June 10, 2010

Refresh your wardrobe on the cheap

A few weeks ago, as I was looking at the clothes I have in my wardrobe for Spring/Summer, I came across a few tired old favourites. Items of clothing I couldn't bear to part with (or put in the scrap fabric bag), but didn't wear any more, for one reason or another. Being perpetually skint* has a way of making you more creative with what you have. One old Guns 'n' Roses tee got an Alabama Chanin makeover. One cotton sundress had its cap sleeves removed and its broken elastic waist moved and re-elasticised. A check tunic top had its shrunken cap sleeves removed and a few other pieces had minor repairs (buttons sewn back on, holes patched up). I'm wearing all these clothes with pride again, just like when they were new.

*That's British slang for "penniless", "broke" or "poor" -- don't say I never taught you anything. Check out the Cockney Rhyming Slang website for a really good laugh. (:

Of course, there are a number of environmental benefits to revitalising old clothes, so I thought I'd share with you a few simple alteration techniques. Don't worry, as long as you have a needle and thread, pins, sharp scissors and an iron, you'll be OK (although a tailor's tape and a fading fabric marker will be very good investments too). In case you don't know much about the anatomy of a garment, here's a few Wikipedia definitions for you:
  • Hem: To hem a piece of cloth (in sewing), a garment worker folds up a cut edge, folds it up again, and then sews it down. The process of hemming thus completely encloses the cut edge in cloth, so that it cannot ravel. A hem is also the edge of cloth treated in this manner.
  • Seam: ...the stitching that joins two or more pieces of fabric.
  • Dart: Darts are folds sewn into fabric to help provide a three-dimensional shape to a garment. They are frequently used in women's clothing to provide a fit that closely follows the shape of the wearer.
This is a vintage Laura Ashley dress. It was my mum's, and I've been itching to give it a makeover for a couple of years now. It's a UK size 12, one size too big for me, which makes it perfect for altering. I'm going to take you through what I did with it yesterday to make it into this:

The first step is to decide what needs changing. Put the garment on and take a good look in a full-length mirror. I was keen to preserve the gorgeous details on the body of this dress (the piped seams and beautiful scalloped neckline), so when I decided I needed to nip in the waist, I decided on the side seams (the ones directly under my arms). The sleeves wanted to be shorter. A general rule with sleeves of any size is that the eye will be drawn to your body at the point they stop. These sleeves stopped at an awkward point somewhere between my bust and my waist -- lengthening them would be a nightmare, so bust it is! Then there was the skirt's hem. It was "frump" length. I like the skirt to fall just above the knee - the perfect length, or at least the most versatile, for wearing bare-legged, with jeans, with leggings, with tights & biker boots, etc. So that meant about 10" had to go.

Because of the masses of fabric in the skirt (94.5" around!), that was the biggest job, so that's where I started.

Altering the hem:

I turned the dress inside out and laid it on my sewing table. I then used my tape measure to fold the hem up 27cm, just over 10", and added a row of pins 3cm or 1.25" up from the fold and about 3" apart, to mark a line to cut. Once this was done all the way around the hem, I cut off the extra fabric, using the line of pins as a guide. It's important that you don't just cut a straight line across the garment, as hems are often not straight lines, even though they may look it!! Measure carefully up from the existing hem. :)

The next step is to press the hem. Still with the garment inside-out, fold the now raw edge up 3cm/1.25" and iron it down all the way around. When you get back to the beginning, fold the raw edge under itself so that it is completely enclosed and press. Do this all the way around again, adding a pin every few inches to keep the fold in place for the next step.

Note: I stitched this hem by hand, in keeping with the original hem. If you have the choice of sewing by hand or by machine, then just remember to be sensitive to your garment. If I'd slapped a row of machine stitches along this hem, it would have ruined the integrity of the dress. However, for other dresses I've altered that was exactly what they wanted. Many machines will do a "blind stitch" which gives the same outside look as a hand-stitched hem, but (on my machine at least!) you have to fold and press the hem just-so, which can be fiddly. If in doubt, test on a piece of scrap fabric!

Back at the sewing table, thread a needle (this thread should be the same colour as the original thread!) Garment still inside-out, make two or three small stitches on the top of the hem fold only. This just locks it in place. Now for the first stitch: about every 0.25"/5mm, make a tiny vertical stitch down that pierces just the outer fabric on its way out, then pierces the top of the hem fold on the way in (so it goes through 3 layers of fabric). The stitches on the inside of the fabric should look long and slanted (like a "\" turned 90 degrees clockwise) and those on the outside should be tiny and vertical.

Just continue until you come to where you started and you're done! When you reach the end of your thread, lock it in place (two or three small stitches on the fold, on top of each other) and start with a new length of thread.

This process is the same for sleeves, but instead of turning up 3cm of fabric, turn up about 2cm (just under1").

Taking in the seams at the waist:

This dress fit well at the bust, but was saggy around my waist. By adding a row of stitches just a short way in from the outer seams, I nipped in the waist for a much better fit. Here's how.
Sorry, this is the part where you look like an idiot for a while. Put your garment on inside-out. Trust me. Use your fingers to pinch the side seams at your waist (the smallest part between your bust & hips) until it feels comfortable and looks even. Put a couple of pins in either side. This will give you a stitch guide. Take the garment off (phew), and use a tape measure (or ruler) and pins (or fabric marker/tailor's chalk if you have it), mark out where you will stitch the seams. Make them as symmetrical to each other as possible. The line should start and end on the original seam line, otherwise you will end up with unexpected tucks in the fabric.

Stitch along this line (I used my machine, but a backstitch is your best option if you're sewing by hand). Now turn your garment right-side out and try it on. If the fabric is now wrinkled or puckered, you should let the seam out a little on that side (make a new line of stitches further out, then unpick the old one using a stitch unpicker or embroidery scissors). When your seams are in their final place, add a row of zig-zag stitches outside them if you can, just to reinforce them. Unless the seam now looks really bulky when you put the garment on, there's no need to cut the excess fabric off. In fact, if you leave it on, you can adjust the seam again if you need to in the future.

And you're done!

For inspiration, have a look at the New Dress a Day blog.

What are your alteration tips?

Maimy x

P.S., check out my new collection of handbags on Etsy! ;)


lisa s said...

great tips on how to alter a garment maimy! thanks!

littlewrenpottery.co.uk said...

Great article, I tried to alter a favorite shirt of mine a few years ago and failed miserably some great tips here though!