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What to know about the art of tailoring

Tailoring is one of those things you never know you need until alterations change your life.

Take, for example, my last tailoring experience with one of what I'm sure will be many bridesmaid dresses in my future. This dress was a fitted, one-shoulder, knee-length dress with pleats that created something of a half starburst pattern from one of the hips. It's hard to explain, but suffice it to say that between the pleats, the double layer of fabric and the boning in the bodice, it was a monster of a tailoring job.

I had a week and a half before the wedding, so I thought I'd save some time and cash by just asking my neighborhood shop, Alva Graciano Tailors in Chicago, to hem the dress to my knees. But as soon as I tried it on, my very knowledgeable tailor pointed out that because the dress was meant to be fitted, the extra fabric in the hips would make my look wide -- an expert play to my vanity. Here's a tip if you're ever trying to sell me something: Don't tell me I look great in it. Tell me I'll look terrible without it.

Of course, I took the advice, paid a little more, and looked better in the dress than I had expected. Part of it was luck that Alva Graciano happens to also be the closest tailor to my apartment, but I've learned a few things about spotting a good tailor and what's worth altering.

Finding a good tailor

I'm always baffled when people react to my tailoring suggestion as though having a tailor is some big-city phenomenon. The profession of altering clothes dates back to well before cities even existed, so I'm confident that anyone can find this service. You may only have one tailor within a reasonable radius, but if you do have your pick, here's what to look out for:

-- Good prices, but not unbelievable prices. With the exception of a ridiculous sale every once in a while, the wisdom that you get what you pay for rings true. I always go with a service provider whose prices fall in the middle of my lowest and highest quotes for the service. On the low end, the service likely isn't great, and on the high end, you could find a reasonably priced tailor that does a comparable if not better job.

-- Specialized services. You find a lot of combination tailor/drycleaners, but for the really tough or important jobs, I like shops whose business is exclusively alterations.

-- Transparency. I love a place where I can see what's going on in the back, whether they're preparing my food or hemming my jeans.

-- Good recommendations. Maybe you have a friend who's a good judge of services and can hook you up with a great tailor. If not, check out Google or Yelp reviews, and discard the most glowing and the most scathing reviews. (Unless they're all scathing; that's a bad sign.) You'll be left with a decent amount of objectivity to figure out how that tailor measures up. Pun intended.

Things you need altered

-- Anything formal. If it's a gown, suit or anything you'll be wearing to a fancy affair, tailoring will really help you go the extra mile to look your best.

-- Pants. There are lots of variables when it comes to pants, and very few of us stumble on the proper fit just by buying them in-store.

-- Blazers. This is mostly for the men, but great tailoring on a blazer can really make your look. For example, pulling in the fabric on the upper sleeves can broaden your shoulders, a subtle but effective trick.

-- Sale items. Often you'll find a huge discount (we're talking around 75 percent) on a really nice item you can't live without, but there's only one of them and not your size. For items that are too big, add the estimated cost of alterations onto the price of the item. If there's still a nice discount to be had, go for it.

(E-mail Kristyn Schiavone at, follow her on Twitter at @KKSchiavone or write to her c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave, Ste. 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.)