Last updated November 2023
A few generations back, every Tom, Dick, and Ethel had their clothing made by tailors and dressmakers. Because large-scale garment manufacturing didn’t begin until the 1950s, there weren’t many off-the-rack options available. Although the advent of ready-made clothes (and fast fashion) killed off much of the demand for the finer arts of sewing, stitching, fitting, and tailoring, a good tailor or skilled seamstress can still help you look good and save money by altering clothes that don’t fit, repairing torn or worn attire, or going old-school and making you a new frock or suit. They can also whip you up new throw pillows or make custom curtains.
Before hiring a wardrobe MVP, ask to see 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 test them out on a simple project; say, hemming a pair of pants or repairing a ripped sleeve. While you’re being fitted—or when you pick up your stuff later—look for neat stitches, even seams, and—most of all—a finished product that fits you perfectly.
We’ve simplified the checking-out process by surveying area consumers for feedback on tailors they’ve used. Our Ratings Tables list businesses for which we received at least 10 ratings. Survey respondents rated companies they used as “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” for questions such as “doing work properly,” “promptness,” and “overall quality.” We primarily surveyed Consumers’ Checkbook subscribers, but also invited other randomly selected consumers to provide ratings. Click here for a further description of our customer survey and other research methods.
In general, the shops on our Ratings Tables received rather high ratings compared to most other types of companies we evaluate.
Keep 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. Our price comparison scores 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.
Many department stores and chain retailers offer tailoring services, and it can save you money to avail yourself of them. 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 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 be more flattering 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 ’80s shoulder pads can be hard to trim down! But a piece that’s in good shape but a little off could likely benefit from the skills of a tailor or professional sewer. 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 a shop that specializes in these services. A dedicated tailor shop will likely be better-versed in the finer points of lapels and pinch pleats. Most sewers 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 chew 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, be sure to bring the shoes you plan to wear with them (particularly important for pants or long skirts or dresses). Women should be fitted wearing any undergarments or shapewear they intend to use under a given top or frock—what you wear beneath a tight-fitting dress or blouse can make a major difference in how alterations are performed.