From No-couture to Haute-Couture! Taking Up Hem, Taking in Waist and Handsewing Buttonholes




Introduction: From No-couture to Haute-Couture! Taking Up Hem, Taking in Waist and Handsewing Buttonholes

About: Artist, seamstress, photographer, designer

I wrote this to enter the Trash to Treasure contest, and thought I had a little longer until the deadline, but apparently not. Reinforcing the buttonholes with hand-sewn stitching makes it more sturdy, which is utilitarian and makes it "sew tough", a la the contest name. So anyway, without further adieu (it’s actually ado, but I thought I would just leave that wrong – artistic license and all): my entry is not so much about trash, but I bought this coat from Boohoo, and it was just too long. I tried wearing it out to go shopping but it was too big to be even pass as boho-chic, for me anyway. I was swimming in it and realized I qualify for petite sizing, falling just under the 5' 3" or 160cm. I felt it was too roomy around the waist for me too, so I decided to take in the waist and take up the hem. When it came to taking up the hem and taking in the waist, the internet advised against trying to size down a coat, saying it's a major operation; there is too much to be done and trying to make any change to the shoulders will alter the whole look... I dissected the hemming and waist seams and stubbornly decided, to heck with what the article advised, I'm doing it. However, I didn't try to alter the shoulders or arms.

While the article guru’s answer is correct from a professional couturier’s perspective, what I seek to encourage is that when times are tough and you’re trying to fake it ‘til you make it, there are exceptions to rules; sneaky ways around conventional restrictions in order to achieve desirable results. I resolved to take in the waist, tapering the side seams in very gradually with the new seam starting near but not intersecting the armhole so the armholes and arms wouldn’t need tampering with. Truth be told, the resulting oversized shoulder doesn’t insulate as well when the arms remain unaltered - though you can always wear warm sleeves, gloves, and park them hands in them pockets. Nothing has to be perfect.

What you will learn:

  • Take in seams at waist
  • Take up a coat hem
  • Buttonholes

Step 1: What You Need

  • Hand sewing needles
  • Bees wax
  • Iron + ironing board
  • Scissors
  • Pins
  • Snips
  • Thimble
  • Optional: solder iron, dress form, polyester thread

Polyester is good because it doesn’t rot and it stretches when wet and changes. Buttonhole twist was difficult to find, with colours mismatched to my fabric and gimp is hard to acquire. So, I used regular camel coloured poly thread: polyester is what the fabric of the garment is made of too. I read about and wanted to use buttonhole twist but my local craft and sewing store didn’t even know what buttonhole twist was. Poly thread was a good versatile fit as cotton and natural fibres can degrade. I would advise using a good strong thread.

In case anyone was wondering, the masking tape (I love masking tape for everything!) on the bees-wax is due to the fact the little plastic container broke open.

Step 2: Take in the Waist Seam

  1. Put on coat, pinch and clip the sides at the waist to find desired amount.
  2. Pin along the new waist seam line.
  3. Mark along the guidance pins with tailors chalk. Unpin.
  4. Take off coat. Unpick the side seam from the waist-point all the way to 1cm from the armhole, cut the thread and tie off, repeat unpicking for other end of side seam and tie off.
  5. Serge fabric edges with a 1cm trimming allowance with overlocker/serger.
  6. Pin together new seam along chalk line.
  7. Sew side seams with a 5/8" seam allowance.

Step 3: Deconstructing and Dissecting the Hem

Feel free to skip this step, as it is just explaining and showing how I went about deconstructing and documenting this particular garment. I unpicked the coat hem and inspected the seam to ascertain, in reverse, the steps I would need to take to mimic the hemming. Labelling the top-stitched, flat-felled seams etc.

I originally was going to trace and create graded-down patterns for the coat, putting the calico mockup on and experimenting with pinching in and pinning to make the new waist seam etc., but as the article I read stated a complete resize wouldn't be entirely viable. I wanted a cheat's hack to alter the coat, so opted to unpick the side seams right up to about a cm or two from the armhole intersection, cutting the unpicked thread with enough thread to tie the original seam closed to avoid loose thread unravelling.


  1. Unpick end of hem top stitch to release facing. Note: Facing edge has been folded under slightly and sewn down by end of hem stitch/excess fabric sandwiched in under hem stitching at the end corner of hem. Note: Hem stitching is ~2cm from hem/facing/true bottom edge of coat. (I wrote 2ml in my notes but I think, surely, I must have meant 2cm)
  2. Unpick facing and hem stitching
    Note: 1cm allowance in facing.
    Note: Grade (trim one side of the fabric allowances) slightly to reduce visible hem/garment right side bulk.
    Note: Top-stitching finishes before the sandwiched triangle in corner.

Step 4: Take Up Coat Hem

  1. Experiment with where to pin the hem up to. I used a few long hair straightening sectioning clips for a rough estimate, regular hair clips could work too. Optionally take photos with hem pinned up to desired length as a reference.
  2. Find hem on dress form with hem measuring attachment.
  3. Mark hem with pins all around coat hem.
  4. Take coat off dress form.
  5. Serge hem allowance on overlocker/serger with 1cm being trimmed off.
  6. Pin up hem all around coat. Place pins upwards perpendicular to hem edge. My hem allowance is 2.5cm, 5cm altogether fabric allowance + 1cm extra allowance to be trimmed during serging/overlocking. Unpick top-stitching of facing edge to 1ml from corner edge. (I don't entirely understand this and step 8 but hopefully it makes sense) 2cm into facing edge (not corner) make a mark for 2.5cm high allowance that dips to become 1cm facing seam allowance as per picture 5.
  7. Push corner triangle to facing side, turn back ride side in. Check corner outcome.
  8. Press lightly, don't make sharp crease.
  9. Pin hem, matching seams correctly, and the two joins of facing edge and garment.
  10. Turn facing to other side of garment to be 'inside-out' or wrong sides facing outwards.
  11. Pin matching dip location of seam allowance and hem allowance just more than 1cm in from edge, put on sewing machine and sew longest straight stitch, starting right where facing edge starts intersecting hem.
  12. Pull the unpicked, long threads of facing to garment seam and thread into needle then stitch into back side (facing) of top-stitched edge or sew a stitch over and over into seam allowance edge near corner.
  13. Sew hem with longest straight stitch 1.2cm in to facing edge.
  14. Press, don't make a sharp crease. Check on body. Hey press-to! (I always make that ridiculous joke)

Step 5: Buttonholes

I referred to these images from various sources online and the Buttonholes section of the book Couture Sewing Techniques, Revised and Updated by Claire B. Shaeffer.

  1. Test following steps on trimmed hem fabric wastage: mark desired buttonhole ends on fabric and then sew button hole stitches, machine- cutting a "buttonhole" to test on.
  2. Trim any frays on edge of buttonhole fabric.
  3. The over-casting stitch protects and strengthens the buttonhole. One blogger said the buttonhole twist outer stitching on her garment has long worn away but the overcast stitches remain, protecting the buttonhole to this day.
  4. Run the thread through beeswax, then iron the thread with a pressing cloth on top.
  5. Bury thread knot in layers of fabric. If unable to, just leave it at back side of buttonhole and dab fray-check on if desired, though it'll be sewn over anyway.
  6. Overcast stitch around the whole button hole edge, with a 2ml width: a diagonal stitch with about 1-2ml apart.
  7. Carry on straight onto the main buttonhole stitching with the same thread. Work buttonhole in order: top edge, down side, button edge, and finish with bar tack stitch.
  8. To make buttonhole stitch, insert the needle from the underside and wrap the threads under the point of the needle.
  9. Make stitches close together so the purls lie along the cut edge.
  10. At the end work a fan of 5, 7 or 9 stitches. These stitches should be evenly spaced with the center stitch aligned with the opening/buttonhole stitch.
  11. Make a few small stitches horizontally over the long stitches so small you can barely see.
  12. At the end work a fan of 5, 7 or 9 stitches. These stitches should be evenly spaced with the center stitch aligned with the opening/buttonhole slit.
  13. To make the bar-tack, make 2-3 (depending on thread thickness) long stitches from top to bottom edge of buttonhole.
  14. Work blanket stitches over the bar, looping the thread toward the button hole.
  15. After the last stitch, slide the needle into the knot of the first stitch, slip the needle through the first purling stitch, carrying it under two or three buttonhole stitches, carrying it under two or three buttonhole stitches.


Overcasting stitch

Make sure that when you do the overcasting stitch (the purpose of this is to seal fraying fabric edges) it is rather diagonal because on my second button up from the top of the coat, I somehow ended up with very vertical stitches and it became very hard to conceal under the straight stitches of the buttonhole stitching and they stuck out like a sore thumb (well, to my eagle eyes, anyway lol). They also made it hard for me to tell exactly where I was up to (the thread to fabric match was perfect, if I do say so myself, but the slightly fluffy property of the fabric made it hard to find my prior overcasting thread! Try to keep them an even width from buttonhole edge and close to the edge.

When pulling the thread through try to make sure the length of thread isn’t being recurrently twisted around itself because then it spirals itself up resulting in little knots which break the thread and you have to start again with a new thread - it’s a bit of a nuisance (ok it’s not that bad but it’s definitely not ideal) to tie off and start a new thread and everything and it’s of course best to keep the whole thread intact the whole way through the buttonhole. I developed a way to prevent the twisting: laying the length of thread in a long loop, using your other hand to pull the thread loop up. Occasionally lift the fabric in the air and do a mixture of dangling the thread until it twists (like a coiled swing being released) and straightens, and running your thumb and forefinger along the thread until it straightens.

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    3 years ago

    Before your coat came across the scissors, it made you 10 years older and what a beautiful coat it has become! It looks great on you, perfect!


    3 years ago

    very cute!!! NICE WORK!