How to Alter a Men’s Shirt, Part 1

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Taking in a men’s ready-to-wear shirt isn’t difficult. It simply requires a sharp seam ripper and keen eye. Did you know that most men’s clothes are actually constructed in such a way that allows them to be easily altered? Women’s…. not so much. Our bodies are too unpredictable with their varying curves.

This tutorial is not for tailoring extremely fitted shirts. This is for taking in shirts that will still have an appropriate amount of ease. If you try to make a shirt extremely fitted and tight with this tutorial, the sleeves will pull at the intersection of the side seam and armscye, due to the sleeve seam being sewn as one with the side seam.

To begin to mark a men’s shirt to be taken in, have your customer/husband/Ryan Gosling put the shirt on, wearing an undershirt with it if that’s what he’ll do. Tell Ryan to rub his cologne all over it so you can get drunk off of his hunky scent, and then… whoa. Uhh… back to what I was saying.

Once he has the shirt on, make sure it’s buttoned correctly and decide how much it needs to be taken in. Here are a few key things to look for:

  1. Is the shirt too big? If the pockets practically fall to where his side seams should be, or the armscye seam falls to his bicep, he should go exchange it for a proper size. The shoulders have to fit! No, it doesn’t matter if his favorite Aunt Mildred got it for him, it’s not going to work.
  2. You can only take the shirt in up to 1 1/2″ on the double on each side. Meaning, you can only take in each side seam about 3″ total. Now that is A LOT of extra fabric to be taking in, so you should know you won’t be able to put it back. I tend to stick with about 1″ on the double for each side seam, max. Anymore and you can get too close to the shirt pockets.
  3. When pinning his sides, go straight down the side seams. Women need shirts to curve in at their waists, giving them an hourglass look. Men don’t need this because their bodies go straight up and down. There are exceptions, of course, but if you must curve the side seam, do so only very slightly!
  4. Be aware of buttons pulling. If the buttons pull, it’s too tight, and when he sits down or moves around, it will look ridiculous. There needs to be at least 2″ of ease left in the shirt. Unless it’s Ryan Gosling, and in that case, make it as tight as possible. And after that, email me a picture.
  5. The shirt will be taken in thru the side seams, and when you hit the armscye seam, you will make a 90 degree turn and pin down the sleeve. Try to taper it down to nothing as soon as possible. The closer you pin the sleeve seam to the cuff, the harder it will be to sew later.
This is an illustration of an unaltered shirt, prior to a fitting.
This is how you would mark the shirt, going straight up the side seam. You will only need to pin one side of the shirt. When you hit the armscye seam, you will turn 90 degrees, and then taper down the sleeve seam to nothing as soon as possible. One quick note- when you’re pinning someone, make sure that your pin heads face their armpit, with the sharp points leading down both seams, otherwise- ouch!
The last illustration depicts the fit of the shirt after it has been altered.
Tomorrow I’ll post part two of this tutorial, with lots of photos. Get ready to sew!

UPDATE: Part 2 has now been posted!

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  • Maggie

    Oh Amy, I do miss you. I really miss laughing so hard I either cry or have to pee. Love your Blog. It keeps me in “Stitches”( I still have yet to make that one top you showed how to draft the pattern for,and oh yeah, I moved to Anderson too, so I’m hoping to do it this spring after my sewing room is all set up). Next time you are in Indiana you’ll have to come visit me. I missed you the last time. Love ya!

    • http://reallyhandmade.com Amy Alan

      Aww- thanks, Maggie! I miss you guys, but I’ll never miss those damn panty hose. I will be sure to plan a lunch with you the next time I’m in town. Love you too!

  • http://onethoughtless.blogspot.com/ Alice

    ahaha.. I’m laughing so hard I’m afraid I’m ruining my sister’s nap.. you are witty AND helpful; this tutorial is exactly what I needed– thank you!!
    Question: if I do curve the side seam, what will happen to the bottom of the shirt? Will it flare or flip or do anything weird? I’m trying to make one of those on-trend, menswear-inspired shirt-dresses (because, really, why should I pay $45 for something that is already sitting in the back of my dad’s closet just waiting to be re-purposed, you know?), and am not positive on how to proceed..
    Again, thanks!

    • http://reallyhandmade.com Amy Alan

      Hi Alice! Oh, I hope your laughing didn’t wake your sister! ;) It’s okay if you curve the side seam, since you’re female (at least I’m guessing you are from your name!). Men don’t need their shirts to curve in because they’re generally fairly straight-waisted. Don’t curve the side seam an excessive amount, or yes, you will have some fit issues. To give it more shape, try adding in a front dart below the bust. Look at a blouse you have that fits you well to see how large the dart on it is as compared to the waist measurement of the shirt. Also, bast the dart and side seam and try it on before you cut out any fabric you might need!

      Good luck! :)

  • http://twitter.com/MyMukki Christine Gasser

    I am so glad to find this post. I just purchased your Craftsy course and plan on dusting off my serger tomorrow! My husband is 6’3″ and 160 lbs. His shirts are always made for someone 50 pounds heavier. He had some made for him but $150 each is out of our reach! –heck even if I could afford it, that’s crazy expensive. I can’t wait to fix his shirts and he is pretty excited too, well as excited as a guy could get over a shirt LOL

    • http://reallyhandmade.com/ Amy Alan

      That’s wonderful, Christine! It sounds like your husband is built the exact same way as mine! I’m glad you’ll be able to put this post to good use. I’m also glad you’re in my Craftsy class- yay! I’ll look for you over there, too. ;)

  • Guest

    Do you have any recommendations on tailoring a small men’s shirt to fit a woman? I prefer the designs on men’s shirts but don’t like how they’re straight up and down at the sides. Are there any tutorials on how to put in darts and curve the sides to fit a woman’s shape?

    • http://reallyhandmade.com/ Amy Alan

      Hi there! I don’t currently have any tutorials up on my site for adding darts to a shirt to fit it to your curves. I will keep it in mind for a future post though!

  • Denise

    You rock!!! I have a 6’6″ husband with a 39″ arm, so pickins are slim, and most of the shirts we actually do find are not slim. Until now, we just groaned and returned things. But we are getting a family picture this weekend for his parents’ wedding anniversary, and someone decided on a color scheme without consulting us. Time to try altering that dark purple shirt. It looks great!

    I do have a question though. You said no more than 1.5″ off from each side. What if one needs more off? I’m not actually close to the shirt pockets. I’m assuming at some point you run into problems with the fit of the shoulder or arm. Does one then need to take off the sleeve and re-do the entire armscye?

    • http://reallyhandmade.com/ Amy Alan

      I hear you! Rob is tall and skinny, so all shirts are super baggy on him.

      If you try to take more than 1.5″ off from each side, you will end up with a very funny looking shirt. It will look similar to an upside-down triangle. If he needs more taken off the side seams, I would recommend buying a smaller size. If you are taking in the shirt 1.5″ on each side (and that’s on the double, mind you), you’re already taking in the shirt a full 6″. That’s a lot! If you try to take it in more than that, you’re going to end up with a shirt that he can’t really move in. Remember that he still needs a good amount of ease left in the shirt so that he can sit down and comfortably move around in without having the the buttons pull.

      If you were to take in more, not only would the shirt look funny, but you would run into problems with the sleeve. He likely wouldn’t be able to lift his arms very well, and would feel a tightness in his armpits/across his bicep when trying to drive or hug anyone. The more you take in the shirt, the higher up the armhole is. For this reason, taking off the sleeve and redoing the sleeve a cap and armscye wouldn’t really work. The armscye would be probably be too small and high to work on his body.

      I would pin or baste the shirt at max of 1.5″ and have him put it on and see how it fits. Remember that it shouldn’t be skin tight!

  • Guest

    Hi this is a great tutorial. I’ve seen some slim-fit shirts with darts on the lower back, I think that would be a great subject for a part 3 of this tutorial.

    • http://reallyhandmade.com/ Amy Alan

      Thanks! I’ll take note on your part 3 suggestion. ;)