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How to Alter a Rajasthani Choli
by Shay Moore of Deep Roots Dance

Let's face it. We American women just come in larger sizes, it seems, than our Indian sisters. The cholis we import from their beautiful country seem fit for a child more than a mature tribal belly dancer. So we have to take matters into our own hands.

Though these pictures may at first seem confusing, study your choli carefully and you will come to see that altering a Rajasthani choli (or Banjara, or other cholis of similar styling) isn't as tough as you think. With a little extra fabric, patience, and sewing time, you can have a choli that fits you comfortably. Please note: I am assuming intermediate skill in sewing so I skip what would, to most, be obvious steps, such as including seam allowance in your gussets and leaving length to complete hems. If these ideas are beyond your understanding, then you may require help from a more sewing savvy friend to make these adjustments.

1) Where to begin:
First, you have to find the choli of your dreams. Now I am not going to tell you that you can run out and buy an XXXXSmall choli and fit it on a size 18 frame--this would require full reconstruction, which is an option for advanced seamstresses. But for most dancers, you will have to have a choli that has the basic dimensions of your body to begin with in order to use these instructions. For instance, the bust must fit roughly across your chest area, but the sleeves need not fit your arms.

2) Get to know your choli
Take a look at the rough diagrams of the choli I have drawn up. (Fig. 1 and 2: Your choli may vary slightly, but the construction should be similar. Try it on if you can, get an idea of what areas really need alteration, and which will fit once other areas are adjusted. You don't want to disassemble or adjust more than you have to!

Click on images to see full-sized

3) Get to rippin'!
Grab your seam ripper, gals. Time to tear into this beautiful piece of art. Remember, you can always put it back together again as it was if you find yourself in a bind. Just be careful with it, don't tear it or cut into the fabric.

Where to rip: Pick out the underarm seam. If there is a small triangular gusset, take that out completely. Then rip out the side seam directly next to the chest part to down as far as you want your underarm gusset to go (Fig 3). If you need more room in the bust, then rip all the way to the tummy panel seam (Fig 5). If you mainly need a little larger sleeve and more arm-movement room, tear to about mid-bust (Fig 4)

If the distance across the chest (essentially from shoulder to shoulder) is still tight, you may want to remove the seam binding on the V neckline and cut it a little deeper (Fig 3), then re-bind the edge in a complimentary color to finish.

Click on image to see full-sized

4) Try it on again
It might seem silly, but now that you have the choli taken apart a bit, try it on. Did the areas you pulled out ease the tension across the areas you want adjusted? If so, then you're on the right track. If you try it on at this point and it is still hopelessly small, your choli is probably too small for your body, and will require more alteration than I will address here. This doesn't mean it can't be adjusted to your body! It just means it will need more reconstruction than I can help you with in a quick tutorial.

5) Figure out your gussets
Now that you have it on, you have an idea of how much you need to add into your choli to get the proper fit. Just look at the spaces created when you try on your choli. Very basically, you fill that space in with fabric and it fits. You may want a friend to take some rough measurements of the spaces you are trying to fill, but being the kamikaze costumer I am, when I do it on myself I just guesstimate the size and shape and experiment with fabric swatches until I get the fit I want

6) Start to fill in those holes:
Begin by figuring out your rectangular arm gusset (Figs 4 and 5). This is just how much you need to add to the sleeve to make it fit your upper arm. Lay down a piece of fabric over the gap and pin in place. Try the sleeve on. Adjust until you have the fit you need, and voila. There is your underarm gusset shape (include seam and hem allowance).

Click on images to see full-sized

Underarm gusset
Now that you have your rectangular sleeve gusset figured out and pinned in place, you should have a long triangular shaped hole left where your underarm gusset needs to be. Lay your choli out on it's side, as flat as possible, over a scrap of fabric, so that you can look through the triangular hole and see the fabric. Take your tailor's chalk and trace the shape of the hole as best as possible onto the fabric.

Lift up choli to reveal fabric underneath. Draw a seam allowances along all sides and cut out. Pin this into the gusset-space and try the choli on. How does it fit? Is this basically your final product? This is your chance to make adjustments to either gusset. Repeat the above steps as necessary, tweaking as needed to get the fit you desire. Don't rush this process. It is a much bigger pain to tear out the wrong pieces once they are sewn in rather than to simply unpin them.

7) SEW! Once you feel you have your gussets figured out, sew them into place. I found it easiest to sew in the sleeve gusset, then sew in the underarm gusset. You may feel another way is easier for you, so just place them in the order that works for you. Sometimes the tip of the triangles can be tricky. If they cause you grief, just hand sew the tips in place--it will save your sanity rather than the madness of trying to squeeze it into your sewing machine properly.

Fabric suggestions: For most of my cholis, I use a medium weight quilter's cotton in solid colors. You could use prints/patterns, satins, lightweight brocades, or even stretch fabrics! I once used a two-way stretch velvet for my underarm gusset to gain more lateral movement. It worked, and who cares that it didn't match perfectly? That's not the point. Just look at your choli and see how many different fabrics, colors, and patterns were used to make it.

Feel free to be bold with your fabric choices, too! The only requirement is that your fabric be strong. The points you are sewing these into are stress points and will endure a lot of wear-and-tear. Don't use something too light or flimsy, or it will tear away.

There you go. Your beautiful imported choli now fits the REAL you. Wear it in joy!

~Shay Moore
Deep Roots Dance

Sharon R. Moore
Copyright 2001-2013  [Deep Roots Dance]. All rights reserved.
Revised: May 26, 2002