Friday, October 21, 2011

Waist Not, Want Not.

(Part 4 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 37
This week, we are continuing our journey into the badlands of bad fits. In your quest for adult attire, you will inevitably come across a very nice article that doesn't quite fit; but you will be tempted to wear it anyway, and make do with "close enough." This nearly always doesn't work, for the maxim will come into play that fit trumps quality: a lesser-quality item that fits you will nearly always look better than a high-quality item that doesn't fit. Well, there's no excuse for that now; for I am here as your safari guide, and the secrets of simple alterations are being laid bare before you, week by week.

As is our wont, we're moving from quick-and-easy fixes to tackling ever more complicated projects. Today, we'll continue our look at trousers. Last week was a quick waistband nip to take in an extra two inches. This time, we'll conquer a grossly outsized pair, and look at the situation from a different angle -- literally.

Oh, my! These are laughably large. They won't even begin to stay up on their own, and no amount of belting or bracing will help. Most people wouldn't even think of buying something so outsized...but I liked these trousers. They have double reverse pleats, the wool is butter-soft and warm, and I like the pattern. They're made well, are already fitted with brace buttons, and have a watch pocket. A thrift-store bargain for a could I not buy them? All that remains is to take 'em hard can it be? Let's find out.

We have over four inches of girth with which to do away. It seems like an overwhelming amount of fabric to make disappear -- but it can be done without too much trouble. It's too much to put into the pleat-deepening technique of last week, though. And besides, that watch pocket's in the way; and there's no way I'm getting rid of that.

Another reason to shun the front-pleat method: most of the extra stuff here is in the seat. The outseam already runs nearly vertically up the leg, the last thing we want to do is throw it further forward. The fronts aren't overly wide, considering the waist size: these trousers have been made larger by adding extra in the back half, so we'll simply un-make it larger.

There's plenty of room to do this, looking at the distance between the rear pockets. There is easily an extra four-plus inches here that can be taken out; the pockets are almost 'round the sides! Simply taking in the rear seam looks like a good idea.

This, of course, is by design. The more expensive ready-to-wear trousers are often made with extra "lay-ins" up the back seam for just this sort of alteration. The (non-bespoke or made-to-measure) tailoring shops can make all their trousers to the same pattern this way, and simply vary the amount of room in the seat.  It makes it easier to fit a pair to the prospective purchaser, and to continue to fit him through the years. The give-away is the split waistband: you can see the seam at the rear.

The tell-tale sign of a split-waist trouser from the outside is the rear belt loop. Split-waist trousers have one belt loop in the very back to hide the back seam; trousers with a one-piece waistband usually have two loops in the back.

The first thing to do, obviously, is get this loop out of the way if we're to make any headway here. You'll notice the back loop is different from its brother loops: its bottom edge isn't tucked up into the waist. Removing it is then a simple matter of cutting the stitching, and it'll lift right off. Inside the waistband, you've probably noticed this particular pair has an interior hook-loop, another mark of a higher-end pair of trou. It's just tack-stitched on, so remove it and keep it (and the belt loop) in a safe place.

The bottom edge of the inner band is probably tack-stitched, or loosely hand basted in place. Cut those stitches out to the middle of the back pockets; that's enough to give us room to work.

Flip the inner band up. With split-waist styles, you'll notice there is extra waistband inlay tucked under; usually enough to give a couple extra inches as the owner's corpulence expands.

Unfold the waistband inlay, and flip one side over to reveal the straight line of stitching that holds the two halves of the inner band together.

Cut that seam to separate the inner waistband halves. Start as shown, and work down to the top of the outer waist.

When you get to the outer waist, fold the halves open and slice down to release the two halves by cutting the seam. Work carefully! You don't want to cut the fabric. Don't cut all the way down into the back seam yet; we're just separating the waistband for now. You'll see why in a bit.

'Wait!' I can hear you say, 'My pants don't have a waist like that!' Well, worry not; if your particular pair of trousers doesn't have a split waist, the above steps are much simplified for you: just get a sharp pair of scissors and cut the waistband at the back. That's right: just snip it right in two, and move on from there; you can treat it like a split-waist from then on, because, well, you've just made one!

Before we go further, let's stop for a breather and get an idea of what we're aiming for. This diagram is what you'd see if you looked at the right side of your pair of trousers, taken apart at the seams and laid flat. You can see the back seam on the far left side: follow this line down from the waistband. It runs in a straight line down to where it makes a radius turn under the crotch. The black line is where the back seam is now. The red line is where we're moving it to. The green line is the new crotch radius that we will have to made to match up to the new back seam. The blue X is the extent of the removal of the old back seam. Notice that the crotch point, at the common end of the blue and green lines,  remains the same.

Remember: when you take out extra fabric, it has to have somewhere to go. In a perfect world, we would take in the crotch point and upper thigh to the green dotted line as well. (The movement wouldn't be as extreme as it looks; I've exaggerated it a bit for clarity.) The problem -- moving that particular point is quite difficult! It joins all four parts of the trousers, and can play havoc with the balance of all the parts. The fortunate thing -- trousers that are cut larger don't put a lot of extra width in the legs, proportionately speaking, unless they are truly elephantine. So we can take in the back, ignore the crotch point and leave it as-is, and at worst you'd have a little more room down below, but not noticeably so.

Now let's turn back to the article in question, and find out just where that red line is supposed to go.

To find where our new back seam needs to be, turn your trousers inside-out and put 'em on that way.  I'm using my tailor's form, but it's easy to perform this operation right on your person while you wear them.

Pinch the waistband to fit, and pin it at the top to hold it in place.

Starting at the top of the waist, pinch in the excess fabric and pin it, all the way down to the turn of the crotch. Pin carefully, obviously, if you are wearing them at the time. 

To check yourself, try the trousers right-side out (again, carefully!) and make sure you're not too tight in. The pins will make puckers and gaps, so don't expect it to look perfect -- this is just a rough check, after all.

Turn the trousers inside out, and put them on a work surface or ironing board so that you're looking at the inside of the back seam with the crotch radius at your left, and the inner waistband turned outwards.

Sweep a new line with your tailor's chalk from the crotch point up to the first pin. This is the new crotch radius, the green line in our diagram.

Your pins will not be in a straight line, most likely, since you were wearing your pants when you pinned them. That's okay. Using a straightedge, find the straight line between the uppermost pin at the top of the waist and the lowermost pin. It should be nearly parallel to the existing back seam. Chalk in this line, the red one in our diagram.

Now take your pins out, and re-pin just outside the chalk line. With pins on one side of the line and the original seam on the other, your chalk line is registered and aligned across both pieces of fabric, ready to sew -- and now you know why you haven't taken out the back seam yet! If both sides were loose, matching them again evenly would be tricky.

Now you're ready to sew, and yes, a machine is quickest and easiest for this. Run a machine stitch (or alternatively, hand sew a running backstitch) along that chalk line, starting over top the crotch point and working upwards to the waistband. Use a medium-length stitch, say, 8-10 to the inch. Go right up to the top of the outer waistband -- but don't continue up to the inner band just yet!

Now that you have a new seam, get rid of the old one. Start an inch or so inside the crotch radius, after the divergence of the seams, as shown here. (Many trousers use a multiple chain stitch on the rear seam: if you are lucky you can cut the threads at the red X and "unzip" the entire seam from bottom to top in one pull. Originally it was sewn that way to be easy for tailors to alter, now it's easy for you!)

Lay the trousers out and flatten the new, now considerably wider, inlay. Press the seam flat.

Fold the inner band over, matching the middle seams, and press it flat as well.

Unfold the well-pressed inner band again, and now sewing the inner band is easy as matching the halves together at the crease you just made, and sewing right along the crease line!

The inner and outer bands should now line up perfectly. If they don't, now's the time to pull the seam and try again: it's a small step that makes a professionally finished difference. Tuck the tails of the lay-in up inside the band, hold them up in place with a small tack stitch, and iron it all flat again.

We're in the home stretch now! Take your belt loop and stitch it on the same way it came off; usually bar-stitched underneath at the lower end, at topstitched at the upper end. Since I had that inside hook loop, I'll go ahead and tack that on too. Just those little finishing touches.

Tack the bottom edge of the inner band in place again. In this case, little catch-stitches every couple of inches into the pocket lining, and a baste-stitch across the lay-in itself.

If you didn't see it for yourself you wouldn't believe it, but this is the same pair we had started with! To the uninitiated, a tremendous and miraculous feat, it now fits snug and trim, with no trace of the ballooning waist we started with; but you, well, you know the secret now, don't you?

The rear view does show some signs of the slight extra width that still remains in the rear thigh, since you know to look for it -- we did not take in the crotch point; but that is a small and easily overlooked problem. Your goal, that I will help you reach by way of this series, is to take large, glaring, egregious errors in fit, and make them into small, unnoticeable, tiny errors, with the least amount of work possible. You are not a tailor, so you can judge your work by the degree of improvement, rather than the degree of absolute perfection. "Is it better than it was?" is the question, and we can answer an unequivocal yes. If you chase the demons of detail to the nth degree, down that path leads madness -- you will reach a point where it becomes obvious that the only way to achieve perfect fit is with bespoke tailoring, and few can afford that. It is much more satisfying to take what you have, and by some greater or lesser degree, simply make it better than it was.

The benefits of split-waist trousers are, not only are you following along with the built-in, designed method of taking the waist in, (which is cool,) but the process works both ways: it's just as easy to let the waist out. In fact, it's the only way to let the waist out, for you need the lay-ins to give you the extra length. A one-piece waist is 'set,' and while taking in is a piece of cake, nothing can be done in the other direction.

Click here to go to Part Five of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to the previous essay chronologically, Part Three of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

Click here to go back to Part One of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

Click here to go back to the beginning.


  1. It's a very nice transformation and I have done it this way to ladies' trousers.
    However (if I may) for men's trousers I find it simpler to take a straight line just from where the crotch curves out into the seat seam. The seam between there and the top back of the waistband is a straight line - as shown in the draft in your article. This is important because any curving here would either make it too tight or way too loose.

    The basic measurement would be the amount that needs to come out of the waistband, and the ruler between that point and the point just before the curve of the crotch will move the entire seat and waist to the desired position. It also greatly reduces the slight 'v' shape that would appear in the seam of the waistband. Varying the point above the crotch curve: shortening the line will eliminate any potential tightness and lengthening it takes in any excess in the lower seat seam.
    On the machine manually stitching a double line of stitching recreates the strong seam. Obviously hand stitching it is different.

    I hope you'll appreciate that I'm not trying to 'correct' your method, just offering my own from experience.

  2. Not at all, Roger; there are many ways to skin a cat -- I'd never say I have a monopoly on the "proper" method!

    The method you mentioned,(just take a straight line from the crotch turn to the top of the waist,) is a good one. In my experience, it works best when you're taking in the waist, say, three inches or less. If the goal is fine-tuning a pair that "almost fits," it's definitely a winner.

    Monster trou like this example, though, are cut SO large in the seat, they can tend to get baggy down under when the waist is taken in. When you use that straight line method on a really big pair, without also moving the crotch line a bit, it can get dicey. Pinning the seat directly on oneself is a bit easier for the novice to get the seatline right, and also ensures the fit through the bum is acceptable.

    Thanks for the comment!