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Sometimes you don't have to buy anything new.

Sometimes you just need to update something old.

This guide will help you navigate the world of local seamstresses and tailor shops and answer the question, "Can a tailor fix this?"

Suit alterations are actually quite simple, once you understand the basic theory. 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 (make it smaller) or “let-out” a seam (make it larger).

“Taking-in” means making the garment smaller. This is done by un-sewing the seam then re-sewing it deeper into the garment, away from the edge of the fabric. Complications with this 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 (and thus also re-cutting the sleeves). 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 un-sewing 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 other cases this additional 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.

First, if the area is tight (notice the horizontal pulling above between the shoulder blades), then the garment should 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 chalk lines signify “out”, and the amount to be let-out is shown by the distance between the two 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 two 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 and does not impact the garment.

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.


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.


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.


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.


Can a jacket be made longer?


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. 


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. 


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?


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