As a typical Midwesterner, jeans are an outfit staple for me. But the fit is so important. They must be just right. And so, since I hate shopping, online or otherwise, all my jeans are altered. I’ve done this for so many years I thought it might be good to put together a post of how I turn completely-wrong thrift store or store bought jeans into well-worn, just-right favorites.
How to choose thrift store jeans that will last
These days so many jeans are made of mostly polyester or nylon or some such synthetic material. These jeans are cheap: they stretch out, fade in color and, often times, pill. A few washes later the material is thin and looks cheap. That is what is so great about thrift stores. You can find nearly 100% cotton, well made jeans for four bucks. So if you are going to make the effort of making the perfect fit, I recommend choosing a quality jean to start with. Next always get a jean too big, rather than too small. Obviously jeans can be sized down or washed on repeat to shrink, but it is impossible to size up.
Once you have the jeans, there are 3 areas of fit to consider: the leg width, the waist fit, and the leg opening.
Step 1: Altering the leg width
I always start by altering the leg width if the legs are too wide. The inner leg seam is welted and reinforced so it is best to leave this seam alone. The outer leg seam is a typical right-sides-together seam so this is the best seam to change. Turn the pants inside out, and put them on. Standing in front of the mirror pin down the leg starting just below the front pocket opening, following the seam line. Make sure to leave a good amount of ease for movement and sitting. If you like skinny jeans, this would be the time to pin down the entire leg length. Otherwise, if only the thigh width is the issue, taper off to the normal seam around the knee. Sew this seam following the pin markers. Then sew a zig zag stitch just outside this seam to finish the edges. If a lot of fabric has been taken in, clip off the excess fabric parallel to the zig-zag stitch.
Step 2: Correct the waistband
Next, I fix the waistband. Clip the back center waistband as shown in the diagram below. Again put the jeans on, this time right-side-out. Overlap the clipped waistband sides until the jeans fit your waist correctly. Pin with a strong diaper pin so the fit doesn’t shift. Now sew this V in place, making sure to taper down enough so the fabric lays flat.
Step 3: Hem to correct height
Next, if the jeans are extra long, I hem them at this point.
Step 4: Adding a flare
Flare jeans will always be my favorite. I am not a skinny jeans fan. To add a flare, mark where you like your flare to start (I like mine to start a few inches below the knee), and clip to this point on the inner leg seam. Do not cut the welted seam, just follow along it. I add the flare to the inner seam because I don’t really want the flare inset to be obvious. However, if your flare fabric is a different fabric color it can be an interesting feature to put the flare on the outer seam. I’ve done both in the past, so it just depends on the vibe you are going for: more polished looks via the inner seam, more retro, bell-bottom vibe via the outer seam.
Now take your flare material, preferably a matching color jean fabric, and cut out some tall triangles as tall as the flare height you will need, making sure to make allowance for the hem if the material is unhemmed. I like cutoff jean shorts in the summer, so I always save the cut off legs to use for adding flares come autumn. Another fun touch would be to layer the flare with a cotton red paisley fabric for a vintage look. Hem the bottom of the flare triangle now if unhemmed.
The slit for the flare will have a raw fabric edge side and a welted seam side. With right-sides-together, match the flare edge to the raw edge side of the flare slit, making sure to match up the bottom hems. Pin. Sew this seam on the sewing machine, making sure to stop the seam BELOW the top of the slit. If you sew above the top of the slit, the flare will have a pucker at the top of the flare. Zig-zag stitch the raw edge of this seam. Turn the jeans right-side-out. Now lay the flare material UNDER the welted seam side of the flare slit. Adjust to make the flare as small or as big as you desire. Pin. Topstitch. I do two parallel topstitch rows to reinforce the seam. Trim the flare triangle on the inside if there is a lot of extra fabric.
Last, sew a topstitch around the entire pants hem.
And that’s it: a perfect pair of jeans that didn’t cost $80 and/or a full day wasted trying on jeans. (Can you tell I despise shopping??) All this altering takes about 10 to 20 minutes, and the jeans end up living a good long time.