Can a Seamstress Make a Dress Bigger?
The ballerina tutu was perfect – the best the Sears & Roebuck catalog had to offer. It was baby pink with silver sequins along the neckline and I knew I would shine as the star I should rightfully be as a background dancer on the stage of my elementary school play. But there was one problem: my 9-year-old baby fat dangerously pulled at the seams of that tutu bodice. Luckily, my personal seamstress (aka Mom) was able to make a basic alteration and – voila – I was confident on stage! It was my first experience with making a dress bigger. She used her basic seamstress skills to save the day.
Seamstress vs Tailor
In general, a seamstress can likely make a dress bigger. The person you really want for this job, though, is a tailor. What’s the difference? A seamstress (seamster is the male variant of the term) sews. They put garments together. It stands to reason that a person who puts garments together could also take them apart, but customizations are not their specialty.
A tailor makes customized alterations. Because the term “tailor” was originally used to denote a person who made alterations to men’s clothing, you may also find that some simply say they “make alterations” to be more inclusive in terms of their services. Both seamstresses and tailors deal with seams and sewing, but the tailor is the one who gives you a perfect fit.
What’s the Cost To Alter a Dress?
In terms of my childhood tutu woes, basic sewing skills did the trick. The back of the bodice was made of stretchy tube-top material and my mother was able to take an inch from its underlying hem to stitch into the seams on each side. The only cost was a spool of matching thread and about 30 minutes of her time. A professional seamstress today might charge $10 to $20 for this quick fix since they were out no fabric and likely have the thread on-hand. Seamstresses generally charge by the hour, so ask for their hourly fees and request an estimate for the completed project. A professional will have an idea of how long the project should take. Taking a dress in, or sizing it down, is easier than letting it out. So, adding a size typically costs more than going down one. An easy rule of thumb: the bigger the adjustment, the more expensive the cost.
Finding a Seamstress
If you have a seamstress on speed-dial, ask for a meeting to explain your problem. Take the dress with you so you can show the corrections that need to be made. Ask the seamstress how she has fixed similar problems for others. (It’s your nice way of asking, “Hey, have you ever done this before?”) If she is not comfortable making your dress alterations, an experienced seamstress will say so and probably offer you the contact info for someone she can personally recommend for alterations. If she seems willing to try, but not certain of her ability to make your alterations, find a different seamstress.
With the right person doing the work, almost any dress can be resized bigger. The method, cost, and difficulty level vary widely, however, based on the dress itself. The width of seam allowances, fabric, and type of dress (formal or casual), must be considered.
Dresses for adults can be a little more involved than that childhood tutu of mine. Most commercially sewn casual dresses have quarter-inch seams. If you just want to make the dress looser for comfort, a seamstress could theoretically take those seams apart and re-stitch at a one-eight seam allowance in the bottom of the sleeves and in the sides. The problem here is that the narrower seam allowances do not provide as much stitch support.
Another problem with letting out narrow seams is that the fabric might not hold up well. That can be a real problem when altering vintage dresses in which the fabric is thin or shows subtle signs of rot.
Satins and taffetas often leave needle holes that can jeopardize the look of the dress and the integrity of the new seams. Velvets, cotton shirting fabrics, and some polyester blends tend to hide needle holes well.
Your seamstress or tailor will be able to tell you whether the fabric can be successfully let out or not. If you’re planning to use your own seamstress skills to make alterations, you can take out a few hem stitches in an inconspicuous place. After removing the stitches, check to see if noticeable holes remain. Don’t forget to stitch the hem back in place after your experiment!
Dress Type Matters
The type of your dress also plays a role in its alterability. Formal dresses, such as prom dresses and wedding dresses, are made with wider seam allowances to allow for easier (and bigger) adjustments. With seam allowances of 1 to 2 inches, you have a lot of room for adjustments in those dresses, maybe even up to two full sizes. (Tip: If you’re making the alterations yourself, don’t cut away any of the seam fabric. You might need to correct your adjustment.)
If you’re looking to have a formal gown adjusted, I recommend using a professional tailor. Formal shops often have tailors in-house, or contract with area professionals to make adjustments. With wedding dresses, depending on the original size and fit, a bride may spend up to $1000 for customized sizing. Ask for their hourly rate and an estimation of how many hours the project will take to fix.
Other Possible Fixes
Add Underarm Panels
But generally speaking, when we want to make a dress bigger it is because it will not zip. That can be a relatively easy and inexpensive fix because it targets the specific problem. The biggest challenge can be in finding the fabric to make the correction.
Making a dress larger so it will zip is an easy fix because your seamstress can calculate exactly how much adjustment you need – you just need to add the amount of space between the zipper that won’t close. Your seamstress will get this number by measuring the width of the open space at its widest point and the length from the top of the zipper to the bottom. This triangle shape will be the piece you need to add under each armpit.
If the zipper is just a little short of closing, you might find that matching fabric in a wide hem or seam allowance in a formal dress. If not, the challenge will be finding a new piece of fabric to match the dress. You do have the choice here of adding contrasting fabric; but if you go with this choice, you should add other accessories (belt, scarf, shawl) from the same fabric. Otherwise, the contrasting fabric will call attention to the fact that you let out the dress.
Add an Extender
Another possibility to fix a zipper closure is a gusset loop (think bra-extender, but for zippers). With this extender, the dress zipper is removed and loops are added in its place. The gusset loop hooks into those, perfectly extending the fabric.