Vol.1, No.10

Alterations for plus size clothing

Learn to evaluate whether or not you want to alter women’s plus size clothing and you will be able to shop more effectively.

A suit jacket being altered
Photo Credit: Jorge Oliveira
Plus size women love to shop, and like everyone sometimes have special fit needs that require alterations. Stores such as Nordstrom's, Avenue, Catherine's, and Hanes' Just My Size, as well as designers like Anne Klein, Jessica McClintock, Vicki Vi, and Eileen Fisher feature a variety of plus size garments. These garments are usually well designed and will fit perfectly, but from time to time you may run into a plus size garment that interests you but which doesn't fit as well as you would like. If you are in a high end department store like Nordstrom's, you may be able to get alterations done there, but most of the time you will need to either do the alterations yourself or find a friend or a dry cleaner to help you.

You have to be able to decide whether this garment is something that can be altered to fit or whether altering it will be more trouble than it is worth.

To answer this question, you must look at the garment and how it is constructed. If it is too tight, for example if the shoulder area binds or the waistband pinches, the answer is probably no. If there's not enough cloth in a critical area, there's no way a seamstress or tailor can add it. If it is too big or too long, the situation is more optimistic. With a garment which is too loose or hangs too low there is extra cloth which can be removed to make the garment fit better.

Another factor which should be considered even if there is extra cloth to work with is the design of the garment. If it is a tailored, fitted garment which is lined and finished with special detailing such as piping or other ornamentation which is part of the design of the garment, it may be difficult to work with even if there is plenty of fabric to work with. For example, if it is a tailored garment, all the design elements are proportioned in relation to one another, and if you change some element of the design, the rest of the elements may not work right. Or there may simply be so many elements to alter that the alteration process amounts to a virtual reconstruction of the garment.

For example, you have problems getting the kind of fit you like around the bust and waist. You find a blazer which is made of a beautiful fashion fabric which suits you to a tee. It fits properly around the bust and waist, but the sleeve is too long, and the shoulders are too wide. It is fully lined and has a cuff with buttons and buttonholes. In addition, the neckline is loose at the back and the garment has a shawl collar.

In order to get such a garment to fit properly, you would have to remove the sleeves, re-cut the bottoms of the sleeves, re-cut the armholes, and re-insert the sleeves. The armholes may still not fit properly because there is no way to raise the bottom of the armhole a little higher. In addition you would need to restructure the collar by opening it up and tightening it a little at the back of the neck. You would need to make all these corrections to the lining as well. It's possible that by the time you finish, the alterations you have made will subtly affect the way the jacket fits around the stomach and bust as well.

Obviously this is a lot of work, and it would cost a fortune to pay someone to do it. If you yourself can sew well enough to do such a complicated alteration job you may be better off making a new garment which incorporates the features you like such as fabric, cut and collar style into a new garment which is designed to fit you properly from the beginning.

Fortunately, most of the time the alteration needed for plus size clothing is much simpler. For example, many plus size knit tee shirts are a little too loose in the neck. This problem is created because when patterns are sized up, all the elements are made a little larger. However, when our real bodies get larger, they tend to get larger in some places and not others. People's shoulders tend to stay approximately the same width even if their upper arms or bust become bigger, so a loose neckline is often approximately the same size regardless of other measurements.

Thus the neckline of simple jewel neck tee shirt may unintentionally be sized too wide. This is easily corrected by taking a tuck in the back of the neck. The most important part is positioning it properly, and you'll want someone to help you with this. It's extremely difficult to fit yourself properly. A friend can take a tuck in the center back with a safety pin until the garment looks right in the front. Then take the shirt off and arrange the extra fabric symmetrically on both sides of the center line. This tuck will look like the one that is at the back of the yoke on many men's shirts, and it can be sewn by hand or machine, or you can get someone who sews to do it for you.

If you have a small waist proportionate to your hips, you may need to make the waist on a skirt or pants smaller. This is another easy and straightforward alteration to your plus size garment. Alterations specialists at dry cleaners and tailors do this kind of thing all the time, and can help you with it. So can friends who sew, if you don't know how. Again, it will be useful to get someone to help you pin the alterations in place. You will be pinning tucks or darts around the waistline until you get the fit you desire, and then these alterations will be sewn in place.

If sleeves, skirt hems or pant cuffs are too long, they can simply be folded up, pinned in place, trimmed if necessary and sewn again at the right length. However, if there are elaborate details on the cuffs or hems, alteration may destroy the charm of the garment or be more trouble than it is worth.

Thus the key in altering plus size clothes is to understand that garments which are loose can be made snug, while garments that are snug can rarely be made loose. Fortunately many plus size garments run a bit large. Garments which are too long can often be shortened, but garments which are too short cannot be made longer.

Simple alterations can be quickly and inexpensively done and will make a garment which hung loose fit better or be the right length. But complicated tailored garments are probably more difficult to alter, and may be more trouble that they are worth. Once you understand these basic guidelines you will be able to evaluate whether that garment you like but which doesn't quite fit is worth the pain and expense of alteration.