Looking to alter a solo dress for the first time? Thinking of buying a used dress? Check out these tips from Earnest Threads dressmaker Mattie Ernst.
1. Never assume that there’s let-out. Unfortunately not all dressmakers build with alterations in mind. Many new dresses have little-to-no extra seam allowance. If the dress is fully lined, you may not be able to tell how much extra fabric is inside. Even if you can feel an inch or two, that doesn’t mean it’s useable. You may find the side seams have been slashed to relieve bunching, such as in this photo. Or that the front point of the bodice was cropped and doesn’t have as much let down as the rest of the way around (as in the #4 photo).
2. The dress may not be symmetrical. This sounds silly, but most dresses get re-sold and re-worn multiple times, and we can’t know how alterations were previously done. When taking the skirt off a dress, I commonly notice that the bottom of the bodice is a little bigger in circumference on one side verses the other. What can be done? Take lots of measurements and try to even things out as you make your alterations. If you notice that bottom edge is bigger on one side, put a little more of your let-out into the other side.
3. The skirt can’t be altered very much. While bodices have multiple alterations points for changing the circumference (side seams, center back, sometimes even princess seams), solo dress skirts are far more lacking in possibilities. The structured side pleat that gives the dress its distinctive shape can’t be adjusted very much, or sometimes even at all. This leaves the center-back as the location for let-out or take-in. When evaluating a potential dress purchase for seam allowance, be cautious of what’s available in the skirt – it’s usually much less than the bodice. For this reason, it’s often better to find a dress that fits in the hips and make adjustments to the bodice.
4. Mark old seam lines for reference. Lots of our alterations notes are in reference to the current state of the dress…”let out 1/2″ at center-back”…”raise 1 inch at bottom of bodice”. This means we are relying on the current seam placement to tell us where the new seam should be. While lines of thread scarring may be obvious initially, they can disappear as the dress gets handled. And dresses that have been altered multiple times may have multiple seam lines, such as this bodice shown. I thread-marked this dropped-waist seam line immediately upon taking the skirt off, otherwise I wouldn’t have known which of these I should measure from!
5. Be prepared to chip a nail! It’s hard to do any alteration without having to remove at least a couple crystals. Unfortunately the best strategy is usually to use your thumbnail – but you can definitely do some damage after a few dozen! For stones that just won’t budge, try carefully prying with the tip of a small, pointed scissors or nail file. Be careful not to puncture the dress, but the sharp edge may help cut the seal of glue.
6. Use a press cloth to iron gluey spots. When we remove rhinestones, there will usually be some glue or glue residue remaining on the dress. As long as you’re planning to put the rhinestones back, this isn’t a problem. However, you don’t want that glue to burn all over your iron! Use a clean thin press cloth, such as the cotton muslin shown, to cover these areas while you press seams.
7. Take it slow. Irish dance costumes are heavy and bulky. When sewing through particularly thick seams, crank the machine by hand so you have more control over how the needle is coming down and how quickly the fabric is feeding under the presser foot.
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