. When in doubt, you’d much rather “take-in” something than “let-out” something.

Can pleated pants be made flat-front?

Technically, yes, but this involves re-making the entire waistband of the pants, and re-engineering the entire fit. The results can vary, not to mention it is very expensive. My advice is to use the money toward new flat-front pants. 

Misc.

Can the jacket lining be removed?

Yes, but you’ll have to find a great tailor and pay him a lot. It’s actually more work to make a jacket without a lining, since all of the seams are revealed and need to be clean finished. A lining is really used to clean up all the dirty work on the back-side of the sewing work.

Can the buttons be changed?

Of course, this is an easy upgrade.

Can the bubbling effect of fusing be fixed?

Nope. Your suit has expired.

Is it worth paying $50-100 in alterations for a jacket or suit that wasn’t very expensive?

ABSOLUTELY.

 

 

If I missed anything, feel free to ask specific questions in the comments section below.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Yours in style,

Dan Trepanier

 

Photography by Alex Crawford.

  • Jean Debreault

    This question doesn’t seem to have been asked… I have a suit that is now too large for me in the chest and midsection (lost a lot of weight). It also has a large back vent right down the middle. A local tailor told me it was not possible to “take-in” a suit in the chest and midsection with such a back vent. I find this a bit incredulous because a lot of suits have back vents… So was he right, or is it in fact possible (and he’s either a bad tailor or lazy or something)?

  • benjaminsaccaggi

    Great post, sometimes I feel like I’m spending half of my consultation time with clients explaining what I’m doing and why, rather than focusing on getting the fit right. It’s certainly great to know you’re out there helping to give guys a better idea of what to expect when they visit a tailor, so they can better communicate what they’re after. I actually just blogged about a recent alteration job: https://saccaggi.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/james-healey/
    Thanks again for the great read!

  • Noonie Biocth

    Hi Can I move a button over on my blazer to make it better

  • cl

    do you have a solution to removing crease line if I lengthen pants…
    60 wool 40 poly…

  • Thinning Old Fart

    I’ll title my question/post as “The Limits”

    First, the basics. I’m 60 years old. I’m not wealthy. I work in a professional environment that calls for dress slacks, dress shirts, and ties each day along with the occasional suit for meetings, special guests, etc. Most of my dress clothing is from Jos A Banks or Paul Fredrick, not their top of the line/most expensive gear, but not the cheapest, either.

    Second, the challenge. Over this past year, I’ve dropped a lot of weight, some 90 pounds and counting. Obviously, my clothes no longer fit. However, I don’t want to throw them all away, sell them, or continue to wear them looking like they are clown suits. I’m looking into the art of what’s possible in terms of alterations.

    I know without hesitation that getting from the original sizes to where I am now is simply not possible without gross distortion of the pockets, waists, collars, etc, but what I’d like to know is (with some reasonable estimation), how close could a skilled tailor/alteration guru get the fit to where I’d like it to be?

    Starting sizes are: Jackets 48 REG, slacks 48 X 29 and 46 X 29, shirts 17 X 33/34 and 17.5 X 33/34.

    As of this writing, my new sizes are jackets 44 REG, slacks 39 X 29, shirts 16.5 (closer to 16) X 32/33.

    For you alteration gods and goddesses out there… what’s possible?

    Thanks in advance for taking time to read this message and for any replies sent.

    • Jean Debreault

      Good day sir. (I won’t call you by the moniker you chose because I was raised to respect my elders, even when they’re self-deprecating.) I was just wondering if you had ever received a reply to your post, maybe in a private message or otherwise. I also recently posted a question to this article, but it looks as though replies are not always forthcoming. Cheers

  • Tom

    In men’s pants, is drop and rise the same?

  • Pedro Guardado

    Should the collar of a suit ever be cut into in order to shorten shoulder length?

  • Mr.Haute

    for the question “Can pleated pants be made flat-front?” I came out with an idea that I applied to a Brooks brothers suit golden fleece I bought cheap on ebay..the pleats where too deep for my taste, so I opened the waist band just above the pleats and I did the pleats from the inside instead of the outside of the pants..now you see two lines on each side of the pants, it looks like you have pleats yet actually it is just lines. the extra bulkiness in front of the pants was removed..it looks very nice I think

  • Mr.Haute

    Can you alter the chest on a jacket that is canvassed? I saw the picture on the top with the pins on the front and I am not sure I know how that works…I usually do my own alteration yet don’t really see how to play with the chest when the jacket is canvassed

  • Milt Everitt

    My tailor told me she needs to close the side vents on my suit jacket in order to tighten the fit. If she removes the side vents, will she automatically add a centre vent or will I not have any vent at all ?

  • Stuart

    It’s posts like these that have pushed me past the point of “casual menswear fan” and into the realm of “obsessive clothing enthusiast.” Couldn’t be happier about it.

  • tommyjohn_45

    Very informative. I have a few jackets I really want to take the shoulder pads out of (groomsmen jackets that I didn’t have a say on selecting, etc.). Not sure it’s worth the effort to pay and have the shoulder re-worked at this point though. Glad to find that out.

  • TO

    1) I have never specifically learned this, so this seems like as good as a time as ever to ask- what specifically does “sleeve head” refer to?

    I have done the correct hip size, take-in the waist several times with jeans, trousers, etc. I think it is important to point out that if you need a lot taken in on the waist&seat in these cases, it’s important to have a tailor that will know when to take in either on three seams (usually found on suit trousers that have three seams across the seat) or, on jeans, create darts on either side of the center back seam. I have ended up too many times with jeans that have the pockets too close together because so much was taken in on the waistband/center back seam, and sometimes the pockets are actually on an angle “leaning” towards each other (in one such case I simply cut the back pockets off because I love the jeans and didn’t want to throw them out because the back pockets looked too awkwardly close). Finally getting a tailor who decided to dart my jeans with taking in the waist and seat made a huge difference (both aesthetically and they feel more comfortable as well!).

    2) Another question- what if you just want to simply remove a jacket lining because it causes overheating (e.g. its polyester). Might it not be in some cases more convenient to have an unfinished interior (that people wont see if you never take off your jacket) on a jacket that breathes vs. sweating it up and having the inside covered with some crappy synthetic material?

    • JoeFromTexas

      2) is a good question. I never understand why anyone would make a loose weave/fresco wool/linen coat and then completely line it. If you did remove the lining, but did nothing at all to clean up the inside, would it still fall/drape appropriately (assuming it did prior)? What would it look like on the inside if you didn’t clean it up, would it make young children faint with horror?

      • TO

        My questions exactly, Joe. I might ask my tailor if I can sit-in on him taking out a lining next time he needs to make some adjustments to see if I faint or not.

        • tommyjohn_45

          I’m assuming you’re from Toronto? If so, who’s your tailor?

          I’ve also sat at home bored some nights, debating if I want to risk removing the lining myself lol…

          • TO

            Been there too haha. Yes Tommyjohn_45 I live in Toronto. The tailor I go to here is Ricardo Espinosa at Espinosa Master Tailors in Yorkville, at 50 Cumberland St. He is excellent. I was recommended to go there by Dan’s best friend Ryan Oozer, actually. Do you live here?

            • tommyjohn_45

              Ahhh ok. I grew up near Dan actually in the Niagara Region, lived in Toronto for about 5 years but recently moved to Boston. I do visit for work/personal quite often though.
              I imagine in Yorkville the prices are probably a bit high, but the quality must be worth it.

              • TO

                He is actually very reasonable, not what one would typically expect out of Yorkville. As a reference, a pant hem is a $10 bill.

      • Geezer

        Two things to keep in mind.

        One, what type of pockets you have on a jacket. If they are all patch pockets, they are affixed to the outside and you would be fine. However, with welt and flap besom, you may run in to problems with how they are constructed. If you just rip out the lining, you may loose your pockets.

        Second, jackets that have lining are usually covering a mess. You will have stray threads and everything hanging around. You may catch those loose threads and unravel your jacket. Bad news. Also, you have to be careful with removing the lining as you do still want the lining around the neck and definitely through the sleeves to make putting on and taking off the jacket a little more easy.

        I have been getting all my jackets altered lately (the gym has grown my chest) so all them are being let out. It is one of the benefits of working with your tailor, you can bagger him with all kinds of questions and scenarios ;)

        • TO

          Thanks for sharing the info Geezer :)

    • http://ledebonnaire.tumblr.com/ Juan Zara

      This won’t be, by any means, an exhaustive response, but the sleeve head is the piece of canvas and fabric (usually muslin) that goes underneath the fabric’s jacket and gives the shoulder and the sleeve cap (the top portion of the sleeve, where it’s attached to the rest of the jacket) the desired shape. You may or may not attach shoulder pads underneath the sleeve head.
      This may actually explain it better (scroll to halfway down the page): http://tuttofattoamano.blogspot.it/2011/02/despos.html

  • JoeFromTexas

    “Can the shoulders of a jacket be taken-in (made smaller)?” – Just to echo Dan here, indeed they can (though only a little). I had a guy in Houston do it to a suit coat of mine and it made all the difference. I don’t regret it for a second, though it was expensive (~$125). Also the tailor had a full bar, which also made it worth it.

    • http://ledebonnaire.tumblr.com/ Juan Zara

      $125 is actually pretty fair, you got a great deal! I wish I’d find a competent alterations tailor who’s also reasonably priced. I just got a Belvest sportcoat at a great price that fits great but was a tad long in the sleeves (which I altered myself as it’s not that hard,) and just a bit wide in the shoulders (1.5 cm or 1/2″), which I obviously don’t have the skills to alter myself. Long story short, tailor wanted me to drop 175 euro.

      Is it that unacceptable to just leave the sportcoat as it is?

      Also, a more technical question: I’ve been dabbling with making my own clothes lately, and I was wondering, are there really any advantages in using silk thread instead of cotton? I’m currently using Gutermann Natural Cotton thread for pretty much eveything, from basting to top stitching and sometimes it feels as though it could be more “elastic” (i.e on the internal seam of the seat of a pair of trousers). Would silk thread solve this?

      • tommyjohn_45

        Can I ask, what did you do to get started? I’ve been debating learning how to make my own accessories. Seems like a nice way to create a story and save a few bucks, etc…

        • http://ledebonnaire.tumblr.com/ Juan Zara

          Both my grandmothers were seamstresses in their day, so I learned at a very young age how to use a sewing machine and how to make easy alterations such as hemming my trousers, attaching my buttons, etc.

          Recently, though, living on a student budget, I had to get creative with a lot of stuff and actually learned a lot by just watching other people work (mostly through the internet,) and reading extensively on garment construction (mainly The American Garment Cutter). It all started because I didn’t want to pay a tailor 10 euros to just add darts to the back of my shirts (multiplied by the number of shirts I own, it would have been added up to pretty penny.) So I learned how to do it myself.

          Then came trousers. So I learned how to take out the seat, the side seam, slim them down from the knee down, add cuffs, etc.
          If I just couldn’t figure out something, I asked my alterations tailor if I could stick around in the shop while he worked on my clothes and watched him until I memorized every step. And so on and so forth until I decided I wanted to draft my own patterns, so I taught myself just that (with the aid of many books, many of which were extremely confusing, to be honest.)

          Just start with the easy stuff (my first “garment” was an apron I now wear when polishing my shoes) and work your way from there. If by accessories you mean ties, it’s not going to be an easy journey, but it’ll be worth every moment you spend swearing at the sewing machine and cursing because your pattern was off by just 1/4″.

          • tommyjohn_45

            Great story Juan… I’ve got a long way to go haha.

      • TO

        I have no good answer for you, but it sounds like you are ahead of many retail brands that I’ve heard use polyester threads, which apparently run the risk of breaking being around a hot iron too long in some cases.

        • http://ledebonnaire.tumblr.com/ Juan Zara

          Polyester thread has its place, as it’s really tough and can work wonders on leather, for example, but yeah, sadly a lot of mass-manufactured clothes today are threaded with polyester, which can’t be good on delicates such as cashmere, silk, linen or even super-numbered wool. Some (low-end) suit manufacturers are even starting to use polyester thread and gimp for buttonholes, which is an insult to what is considered an art in the tailoring world.

  • AdamE

    Great summary! What are your thoughts on seasonal button changes (i.e. having a couple of sets of buttons for a jacket, and swapping them seasonally)? And also how much does the seasonal swapping affect the durability of the jacket at the attachment points?

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