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Dear Maddie: Altering Garments

altering garments

In my opinion, both altering a garment and making one from scratch requires skill. One is not harder than the other, rather, each one requires different techniques and methods. Also, each one is suited for different types of sewers. While one sewist loves bringing life to a worn and outdated garment, another hates messing with something that is already constructed. One aspect of my sewing career that I’m especially grateful for is that started by getting my feet wet in both fields. When I worked at Mishka’s tailor shop, I helped create patterns and make garments from scratch (I remember replicating this dress for one client. That was fun!), but I also hemmed jeans (keeping the original hem) and shortened cuffed, men’s sleeves (that was a hassle!).

Specifics… specifics… you want specific examples on what I’m talking about, right? From my experience working at Mishka’s and the trickling of alterations I’ve done since, here are my pros, cons, upsides, downsides, viewpoints, or whatever you want to call it, for altering and making clothes.
orderThere is a different order of operations when altering clothes. When sewing a garment from scratch, the sequence is 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, but when changing a garment after it’s been made, the sequence can be backwards – 4, 3, 2, 1 – or mixed up – 4, 2, 3, 1. Let’s pretend you have a pair of pants that fit everywhere except the back waist – it sticks out and let’s places that the sun don’t shine, well, shine. What do you do? Well, what Mishka and I did was add 2 darts on either side of the CB seam. Detaching the waistband from side seam to side seam (don’t remove the entire thing!), we added darts mid panel. If there were pockets, we would try to be very careful and sew around them, but if we couldn’t, we’d detach them (and reattach after the alteration). Of course, it’s always a hassle getting things back into their original place and without any signs of alterations.
make_it-workBecause the garment is already sewn, you have to work with what you got, and sometimes the results are not ideal. Case in point is a denim overalls someone at work asked me to alter. It fits everywhere except the hips. If it were a perfect world, I would reduce the side seams, but because it’s denim and because the seams are flat felled, it would be very hard for me to replicate the same type of stitching – any onlooker would know the garment had been altered. Solution? We’re contemplating adding a soft elastic to the waistband by cutting a slit on the interior, inserting the elastic, and closing up the slit with a patch that is only visible on the interior. This route would give her waist definition, which is more flattering, but also disguise the bulging hips.
rejuvenationPamela said that the best thing she ever made wasn’t a particular garment, but a type of sewing – upcycling. When she was younger, she redid old wedding dresses for new brides and loved rejuvenating near dead garments. For some sewers, altering is their thing, especially when it comes to making vintage garments modern and current.

Now I turn the question to you. What do you prefer – altering garments or making them from scratch?


  1. Reply

    Natasha Estrada

    I would rather bang my head up against a wall than alter anything

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Nicely said!

      • Reply

        Natasha Estrada

        Hem’s are an exception a necessary evil for a shortie.

  2. Reply

    Karrie Smith

    I am reading books about dressmaking. Gertie’s, Colette’s, and other books on patternmaking. I find that it’s a lot of math and drafting-which is fun. I’m kinda learning this on my own. I was sick last week and was supposed to take a class with @madebyrae, where we learn to draft our own skirt. I am super sad I missed it. It’s fun learning all this stuff. Your blog has really grown so much in the last couple years that I’ve been following. I hope to achieve some of my dream like you have been able to do. (not the blogging part, but the making part!)

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Karrie, what a sweet comment. Thank you! I wish you all the best of luck as well and I hope you continue to follow my blog and I.

  3. Reply


    On my “brings me joy” scale – altering clothing is right up there with doing my taxes… in other words – I only do it because the government makes me. And thankfully the government has very little concern for clothing alteration!

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Awesome comment, Sallie 🙂

  4. Reply

    ladanu ladan

    I see altering as rescuing things and find it really rewarding. I found a lovely 50s dress which was made by top British maker, for just a few pounds.Someone had removed and badly restitched a satin bias band from around the whole dress, to make it a bit bigger. After carefully reworking the piece back into position it is back to it’s glorious best. The cut and construction is exquisite and I feel exquisite wearing it. I am no expert seamstress but I have enough skill and knowledge and appreciation to bring this dress back to life.

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      What a great story of upcycling. I’d love to see the finished piece that you brought back to life!

  5. Reply


    Alterations v Starting with a blank canvas ?

    I have been drafting patterns to make everything ,I sew/create
    for 30 years now .I love the freedom of drafting a design to sew and truly believe
    the cut is the most important part of each design. A few years ago I worked in
    an alterations shop which gave me a whole new respect for Alteration work. The
    girls taught me a whole new set of skills which I had not seen before.

    All this said, yes I would
    rather start with my pattern making any day!

  6. Reply

    Joanie Paxman

    I heart both. I started by altering 70’s clothing to be hip in middle school (bell bottoms were making a comeback) in the early 90’s and since I was tiny they had to be altered in some way. This was actually out of necessity since my father spent a lot time trying to make ends meet during the recession back then so my only chance for getting a new cool school clothes were in second hand shops and then I had to be creative. My Grandma instilled quilting skills in me many years prior therefore everything I made or altered was stitched by hand in those days. I finally acquired a sewing machine when I was pregnant with my first child but I still find myself hand stitching (new and altering) if I have the choice.

  7. Reply

    Kenneth D. King

    I like to do both, depending on materials. Vintage fur is one area where I generally choose to do one or the other. Once I bought an old-lady leopard coat which had a split between the shoulder blades. I took the thing apart, and was able to make a jeans-style jacket by adding some coffee-colored leather. So that counts as being from scratch in my book.

    Recently I bought a black lammoire fur (lambskin that looks like moire), that was cut somewhat like a pea coat. The drawback–it had bracelet-length sleeves. For this, I bought a black sweater, cut off the sleeves, and added them to the inside of the existing sleeves on the coat. So this counts as an alteration.

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Now, you brought up something I hadn’t thought about – making a garment from scratch by altering it. You might be thinking, “Well, Maddie, how can they be both?” In some cases, altering is changing or fixing a portion of the garment and the end, the garment is the same (a skirt stays a skirt). In your first example, you took the coat completely apart (altered) AND THEN made something new (constructed from scratch).

      • Reply

        Natasha Estrada

        The coat itself becomes the raw input that makes the jacket.

  8. Reply

    Latrice Smith

    I am in the from scratch category. Right now, it is all about drafting clothes even. Most of the time I don’t even alter myself. I will hem pants for food or drinks tho. 😉

  9. Reply

    Michael Clark

    I think in both cases you require some sort of skills either it will be a altering a Garment or to make from scratch.

  10. Reply

    Teri Wallis

    Your blog was fun to read. Alterations have always been exciting for me because I use it as a challenge – How to do it so it does not look altered. I love sewing from scratch as well. I just enjoy sewing, making, and creating. Thank you for sharing. – hobbiescraftsandmore.com

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