Because of declining quality and huge cost increases in better clothes, "the little dressmaker" is becoming more sought after than ever.

And because no one can afford to have clothes hanging unworn in their closets, a good tailor is apt to have people lining up around the block. People are even buying things -- on sale -- that don't fit, figuring they're still ahead, despite the typically high cost of alterations.

When it first became possible to buy clothes better and cheaper off-the-rack -- a phenomenon we can only long for now -- custom dressmaking declined in this country. In Europe, particularly France (where it is far more difficult than here to find quality clothes at reasonable prices), many women will tell you about "my little dressmaker," a genius who creates in the mode of couture houses. (The names and phone numbers of their finds are, of course, guarded with their lives.)

Here in the Washington area, some of the best names are more apt to be circulated. A sampling:

Therese Burleson, who designs a small group of specialty items, including sweaters, sold by Saks Fifth Avenue (in cities other than Washington) and other boutiques, is often approached by new clients with a specific idea in mind.

"Sometimes they will ask me to copy something. I don't mind since by the time we finish, the so-called 'copy' is no longer the same."

Others arrive at her Northwest Washington house with a cherished item they want incorporated into a dress or costume. Burleson is currently, in her basement workroom, working a black mantilla into the bodice of a taupe silk dress.

"It takes a while to build confidence and trust," says Susan Khalje, who once worked for Chez Cez and Bez in New York making custom designs for well-heeled New Yorkers.

"But once they trust me cutting into expensive fabric, we both gain from each other's input."

Khalje keeps on hand a wide range of fabrics and garments acquired at auctions or on trips abroad to remake into special-occasion clothes. A native of this area, she now lives in Baltimore.

Khalje sees a client three times in the client's home: to discuss the idea, for a fitting on the work in progress and for final touches when completed.

Many women approach Cody Couture with their own fabric and a picture of a designer dress -- most recently there has been a rush on Kenzo -- which Solange Cody turns out for "about half" the designer's retail price. (She reproduced a $600 Kenzo design, she says, for $300.)

Cody's clients are apt to be wealthy and not looking for savings as much as improvement on what is available. "Rich clients aren't blind anymore," she sniffs. "They know when they're being ripped off."

Much of Cody's alteration work, she says, is re-doing store alterations. "We specialize in quality, even for alterations. We won't alter junk."

Karla Coletto and her sister Lisa Rovan got into the dressmaking business when Rovan's colleagues and customers at J.R. Stockyard in Tyson's Corner, where she was a waitress, asked her where they could find clothes like hers. Karla had worked for Boston designer Alfred Fiandaca and provided the polished skills beyond what the sisters had learned from their grandmother and grandfather, a seamstress and tailor. They have sold a few items to the Alexandria shop, Gadfly, but they work mostly with private customers.

They specialize in clean, ungimmicky -- almost architectural -- details. Along with more regular wear, they will also custom-make wedding dresses, bridesmaids' gowns and swimsuits.

Korea-trained Haehie (Chang) of Georgetown keeps a file card on each customer, noting patterns and sizes, so that each new garment is chosen in the context of what the client already owns. She has made opera capes and tuxedos for a few male clients but most of her work is for embassy women "who don't want to see themselves coming and going."

Southeast Washingtonians Allegra McManus and her friends, Charlotte Newman and Beverly Holton are all full-size women who know well the problems of getting quality clothes that look modern and fit right. The trio, all skilled seamstresses with full-time jobs in other fields, have banded together to specialize in alterations and reconstruction of clothes for the large woman.

"If you are size 8 and wear silk, you can be a size 28 and wear silk, too," says McManus, who works almost entirely in natural fabrics. "A full-figure woman has to learn that she doesn't have to wear matronly clothes."

McManus prefers to visit clients in their home. "Large women prefer not to undress in front of others. Besides," she adds, "that way I have a chance to offer overall advice on wardrobes as well as on hair and make-up."

There are also women in the McManus group who specialize in clothes for the small-size woman.