Our daughter is enrolled in a theater camp this summer and the parents were asked to volunteer for some tasks. Given that I think of myself as a somewhat competent seamstress I volunteered to do costume construction and alterations rather than sell tickets or plan the cast party. The camp is performing Jungle Book, Cinderella and Fame Jr. I was thinking that someone would give me a pattern and a pile of fabric and I’d be making something from scratch. Wrong.
They needed the most help with the Cinderella costumes. The woman in charge handed me a plus-size polyester blouse and a size 6 prom dress and asked me to put the sleeves from the blouse onto the prom dress. At first it seemed so weird because the size of the sleeves were so much bigger that the armholes of the prom dress, but then I remembered that it wasn’t a quilt. The seams didn’t have to be flat. What a concept. Poofy sleeves. Cinderella. Got it.
I did find my knowledge of insetting circles really paid off as I tried to figure out how to do this. My first step was to cut the sleeves off the blouse and mark with chalk the top of the sleeve when placed flat with the seam at the bottom and the fabric distributed evenly from the seam.
Next I used a basting stitch around the circumference of the sleeve and pulled the bobbin thread to gather the ends until they looked as though they were about the same size as the arm holes on the prom dress.
I then matched that chalked mark on the top of the sleeve to the seam on the top of the arm hole on the prom dress and distributed the extra fabric as evenly around the armhole as possible. I pinned like crazy.
Next I overlocked the sleeve to the armhole because I was worried about the polyester raveling over time. I also think that costumes and stuff kids wear should be constructed with the durability of a military uniform so my #2 Bernina overlocking foot is always nearby when I do this kind of sewing. The last step was to remove the basting. I think it turned out great and looks very appropriate for the costume for the queen.
I was also asked to hem up by 6″ a floor-length flared skirt without cutting it at all. And of course it was lined. I had to sew tucks into the hem but by following the seams straight up the skirt and by distributing the flare evenly across the skirt, it looked fine on the outside. Both were really good tutorials of sorts for me and I feel like every time I do a project like this, I learn something new.
One reader asked after my tunic post about whether I had a sewing background and what resources I might know of for tailoring clothing. I took Home Ec sewing in 7th grade and that is my sum total background for formal sewing education. What I have learned has been through the experience of following patterns when I make clothes for myself and trying to alter ready-made clothes. I don’t know of any good books for learning how to alter clothing. If any readers do, please share!
What I do know is that I’ve learned a lot by paying attention to the way that garments are constructed. I know that my curvy body looks best with princess seams or darts around the bust and a drape or cut that accommodates an hour-glass figure. I know that clothes that hang flat on the hanger look best on bodies that don’t have a lot of curves. I will never own a piece of clothing with spaghetti straps, a babydoll dress or a pair of Levi’s straight leg jeans with a waistline that goes straight up from the hips. Never gonna happen. Shapely bodies need shapely clothes. I will never buy a pair of pants with a zipper that is more than 4″ long because you just can’t fix a rise that is too long and waistlines at or above the navel are uncomfortable to me.
When I do need to alter clothes I try to figure out how to integrate the alterations into the garment so they look intentional. If a skirt is too long, I look at how it was originally hemmed. I try to ease waist darts in carefully so they look as though they were always there. If I’m adapting the neckline, I find a neckline I like on another garment I have and trace it over the garment I’m adapting.
Perhaps the best advice I can offer regarding alterations is that if you have to do too many, it may be better to try on something else. I guess I’d also say that trying to retrofit a Goodwill garment is a $3-5 experiment and you’re guaranteed to learn a lot. A few episodes of Project Runway should help you dive in. Happy sewing!