How to take in & make a Shirt or Dress Smaller : 6 Solutions

Different ways to ALTER A DRESS or other clothing including shirts that is too big by adding darts, tucks or by taking it in.

Taking in a shirt or dress and altering it to a smaller size is an exhilarating job in my opinion – that means you are smaller than you thought you were when you bought it. But that does not make the work you have to do any less cumbersome. Here are some very commonplace solutions to a too-big shirt or dress or any other garment.

6 ways to make clothes smaller

1. Cut and shape the extra width

This is the most obvious solution. Take an already fitting shirt or dress or measure your body and add enough ease to this measurement and the seam allowance; cut the extra out.

mark the shirt to be made smaller

Sew the seam as it was done previously. Finish the edges. For seam stitching types ( 17 ways to sew the seam) refer the post here

When you try to take apart some seams (like in shirt side seams) you may notice an anomaly – they are not sewn the same way as normal. Yes, they are not the usual kind of straight stitched plain seams, but flat felled seams.

You can check out this post on flat fell seams to know more about this type and how to re-sew them after you have taken it apart. It is sewn wrong sides together and then the seam allowance is turned and stitched in the front – this way the back and front look very neat – you can sew this seam very easily on your garment after you practice on a test fabric. You will have to take apart the seam from the armpit to the hem. No short cut here.

flat felled seam on the side of a shirt


2. Darts

The next most obvious solution is sewing darts. In fact I love this option better than the cut and resewing option, because darts give a beautiful shape to your garments. Do this alteration if you do not have too much to adjust.

You can add one or more darts – darts are added symmetrically on both sides of the body. Darts can shape the garment to fit the body curves by controlling fullness or excess fabric. You can use darts for better fitting at the back or front waist, front underarm and under bust (starting from waistline). For skirts, front and back darts are used for a close-fitting look.

How to add the dart to an extra-wide garment

make shirt smaller with darts on the back

Try the garment on yourself or compare it with a fitting dress or shirt you already have. If you are trying the garment on your body ( or another if you are doing the alteration for someone else) put it on RIGHT SIDE OUT. This will make it easier for you to pin the darts to the size you want.

PInch the area to be made small ; pin in place

Mark symmetrical darts (depth and length on both sides of the body should be the same) on either side of the body. The dart size, length and shape will be dependent on the  body shape and type of garment.

Use safety pins to mark the correct dimension – the usual sewing pins will poke on the body.

For dresses with a separate gathered skirt, you will have to make a half dart after have let out the stitches separating the skirt and the bodice.

The endpoint of the dart should point towards the fullest part of the body like the bust apex or derriere or shoulder. But make sure that it is not ending on the highest point of the fullest part; it should end just short of this point. Otherwise, it can create an awkward point. A 1-inch distance from the bust point is usually maintained.

For best fitting, make two smaller darts than a bigger single one.

On readymade dresses with lining, especially well made ones, you will have to take out the lining before sewing the darts.

To make dress with lining smaller open the waistline seam of lining to make darts

You can use a seam ripper to open up the lining near the waist or near the zipper and then sew the darts to the outer fabric, make similar darts on the lining and then sew them all together back again. This is a cumbersome job but well worth it if done well. 

Darts for a shirt / single piece dresses

Shirts are usually shaped by adding a dart. Here a double waist dart that tapers to a point on both ends is used on either side of the body. This has a diamond shape with a wider central part and narrow tips on either side.

sew DARTs

The widest part should come against your waist.

Pin in place.

Mark how much the shirt needs to be made smaller

If using another garment as a benchmark see how much extra width yours has and then calculate the depth and length of your dart. Pin the darts and then if possible wear and see.

Sew the darts following the rules for dart sewing mentioned here. Start sewing the dart from the middle where the dart is widest and when you taper towards the end do not ever back stitch. You can leave the thread tails and tie them together at the point to secure the dart stitches from unraveling.

One of the most important points in sewing dart is to press it correctly. When you press the dart properly it disappears into the fabric. Vertical darts are generally pressed towards the side seam and Horizontal darts are pressed down.

If you are sewing a heavy fabric, cut the dart open along the fold of darts to within one inch of the point and press the seam allowance open.

3. Tucks

Whereas darts are tapering to a point at the ends, Tucks are vertically sewn making folds of the fabric. They serve the same way – containing the fullness of fabric. You can make Tucks all around the garment to reduce width and make it smaller.  Either make tucks to the outside or make it to the outside.

In the tucks facing inside the garment, the extra fabric is sewn like an inverted pleat- just the seams will be shown from the inside. 

You will need to secure the fold of the tucks at the hem with  hand sewing otherwise it will hang loose.

You can make beautiful pintucks or other decorative tucks to make your work look beautiful. You can make these tucks quite easily with a double needle or with your pintuck foot . Check out the post on the different ways to make pintucks and other tucks here

4. Add elastic

If it is a dress, you can make it smaller by adding an elastic waistband – measure your waist round on your dress waist on the inside. Minus 1 inch from this. ( or measure around your waist with the elastic snugly). Cut 1/4 inch wide elastic in this measure. 

summer dress pattern

Mark your waist on the dress accurately – for this measure from your neck to the narrowest portion of your torso. The elastic is o be sewn on this line across the dress

Stitch the elastic  in place – stretching the elastic as you go.This will gather the waistline of the dress as per your size and make it more fitting.

You can add a small casing outside this to prevent the elastic chaffing your skin – optional

You can use an elastic with buttonhole to tighten the clothes.

elastic with buttonholes

5. Use shirring stitches


Shirring involves making rows of gathering stitches on the fabric. Shirring stitches are made by using thin elastic thread on the bobbin of your sewing machine. Shirring stitches are very good in reducing the fullness of fabric .

It would look like the fabric has reduced a great deal maybe more than you wanted but don’t worry. The elastic thread stretches as you wear it.

The attractive folds created with shirring stitches are very decorative as well. The shirring creates the look of a smocked garment – it is more suitable for feminine garments. Learn more about shirring here.

6. Shrink to fit

There are some fabric that will shrink after the first wash. If your oversize garment is made of this type of fabric you can try this simple solution and count your luck. The fabrics that will shrink prominently enough to make your garment smaller are cotton, linen, rayon, cashmere. Check out this post on How to shrink clothes for more details on this.

When you get gifted clothes that are a size bigger more than once, you have a problem. Either your communication is poor or the gifter thinks you are this big or is accounting for a future weight gain. Maybe you need to take care of these aspects after you have made your dress smaller. I am talking to myself, of course.

Related posts : How to fix a hole in jeans ; How to mend holes /tears in clothes ; Easy clothing alterations

Subscribe to get weekly notifications of posts in your email

Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.

5 thoughts on “How to take in & make a Shirt or Dress Smaller : 6 Solutions”

  1. A friend of mine wore a bodycon dress of mine. Its now very loose at the bottom its made of a stretchy material. Im not sure how to make itvregain its original shape.

  2. Thanks.I bought a very pretty summer dress that is stretchy.It hangs on me like a nighty and want it to be forming at the bust and upper rib cage area.Not sure where to put the darts and how many and how to pin it while I have it on.

    • Hi Patti
      If it is very loose you may have to cut it shorter on the side seams, restitch the side seams and then further tighten and shape it with darts. Very loose clothes maynot be contained with darts alone

Your opinion is important. Leave a comment