Friday, June 5, 2009

SAAS (Sewing at Any Size): Making Bad Clothes Better

I'm doing a couple of entries in my Sewing at Any Size series on troubleshooting existing clothes. I hear a lot about how there's great clothes out there that just don't fit anyone; here's a few tricks you might be able to use to widen your options. I would practice these first before buying brand-new clothes with the intention of hacking them up. Garage sale season is a perfect opportunity, as are clothes you would normally throw away or donate because of their lack of perfectness.

You can access the rest of the SAAS series by clicking on the topic link on the side bar. As this may eventually become a book, please do not reprint or republish this anywhere else. You may, of course print for your own personal use!
TROUBLESHOOTING 101 (Making the Best of Bad Clothes):

Part 1 of 2 part series. If you have specific fit issues you run into often, please post a comment and I'll see if it's something I can write out a fix for!

Problem: The Infamous Button Gap

I’ve been in the try-on room with the MOST ABSOLUTELY DIVINE OMG PERFECT BLOUSE, only to find out that when the shirt goes on over actual breasts there’s a big gap between buttons right at cleavage level. There are two easy fixes for this. They both begin by buttoning the shirt on a flat surface and pinning the area where it gaps so that it remains closed with the button line lying flat down the front of the garment.

Fix one is appropriate if you don’t mind pulling the shirt on and off over your head instead of unbuttoning it. Basically you take some thread the same color as the fabric (or transparent nylon thread) and make several small overlaping stitches at the gap. You may be able to hide the fix further by catching only the bottom layer of fabric on the side with the buttonholes, but this also has the potential to tear away on delicate fabric when it goes through the washer.

Fix 2 allows you to wear the shirt unbuttoned or take it off without pulling it over your head. Go to the fabric store and get sets of “hook and eye”connectors. They’re essentially the same thing you use to fasten a bra. Turn the shirt inside out (remember the spot is pinned into the position you want it). On the edge of the strip that goes under the other (the side with buttons), stitch the hook part of the hook and eye to the fabric with the hook facing out towards the front of the shirt. Your stitches go through the little flat loops attached to the hook (see drawing). Hook the “eye” (loop) part through the attached hook and make sure it lays flat. Stitch in place to the side of the shirt with the button holes. Try it on with the loop hooked and see if it lies flat (you may have to adjust it).

(Note: Fix 2 assumes that the gap is over the cleavage where the hook and eye won’t rub on skin and create a sore spot).

Problem: They Never Make Clothes in Good Colors

The fix here is obvious, in that the clothes may need to be dyed. If it’s cotton, hemp or linen then you can use the RIT dyes available at any fabric store. If it’s wool, silk or other natural animal fiber (other than leather or hide), you’ll need what’s called an “acid dye”. There are other specific dyes for leather and suede, and even for rayon. I’ve found the best source for specialty dyes is Dharma Trading, . They even carry natural vegetable dyes and ready-to-dye natural fiber fabrics (cotton, linen, hemp, silk) by the yard.
If you dye a lot, I'd recommend investing in a big stainless steel or ceramic coated stock pot that is entirely dedicated to dying. Don't use aluminum, it can react to certain dyes to create toxic fumes. This will save a lot of wear and tear on your washing machine.

Problem: They Only Make Clothes to Fit Tall Women!

The answer is to hem it, whether it’s the sleeves or bottom hem. If it only needs to come up a little bit you can just fold and stitch. If it needs to come up more than ½” then you may need to cut. There are several options for a finished look:

If you’d like a clean edge to the hem or don’t have a sewing machine, cut the fabric 1” below where you want it to hang. Fold under ½”, then fold again to tuck the raw edge under. Iron the folds for a crease and/or pin, then stitch.

If you’d like a cuff or visible hem you would follow the same process, except folding up in the opposite direction (towards the outside of the garment). Stitch at the top and bottom of the fold.

If you have knit fabric (such as a tee shirt), cut the hem ½” below where you’d like it to hang. Overstitch the raw edge. This means a series of small stitches right at the edge, with a perpendicular stitch looping over the raw edge of the fabric for each straight stitch. This keeps the fabric (especially knits) from unravelling and helps it wear longer. The overstitch function on your sewing machine should look like one of these:

After overstitching the edge, fold up ½” to the inside, iron to crease, pin and stitch.

Knits are hard because the stitches need to stretch with the fabric. If you have a sewing machine that can handle a double-needle you can use a double-needle straight stitch to give a tee shirt hem a factory- look finish. If you have a sewing machine with a stretch stitch (/\/\/\/\) then you can use that to finish the hem and it will look just fine. If you have to hand-sew, consider stretching out the fabric while you sew a straight-stitch so that the stitching has give. Practice on some throwaway fabric to get the right amount of stretch without the stitches bunching.

Sometimes you can’t hem from the bottom because of a print or pattern. Unfortunately this will take more sewing skill to solve since it means you must go to the nearest seam (armhole, waistband, etc.), cut or pluck out the stitches (there’s a tool called a seam-ripper that’s designed specifically for this), note how the seam attaches and take in more fabric. Re-attach the seam lower on the skirt using basting stitches (long loose stitches easy to rip out) BEFORE cutting any fabric; you’ll probably need to make adjustments. If this is the issues remember that there may be a limit as to how much you can take in before the look and fit of the garment is lost.

Problem: They Only Make Clothes to Fit Short Women!

This is one I run into a lot because I’m tall. Shirts that are designed to fall to the hips only reach my waist. Skirts meant to hit the ankle get me at mid-calf. Sometimes it’s hopeless, but sometimes I can fix it. Basically the fix is to add fabric. Some really high-quality well made tailored outfits are made to be let out an inch or so, but they’re not going to waste fabric in sweatshops making the clothes adjustable.

For too-short sleeves you have two options. One is to shorten the sleeves (see the last section) so that they’re ¾ or short-sleeve instead of long. The other is to find matching or contrasting fabric and add it to the sleeve. Hemlines are pretty much a matter of adding fabric, as are too-low necklines on shirts designed for the tiny-busted.

Fabric can be added anywhere: top, bottom or middle. Too-short sleeves are always a problem for me, so I’ve experimented a lot. For one design I cut the sleeve back to a little below the elbow, added a strip of lace (hem the raw edge of the sleeve fabric, then stitch the lace to the underside/hemmed side) then made a bell sleeve of a coordinating color. This is a bit of a romantic and flamboyant look, but might work for you. The strip of lace could also be a stripe of contrasting or coordinating fabric or ribbon. The same technique can also be used to lengthen the torso of a shirt or length of a skirt.

Sleeve Construction:

L is length from existing sleeve cutoff to desired cuff. Remember to consider ½” will be taken off each piece of fabric every time fabric meets, and allow hem or cuff fabric at wrist opening.

W is the circumference of the opening of the existing sleeve. Remember to add 1” of fabric for a seam when you sew the fabric into a tube.

F is the Flare, or however much you want the wrist cuff to differ from the point where you attach the sleeve extension. If you want a fitted cuff, make this a negative number (i.e. reverse the trapezoid).

Of course if you only have an inch or so to add, it’s much simpler just to attach something at the wrist to lengthen the sleeve. Check a fabric store for interesting trims, like lace, crochet, ribbon and other fun notions.

Problem: They Only Make Clothes for Gigantic Boobs!

The Dart is your friend. Not the kind you throw at photos of major clothing line designers who think all women look like fit models, but elongated triangles that make two-dimensional fabric follow a three-dimensional form.

The most common type of dart begins at a seam and comes out into a point. This forces the fabric to “bend” around the dart, create a form that hopefully follows your body. Not all shirts or tops lend themselves to darting, but quite a few can use darts to adapt to your body shape.

If a garment fits you everywhere except for being too baggy in the breasts, for instance, you’ll want to use horizontal darts to take up the extra fabric. The downside is that this may also make the garment shorter (particularly at the sides), so be forewarned. This is much easier with a friend to help, but can be done in front of a mirror.

First turn the shirt inside out and put it on. Use your fingers to pinch together equal folds of fabric at the side seams until the shirt feels like a better fit. Experiment with both the width and length of the fold, which should be wider at the seam and fold as a triangle with the point no further towards the buttons than your nipple. When you have the perfect amount of fabric pinched to make the garment fit you, pin it in place. This is your dart. Stitch along the line of pins, check it again for fit, then iron the fold to one side or the other so that it lies flat.

The problem now is that you've shortened the front of the garment, but not the back. You need to carefully remove the stitches from the side seam (again, using a seam ripper) up to the dart. Hem the back of the shirt to the same length as the front and re-attach the side seams.

Problem: They Only Make Clothes For Tiny Boobs!

For the opposite problem (fits the breasts, too loose below them) begin your dart from the bottom hem and keep it fairly straight until just below where it hits the breasts, then taper to a triangle (see second graphic above). This is a much easier adjustment as you don't have to rip any seams out!

If the clothes are baggy everywhere, the solution is to buy clothes that fit you .

Problem: They Only Make Bras For Tiny Boobs!

Darts can also be used to adjust a bra. If a bra is the right band size but just barely too large in the cup, take a small dart on both sides of both cups to bring it in and fit you comfortably. If it's considerably too big, consider taking a solid seam across the front. The downside is that the extra fabric from the dart might rub or create an uneven shape. It’s always better to get bras that fit, but for those of us who don’t have a week’s grocery money to blow on one, this is a good cheater.

End of Part 1
If you have fit issues you'd like me to tackle in part 2, please post them in comments. No guarantees that I'll be able to, but I'll give it a shot!


Regina said...

Regarding the button gap, I've noticed that one of the recent trends is putting buttons closer together on that part of the shirt. I've seen blouses that make use of this technique on larger sizes (at Lane Bryant), and at smaller sizes as well.

This can be accomplished on any shirt with a matching button and an extra buttonhole. I haven't looked through all of your patterns yet, but do you have simple buttonhole instructions?

Regina said...

By the way, these darting instructions are lovely. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, oh!! Can you show us how to take huge men's t-shirts and make them into curvy girl t-shirts? Because I have both boobs and hips (ok, and a gut) the 'girl' cut t-shirts work best for me, but I have some awesome sassy men's 2x t-shirts that just make me look like a lump in them. Can I make them into 'girl' fit?

Becky said...

You are awesome. I have no time to sew lately, but when I do, I will be all over this series. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Love these posts! I will post a link to a picture of me in the wrap around skirt I made today...can't wait to see directions for simple tops!

I have a hard time altering modern clothes to fit. I will try a few of these suggestions on my "closet of misfit clothes" and see what happens.

RachelH said...

I am really loving this series. Thank you so much! One request, though, is that I'd love to see some photos of clothes you have altered this way (or sewed according to the patterns in the other posts). Especially the sleeve lengthening instructions above with the lace etc: I am finding it a bit hard to visualise the finished product and how it looks when worn.

Gillian said...

This is so great, thank you! I'm a novice seamstress and the instructions are pretty straightforward, I'll definitely put them to good use!

Alix said...

OMG! I'm in love with ith your blog!

Greetings from the Sunshine State. I'm Alix, a new visitor who roamed over from (on her recommendation), and boy am I glad I did. Your blog is a virtual treasure chest of sensitivity and wisdom and I can't wait to start picking out treasures. Hope you don't mind, but I'm going to link your blog to Casa Hice immediately!

Keep up the good important work!

laura said...

these instructions are fabulous!

i have a suggestion about a button gap of a different kind. the waistband. i have slim hips and thighs, all my weight is in front, in my belly. i can fit into size 16 womens jeans perfectly thru the thighs, hips, and butt, except the waistband is too small. i have used a pony tail binder looped over the button, thru the button hole, and back over the button to cover this gap, but sometimes it makes the zipper come loose. if i try on larger sized jeans, i end up with huge flaps of extra fabric from my waist to my knees. i'm afraid to try to hem in the sides at risk of killing my sewing machine trying to sew thru that much denim where the pockets (and rivets) are, not to mention how to take in the sides without screwing up the front pockets. help?

Ellen said...

Wow, this is an awesome blog!!! Thank you for this!

How about pants that are too long in the waistband-to-crotch length, but otherwise fit well? I find myself wanting to roll the damn waistband over which is fine for pj's or sweatpants, but NOT OK for slacks!!

I like the crotch seam to actually connect with my crotch, not hit at the mid-thigh!

Laura said...

I love these posts. Thank you for putting them out. I'm sure it's a lot of work. If you decide to tackle another fit issue, how about the waist/hip issue for women's pants? I often find that if the pants fit in the hips they gap at the waist. I often pay someone to take them in but it would be great to do it myself.

Anonymous said...

If you can handle the waist gap issue, that would be wonderful. It if fits in hips and thighs, the waist is too big.

Also, shirts that fit everywhere but not over my hips. Just hemming to waist length doesn't work, as then there isn't enough overlap to hide skin if I lift my arms.