DIY or Not: Should I Take This to the Tailor?

DIY or Not: Should I Take This to the Tailor?

Every woman needs a tailor ... or does she?

How do you know, when those jeans are four inches too long, or that button fell off, whether you should help yourself—or head straight to a talented professional?

Well, we asked one. And it turns out that you, armed with a basic sewing kit, can tackle a lot more than you ever thought possible. For example: There's no need to fear sequins. Or lace, for that matter.

Call them the Insider Secrets of a Top Tailor. All told, these tips could save you $75 to $100 in fees this year—and make all your clothes look better.

And knowing them also allows you to take advantage of a little-known retail bargain: the Damage Discount. In other words, next time you spot that perfect silk blouse in your size, with, sigh, a thread coming undone, don't shy away: Ask for 10% off the price, then fix it yourself. (Then there's one high-end fashion buyer's approach: Invest in cheap threads, then transform them at home.)

All in all, learning when—and how—to whip out the needle and thread will not only save you big, it could make you infinitely chicer.

For this installment of our DIY or Not series, we spoke to Wayne Edelman, President of Meurice Garment Care, a family-run chain since 1948 with four shops in New York. They count Prada, Gucci and Hermès among their clients, and, back in the day, Eleanor Roosevelt used to be a regular.

Wayne believes that home tailors can handle a lot. After all, many women used to make clothes themselves from patterns. Whether or not your grandmother passed on her sewing skills, there are projects that you should be able to tackle at home (and some you probably shouldn't).

Find out what you should DIY and what's best left to the pros:

Don’t Call Me If …

Your hem starts to fall.

If a little bit of your hem comes undone, you can just fix it yourself at home. Here's how: Find thread that matches the garment. (Wawak.com is a great resource.) Knot the thread on the inside of the garment, then make little stitches to bring the fallen fabric to meet the rest of the hem.

The item is made of a heavy fabric.

The heavier the material, the more forgiving it will be. Even if you’re not a skilled seamstress, you may be able to hem or repair garments made of wool, jersey or a jersey knit. You won’t be able to see the stitches as easily in these fabrics, so you can mask errors more easily.

Your button falls off.

Even tailors sew on buttons by hand, so these little projects are very easy to handle at home. Examine the other buttons on your jacket or blouse. What color thread is used? Does the thread crisscross or make a square shape on the button?

Also, take note of how close to the fabric the button sits. On a silk blouse, for example, the button should sit flush against the shirt fabric. For a coat, the buttons are attached a little more loosely: There is a little rope of thread between the button and the fabric of the jacket, called a "shank." To make a shank, put the needle back through the button, but don’t go through the fabric. Instead, wrap the thread around itself as many times as necessary until it feels sturdy, to create a little rope between the button and the coat.

Wayne

Your buttonhole is too wide.

If your button keeps coming unbuttoned, put a few stitches on either side of the buttonhole to tighten it.

You’re hemming lace or something with sequins.

Don't be intimidated by lace or sequins. Most of these garments would be altered by hand anyway, so these projects are perfect for DIY. Treat both just as you would any other delicate fabric. If you're dealing with sequins, don't worry about cutting them off when hemming something; just fold the sequins under and hem like you would any other skirt or dress.

You have (or can buy) seam-binding tape.

Professional tailors use a Merrow sewing machine, which cuts off a piece of material at the correct length and puts a finished edge on it. That way, when the tailor hems the item, the fabric won’t fray. This is important for delicate fabrics that might come apart at the edges. If you don’t have a Merrow machine, you can use seam-binding tape instead. Place the tape over the raw edge of the fabric, fold down on either side and sew the tape to the fabric. This will prevent the unfinished edge of the fabric from unraveling. Then, hem your pants or your skirt as you would normally—the tape will fold up inside. (First, see our note below on hemming without a friend nearby.)

Maybe Call Me If …

You don’t have a friend or a roommate to lend a hand.

It’s very hard to do a fitting by yourself. Just to fit a pair of pants, you really need an assistant to help you find the correct length. If you don’t have a friend available to help you out, you’ll need to stand in front of a full-length mirror, bend down, pin the pants, stand straight, check the length, bend down, re-pin and repeat. You need to have a lot of patience to go back and forth to get it right, so if you don't want to deal with the hassle, take it to a tailor.

You’re not good at ironing.

Ironing can be crucial for the alteration process. By ensuring that items lie flat, you’ll have a better chance of creating a straight hem. You need a good work space with a flat area to lay out the garment, and you should always iron from the inside out to prevent “shining,” which is when a really hot iron creates a shiny veneer on a dark garment. You should also use a press cloth between the iron and the garment to protect your clothing.

You're about to try something new on your favorite shirt.

If you’ve never attempted a tailoring project, don’t start out on a beloved blouse. Try any unfamiliar alterations on something you don’t care about first. If you succeed, then tailor the item you really want to fix. But, if your effort is a flop, call me: It’s cheaper to have a professional tailor do it right than to ruin an expensive item.

You don't own a sewing machine, or your machine doesn't have multiple settings.

Many projects can be done by hand, including hemming pants, skirts, dresses and sleeves, and sewing on buttons. (See above for helpful hints.) But different types of garments need different types of stitches, so if you’re not sure how to do the correct stitch by hand or whether your sewing machine has the right setting for an unfamiliar fabric, consider taking the item to a professional. For example, new athletic wear (like the clothes from Lululemon) often use an elastic stitch that most at-home sewing machines won’t have a setting for.

You want your cool jeans to stay cool.

There are two different ways to hem jeans: You can create a new hem, or you can move up the original hem. If you’re doing alterations at home, you’d probably create a new hem since that process is identical to hemming any other pair of pants. But with premium or prewashed denim (or anything that’s intentionally frayed), creating a new hem that doesn’t match will ruin the look. Depending on what kind of hem your denim already has, you might want to go to a tailor.

Call Me If …

You need to fix an invisible zipper.

Invisible zippers are often found on dressier items. They’re pretty self-explanatory: It’s a zipper that you don’t see, because the fabric on either side meets to mimic a seam. Because you want to maintain smoothness and invisibility, take these zippers to a professional to repair or replace.

Your garment is made of silk chiffon or rayon/silk/acrylic knit.

Silk chiffon is very, very difficult to work with, because it’s hard to keep still. Rayon knits and silk knits are also tricky, as at-home tailoring might create weird lumps and bumps in the fabric. Steaming is a key part of the alteration process, but different types of fabric react differently to heat. Acrylic knits should never be steamed at home because they’ll lose their shape and be ruined. Take these to a professional, who knows just how to treat the fabric.

You’re altering a pleated skirt or dress.

Altering pleats is an ironing and pressing challenge, because you need to recreate the pleating after altering. This entails pressing the pleats out, shortening the skirt, then redoing each pleat with an iron. For precision, take this to a tailor.

Transform Cheap Threads

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You want to restore your grandmother's fur coat.

Fur is difficult to work with, as skins are stitched with a special machine. Additionally, you can’t press furs at all or introduce steam, as the skin will shrivel up. It’s not a good idea to work on this at home.

Your wedding dress needs work.

Take your wedding dress to a professional. Unless, of course, your mother-in-law is a seamstress—and you want to deal with her for multiple fittings. There are usually multiple layers on a wedding gown (layers upon layers) that become very involved. You can change the oil on your car at home, but changing the engine is more involved: Leave your wedding dress to the pros.

Read More

Learn how to shop in your own closet for special events.

Find out how to repurpose your clothes to make new ensembles.

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