How To Re-Fit a Button-Down Shirt…To Your Size! Fitting 101

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

Tying in to my first Style It Chic! post from yesterday regarding the denim work shirt as current closet staple, in this post I’m going to show you how to fix that denim shirt you stole from your guy – or thrifted – into something that fits you properly.

As many of you know, I love finding both my materials and base items for my DIYs at the thrift store.  I’m always searching out the biggest, baggiest shirts (so I have tons of material to work with!) for my shirt re-cons.  Thus what I find is rarely pretty, and rarely fits.  It’s always the potential for a remake that gets me so excited.

So what to do with those shirts that you find – that you want to wear yourself – but aren’t quite your size??  You’re going to be keeping the sleeves and the length, let’s say, but why doesn’t the shirt look like it fits right?  And what to do? 

Can you tell what it is that’s making my shirt look too big in the above photo?
This brings me to my first Fitting Tip, the most critical for making your shirt look like it’s the right size:

Fitting Tip #1: The make-it-or-break-it “does it fit?” criteria is where the ARMSCYE SEAM HITS THE SHOULDER SEAM.
shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

I cannot stress this one enough.  This is what makes the difference visually between “she’s wearing her boyfriend’s shirt” and “she’s wearing a cute shirt that fits her.”

We’ve all tried on a guy’s shirt before, right?  And, invariably the seam connecting the sleeve to the shirt (called the “armscye seam”) will be hanging off our shoulders, lying somewhere on our upper arms.

This is a DEAD GIVEAWAY that your shirt doesn’t fit you!!

Even if the body is un-fitted, loose-fit, billowy tunic, whatever…if this seam is in the wrong place on your body then it will look like it is the WRONG SIZE FOR YOU!

When looking at yourself standing normally, this seam needs to be as close as possible to traveling straight up from your armpit to your shoulder, in a straight line.  (Raglan or set-in sleeves are different, and there is a little variation to be had when you’re dealing with a blouson, caftan, or loose blouse or dress but in general this seam needs to be in that basic area.)

The closer this seam is to going straight up from your armpit – the more fitted and chic the garment will look.  Even a t-shirt will look flattering and feminine if the sleeves are attached to the body at this line.

Fitting Tip #2: The body needs to connect close to your underarm for the garment to look “fitted.”

The body is far less important than this armscye seam in Fitting Tip #1.  There are more variations when it comes to the shape and size of the body piece, so words like always or never aren’t very useful here.  Again, in general if the body is too loose right at the underarms, the piece will look big and billowy on you, even if the armscye seams are in the right place.

So how to re-fit your shirt?

How to Re-Fit a Button-Down Shirt…To Your Size!

You Need:
*seam ripper
*marking chalk
*sewing machine & needle for the fabric in your shirt
*thread matching the topstitching thread in your shirt

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

1. Remove both sleeves by opening the armscye seams.  Do not rip or cut through either the sleeves or the shirt body.  Often button-down woven shirts have topstitched seams, so you’ll have to go through both rows of stitching to pull the arms off fully.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

Remove all the little messy threads from your ripping.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

All ready to go!

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

2. Try the shirt on and button it up.  Looking in the mirror, mark where your shoulder seam SHOULD be, by drawing a straight line up from your armpit to your shoulder.  Mark at the shoulder.  (Note: I actually did this prior to taking off the sleeves, but it’s probably more logical to mark the seam after removing the sleeves.)

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

3. Take the shirt off and lay flat.  Add 3/8″ to the outside of the mark on the shoulder.  Draw the new armscye by mimicking the shape of the old one.  Copy the marks to the other armscye as well.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

Cut off the excess fabric.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

5. Try on the shirt again, buttoning it up and putting it on inside-out.  Now the vest-like shape of it should look right – at least at the shoulder area.  Pin at one side to make it more fitted.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

6. Take off the shirt and mark at the pins.  Remove them. Draw a line of “best fit” to connect the marks your made.  Copy your markings to the other side as well.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

8. Sew along the lines you drew and trim the excess.  Now the shirt should fit your body properly.  (I’m wearing a shirt underneath, so it looks like it’s very fitted in the photo above, but it’s actually loose when I wear it as a single layer.)

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

9. Now that the shirt fits you in the body, it’s time to reattach the arms.  Turn the shirt inside-out and place one sleeve inside it, right sides together.  Pin the armcap of the sleeve to the armscye of the shirt, all the way around.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

10.  Sew the sleeves to the body.  If necessary, topstitch both armscyes on the body side to re-create the finished look of the original shirt.

And you’re done!  The manly shirt (or too-big women’s shirt!) should now fit you pretty well – and not look like you just stole from your guy’s wardrobe.

With this method it’s unfortunate, but the sleeves will end up slightly shorter than those of the original shirt. It really can’t be helped, which is why I try to find my big shirts with too-long sleeves if I can.

In some cases, when you go to re-attach the arms you will find that there is too much excess fabric in the sleeve cap to fit into your smaller armscye.  You have one of two options:

1) Make the sleeve smaller by sewing the sleeve seam closer together. (not pictured, but it’s pretty self-exaplanatory)

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

2) Match the sleeve seam to the shirt body side seam while pinning, and gather or ease the excess fabric at the sleeve cap to create a “puffed-sleeve” look.

shirt refit,alteration,sewing,fitting

When altering this particular shirt, I used Method #2 and ended up with sleeves that are slightly puffy at the shoulders.

This can be done with anything that has the sleeves set incorrectly for your frame: t-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, button-downs, dresses – anything!!  Hope this expands your options when shopping at the thrift store and alerts you to fitting issues before you buy something that doesn’t fit you well! 

denim shirt


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52 Comments on How To Re-Fit a Button-Down Shirt…To Your Size! Fitting 101

  1. Anonymous
    9.14.2010 at 12:53 pm (5 years ago)


    I am so happy I found your blog! I've been following for about a year and yours is one of the fashion blogs I find the most value in…fun, practical and inspirational stuff all rolled into one. Thanks for posting such great stuff!


  2. Bromeliad
    9.14.2010 at 2:03 pm (5 years ago)

    Thanks so much. I've always been too intimidated to alter shoulders, and at the same time I hate droopy shoulders. This is the clearest, simplest explanation I've seen.

  3. Erin (penny. LA)
    9.15.2010 at 6:58 pm (5 years ago)

    Oh, I love how you styled it in the middle, in the last photo! Excellent post – I often see fantastic prints in old men's shirts… this is helpful. Now only if I could sew!!

  4. Maegan
    9.16.2010 at 12:29 am (5 years ago)

    nice job. I would have totally just put darts in it, lol because arm holes ALWAYS frustrate me …as do waist bands and zippers. yuck. So nice job!

  5. Marisa
    9.22.2010 at 12:34 pm (5 years ago)

    Great tut! The process looks less scary than I thought too! Bonus. :-)

    Have had my eye on one of hubby's shirts for a while now, so will definitely be using this. Thanks.

  6. Anonymous
    10.20.2010 at 8:33 am (5 years ago)

    Or, you could just buy a shirt that fits you?

  7. Shilpi
    11.09.2010 at 4:45 am (5 years ago)

    great job! Love it


  8. scarves
    12.31.2010 at 9:09 am (5 years ago)

    Thanks to providing
    Scarves Scarves

  9. Queenie
    3.25.2011 at 6:27 am (4 years ago)

    Thank you so much for this tutorial!!! My husband isn’t a large man but has a rather large neck so when we get him dress shirts to fit his neck size they are GIGANTIC on him everywhere else. He’s been asking me to alter his dress shirts and I had no idea how to go about it.

    • carlyjcais
      3.25.2011 at 8:58 am (4 years ago)

      No problem!:-) The one thing to keep in mind, though – when you re-attach the sleeves – is that the arm-holes may become a lot larger or smaller when you take in the sides of the shirt, and you may have to re-situate the sleevecaps to fit properly. You definitely don’t want to add any gathers or pleats at the tops of the sleevecaps when doing this for a guy (as I did) since it looks really feminine…the sleeve ease (if it exists) should probably be down in the armpit area to allow more ease of movement, and hide any gathers that are created so the shirt doesn’t scream girly. Good luck with it!!:-D

  10. jc
    4.06.2011 at 10:06 pm (4 years ago)

    Thanks for this tutorial! I’ve been looking for one the whole day on how to raise the armhole area and this is the most informative by far with all the step by step photos.

    I have some questions though… in the three photos where you say “Re-draw armscye to shoulder pin, add 3/8 to the outside, and cut off the excess,” I noticed that you didn’t cut off the front and back part exactly the same. There’s a bit of material from the back sleeve still showing through. Was this deliberate? So the back part should be left a little bit wider than the front you cut off?

    Thanks for the help!

    • carlyjcais
      4.06.2011 at 10:14 pm (4 years ago)

      Hi JC! Lovely to see you here!

      Yes, cutting the front and the back differently was absolutely deliberate!:-) If you look at most shirts you have, or any patterns for shirts in general, the shape of the armscye on the back bodice is fairly straight up-and-down (except for a small curve right at the armpit area); whereas on the front bodice piece there is a significant curve at the underarm area that extends forward a bit. This is to allow freedom of movement, since our arms spend most of the time moving in a forwards arc, and not backwards, and you need the extra fabric at the front of the sleeve cap to accommodate. Kathleen Fasanella, a patternmaker and consultant who has written THE how-to bible for starting a clothing line as a designer-entrepreneur, details this patternmaking issue in her book and on her blog a great deal. Her site is a great resource for those “how do I…?” or “why does this fit like this?” questions and definitely check it out if you’re interested in patterns and fit!
      Good luck!

      • Jane Berlin
        1.21.2015 at 1:23 am (7 months ago)

        Hey there. I just wanted to thank you so much for this post. There are just hundreds of them these days but I swear to god it’s like wading through a murky swamp filled with half assed fake attempts and or straight up s#!+ (sorry. I mean … Poop) anywhoo, thank you for sharing actual useful information. I am forever in your debt. ☺️ Hugs!

        • carlyjcais
          1.21.2015 at 4:30 pm (7 months ago)

          You are welcome, Jane Berlin! Hope it helped a little!

          • Jane Berlin
            1.21.2015 at 5:02 pm (7 months ago)

            It helped a lot!

  11. Marley
    7.27.2012 at 7:54 pm (3 years ago)

    Thank you so much for this – it was exactly what I was looking for! I just found a handful of enormous men’s shirts that I had to have, now I can actually wear them! Thanks again 😀

  12. Kirsten
    10.01.2012 at 2:26 pm (3 years ago)

    Love it. you look great!!! I’ve been doing this all wrong!

  13. Monica
    10.08.2012 at 10:36 am (3 years ago)

    Thank you so much for this great tutorial!!! I have been trying to alter all these mens shirts I’ve found at yard sales and the shoulders always turn out so weird! I am definitely going to try out your method!

  14. Amanda
    10.14.2012 at 12:38 pm (3 years ago)

    This is great! I just got a shirt that I’m wearing in a rodeo next weekend and it’s way too big. Will certainly be trying this.

  15. Olivia
    2.03.2013 at 1:13 pm (3 years ago)

    I’m a thrift-store shopper and keep finding blouses w/ fabric and colors I LOVE… in the XL section. I’m a S or M, depending. But I’m also a sewer, which leads me astray. I have developed a pile of tops, which wait next to my sewing maching. This article is perfect and the most detailed one I have found, so I am ready to give it a try. I plan on using a blouse that fits the way I like as a measurement for the sides & the arm width. Setting the sleeves will be the challenge I think, as they are huge in width. But hey, got to start somewhere! THANKS SO MUCH for this great step by step article!!!

    • carlyjcais
      2.03.2013 at 3:08 pm (3 years ago)

      You’re welcome! When the arms are so much larger than the body of the shirt, I’ve found that sometimes I’ve had to sew a line from the cuff to the armpit *inside* the original sleeve seam, at a sharper angle towards the armpit, to make the sleeves slimmer. It’s a good idea to place the sleeve cap around the armscye to mark how much excess width the sleeve had before sewing it. Hope that helps you get a jump on all the thrift store refashioning you have – sounds like fun! Good luck :-)

  16. Alicia
    2.21.2013 at 8:41 pm (3 years ago)

    How do you draw the armscye correctly? Where do I start? And is there a proper measurement?

  17. ceegee
    4.22.2013 at 1:20 pm (2 years ago)

    Tried this on a man’s Pendleton wool shirt to fit me. Altered shoulders,side seams and length. Also made sleeve width smaller. I used one of my shirts that fits to get sleeve width and length, pit to pit meas. and torso length. Thanks for your advice.

    • carlyjcais
      4.22.2013 at 7:53 pm (2 years ago)

      You’re welcome! Hope your shirt turned out well! :-)

  18. ceegee
    5.31.2013 at 7:23 am (2 years ago)

    I wear these altered shirts in the winter with a tneck underneath. Probably not stylish but a warm little jacket. Another alteration I made was to decrease the size of the cuff to fit my wrist. You’re ripping out, why not go all the way?
    For the sewers out there–to me it seems you are inserting a set in sleeve vs. the original (almost a kimino?) sleeve. Most men’s ahirts have a continuous seam from cuff to torso hem. Just a few things to think about if you are trying to get a true allover fit.

    • Jane Berlin
      1.21.2015 at 1:25 am (7 months ago)

      What do u mean?

      • carlyjcais
        1.21.2015 at 4:30 pm (7 months ago)

        ? If you need help, just let me know :-)

  19. Regina
    12.15.2013 at 5:21 pm (2 years ago)

    Loved this entry! I have been looking for a tutorial like this for awhile. Can’t wait to try it. Thanks for posting it.

    • carlyjcais
      12.16.2013 at 11:14 am (2 years ago)

      Thanks, Regina! So glad it helped :-)

  20. MrMister
    12.23.2013 at 7:29 pm (2 years ago)

    You’d make a great wife

    • carlyjcais
      12.24.2013 at 3:05 pm (2 years ago)

      lol, my husband may disagree from time to time… 😉

  21. Sue Hutchinson
    1.02.2014 at 8:12 pm (2 years ago)

    Hi. Can you tell me how to extend the side seam of a fitted shirt? I can’t work out what shape to cut the piece to add to the side seams to retain the lovely shape of the shirt. Thanks.

    • carlyjcais
      1.08.2014 at 6:16 pm (2 years ago)

      Hi Sue – do you mean you are trying to create a fabric insert to provide more width to your shirt? And you’re keeping the place where the side seam meets the sleeve seam intact? I don’t think you can keep the fitted shape of the shirt the same if you don’t open up the sleeve too…ideally, you would insert a long rectangle strip all the way from bottom to top along that side seam. But then the opening would narrow into a triangle right under the arm, so the bust might fit strangely.

      I think you have two options: either open up the sleeve seam a couple inches too and insert a piece of fabric that is a long rectangle for the side…that narrows into a triangle where it goes into the sleeve opening (a little higher than the actual armscye, into the sleeve itself)…OR insert a long triangle of fabric into the side seam, then create a front dart on both sides of the shirt below the bust to recreate that “fitted” look. Without actually seeing the shirt it’s a little tough to tell what might be best…

      Hope that helps! :-)

      • Sue Hutchinson
        1.08.2014 at 8:33 pm (2 years ago)


  22. wward
    11.14.2014 at 9:10 am (10 months ago)

    Thank you SO much for this easy to understand guide on altering a large shirt. I was able to save a shirt easier than I thought and it only took me a couple of hours. Much appreciated!

    • carlyjcais
      11.19.2014 at 1:21 pm (9 months ago)

      You are so welcome! It is a fiddly pain to alter a shirt this way but the results are really, really nice, and allow you to make use of what’s in your closet rather than getting rid of it. Hope you enjoy your new(ly re-sized) shirt!!

  23. Gracie Wood
    1.29.2015 at 6:17 am (7 months ago)

    Oh My Gosh! I’ve been searching for this tutorial forever!! You’re awesome! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I so want to recycle men’s shirts and get stuck with the upper shirt being too big!!!!!

    • carlyjcais
      1.30.2015 at 8:31 am (7 months ago)

      You’re welcome, Gracie Wood! It takes some time and is a bit fiddly, but doing this will fix the shoulder/arm fit issue every time. Good luck with it! 😀

  24. Jools
    3.16.2015 at 2:12 pm (5 months ago)

    I just found this post and I love it! I have a couple of shirts to try this on. Thanks so much!
    Jools recently posted..Suits Into Bags!

    • carlyjcais
      3.16.2015 at 5:29 pm (5 months ago)

      You’re welcome, Jools! Hope it proves useful to you :-)

  25. the oncoming storm
    7.14.2015 at 12:59 pm (1 month ago)

    it’s that easy? blimey! i have a uniform coat that’s too big for me, but i love it because how tough the fabric is and how fast it dries. i’ve been meaning to alter it to fit better and never did because i wasn’t sure how to go about doing it without cocking it up. now i finally have a good idea on it and should be able to bang it out easy peasy. cheers!

    • carlyjcais
      7.30.2015 at 3:50 pm (4 weeks ago)

      Yes, it’s that easy – but would be more complicated on something like a coat that has a lining. And you do lose a bit of length to the sleeves, so you have to keep that in mind as well. Hope you’re able to make the adjustments you need easily! Good luck!!


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