Wedding Dress Alteration: It’s too Small

Altering a wedding dress isn’t something I do regularly, but I’ve muttled through on several wedding or formal dresses.  So in case you’re tackling this project, I’d like to share some “how to’s”.  Of note, these same directions are applicable to any formal dress or bridesmaid dress.

Recently when I altered EB’s wedding dress, I needed to find 3″ of extra circumference in for a well-fitted dress.  While that seemed like a lot of fabric gain, it was very manageable and yet it was nearly the maximum alteration I could get without adding additional fabric to the sides (not an option for this dress because of the pleating).  Yes, and then there were the leftover stitching marks – how were they eliminated?

Here are the steps I went through to get this lovely result.

Great dress

Altering the sides of a wedding or formal dress that’s too small:

1.  Start by taking a peak at the side seam and zipper allowances, which for most dresses is where you’ll find the extra fabric.  (This dress had 1″ side seam allowances and 3/4″ seams for the back zipper). 

2.  Establish the amount of additional fabric needed in order for the dress to fit. (3″ for this alteration).  Do this by measuring the gap at the zipper.  In other words, with the zipper open, use a seam gauge to measure the exact amount of space between the zipper teeth. This is the moment of truth and it’s basic math.  If the amount you need to alter (i.e. let out) is more than what is available in the seams, it’s likely not possible to do this alteration.

3.  Determine how much can be obtained from the side seams.  (I could steal 2-1/2″ from the side seams and 1/2″ from the zipper).

4.  Carefully remove the side seam stitches from the outer layer and the lining of the dress – all the way from top to bottom or for the area where the alteration is needed. This means “cut”, not “rip” the seam as ripping can increase the size of the thread hole.  Sometimes this can include the seams of the skirt.  If the seams aren’t finished or are susceptible to fraying, you may want to finish the edges before manipulating the fabric.

5.  Sew the dress and lining seam back together. ( I was lucky here – the dress and the lining had a thick fusible lining which made the seams very stable and there was no fraying).

Old seam-line and new seam close to the edge.

6. From the inside, press the seams open.  A sleeve board or clapper covered with silk organza works well for this step.

That’s it for sewing the side seams.  While it seems easy, manipulating such a large amount of fabric is what takes the most time.

Altering the zipper or (usually the back) of a wedding or formal dress that’s too small:

1. Remove the old zipper.

2.  Press out the old seamline.

3.  Re-sew the zipper – you may wish to use a new zipper just in case.  My preferred method is to hand-pick the zipper.  The look is beautiful and for my level of experience it’s easier than machine sewing a replacement zipper when you’re trying to handle yards of fabric.  (I was able to get an additional 1/2″  of the required alteration from the zipper.  Also, I modified the zipper from a lapped to a centered zipper placement).

Pressing the alterations – and removing those pesky stitch marks which are tiny holes in the fabric.

Admittedly, this is the most difficult part of the process.  Here are some tips to help you:

  • Use a good pressing cloth such as silk organza.
  • Use lots of steam.
  • Place a sleeve board or clapper under the seam while pressing.
  • While pressing, apply pressure from the edge of the iron directly on the old stitch-line.
  • If you aren’t getting the desired result and you think it will never look good, dab a small amount of diluted vinegar (1:1 with water) on the original seam or the stitch line.  Brush lightly with a new toothbrush to reduce the size of the stitch marks and then press the fabric, again using a pressing cloth.

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