Thursday, July 28, 2011

SAAS: Business Clothes on a Budget

I'm adding this to my Sewing at Any Size series, even though there's not a whole lot of sewing necessary.  You can click on the "Sewing" link under Happiness Tools to your left for more projects like this one. 

There was a great post with some also great comments over at The Rotund on the challenges of work attire for us "death fat" women. Especially on a limited budget (i.e. can't afford custom tailoring). I started to write a comment, but it grew long enough that I thought it better to put it out as a post instead.

Unfortunately, I have accepted that as a tall, broad-shouldered, big waisted woman, the reality is that if I want something to look a certain way, I have to develop the skills to make it happen. Which means sewing. But you don't necessarily need a sewing machine to do some basic alterations on a budget.

Your first stop is Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other thrift stores. We said budget, right? These stores almost always have better choices in large men's clothes than women's, but the difference between the two isn't as wide as you think for business wear.

For altering the men's clothing we'll be doing some very basic tricks with elastic.

From the fabric/craft store (and some big box stores with craft sections) You'll need less than a yard each of:

1/4 inch wide elastic

elastic cord or narrow stretch lace (sometimes sold as pyjama or lingerie elastic)

and a yard or more (depending on your waist size) of 1/2 inch elastic.

You'll also need a sewing needle and thread. You might want to wait on buying the thread until after you've picked out your garments, because you'll want to match the color as closely as possible.

For shirt method 2, you'll want some light fabric ribbon or bias tape that either matches or coordinates with your shirt.

You'll need a quilting hoop, which is a large wooden hoop with a second hoop that fits inside it tightly. You place the fabric over the smaller hoop and push the larger hoop onto it, trapping the fabric between (there should be a screw to tighten it). You want one at least a foot and a half diameter, but preferably larger. Our local thrift stores ALWAYS have these for a dollar or two from people cleaning out their hobby room. Make sure they have the tightening screw and both hoops.

The next stop is the thrift shop.

You're looking for men's button-up shirts (short or long sleeve) and a men's suit coat in good condition. If you can find men's slacks that fit you and match the suit coat, bonus!

You should also hit the women's section and look for dresses, which look good under a suit coat for women in a business environment. If they don't have any that fit you, look for dresses of any size with the following criteria:

1. The fabric and color below the waist of the dress coordinate with the suit coat

2. the skirt of the dress flares below the waist

3. There is a point below the dress waist where the skirt will fit around your waist with enough fabric below that to reach your knees, plus two inches.

We'll be chopping off the bottom of the dress and turning it into a very simple elastic-waist skirt.


1. Find a men's suit coat that fits the widest part of your body (i.e. chest) and has some room at your natural waist. You should be able to pinch about 2-3 inches of fabric at the back. Much more than that and it will look odd. Sometimes a coat that's a single size too small can give you a "shrunken jacket" effect that looks feminine all by itself without any alterations. If not, try the steps below for a back gather.

2. Cut a six-inch piece of 1/4 inch elastic

3. Put the coat on inside out and have a friend help you pin the elastic to the fabric at the center of the back at the level of your natural waistline so that the elastic is at rest (not stretched) and enough fabric is gathered between the two ends that the coat looks fitted (but not too tight) from the front. Pin it securely at each end, leaving the middle loose (you may want to use big safety pins).

4. Stretch the fabric and elastic over the smaller half of the quilting hoop so that either the fabric or the elastic is taut. Push the larger hoop over the top, being careful that the fabric is even in all directions. Use the screw to tighten down.

5. On a sewing machine or by hand, sew zig-zag stitches (they look like the letter Z) across each end where you have it pinned.

6. Sew zig-zag stitches down the center of the elastic. If the fabric is loose under the elastic, gather it as you go so that it's puckered evenly down the elastic.

7. Remove the pins, remove the shirt from the frame.

The elastic should gather the coat at the back of your waist, giving the coat a more feminine sillouhuette. You can also use two pieces of elastic to make smaller gathers at the sides for a different look.


Women's jackets are generally shorter than men's. If you're ambitious and a shorter jacket is better for your body type, you should consider shortening the jacket and using darts to shape it. If the hem from shortening looks less than professional, a strip of contrasting satin ribbon or lace sewn along the edge will add a touch of style to the coat and hide mis-stitching.

If you don't like the look of the gather as is, you can mask it by adding a faux-belt for a very classical British look. Hem a piece of fabric to about 2 to 3 inches wide, with each end folded to a point. Secure it to either side of the gather with large flat buttons about the position of your kidneys.


I have despaired of finding a simple, business appropriate cotton button down shirt that fits me in any women's section of any store. They;re either full of "froofera" or they're cut very baggy casual.
The shirt can be gathered at the back with the same steps as outlined for the coat above. The thinner fabric will make a feminine sort of ruffle at the back, which is not at all a bad thing.


This is the tie-back version. Step 1 is the same as above.

2. Start with two pieces of ribbon or bias tape at least a foot long. You can finish the cut ends by knotting, taping, superglue or burning (if acrylic or nylon). For the end stitched onto the shirt you'll want to fold it under neatly.

3. Follow step 3 as above with the shirt right side out, but instead of elastic pin the end of one ribbon at each gather point.

4. Stitch the ribbon onto the shirt at the pin point.

5. Tie the ribbons to gather the shirt at the back and give it shape

You can also stitch the ribbon all the way around the shirt for a more decorative look. Start at the buttons and stitch it to the shirt all the way around until you reach the point where you would have pinned in step 3 (you can use chalk to mark this point).


Another way to feminize the shirt is to change out the buttons to something more decorative. Few people will realize they're technically on the wrong side if they're pretty.

You can add a gather to short sleeves to make the outline more feminine. Using either elastic cord or stretch lace, sew it around the cuff of the sleeve (cord on the underside, lace either under or over). Stretch the elastic slightly and evenly as you sew so that it will hug your arm when it's finished.

Sew a strip of lace to the underside of the buttonhole side of the shirt so that it just peeks out 1/8th inch or so when the shirt is buttoned. It's a very subtle and simple touch. You can use fabric glue or iron-on fusible if you don't trust your stitching. You can continue the lace up along the inside of the collar for an additional touch.


Click on the SAAS (Sewing at Any Size) tag or topic link to find my guide on how to make the easiest of all sewing projects: a gored skirt. You could use the same instructions and matching or coordinating fabric to make a variety of skirts to go with your jacket (pencil, A-line, straight line, etc.)

If you find a dress at the thrift store that doesn't quite fit, but the bottom would go well with your jacket, it's very easy to convert it.

1. Find the level of the skirt below the waistline where it fits around your waist with about 1/2 to 1 inch to spare. This is easy to do by just flipping the dress upside down and pulling the skirt up to your waist until it starts to tighten. If, at that point, you have enough skirt material to reach your knees plus about 2 inches, you have a potential skirt.

2. Cut the skirt off the dress at the point you found before.

3. Pull a piece of 1/2 inch wide elastic around your waist so that it fits snugly but not uncomfortably. Add 1/2 inch and cut the elastic to that length.

4. Fold the cut edge of the skirt over about 1 inch and hem it. Sewing is the best way to accomplish this, but you can certainly use fabric glue or iron-on fusible to do it; they just won't stand up as well to washing. Leave about 2 inches of it unhemmed for now.

5. Thread the elastic through the hem. I use a large safety pin to feed it through, pinning the other end to the fabric so it doesn't get lost.

6. Pull the two ends of elastic out to where you can work with them. Make sure the elastic hasn't twisted inside the hem. You should have a continuous flat loop. Overlap them and stitch very thoroughly so that they hold.

7. Tuck the elastic up into the hem and finish the last few inches of hemming by whatever method you chose.

8. Even out the fabric around the elastic.

Note that a medium to wide belt will easily cover the elastic waistline if you don't like the look of it with the shirt tucked in.

Also note that you can wash a wool suit coat, despite what you've been told.  Personally the idea of wearing a never-washed chemically cleaned used coat is icky.  I washed a thrift store wool tuxedo jacket by soaking it in a few tablespoons of Dawn dish detergent in room temperature water in the sink for a few hours, agitating gently every now and then.  I rinsed it well in the bathtub, rolled it in a towel to squeeze out excess water, and laid it flat to dry (hanging it will distort the fabric).  There wasn't any shrinkage and it really made the fabric look newer.  Make sure the water is room temperature and not warm or cold, and don't use the washing machine.  There may be the occasional coat where this still shrinks or damages it, so consider cost/reward when giving it a try.

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