Clothing Alterations & Sewing Tips for Gentlemen

A Gentleman’s Guide to Simple Clothing Repair

This article demystifies sewing and altering your own clothing for the average man. Finding the right tailor or deciding fix your clothes yourself are all discussed here.

Introduction to Clothing Alterations

Chances are some of your closest male friends are not wearing anything mended by a skilled tailor. There is an better chance that these guys have not mended their own clothes. Would any of your friends know how to fix a threadbare knee or maybe even a loose button on his shirt? Most men today will not take a slightly imperfect article of clothing into the tailor or fix it themselves.

A resourceful gentleman should learn his way around a needle and thread. That way, these minor problems can be fixed before they require a professional tailor’s help. I have taught dozens of male friends how to use a simple thread and needle and make a few quick mends and most learn fairly easily.

Most of these guys do not want to ditch a perfectly good shirt because of one unsightly rip or missing button. However, as if in some sort of disconnect with all logic and reason, they did not want fix it themselves before they learned the basics.

Maybe we relegate clothing alterations to a woman’s work or just a job better left to a professional. If this is your approach to minor problems, it is time to relearn that kind of sensibility. You will not look smart if a seam in the shoulder of your shirt breaks and you leave it to be frayed.

Taking it in to a tailor to have fixed is the kind of petty purchases of a spendthrift. Lastly, what could more emasculating than pushing off your small alteration needs on a woman at home? Learning to sew makes you resourceful, saves you money, and may even spare you some stress..

sewing kit

Evaluating Your Wardrobe

Three Simple Rules:

Be prepared to make some hard decisions on your own. Your wardrobe says something about your individual experience. Because you’ve been there every step of the way, only you know what articles are worth the space in your closet and which aren’t. If you have some shirts or jackets that have had a good run and show some wear, decide if they can stay or go.

If they need repair, set aside time in your schedule to get them fixed or fix them yourself. You want your closet to be a pool of only your best even if it only has five shirts or up to fifty. By all means, keep the sentimental shirts in your collection, but maintain them if you plan to wear them for years to come.

Know your limits. Alterations can save you money, but they can only do so much with the article in question. Knowing what can be done and what can not may end up saving you quite a bit of time and money. Is your closet full of inherited or secondhand suits that are too big in the shoulders really worth the effort? Is it worth grabbing that last VBC blazer on sale that’s just a tad too tight in the torso? What about the sports jacket that’s two inches too long?

Not only will understanding alterations help you make wiser purchases, such knowledge will extend the life of your clothing. A tailor can get you back into those pants that have become a bit too snug and save the jacket that’s developed a small tear, but he can not miraculously redesign an entirely ill-fitting suit. That leads us to the next point.

Be selective. Donate or somehow eliminate those clothes that are irredeemable due to wear, fashionably obsolete, or not worth the complete overhaul in professional refitting. In a sense, eliminating clutter in your wardrobe is making alterations. The time it takes debating with yourself into wearing that pinstripe ’80s Armani is better spent selecting from timeless pieces that not only fit you today, but are in good repair.


Truly anything in your wardrobe will look better on you when it actually fits. (Still, great fit doesn’t trump color, material and condition.) Sleeve length, excess blousing around the torso, and too much or too little room in the seat of the pants can all be adjusted to a degree. It is likely that you can salvage many of the ill-fitting garments in your wardrobe by simply having them altered to fit. You could do this one of two ways.

The first is finding that shirt or pair of pants in your collection that fits best. Have the tailor or seamstress match your larger shirts to this pattern. Otherwise, be prepared to take some time out of your day to get fitted properly before putting one or all of your items under the chopping block.

However, there are some hazards to avoid before making the decision to alter your garments. The cost of making all the needed alterations to a garment may very well exceed what you paid for it. This is due in part to the lack of skilled seamstresses and tailors out there. Perhaps the suit was a steal when you purchased it and realizing its need for alteration can be considered a sunken cost. Remember to use your judgment.

You don’t want to set aside time and get all the way to the tailors only to realize your suit can not be fixed or adjusted past a certain point. A jacket that is two inches too short often cannot be lengthened because of either the lack of fabric and/or the structural build of the garment does not allow it. Now there are always exceptions-I’ve worked with some amazing tailors who have worked miracles – but the average sewing professional is limited in their comfort zone.

Make peace with the fact that no matter what the result there is no “going back”. This is why finding the best tailor is so crucial. No tailor is going to admit they are a bad threader. Instead, you may learn the hard way through using their services. Some will make promises they can not keep, miss deadlines trying to figure out how to solve your problem, not field your specific questions with the appropriate response, or ruining your shirt altogether. It pays to ask around, use Yelp, or consult various tailors before making your ultimate decision.

The 3 Ingredients of a Successful Alteration

To that end, finding the best tailor for the job is a process on its own. Here are steps on how to get your attire in good hands. There are three variables that make any clothing alteration successful. A well done alteration has everything to do with the the skill level of the person doing the work, whether or not the garment has the fabric for the alteration, and finally how the alteration will affect the garment’s proportions.

garment makers

A Skilled Tailor or Seamstress

The term “tailor” has become nearly stripped of its true meaning since the wash-and-wear culture became standard practice in the last fifty years. Recent trends show even the leaders of the industry are scaling back lately. Tailoring refers to a set of specific hand- and machine-sewing and pressing techniques that are unique to the construction of traditional suits. Most tailors today do not cater to only suits because the industry has evolved with more modern demands.

Because the industry has taken a less-specialized form, experience does not always equate to skill. This means you must take a more assertive, exacting approach when you walk into the shop. Leave no light shining between your request and their task. If the tailor measures up to your request and you’ve received quality work, you’ve found a quality tailor that is increasingly hard to find. Here’s seven steps on how to find that tailor.

  1. Educate yourself. Understand what you want by reading up on the basics so you can ask thoughtful questions. Don’t be afraid to ask the necessary detailed questions and raise objections when you think someone is blowing smoke.
  2. Seek recommendations. Like I mentioned above, take the recommendations of friends and family, but with a grain of salt. This endeavor won’t be quite like other because if the inherent individuality in custom tailoring. However, recommendations are a great place to start and may alert you to information otherwise not available.
  3. Test their communication skills. Communication is key to getting exactly what you want. By now, you can effectively communicate what you want and the tailor should match that when repeating your order. When you visit, they must give you a reasonable amount of time to discuss your needs. This is a big investment, do not feel rushed or pressured if you can help it.
  4. Ask the tailor for their personal best. Yes, this could seem demanding, but now is not a time to be shy. A tailor should be satisfied only when the client is happy. If the client isn’t satisfied with the garment, the tailor should either work to meet expectations or refund his money. We have seen many cases of men pushed into styles and fits that weren’t his original design. A tailor should offer guidance, but how a man looks is his decision alone.
  5. Does the tailor or seamstress understand style? This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, but without it you’ll have to be more explicit as to what you want. Don’t assume the person working on the clothing can make the “leap” between points not specified. A trained tailor should point out errors/problems with your requests if they break common style or pattern aesthetics.
  6. Examine their handiwork. Look not only at the outside, but at the inside stitching and seam work. Crosscheck their work with another piece of sturdy tailoring or detailed pictures of tailored stitch work as it should be done. Details make all the difference in looking your best.
  7. Availability. You want a professional that is accessible. When you find out a week before your wedding you’re a little too large for your once well-fitting suit, you want someone who can help you in a pinch.

Should you go to Singapore, watch out for local shady tailoring practices. To elaborate a larger point, a local tailor sticks to a simple business model: good work speaks for itself. Gimmicks and deals rarely apply.

Garment Allowance

If the fabric isn’t there, there is little even a skilled tailor can do to help you. Whether it involves extending a sleeve or opening up a pair of trousers, if there isn’t excess fabric, your tailor’s hands are tied. Make sure when you buy a garment and expect to have it enlarged, there is at least three-quarters of an inch to an inch and a quarter of excess fabric along the seams.

This is standard on most new clothing, but when buying from thrift stores or receiving something custom use caution. For an athletic build, a good bespoke tailor will make the suit with as much extra fabric as possible without “bulking up” the seams. This enables them to open up their jacket’s chest three inches without having to buy a new coat.

Limits of Proportion

Even if you have the first two variables covered, you may still be limited in a good alteration depending on proportion. A gentleman south of five foot five will find that his tailor can shorten his jacket by two inches, but he cannot reposition the pockets. Proportion can effect the thin gentleman as well. Bringing in the trousers or jacket by more than two inches often moves the pockets to a point where the clothing loses its conventional design.

Common Alterations & Skill Level

A tailor working on a piece of clothing

Basic Skill Alterations

These problems don’t cost much to fix. You could do it yourself with a little guidance from a friend who can sew or a reputable manual.

  • Button & zipper replacement
  • Trouser leg length
  • Jacket sleeve length (non-working buttons & unlined)

Medium Skill Alterations

The cost is a little more expensive than the above, but always worth the price if this is what you need to make your garment fit.

  • Jacket sleeve length (non-working buttons & lined)
  • Fixing neck roll
  • Bring in or opening up the torso on a jacket
  • Bringing in or opening up a pair of trousers
  • Taper trouser legs
  • Shortening a shirt sleeve
  • Replacing a shirt collar
  • Adding darts
  • Tapering the shirt

High Skill Alterations

These alterations are expensive, so make sure you have found your trusted tailor before having this done.

  • Jacket sleeve length (working buttons & lined)
  • Jacket length
  • Rotating the jacket sleeve (correcting for arm pitch)
  • Relining the jacket
  • Reducing shirt shoulders
  • Re-weaving – fixes small holes by using fabric found elsewhere on the suit to create an invisible patch; limited to small holes only.

Expert Alterations

These alterations are very expensive, so you may want to look at a new suit in some cases. Unless you live in a large city, you will have to ship your garment to a trained tailor.

  • Anything adjusting the shoulders – this is very touchy as the tailor is changing the whole “look” of the garment. It’s very possible that he’ll get it to fit better, but it may no longer look right.
  • Changing the posture of a jacket – this involves adjusting the way the front and back of the jacket are connected, oftentimes needed if a man stands overly erect or slouched over.


It’s generally accepted that tailors cannot solve these major problems. It’s time to find a new suit in these scenarios.

  • Long fabric tears that do no follow the seam
  • Holes larger than one and a half inches in circumference
  • Heavy abrasion damage or threadbare
  • Severe weakening of the fibers caused by alkaline or acid exposure
  • Burned fabric (As a result of ironing)

Alterations On-The-Go

Learn to Sew Yourself

Want to do alterations yourself? Interested in learning how to make your own clothing? Want a skill whose demand is only set to increase as the great tailors of yesteryear retire and few are set to fill their shoes? Well, we openly encourage you to join us.

For further reading, I highly recommend visiting the website and reading the books of Mr. David Coffin; he does an excellent job teaching the basics of sewing and advanced topics such as making your own shirts and trousers. Also check out the crew over at Threadbanger.

mending pants

Emergency Sewing Kit

Some of the greatest examples of Murphy’s Law happens to clothing. You or a colleague is going to need a needle and thread at the worst time possible. This is where it pays to be prepared. Stores sell prepackaged kits, but I avoid these as they are chintzy and overpriced. They often contain a pair of worthless scissors, a threading tool and more thread than you need.

Instead pack your own kit – a few needles of various sizes, two feet of both black and white thread, and a few buttons of various sizes. This kit should go in a place you can trust yourself to remember.

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