Steam-shrinking a waistband, or, The sewing trick that CHANGED MY LIFE

Every now and then, you come across a new way of doing things that hits you like a ray of light from the heavens.

Today in class our teacher showed us a way to take in a pair of pants (or a skirt) without...well...taking them in. I mean, without taking off the waistband, taking in the side seams, shortening the waistband and then putting the whole mess back together again. No darts either. Nope. No stitch ripper to be seen here. How is this possible you ask?


Some of you may be nodding knowingly already. Maybe you are fondly remembering when you first discovered this trick. If not, dear fellow sewist, read on.

~ Stick with me...it's a long one but a GOOD one!~

As someone with a large waist/hip differential, I find myself laden with clothing items that fit my hips and are way too big at the waist. I hate wearing belts because they add bulk where I really don't need it. So what do I do? Well, up until now, I was just sad. But now! Now!!!

Here are the pants I was wearing today. Believe me, I'm not keen on showing any portion of my midriff on the internet, but for the cause I will suck it up (but not suck it in - much).

They're too big! They generally feel fine for an hour or so after they come out of the washer and dryer but by the end of the day are so big I barely need to undo them to take them off. All of my jeans are like this.

*Pssst!* They'll end up like this!

Shall I get to the point?

Ok, ok. So what I did was STEAM the waistband until it got smaller, and then held it in place with a couple of lengths of twill tape. EASY! Here's the whole process.

A caveat: This will likely only work on natural fibres that respond to steam shaping. If you want to do this with a synthetic, you could try skipping ahead to step 2, you just won't be able to get rid of as much excess. With washable fabrics, save yourself some time and effort and wash and dry them as you normally would before beginning.

Step 1: Shrink out the excess

Put the pants (or skirt) on and determine how much excess you have to get rid of. When I pinched my waistband as above, I figured I needed to shrink it down by about 3" total.

Take off the pants and measure the waistband. You'll check your progress against this number.
(If you've just taken them out of the washer/dryer, you may be able to skip all of this steaming business and go straight to step 2).

Half my waistband measured about 17 1/4".
So my goal is to shrink out 1 1/2" (1/2 of 3") to get that measure down to 15 3/4".
We'll see about that.

Start by pinning a section of the waistband to your ironing board. At school we have a fancy schmancy steam press like at the drycleaners with an amazing pinnable surface and a vacuum that sucks away the steam at the end and dries out your fabric quickly. Not so at home.

In order to keep the jeans in place on my not-so-pinnable ironing board, I stuck pins in from all directions. The idea is to hold them so there is a bump as above. We're going to try to steam that bump flat.

With the highest steam setting, tap down on the waistband with the iron. This is pressing, not ironing, so no back and forth action. Just up and down. If you have a button on your iron that gives you a shot of steam, all the better. Keep steaming until you've managed to get the waistband flat.

Like this! Cool, hey?

To keep the waistband from stretching back out again as soon as you pick it up, you have to make sure it is dry, and not still all full of steamy moisture. (This is a general pressing principle, by the way. All will be lost if you consider your pressing done when the item is still damp). If you can go back and forth between steam and dry iron settings, that can help. You can also use a clapper, or a piece of wood, or an ironing ham to get rid of the excess moisture.

Smack that steam out!

Now, work your way around the waistband in small sections, shrinking as you go. This, as it turns out, is easier said than done on a thick denim waistband. Our teacher did the demo on a thinner, cotton, cargo type fabric and it worked like a charm.

But with thick denim, I ended up with a lot of this bulky bumpy action.

I tried to smooth out the bumps, but I think I smoothed out the shrinking at the same time.

It took me a couple of rounds to get some good shrinkage, and along the way I found a good technique:

Hold onto a part of the jeans with the butt of your iron, then...
With your other hand, smoosh the upcoming waistband under your iron and steam away.

You may also find that a damp presscloth is helpful. Just don't forget to make sure the section is dry before moving on!

It can also help to work from both sides.

In the end, I managed to shrink out 3/4" of the folded waistband (1 1/2" total). Not bad, but I wanted to get rid of twice that!

It's ok, there's a whole other step.

Of course, the steam shrinking is not going to just stay like that forever. With wearing, the waist will stretch right back out. The solution is now to stitch on a length of twill tape or something that will not stretch to keep the shape we've just worked to hard to make.

Step 2: Keep it in place

Place the twill tape along the lower edge of the waistband. Your bobbin thread should match the colour of your jeans to blend in. You can start sewing just after the zipper in the front (i.e. 1 1/2" or so away from the edge of the waistband). Backstitch a few stitches to stabilize.

Now pull your twill tape taut (not too hard now, just taut), and sort of smoosh the jeans towards the presser foot. This will enable us to ease that extra 1 1/2" of waistband onto the non-stretchy twill tape. It's important not to force your fabric or your machine, you don't want to break a needle, so the pushing and pulling should be gentle.

(PS - do not substitute bias tape for twill tape. It will stretch and all will be for naught).

Now, my machine admittedly did not enjoy this process. She's an old refurbished Brother with a bit of a wheezy motor. So there were quite a few times I had to do the push/pull with one hand and move the fly wheel with the other. For goodness sake use a good heavy #14 needle and a fairly long stitch for this business.

You don't want to sew over your belt loops like I did. (Only one!)

Stop before the belt loops and backstitch. You'll know the belt loops on the backside by the bar tacks holding them on. Then just skip over the belt loop and start again on the other side, backstitching again.

Then you can just snip off the threads when you're done.

I put a length of twill tape at the top and bottom of the waistband to better hold it in place. You could even stitch on either edge of the twill tape - or use a narrower twill tape.

Now, I was so excited about putting these on that I neglected to do anything about the raw ends of the twill tape. I left about an inch or so unsewn that I plan to turn under and hand stitch in place. I may even hand stitch those parts where I skipped over the belt loops.

But look! Look!

Pants that fit!
Too big no more!