How to Alter a Men’s Shirt, Part 2

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If you read yesterday’s post on fitting and pinning, then you should be ready to sew!

Take a few notes on how much fabric has been pinned out on the side of the shirt. Notice how far down the sleeve you’ll be sewing also. You’ll need to mark both sides of the shirt with these alteration lines, on the inside of the side and sleeve seams, as soon as any topstitching is removed.

At this point, you may notice that the shirt has flat felled seams. Even if they are only serged, they will likely have two rows of topstitching that will have to be taken out on the sleeve so your new seam line can be united with the original one. Rob’s shirt was done on an industrial machine set up to make modified flat-felled seams. The seam was turned under, sewn, and topstitched all at once, without the assistance of glue or basting to keep the seam together. Whoever sewed it has had quite a bit of practice at their craft!

If your shirt doesn’t having topstitching, lucky you! If it does, you may find that the topstitching is actually chain stitched (like Rob’s), which means that removing it will be a breezeYou do not have to remove ALL of the topstitching! Keep it intact near the shirt cuff, and don’t worry about any of the stitching that will be cut off, unless it is going to interfere with your new seam allowance. Why waste time when you can attack it with Ginghers later?

Here are Rob’s original shirt seams. I took out most all of the topstitching because it was ridiculously fast and easy due to the chain stitching. Also, I think that might make me a nerd.

You may find that the shirt seam is actually kept together with a long strip of glue. Good luck with that. It’s a pain the ass to pick apart, but it’s got to be done for at least a few inches on the sleeve seam. That’s the part where you take a picture and let your significant other know what a saint you are for altering their shirt, and demand chocolate.

Once the topstitching is out of your way on the sleeve seam, you can fold and pin the shirt seam (right sides together) and mark the new seam line.  Make sure that you measure from the original seam line, so that it will be taken in evenly on the front and back of the shirt. Be sure to pin and line up the armscye seam so the armpit will have a clean seam line. I marked my line with white chalk, so it was hard to see in this photo. The green line I drew isn’t perfect, because the shirt sleeve wasn’t completely flat. In other words, I fail.

One key thing to remember is that armscye seam. When the sleeve and side seam match up, you want them to come together here at a 90 degree angle as best you can.

Measuring from the new sewing lines, remove 1″ extra of the hem on both sides of the bottom of the new side seam markings. This will help you to have room to sew your seam all the way to the raw edges of the hem.

Once all of your marking and pinning is done, I would recommend that you start sewing the shirt on the sleeve and ending at the hem. This way, if your seams don’t match up perfectly, you can easily fix them at the hem, whereas if you end on the sleeve, that could pose an issue.. When you reach the armscye seam, pivot the shirt with your needle down, and continue all the way to hem of the shirt. Cut off any excess fabric, but leave enough for you to put back the original seam finish. This is Rob’s new side seam after it has been sewn, trimmed, and pressed back into a flat felled seam:

By finishing the seams the same way that they were originally done, any topstitching left on the garment will match up, and the shirt will appear unaltered. Before you put back the topstitching, adjust your machine so your straight stitch matches up with the original topstitching stitch length. It is most always very short, so make sure your stitches are also tiny. Roll up the shirt so that you will start the topstitching way up on the sleeve. I promise you can make it work!

Only worry about the next 2″ that will go under your needle at a time, not the entire side seam.

Once both rows of the topstitching are done, resew the hem as it would have originally looked. No, it hasn’t been sewn yet in this picture:

Iron the shirt and then tell everyone how freaking awesome you are. The only sign that the shirt has been altered will be the tiny amount of overlapped stitching on the sleeve topstitching.

Even the underarm seam won’t be a tell-tale, because you lined it up so nicely.

Now go eat that chocolate!

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  • Rebecca P.

    Hi! Thank you so much for this tutorial, it was exactly what I was looking for. I have a question though – I am taking in a short sleeved shirt and can’t figure out how to have the arm taper end before the cuff without it looking kind of dumb because the angle is so severe. I’m wondering if it would be better off to take in the entire sleeve for a short sleeved shirt – have you ever done a short sleeved shirt and how did you handle taking in the sleeve for it? Thanks again!

    • Hi Rebecca! I’m glad the tutorial is helping! For a short sleeved shirt, yes, I would take in the whole sleeve and not taper it. If you try to taper it to the hem, then you’ll end up with a funny flared sleeve. Make sure you aren’t taking in too much though!

  • kathy

    hi, I just found your site and I love it! I have a question also. I am not an advanced sewer, and I have never tailored anything. My son has asked me to take in his dress shirts, but he only needs them taken in at the waist. He works out, so his shoulders and arms are large, so to get shirts that fit, they are way too boxy . Would I be able to tailor just at the side seams, but not down through the sleeves? thanks and I am going to check out your craftsy classes.

    • Hi, Kathy! I’m so glad you like my site- thank you!

      You say that your son only needs the shirts taken in at his waist. How do the shirts fit across his chest? Is it snug, or does he still have quite a bit of room across his chest and under in his armpits?

      If he has room, I would come in at the side seams, and once I hit the sleeve seam, I would quickly angle it down to take in nothing at all along the arm. You don’t have to sew all the way down the arm, but the quicker that you angle and hit the original seam, the more likely you are to give the sleeve a quite noticeable fit difference.

      If he has no room to have the shirt taken in across his chest, then take in the shirt the hem and thru the waist, tapering back to the original seam by the time you hit the sleeve seam intersection. Basically you’ll take triangles out of his side seams. But, don’t take in too much, or it will look very awkward! This is okay to do on a solid colored shirt, but if the shirt has stripes or any kind of lines on it, you will instantly see how it was taken in. Of course, it could make it look like he delicate little waist, too. 😉

      Have you considered sewing him custom shirts? Of course he’d have to pay you with dinners out and by cleaning your house for you! 😉

      • Taunya

        My husband has this same issue and I am considering sewing custom shirts rather than taking them in. I have made child size button downs from a pattern, but never a mans. The issue is he is a 48″ shoulder and a 34″ waist and I am not even sure what pattern to get. Any advice?

        • Hi, Taunya! I would have you take your measurements into your local sewing store, and see if someone there can help you pick out a pattern. Hopefully they would let you take the pattern pieces out of the envelope to measure them (specifically across the shoulders), but sometimes you have to buy the pattern before you can do that. The patterns do have measurements on the back of them for reference. You should be able to make a shirt that fits his shoulders, and then taper the pattern down to a smaller size at his waist. I would avoid the Vogue patterns, as their men’s sizing can be quite slim.

    • Jonathan Wells

      I realize this thread is over five years old, but I happened to read your comment, and had a suggestion. Something I’ve seen in shirts, even new from the store, are two parallel darts running down the back. It’s a way to give more shape to the waist. The darts will be long, often ten or more inches, and widest at the middle. You’re basically pinching in the shirt in two places on either side of the back, and then sewing in a long dart that nips it in nicely. Your dart can be up to an inch wide or so at it’s widest, meaning you can take two inches off the waist measurement. It’s much easier than opening up the side seams, especially if they are felled, and actually has kind of a classy look to it. It’s a technique used in Italian shirts, I’ve noticed.

      • Yes, it is a common dart on an extremely tailored shirt. The problem with adding darts like this to a RTW shirt has to do with how the rest of the pattern and fit of the shirt is affected by darts such as these. If you were to add back darts to an already too-big shirt, the shoulders and chest will not be fitted, and it looks awfully funny! These darts are for very fit men with a narrow torso and large shoulders. The sleeve heads and shoulders are tailored to fit close to the body, and the shirt is cut in such a way to sit close through the side seams. With an unfitted RTW shirt though, adding darts to the back means that the side seams will pull to the back, the button band will pull open when seated, and the shoulders and sleeves will look very puffy compared to the torso.

        • Jonathan Wells

          I can see how darts wouldn’t work on a loose-fitting RTW shirt. From Kathy’s comment, I was thinking for someone with a developed chest and shoulders who already had a fitted shirt that was just too big in the waist, only that darts might be the solution. In an extreme case, you could do both, I guess. Take in the side seams, and add waist darts.

  • Reanna Alder

    What a great post! Seriously. I have made a couple of attempts and your confidence is reassuring. What would be really awesome is a detail shot of how you make the old and new flat felled seams fit together, near the cuff. That is the part I had trouble with.

    • Thank you! The next time I alter one of my husband’s shirts, I’ll do my best to remember to take a photo of that and update this tutorial for you.

  • Bazzlin

    First, thank you for such a great tutorial! I sew for a living but i’ve never altered anything before so I’m a little worried about screwing up. I’m wondering if, to make things a little easier, can I have him put the shirt on inside out and pin it that way? I worry about my measuring being off during the transition. (I’ve always been more right brained than left. Numbers are not my friend) Also, instead of picking apart seams… Can I just cut them off after I draw my stitch lines? I have a considerable amount to trim back and they are short sleeved.

    Also, this part confuses me:

    “Measuring from the new sewing lines, remove 1″ extra of the hem on both sides of the bottom of the new side seam markings. This will help you to have room to sew your seam all the way to the raw edges of the hem.”

    I should trim the hem an inch up at the bottom at the new sew lines? That doesn’t make sense to me though. Wouldn’t I just want to see straight down to the bottom to keep the hem line even? I don’t know. I’m confused.

    • Hi there! I’m glad you are finding this tutorial useful!

      No, I would not have him put on the shirt inside-out. He will need to button the shirt up, and having him put it on this way will make that difficult. Also, unless you’re a very precise pinner, you will need to do math anyways to make sure your pin marks are evenly spaced on either side of the seam line.

      I do not recommend that you “just cut off” your seams. You will need to pick them apart to make sure that you understand exactly how to shirt was put together and sewn, so that you can replicate the seam. For instance, you wouldn’t want to accidentally cut off too much seam allowance if your shirt had a flat felled seam. This is especially important on the sleeve, where your new seam and the old seam will run together. It needs to be a smooth transition. If the shirt side seam is simply serged, then it’s not as big of a deal.

      What I mean by the hem comment is that you will remove the stitching on the hem. You need to be able to unfold the hem so that you can sew your new side seam all the way the bottom of the raw edge of the shirt. Removing stitching along the hemline will allow you to easily reach the raw edge. You are not trimming the hem. You are simply removing the hem stitching within 1″ of either side of where your new side seam seamline will be, so that you can easily unfold the hem and reach the edge of the shirt, bringing your stitching line all the way down to the bottom.

      • Bazzlin

        Thanks so much! I understand the hem comment now. Sorry for my naivety. His side seams on the shirt are just serged. Perhaps I should have mentioned that from the beginning. Though, his sleeve hem is a little different. I may need to pick apart anyway. Thanks again!

        • Oh good! I’m glad it made sense. Yes, it helps out a lot that his side seams are simply serged. Good luck!

  • Thanks for this. I am about to take in my sister’s shirt. Although it is a women’s shirt with lots of curvy elements she’s going to have to do with my work unless she’s willing to fork out cash for a proper seamstress. I will try my best to give it a go with her work shirt. Love your post. It was funny as well as very helpful with the posting of the pics. I am sooo a picture learner. I can’t read too much text, else my mind starts going somewhere else.

    • You’re welcome, Kim! For your sister’s shirt, you can add in darts to the front and back waist as well as take in the side seams to give it some more shaping. You wouldn’t want to give the shirt very deep darts, but placing them at the waist will help a lot with shaping the shirt to her curves, instead of taking it all in at the side seams. I’m glad the photos help! I’ve found that most creative brains need to have lots of photos or illustrations to completely understand different sewing methods. Good luck!

  • Kellean

    Hi, Great instructions that are easy to follow. I am learning to make my husband sport shirts and find that the length at the top of the shoulder from the neck to the sleeve is too long. How do I shorten this are to fit his shoulders and still have the right amount of fabric in the top of the sleeve to set the sleeve?

    • I’m sorry, Kellean, but this question is one that I can’t really explain thru a blog comment, as there are many different fit variables to consider. Many people would assume that you could shorten the shoulder seam line and then add whatever measurement needs to be subtracted from the shoulder seam to the top of the sleeve cap, but that can often lead to drag lines in the sleeve. You may want to look at patternmaking books and focus on ensuring that the armhole is at the correct height and depth before adjusting the sleeve cap. I wish I could be of more help, but that’s a bit difficult when I can’t actually see how to shirt and sleeve fit him. Best of luck!

  • Jules Moss

    Hi there, thank you for this article, very well explained, I am glad to see I am doing it right! I have a question. when calculating amounts to take in, say 1″ on the double, are you reducing the amount you take in to allow for the fact that some fabric will be taken up creating a new flat felled seam? i think its about half inch needed to cover raw edge depending on the size of the FF seam? Many thanks.

    • I’m glad my posts helped, Jules!

      When I’m talking about taking in the shirt, I’m referring to the new seam line that you’ll make. The new seam line will be measured from the old seam line over to the new one.

      Let’s say that the shirt is laid out so that you can properly mark the new seam line 1″in from the old one. After you sew on the new seam line, you don’t cut off all of the old fabric and call it good. No, you measure over from the new seam line TOWARDS the old seam line, and give yourself the amount of seam allowance that you need to create the flat felled finish. Does that make sense?

      • Jules Moss

        Hi Amy thank you so much for your reply. I am trying hard to follow but am stuck! Ok so I have pinned the shirt on my fella, as he normally wears it, right sides out and the pins are where i need the new seam to be. I use the pin guide to sew my new seam on the outside of the shirt cos that’s how FF seams are done right? then to finihs the seam i would cut off all the excess fabric bar one eighth of an inch seam allowance and turn the shirt inside out and encase the raw edge with the shirt sides to create me neat FF finished seam using a one quarter inch seam. So i will have taken up an extra half inch of fabric doing this when i turn it inside out. that’s how i do flat felled or French seams anyway. Are you doing this a different way? Maybe that’s why we are at crossed purposes!! Oh i love talking sewing, makes me feel part of a very exclusive club! :-DDD

        • Ahhh- so here’s what’s happening. You’re making French seams on your shirt, where as my shirt had flat felled seams. Sewing on the outside of the shirt, then flipping to the inside and folding the seam on that stitching line and sewing within a 1/4″ of the first seam line is a French seam. With a French seam, you need to sew the FIRST line of stitching 1/4″ away from your intended finished seam line. This way, you don’t take in the shirt more than you intended to.

          Usually flat felled seams are done on the inside of the shirt, but if you really wanted to, I suppose you could make them on the outside of the shirt.

          • Hieronymous

            I also would like to clarify: Are you sewing the new seam with right sides together, so that the seam allowance to be flat felled is on the inside? But then are you topstitching the seam allowance for the flat fell with the right side up? If I am interpreting your instructions and photos correctly, this would be similar to how the RTW shirts that I want to work on are done. Also this helps keep the visiible topstitching (sometimes two rows parallel to the seam even if it is not always parallel to the edge of the folded seam allowance inside. Thank you for having the clearest and most thorough explanation on the internet of this technique, which is not all that straightforward.

  • joyce

    Thanks for you. Am about to cut a mans shirt should i use the exact meaurement i took or i need to add some inches for a perfect fit after sewing

    • Hi, Joyce! Can you clarify your question for me? Are you sewing a shirt from scratch, and not altering one? If you are sewing one from scratch, and using a commercial pattern you purchased, you will compare the measurements you took to the pattern envelope. Find the size that most closely matches the measurements you took, and sew that size. The pattern will have ease built in to it (ease is extra room for movement) so you shouldn’t have to add to the pattern for a good fit.

  • pyrokeet

    Hi Amy,
    thanks a lot for putting this guide together. I’m just starting out trying to learn tailoring at home, so the pictures are useful! But I’m pretty confused still. Did you take the old seam out completely at any point so you just had loose fabric flapping about. I can’t see any photos of that. Does this guide assume that one knows how to do flat fell seams? and what happens at the junction of the side and the sleeve? Apologies, I know this is just a free guide from a helpful person, but I’m not sure how much I’m meant to be able to follow here without knowing anything at all, and how much relies on assumed knowledge 😉

    • Hi there!

      No, I did not take the old seam out until I the new seam was sewn. This way the fabric pieces are held together in the way it was originally intended, and you have less of a chance of off-setting the fabric pieces unfavorably. Plus, you will be measuring from the original seam line, so leaving it intact makes that easier.

      Yes, you will need to know how to do a flat-felled seam, but only if the shirt you are altering uses that kind of seam finish. It all depends on the shirt you’re working with.

      I did address your question about the junction of the side/sleeve seams, so read over the post again for clarification on that.

      The best thing you can do is take a shirt you don’t care about (pick up a cheap one at a thrift store) and try altering it. You will learn best by just “doing”. Reading only gets you so far with sewing. I find that most people who sew have to get their hands dirty to finally figure out how it all works.

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  • Ole Kristian Møller-Hansen

    Hello, Amy. Ole Kristian here.
    Thank you for your article, however; in my case, I’m dealing with a shirt that has not yet been made. I do not have a pattern purchased, BUT; I have been taking a shirt apart and I am creating patterns from it. However, this shirt is ill-fitting:

    The armholes are TOO big!

    This is a big trouble for me and I want to sew a shirt where the armholes are
    nice and snug, however; I do not want to change the sleeve width.
    The sleeve width is allready nice enough as it is.
    So I wonder if you know how I can possibly alter
    the armhole without altering the sleeve width?

    The difference between the sleeve width and the cuff size was dealt with
    by using pleats, however I do not know if this is the right approach in the armhole.

    Best regards
    Ole Kristian Møller-Hansen