A Guide to Suit Alterations

When shopping for a suit, it's highly unlikely you'll find one off the rack that fits you perfectly.

You should know upfront that alterations are inevitable. Generally, you will only need a little snip here, a little tuck there. But there are times when more work is needed.

To understand the ins-and-outs of suit alterations I met with Simon Martelo, owner of Martelo Bespoke in Bogotá, Colombia. Simon opened his shop six years ago to cater to a clientele who appreciate his knowledge, obsessive attention to detail and welcoming personality.

Manage Expectations

First off, “You have to manage your expectations, this is not bespoke (suit making),” Simon stressed. “Be honest about how difficult it is to tailor to your body.”

There is one body type which poses particular challenges, and is actually the most difficult to tailor to. Can you guess what it is?... I'll let you know the answer a little later.

But, you don't need to worry if you have a bit of a tummy (it's not that). 

Moving Parts

To understand what we’re dealing with I asked Simon to give me a “tour” of a men’s suit. Here's the map:

the-parts-of-a-suit

Break it Down

The first thing you need to do, according to Simon, is, “Evaluate to make sure you don't need to do too much. If you do, consider getting a made-to-measure suit.” While a perfect fit is not always guaranteed, fewer adjustments will be needed.

Using the above diagram as a guide, let's break the suit down to better understand what can and cannot be altered:

“Most people look in the mirror and check the waistline first. That's the easiest to fix; don't look for that,” Simon advised.

Jacket

A. Collar

suit-jacket-alterations

“Your jacket collar should hug your shirt collar,” Simon pointed out, “there should be no collar gap.”

Make sure the chest line of the lapel runs smoothly down the chest and doesn’t peak (when the lapels stick out from the chest). The rest will be easier to fix. Simon pointed out that, “if you get something with a collar gap, or it doesn't fit along the chest, it is going to be much more difficult to fix.”

B. Peaking

suit-jacket-alterations-peaking

It's nearly impossible to solve the peaking issue since more fabric is needed. Not all brands leave inlays (additional fabric inside the seams) in the jacket. However, the more expensive the brand, the more likely it is there will be inlay. Be sure to ask at the shop.

To err on the side of caution, get something bigger with more fabric so the jacket can be brought in, rather than let out. Just be sure the lapel line runs smoothly down the line of your chest. 

Bunching at the back of the collar can also be fixed, but it will cost you.

He also advised to leave the lapels alone, “The entire jacket will need to be taken apart.” Ouch!

When you’re having a jacket shortened, watch out for the pocket position proportion. In other words, how close the pockets are to the bottom of the jacket. This is critical since it will look off if, after the jacket is shortened, the pockets end up too close to the bottom.

C. Sleeves

suit-jacket-alterations-sleeves 

Look at the jacket sleeves and determine if the buttonholes are functional or decorative, and keep in mind that functional buttonholes can’t be moved. If the sleeve is altered, the buttons will end up either too close or too far from the cuff.

D. Shoulders

suit-jacket-alterations-shoulders

Shoulders can be adjusted, but it will also be costly, and require some surgery, “It's easier than adjusting the collar or chest,” Simon said. But, “don't mess with amount of shoulder pads the jacket originally had, unless your tailor is really good.”

If padding is added, the armscye (the seam where the armhole is sewn to the sleeve) will rise up. If padding is removed, the shoulder will drop.

If the shoulder is dropped, the fabric will bunch at the armscye and along the chest. The sleeves will then have to be removed, the line redrawn along the armscye and the sleeve reattached. Which may also affect the sleeve length. More surgery.

Other Jacket Alteration Tips:

Simon pointed-out that the skirt (the part below the waistline) doesn’t play a lot into alterations.

The jacket lining cannot be easily replaced since the jacket will actually have to be taken apart and put back together again from the inside out.

Finally, if your jacket is a fully canvassed construction - as is found on more expensive jackets - your tailor must know how to work with them. Be sure to ask at the store.

Trousers 

suit-trousers-alterations

Although trousers are generally easier to tailor than jackets, the rise (where the waistband sits) cannot be fixed. So, you must make sure you are comfortable with the look and feel when standing, walking and sitting.

  • High-rise: the waistband meets your belly button.

  • Mid-rise: the waistband sits between your hips and your belly button.

  • Low-rise: the waistband sits just above your crotch.

 

The waist circumference is also important. If the fit is too tight, make sure there is an inlay of fabric so they can be let out. Or, go for a size up so they can be taken in.

A simple and uninterrupted seam runs down the thigh, making adjustments along this line easier than other areas.

Avoid drooping fabric at the crotch,” warned Simon. This will be difficult to remedy without having to reconstruct the crotch and seat.

If you want to add belt loops to trousers with side tabs (adjustable buckles or buttons at the sides of the hips instead of belt loops), the tailor might be able to use some of the extra fabric from the hems (if there is any). However, side tabs cannot be added to a looped waistline.  

Fabric

Some suit fabrics are more difficult to tailor than others,” observed Simon. “If the fabric has any stretch, a special thread is needed to sew it.” Make sure there is no lycra in the blend.

Also, a special machine is required to fix knit fabrics. And, velvet (which might contain lycra) can only be ironed on a special board. 

Evaluate the Tailor

When it comes to tailors, Simon advised, “Some are willing to go deeper than others, and it depends on how good they are.”

You should check their experience, not only the number of years in tailoring, but more importantly, how experienced they are with tailoring suits. “Suits are a very specific category,” Simon stressed.

You don’t want to hand your garment over to a seamstress or tailor who may have altered only a jacket cuff or pants hem.

Ideally, according to Simon, it will be someone who has either made or specializes in suits. “You wouldn't take your car to a mechanic who doesn't work on that model,” he stated.

I thought of it more like a surgeon. You wouldn't go to a dentist for heart surgery, would you?


...Still wondering what the most difficult body type to tailor is? The answer is:

Very muscular physiques like bodybuilders and football players.

Simon explained, “The proportions are too different. The back to waist ratio, the chest to armhole ratio. Most “assumptions” and formulas we use as cutters go out the window and we basically need to improvise and probably do many fittings.”

In Conclusion

Here are some key things to remember:

  • Manage your expectations. 

  • If your jacket is fully canvassed, only a highly-experienced tailor should touch it.

  • Ideally, you should only need to nip the jacket at the waist and the sleeves.

  • Make sure the jacket length fits perfectly.

  • Make sure the chest line of the lapel runs smoothly down the chest and doesn’t peak.

  • Shoulders are tricky to adjust. If they are too loose, or too tight, think twice about getting the jacket.

  • Check the side pocket position proportion to the bottom of the jacket.

  • Check if the buttonholes at the sleeves are functional or decorative. If the the jacket sleeve is adjusted, functional buttonholes can not be moved. However, decorative buttons can be adjusted up or down.

 

Take this handy guide with you the next time you're suit shopping. And if nothing else, remember the bullet points above. It will save you a lot of time, money and frustration in the long run. 


A special thanks to Simon for his time and guidance.

  

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