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Travel Wardrobe Not Making the Cut? How to Use Alterations to Make Clothes Travel-Friendly

travel clothing alterations guide

It’s hard to find clothes that fit the way I want! When I look for travel clothes, it’s even harder. 

Never finding clothes that fit well inspired me to learn to sew, but given the big time (and potential cost) commitment, I sometimes just need to buy off the rack. Fortunately, alterations shops can take RTW (ready-to-wear, AKA store-bought) clothes and change them to better fit me and my travel needs. 

Are travel clothing alterations of interest to you? Keep reading for alteration ideas, so that you, too, can make your travel clothes work for you.

Benefits of Alterations for Travelers

Altering travel clothing (and gear) can help you enjoy your trip more. 

  • If you pack a minimal wardrobe, you want your clothing to fit you well so you feel great in all the items you bring. (Rewearing can make you hate something a bit more than normal, and if it starts off being a poor-fitting item, you will loathe it after a couple of weeks of travel.) 
  • Poorly fitting clothing or gear can also cause chafing or blisters. An alteration might prevent that!
  • You might be able to save money on travel clothing by buying discounted gear and getting some alterations. Pants that are a tad too short can be hemmed to be capri length. A decorative band can be added to the bottom of some sleeves and pants legs to lengthen them.
  • You may be able to fix up old clothing and gear to make it usable again. Professionally applied patches are repairs and customizations that showcase your personality. Making long sleeves into short sleeves can remove a worn-out elbow and give the shirt a second life. Ask your sewist for ideas on freshening up an old garment!
  • You may be able to customize clothing so that it is more travel friendly. Some ideas include putting in deeper pockets for security or adding snaps and tabs to roll and secure pants as capri pants.

Travel Gear and Clothing Alterations Options

What items can be altered?

Most travel clothing can be altered. 

At the same time, just because an item can be altered, that doesn’t mean that it is affordable to do so. Also, a particular garment may not be suitable for a specific alteration. 

Some alterations may be technically possible, but if they require special equipment that the shop doesn’t have, you won’t be able to have the alteration done at that shop.

If your travel clothing came with a warranty, be aware that having an unauthorized alterations shop work on it may void the warranty.

What fabrics can be altered?

Most quick-dry and other travel-friendly fabrics can be altered, even stretchy fabrics like t-shirt material.

Specialty fabrics like leather or luggage canvas may require a special machine. The alterations shop will tell you if they can handle your project.

For fabrics that have special finishes, like water resistance, consult with your tailor. The alterations process may remove the finish or limit its effectiveness at the alteration site.

Can shoes be altered?

There are a few alterations possible for shoes. A cobbler can help you extend the life of your favorite travel shoes. 

The way the shoe was made can impact whether or not the shoe can be altered. A cobbler (shoe repair person) can advise you. Some even offer virtual consultations.

If your shoes come with warranties, be aware that having a cobbler work on them may void that warranty.

Some ways that travel shoes can be altered:

  • If the outer soles are worn out, they can usually be replaced. This means you can keep your favorite travel shoes without the expense of a new pair.
  • If the outer sole is smooth and you want a rubber sole, this can often be done. You may be able to get only the heel or forefoot part of the sole replaced. For example, you might be able to put Vibram soles on Tieks ballet flats. Of course, this would make them heavier and bulkier. Always consult with the cobbler before buying shoes with the intent to alter them.
  • If sandal straps are too long, a new hole can be put in so that you can buckle them tighter. Straps can also often be shortened.
  • Zippers on boots may also be replaced.

Cobblers can be hard to find. You can sometimes find them at alterations shops. There are also some cobbler shops in big cities that let you ship your shoes to them, but I haven’t tried this.

Can luggage be altered?

Maybe. A broken webbing or leather strap on your favorite travel bag can probably be repaired, but other alterations are more doubtful or simply very expensive. 

They also may not be as sturdy as factory-made stitching and could affect any weatherproofing. 

It still doesn’t hurt to ask your alterations shop about your idea, but be prepared to be told it isn’t possible and definitely be prepared for any custom alterations to cost as much as a new bag.

Alternatively, there are alterations shops that specialize in repairing luggage. Some, like TravelPro Repair Centers, are authorized for specific brands while others will work on any luggage brand. Search “luggage repair shop” to see what’s available near you.

Do keep in mind that repairs made by an unauthorized shop may void any warranties. 

Can the alterations shop help me decide what to do?

I’ve read many articles that say an alterations shop can advise the client. In my experience, the tailor does not make suggestions. They may say that something is not possible, but beyond that, they ask you what you want and do whatever you say. 

It could be that I don’t know how to ask the right questions, but I have never had an alterations shop offer suggestions when I came with a problem and didn’t know the solution.

What this means for travel clothing or luggage alterations is that you will need to describe what you want. If you can show a photo of something similar, that’s even better.

Common Clothing Alterations

Shortening pants at the hem (hemming)

This is likely the most common alteration. In general, up to two inches can be removed from the bottom of pants legs. 

If pants are more than two inches too long or there are zippers, other hardware, or decorations preventing a traditional shortening, the tailor may suggest alternatives. 

Easy, Uncommon Alteration Idea

An alterations shop might not suggest this. Bring them this photo and written description and they might agree to do it for you.

One idea is to put horizontal folds in the leg. The advantage to this is that the folds, and the shortening, can be put where it is most needed. That is, if the pants fit perfectly from hip to knee, but are too long from knee to heel, the pants can be pleated across the calf to shorten them. This looks best with casual travel clothes, like hiking pants.

Pants leg shortened with horizontal pleats below the knee
These hiking pants have horizontal pleats pinned below the knee to shorten the pants’ length from knee to hem by 4 inches (10.16 cm).

Shortening sleeves

Short and long sleeves of shirts and jackets can be shortened. It will be more expensive and take longer if they have a cuff. Thick fabrics on coats may be more difficult or not worth the cost to shorten.

Woven (like a button-up) and knit (like a t-shirt) sleeves can be shortened.

For me, most sleeves end at the tip of my fingers. I like to shorten them to end at my wrist crease. I may leave some outerwear sleeves longer, but I prefer my shirt sleeves to stay dry when washing my hands.

View of inside a jean jacket sleeve that has been shortened at the cuff
The sleeve of this jean jacket was shortened at the cuff. This is an inside view to highlight how the sleeve placket (slit) was shortened by this alteration.

Easy, Uncommon Alteration Idea

Like with pant legs, some sleeves may be able to be shortened with horizontal pleats. 

Taking in side seams

A shirt can be made more narrow by taking in the side seams.

A woven and knit shirt can be taken in if it already has side seams. 

If the shirt does not have side seams, it usually can still be taken in by adding side seams. Adding seams will change the look of the shirt and may increase the cost of the alteration.

Depending on how much the shirt needs to be taken in or where the excess fabric is, the tailor may suggest adding darts. Adding darts may increase the cost of the alteration, but it may also make the garment fit you best.

Easy, Uncommon Alteration Idea

It usually is possible to take in the side seams of trousers to make them more narrow. If you want to change the leg shape, for example from bell bottoms to straight legs, it may cost more.

Removing inseam pants pockets

Inseam pocket on soft knit pants
Inseam pockets are most often found on pajama and athletic pants, women’s trousers, and skirts.

Inseam pockets can usually be removed and the side seam closed. 

Some people like to remove the pockets on their pants because they don’t like the look when the pockets gape (the opening doesn’t lie flat).

Closing pocket openings

Set-in, or slash, pocket in hiking trousers
Set-in, or slash, pockets usually have a rounded or diagonal opening. Set-in pockets are most often found on jeans, trousers, hiking and work pants, and some skirts.

Other types of pockets, like most front pockets on jeans, may be able to be stitched closed, but they are less likely to be able to be removed.

Alternatively, for extra pocket security while traveling, the tailor may be able to add a buttonhole and button to close the pocket. This is not a normal alteration.

Removing or adding patch pockets

Zippered patch pocket on hiking pants
This version of a patch pocket on hiking pants is closed with a zipper.

Patch pockets can be removed, but the fabric underneath may be discolored and there may be holes from the stitching, so this is not usually recommended.

Patch pockets are usually the easiest kind to add to a garment. Cargo pockets, a subset of patch pockets, vary in their construction. Consult with the alterations shop to see what options may be available.

Changing a zipper

Zippers can usually be replaced, which is great if the zipper is broken or in an undesired style. It can also help you to customize your travel clothing better.

My hips are about 15 inches (38.1 cm) wider than my waist and most jackets, coats, and vests are not designed for that shape. If I can’t find a coat with a parka (double-ended) zipper, I change out the factory zipper for one that lets me zip the coat, then open the bottom part to make room for my hips.

Woman wearing a winter coat with a double-ended (parka) zipper opened at the bottom
Jill showing off her winter coat that was altered with a double-ended (parka) zipper to make room for her hips.

For weather-sealed zippers, consult with the alterations shop. Replacement zippers may lose the technical properties of the original.

Harder or Less Common Alterations

There are some alterations that might not be on the menu board at an alterations shop. If you sew, or have a good relationship with your tailor, you may be able to have these done. 

Because these are more challenging to do, they likely will be more expensive than common, easier alterations.

Adding panels to the side seams to make the garment wider

Fabric inserts can be added to the side seams to make the garment wider. It will likely be impossible to match the original fabric, so fabric in a contrasting color is used.

Adding fabric inserts can theoretically be done to any garment with side seams, but it is most often done on shirts and, sometimes, trousers.

If you find a discounted travel shirt that you really like, but is too tight across the bust or belly, this alteration may be an option. Just be aware that the added panels might not have the same quick-dry or other technical features of the original shirt.

This alteration would be a custom job that requires significant time from skilled labor. The cost is likely to reflect that.

Replacing the collar and/or cuff

If you have a collared shirt or jacket that fits just right, but the collar is a bad color for you or it is threadbare, the collar can be replaced. Most often, the replacement is in a contrasting color to the body of the garment, since finding the original fabric is nearly impossible.

This can be a way to extend the life of old travel favorites or make a thrifted travel garment new to you.

If the sewist needs to construct the replacement collar or cuff, this will significantly add to the cost of the alteration.

Adding a patch pocket

Depending on the item and where you want the pocket, this could be an easy, hard, or impossible alteration. For example, adding a patch pocket to a skirt or shirt is easier than adding it to the inside lining of a bag.

Cargo pockets are usually a type of patch pocket. If you want to add cargo pockets, consult with your tailor.

Adding an inseam pocket

This would typically be done on trousers. Consult with your tailor to see if it is possible on your garment.

Harder, Uncommon Alteration Idea

If you want an inseam pocket in an unusual place like a shirt, this is a custom job that may not be possible on every garment. If it is possible, the cost will reflect time and the skilled labor required to create a new pocket and significantly alter the original garment to accommodate the pocket.

Shortening the shoulders

If the shirt that fits you best is too big in the shoulders, it may be possible to shorten them, but this is an expensive alteration. When the shoulders are shortened, the armscye (armhole opening) is changed. That means the sleeve will need to be altered. When the sleeve is altered, it will become shorter. 

Basically, the shirt has to be re-designed in the shoulder and sleeve. The cost will reflect this custom, skilled work.

Adding zippers to pockets

If you want to add a bit of security to a pocket, you may be able to add a zipper. This won’t work for all garments or all pockets. Consult with your alterations person for ideas. This custom work will likely have a price to reflect the extra time and skill needed to complete it.

Harder, Uncommon Alteration Ideas

1 – Changing a zipper to snaps

This is a rare enough alteration that your tailor may not have done before, but it is possible to remove a zipper and replace it with snap tape. 

This could be useful for people with limited hand mobility.

Apron neck straps closed with snap tape
The top photo shows what snap tape is. Snap tape comes in various sizes and colors, as well as with magnetic snaps.

2 – Changing a button placket to a snap closure

For a button-up shirt, you might be able to sew snap tape on the placket. The buttons will still be there for looks, but they will not be functional. Consult with your sewist to see if this is possible with your garment.

This is another alteration that could be useful for people with limited hand mobility.

Even Harder or Impossible Alterations

The alterations in this section may be impossible with many items. These ideas are best for those who sew for themselves or for those who have a good relationship with a tailor who has shown a willingness to take on unusual and difficult tasks.

Letting out the sides to make the garment wider

This is usually impossible because there is no fabric in the seams to let out. Look at the inside of your garment. If at least a half inch (1.27 cm) of fabric is on the seam on the inside of your item, then it might be able to be let out. A seam needs at least 0.25 inch (0.64 cm) on the inside to hold together.

Lengthen sleeves

Unless the garment is a men’s suit jacket, sleeves rarely have extra fabric on the ends. Without extra fabric, the sleeve cannot be lengthened.

Uncommon Alteration Idea

A custom alteration, with a price to reflect the extra work, would be to add a cuff of contrasting fabric. This may significantly change the look of the garment.

Lengthen a shirt

Usually, the only way to add length to a shirt is to add fabric. Since it is nearly impossible to get the original fabric, you would need to add contrasting fabric. Unless you want a band of different fabric at the bottom of your shirt, adding to the length would involve considerable work and expense and would completely change the look of the shirt.

Other options to lengthen a shirt

If the reason the shirt is too short is that it is too tight on your boobs or belly, find a shirt that fits your largest part and have the other parts taken in. This won’t give you a perfect fit. For example, the shoulders may sit too low, but it is one way to get a shirt that is long enough without fitting like a tent. This method will likely require multiple alterations and the cost will reflect that.

Even Harder, Uncommon Alteration Idea

Changing a button placket to a zipper closure

Consult with your sewist to see if this is possible and, if so, what it might look like. As with all custom jobs, the cost would reflect the time and skill needed to complete the work.

The Cost of Getting Your Travel Clothing Altered

How much do alterations cost?

The cost of alterations varies by where you live and what the alteration is.

Sometimes, people are shocked at the cost of what appears to be a simple alteration, like shortening pants at the hem. Remember, you are paying for the sewist’s skill – their experience and knowledge that will produce the desired result. 

You are paying for skilled, specialized labor. If the alteration were actually simple, you could do it yourself. Because a successful alteration requires skill and specialized equipment, you are hiring someone to do it for you.

If the quoted price is more than you want to pay, that’s okay! You can tell the sewist, “Thank you for your time. I’m going to hold off on doing this for now.”

The reality is, a simple alteration, like shortening pants at the hem, may cost as much or more than the original garment, especially if you buy discounted travel clothes. If you are considering buying a garment to be altered, I suggest first getting an estimate for the desired alteration. 

Don’t rely on online reports for estimates because each shop sets its own prices. If your local shop has a website, they may have a price list. Many small shops don’t keep an updated web presence, so I always recommend calling or visiting the shop.

What influences the cost of alterations?

The complexity of the alteration will influence how much it costs.

1 – Having more than one seam involved in the alteration

The more seams that are involved, the more expensive the alteration will be. This is because there is more original stitching to remove and more pieces to fit back together.

My pair of LL Bean hiking pants has a crotch gusset. If I wanted this replaced when it wears out, that would involve at least four seams.

2 – Topstitching

If your item has stitching that can be seen on the outside, that is topstitching. Any affected topstitching will need to be repaired after the structural alteration is completed. This takes special thread and skill to do well. 

Most seams on my Columbia hiking pants have topstitching. Many t-shirts also have topstitching at the neckline and sleeve hems.

Be aware that a close examination will likely show that the topstitching has been repaired. It’s hard to avoid this with alterations.

A jean jacket cuff with repaired topstitching looking different from the original topstitching
The topstitching at the top of the cuff near the sleeve of this jean jacket is different from the original topstitching at the bottom of the cuff. Also notice how a pleat was put into the sleeve when it was shortened.

3 – Adjusting a curved seam (like an armhole opening)

Curved lines are harder to work with than straight lines. This means that a straight hem is easier to alter than a curved neckline.

4 – Making something bigger or longer

Adding in fabric is harder than taking it away. This means that it is cheaper to take in the waist of a shirt that fits at the bust but is too big at the waist, than it is to add fabric to the bust of a shirt that fits at the waist but is too tight over the chest.

If you are between sizes in a travel shirt, the size that is a little too big will be easier to adjust to your measurements than the size that is a little too small in places.

5 – Adding to or significantly changing the original design

It is harder to fix something than to create something from scratch. This means that adding pockets to pants or changing a zip-up jacket to a button-up one will be expensive.

6 – Anything involving belt loops

Belt loops are challenging to work with. If the alteration requires removing them and then putting them back on, that alteration will be more expensive than if there were no belt loops.

7 – Layers

If the garment is lined, there are more layers to alter. This increases the amount of time the alteration takes, which increases the cost.

Reversible items, like from Splice, will be difficult to alter. Still, it’s worth asking your sewist what can be done. Just be sure to point out that the item is reversible.

8 – Fabric

Fabrics that are harder to work with or require special equipment, like satin, leather, or luggage canvas, may cause the alteration to cost more. Fortunately, most travel clothing is made from fabric that is easy to work with.

Is it worth it to have travel clothing altered?

It depends on what’s important to you. 

If your travel clothes fit you comfortably and serve your needs, then alterations may not be what you want. If you are on a tight budget, then alterations may not provide enough value for their cost. 

On the other hand, if travel clothing never fits right and you discover that a common alteration can fix this, it may be worth the cost. If you are able to budget the cost of alterations into the cost of your travel clothes, it might be worth it to have custom alterations made.

Each person’s needs and travel values are different. What is possible and affordable is different with each garment and piece of gear.

Alterations won’t perform miracles, but they can be one tool in your travel toolkit that can change okay clothes to good clothes. With the right alterations, your travel clothes can fit better and better serve your travel needs.

Written by Jill

Jill Hames is a freelance writer, musician, and ESL teacher who, at the age of four, said she wanted to learn every language in the world. She hasn’t managed that yet, but is proud to have taught herself enough Swahili to understand context from native speakers. She's too busy having fun with music and language to be found online.

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