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The heartbreaker? A cashmere overcoat you once loved has recently started doing you wrong thanks to its roguishly dissolving lining, drooping hem, and Clinton-administration-era shoulder pads. To mend it (and your feelings), you’ll need a good tailor or dressmaker. These wizards of thread can take in too-big frocks (those Zumba classes worked!), update outmoded jackets, and simply shorten new jeans that seem to have been made for LeBron James. Another skill up their well-tailored sleeves? These pros can often produce customized throw pillows, curtains, or other household items.

A good tailor or dressmaker can be your wardrobe’s MVP—but before drafting one, examine examples of completed work. Unfortunately, most shops keep few samples on hand, and a garment on a hanger or mannequin says nothing about how well it fits its owner. Requesting names of satisfied customers would be considered odd—and the shop owner will hardly refer you to dissatisfied ones.

One way to evaluate potential seam dream teams is to try them out on a simple project; say, hemming a pair of pants or repairing a ripped sleeve. While you’re being fitted—and when you pick up your stuff later—look for neat stitches, even seams, and—most of all—a finished product that fits you, as opposed to some scrawny Brazilian model or a sumo wrestler.

We’ve simplified the checking-out process by surveying area consumers (Consumers' Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected individuals) for their ratings of local tailors and dressmakers. Our Ratings Tables list businesses for which we received 10 or more survey responses. We asked customers to rate the shops “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on several aspects of service, including “doing service properly,” “promptness,” and “overall quality.” Our Ratings Tables show the percent of each shop’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” on these questions. In general, the shops received rather high ratings compared to other types of companies we evaluate. Click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.

sewing machineKeep in mind that while all the shops on our Ratings Tables perform alterations, many don’t actually make suits or dresses. And at some area shops, tailors are on-site only part-time, or stop by only to pick up and drop off garments.

To compare prices, our undercover shoppers called each of the outfits listed on our Ratings Tables to get prices for eight tailoring jobs. We used those prices to calculate each shop’s price comparison score, which show how a shop’s prices compare to the average prices at all surveyed shops for the same mix of jobs. Price comparison scores are calculated so that a score of $100 is about average; a score of $110 means prices are about 10 percent above average; a score of $90 about 10 percent below average.

It can be cost-effective to have clothes altered by the retailer that sold them. Many department and chain stores (for example, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Club Monaco, Lululemon, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and many others) offer tailoring services. Alterations are often free if you pay full price for the garment (particularly men’s suits, women’s pants that need hemming, or items that must be altered to fit petite women). If the item is on sale (and at many of these stores stuff is always on sale) or from a discount store, alteration fees usually apply. But we find most clothing retailers’ alterations fees are comparable to the average prices at standalone tailoring shops.

So how do you know if that bomber jacket or ball gown is worth tailoring or altering? In theory, anything you love that doesn’t fit well can be made to flatter you more with a few nips and tucks. But a garment that was trendy a decade or two ago might not be fixable in a way that’s worth the cash—those 1980s shoulder pads can be hard to trim down! But a piece that’s in good shape but a little off could likely benefit from a tailor or dressmaker’s skills. Know, too, that work like relining coats or altering garments with a lot of structure and tailoring (suit jackets, coats, etc.) can cost almost as much as new versions that either fit well or that the seller will tailor for cheap or free.

Some tailors and dressmakers also create suits, dresses, or even wedding gowns. If you’re looking for truly custom clothing, seek out a shop that specializes in these services, not just Alteration Al’s. A dedicated tailor shop will likely be better-versed in the finer points of lapels and pinch pleats. Most stitchcrafters can also whip up pillows, curtains, and other linens, but check to see if they’re experienced here, too.

Other services to ask about: re-dyeing garments (a boon for hopelessly stained stuff), leather alterations, reweaving of those annoying holes moths eat in sweaters, and hemming jeans with thread that matches the original stitching (don’t assume everyone does this; ask).

When you show up with garments you want fixed up, be sure to bring the shoes you plan to wear them with them (particularly important for pants or long skirts or dresses). Women should be fitted wearing any shapewear or lingerie that they intend to use under a given top or frock, too—those gut-sucking Spanx or that push-up bra can make a major difference in how alterations are performed.