Tailoring Can Bring out the Best in Clothes

April 24, 2016 Updated: April 26, 2016

PASADENA, Calif.—”It’s all about the fit.” That unspoken motto has been passed down in my family for generations, from my late grandfather, a tailor, to me.

So through weight gain, weight loss and style changes—no more polyester thrift shop dresses!—I’ve gone to tailors to make sure my clothes fit and flatter my body. Velvet formal gowns and discounted jeans have all been cinched in and hemmed.

Tailoring, an old-school craft with roots going back at least to the Renaissance, can range from pricey alterations at a swanky department store to less-expensive tweaking at a dry cleaning or tailoring business.

Tailoring, an old-school craft with roots going back at least to the Renaissance, can range from pricey alterations at a swanky department store to less-expensive tweaking at a dry cleaning or tailoring business. Attention to detail is essential for the desired result: impeccably fitted skirts, suits, dresses, jackets and pants for customers of all shapes, sizes and ages.

“I like the feeling customers get from the right fit. When I’m happy sewing, my customers are happy,” said tailor Grace Myung Lee, 61, who co-owns Grace Cleaners in Pasadena with her husband.

Lee learned to sew when she was 10, in South Korea. On a recent day, sitting in a corner of her shop, she stitched the sleeve of a cream-colored men’s shirt using an electric sewing machine. Colorful spools of thread hung on the wall.

For a streamlined look, Lee recommends first changing the hemline of pants so they’re not too long or too short, and the hemline of dresses to a flattering length.

Many customers, she said, come in to have the hems of their pants raised. She charges $9 for regular pants and $7 for jeans. Natural materials such as cotton are easier to work with than stretchy, thin fabric, she said. Altering luxury dresses costs about $25, and requires two to three days’ work.

“Sometimes, customers buy used, cheap clothes and want many alterations. It’s not a good idea,” Lee added. “I suggest returning the clothes because there’s too much to change.”

For simple fixes, you can try doing them yourself with a needle and thread. Easy DIY alterations range from sewing on a button to darning socks and mending a slight rip along a seam. If a hole is big, stitch on a fun, multi-colored patch — unless you’re going for a shredded, 1990s grunge look. Plenty of books or YouTube videos give instructions.

Going to a tailor, though, is worth it for more complex adjustments, elevating an ill-fitting dress from frumpy to fashionable.

Possible alterations include nipping in the waist and hips, bringing in the shoulders, lowering the arm holes and sewing in darts, said Maria Tesseris, 62, owner of Golden Needle Tailoring in Chicago. It’s more difficult to let out or add fabric, she said.

Tesseris charges about $60 to $140 to alter bridesmaid dresses, which make up a chunk of her business and take up to two weeks to work on.

“We as women have curves and a butt and busts! It’s very rare for people to put on a piece of clothing and it perfectly fits,” said Tesseris, who learned tailoring in high school in her native Greece.

Shortening too-long sleeves is a good way to make shirts and jackets look more polished on both men and women. Tesseris has seen more men wanting their clothes tapered and their pants narrowed. An invisible seam? No problem.

“If customers have pants at home they really like, I tell them to bring them over, and I’ll copy them exactly the same,” she said. “Other than that, I try to figure it out, pinning the pants. It’s a very personal thing, working with a tailor, like going to a hairdresser.”

A master tailor for the past 16 years at the Philadelphia department store Boyds, Sergio Martins, 56, started altering clothes at age 14 in his native Portugal, where his father, now 85 and also a tailor, still lives.

“I feel very lucky to have learned this from my parents. What I do, I do with patience,” said Martins.

Custom-made suits from Boyds take four to six weeks to make. Customers can pick the fabric and then Martins takes measurements, making sure there’s enough room across the shoulders, back and arms. Pants can be flat-front or pleated.

The cost? A heap of money. Italian silk and cashmere suits run upward of $10,000 to create, and a regular wool suit costs about $695 to make, said Martins.

“When I started work here, I saw clientele in their 50s. We now have a lot of young clients, new lawyers, new businessmen,” Martins said. “Everyone wants to look good.”

For longtime tailors such as Martins, Tesseris and Lee, an appreciation for customer satisfaction is mingled with an awareness that tailoring as a specialized craft is dwindling.

“Growing up in Greece, there were so many schools on how to do a great job tailoring,” Tesseris said. “Right now, in my hometown, in Sparta, no one does it. It’s a dying art. But there’s still very much a need for it. Some customers and friends tell me, ‘You should never die, and never retire.'”