There are an awful lot of t-shirt upcycle/t-shirt surgery posts online, and it’s wonderful. Today, I wanted to put together something that gets to the heart of the process – an overview, as well as a few couture details.
I’ve known several stitchers who got started with t-shirt recons. After a few successes they’d run into frustrations – popped stitches, wonky shirts, puckered neckbands, shirts that didn’t quite feel right. I want to help with that.
So in that spirit, this last week I sewed up seven t-shirts in a row – modeled here by my thirteen year old son. Every original shirt was fifty cents (or free!) and all of them were men’s L or XL, with no undersleeve, stripe, or hood detail. Both the resizing and colorblocking and hood details were added by my magic!
And here we get into the main advantage of t-shirt upcycles – perfect fit. Whether you are sewing for yourself or a client, you can create a master pattern that can be used time and time again. My model here is tall and slim – a shirt that fits his girth is usually about three to four inches too short. I have a master pattern for these seven garments: the Flashback Skinny T by Made by Rae with some extra added length. I’ve also drafted several extra details – colorblocking, stripe detail, and cowl hood, to use at will. Below, I’ll talk a bit about when and how to add these details.
So let’s get this post started!
1. Learn knit fabric 101.
Knit fabrics (think: “stretchy” garments like t-shirts, hoodies, and leggings) are a whole discipline separate from woven fabrics (think: what a quilt is made of). T-shirts are almost always made of knit fabrics – and every t-shirt I’m talking about here is made with a knit with 2- or 4-way stretch (more about that in a moment).
What’s the difference between a knit and a woven? Mostly, the difference is in the structure of the fabric’s weave. Knit fabrics are made in a series of interlaced loops while woven fabrics are made with warp and weft fibers on a loom.
In general, knit fabrics will drape well, while woven fabrics may drape, or they may be crisp. Knit fabrics are associated with being stretchy, and woven fabrics are not.
That said, there are exceptions. Some knit fabrics can have zero stretch – and some woven fabrics can stretch.
But when it comes to t-shirts, almost every t-shirt you find will be a cotton, or a cotton polyester blend. You may see some bamboo out there, too. Compression/sportswear shirts include fibers like spandex (also called elastane or lycra) and nylon, but for graphic t-shirts you are likely to see cotton, poly, a blend, with maybe a bit of spandex for stretch and recovery. Graphic t-shirts are constructed in a knit weave that stretches either 1-way (across the crosswise grain), 2-way (across both the lengthwise and crosswise grain), or 4-way (across both directions, with excellent snapback and recovery). Don’t get too fixated on 1-, 2-, or 4-way as, sadly, this language isn’t really standardized. Even fabric stores won’t be clear about the stretch of their fabrics and sometimes you have to order swatches or write an email to ask!
How do knits handle, to sew on a machine? It’s a mixed bag. I love them – but there is a learning curve, and beginners may find them frustrating. On the plus side, the fabrics’ stretch and drape mean that you are more likely to get a fit you like, than when making a fitted garment from woven fabrics.
Some people love sewing with knits; others are scared to do so. I’ve written several tutorials on the topic of knits, including more than one introductory post where I put forth some great resources. I’ve also archived the Timmel lessons (and posted them with permission here). Feel free to read up – and you can always ask questions here on this post.
There are several different technologies that will help you work with knit fabrics, and some of these bits of tech are expensive indeed. I could write a chapter or two on that alone! But without going into detail I’ve already belabored before, at bare minimum you will want a sewing machine that can form a good zig-zag stitch, an appropriate needle (a ballpoint is a good start, in the right size), and a polyester or poly-based thread. When you’re ready to upgrade your kit (and in order of expense) you may look into stretch or wooly nylon thread, a serger (for either seams or seam-finishes), and a coverstitch machine (for fast and professional hems and/or decorative seams).
Shown below: poly thread in the needle, wooly nylon (for more stretch in the seam) in the bobbin:
But listen – don’t worry if you don’t have any fancy gear. You can sew t-shirts on old machines – every shirt you’re seeing here was sewn on machines no younger than a 70s vintage! All except the goldenrod shirt were sewn with regular poly thread.
2. Find the shirt grain!
Just a few days ago I had a student over, and I demonstrated the grain of fabric on the quilting cotton we were working with. While she has sewn a bit over the years, she had no concept of fabric grain. The grain of a fabric is so important it would be impossible to cover all of the implications here. Let me do a bit of bare-bones illustration.
Almost every fabric has a grain (the most notable exclusion is felt, which like paper is made of fibers pressed and dried in a random orientation). In general, even though woven and knit fabrics are different, their grain is similarly named. If you are looking at fabric coming off the bolt at the fabric store, below is a demonstration of the crosswise grain, lengthwise grain, and bias grain – as well as the selvage edges which are important in understanding fabric mechanics. (We won’t be talking about the bias grain in this post – another important and awesome topic for another time!)
In general (except for bias-cut garments), you want the pieces of a garment to hang off the body such that the lengthwise grain of each piece in the garment, is perpendicular to the surface of the planet! Put another way, the lengthwise grain should run corresponding to gravity. The centerline of your t-shirt, from neckline to hem, should run right along the lengthwise grain. This helps the garment hang and perform well.
So how does this pertain to t-shirts, and especially t-shirt upcycling? It is relevant when it comes to selecting a suitable shirt to work with.
A t-shirt is not going to come with selvage edge for clues as to grain – but it is very easy to see the grain of a t-shirt. The lengthwise grain looks like long channels and are quite beautiful: here is a close-up of a (gorgeous) monster hoodie I made a few years ago. You can see the grain of the knit fabric quite easily in the striped hood lining:
In general, a knit fabric and therefore a t-shirt will stretch more across the grain than along the length of it. This is no coincidence: this is why and how the knit stitch was developed, to provide clothing that moved with our bodies.
Oops! I got back into fabric theory! Back to t-shirts.
When you get your t-shirt, you are not going to have a lot of options! Your motif will be printed on the shirt, and if you want the motif centered and to take advantage of the fabric in the t-shirt, you are not going to get to be picky about the grain. You have to trust the shirt is printed more or less on the grain.
So are (ready-to-wear, likely sweatshop-produced) t-shirts printed properly on-grain? In my experience, none of them have come close to my results in my studio. But most are decent enough. About 40% of t-shirts in a thrift store have good grain. Some are abominable and unless you are DYING over how lovely the print is, leave them be. If you select a shirt with very poor grain, the final result may hang crooked, or a side seam may creep alongside the body.
There is one other consideration for grain. If you are going to be using the body of the shirt to cut your neckband (like the Treasure Island shirt three photos down), or cuffs, you are going to want to cut these bands on the crossgrain. For that reason, a shirt with a good grain is a better choice than one that is sub-standard.
Shown below: finding the grain and lining up logo placement. The shirt is folded in half, the grain straightened, and carefully smoothed before cutting my front pattern piece on the fold.
3. Think about (vertical) logo placement.
One of the biggest issues with re-sizing t-shirts, is you often end up with a skewed logo. Many examples you will see online either feature a printed motif right at the neckline, or even partially-truncated entirely:
This factor is complicated if you want to transition your t-shirt to a deep neckline – say a scoop or v-neck. When you lay your front pattern piece on the vertically-folded t-shirt, the shoulders will extend up and usually intersect the original neckline. Things get crowded very fast!
There are many ways to get around this. You can colorblock your t-shirt, as I’ve done in this example:
You can also make a cold-shoulder top, using a band of identical, similar, or contrasting colors. You can add a saddle-shoulder effect (below and – yes, this is the same child!), which does wonderfully at dropping that logo lower on the shirt body. These solutions involve a bit of time and a bit of pattern-drafting knowledge – available with a Google search, and patience on your part. But they are considerations if you want a good-looking logo instead of one chopped to pieces.
Sometimes you find some cute t-shirts at the thrift store – and there are multiples! Or perhaps you find one awesome shirt – but with some searching you can find another that is made from a similar fabric. This offers you up some awesome possibilities – namely, hoods, undersleeves, cuffs, or saddle/raglan sleeve details!
Below: the original shirt. Notice that even as big as it was, I still needed to use another shirt for the undersleeves, cuffs, and cowl hood!
Note that you do not have to have a fabric that is exactly like the original t-shirt, to use it. In general you want a similar weight and a similar degree of stretch. You can grab up cheap shirts that are plain, wash and dismantle them while watching telly, and store them folded. Not that I do that! (I totally do!)
And this leads me to my next point:
5. Stock up on jersey fabrics.
If you’re a little little upcycle freak like me t-shirt aficionado, you might consider collecting and keeping jersey fabrics in your stash (besides the aforementioned extra t-shirts). These fabrics are inexpensive and wonderful. This will also extend your ability to upcycle for larger bodies.
T-shirts can come in so many fibers, but 100% cotton jersey or 50/50 cotton/poly in mid- to heavyweight are the most common t-shirt blends and weights. Remember – always prewash your new yardage before combining it with a thrifted t-shirt. The thrifted t-shirt has likely been washed many times. Personally, I’d pre-wash the t-shirt itself, too.
The strips of t-shirt and jersey you stockpile like a post-apocalyptic hoarder collect can be used for collars, cuffs, stripes (as seen below on this upcycle), and other colorblocked or appliquéd detailing. When I have enough high-quality scraps from a t-shirt upcycle, I take a few moments and cut strips with my rotary cutter, to use on the next shirts I mess with.
Shown below: a Mario shirt re-sized and amended with undersleeves in a soft periwinkle interlock.
5. Re-use & Co-opt
These days I almost always reuse the neckband, sleeve hems, and (when possible) shirt hems of the original. This makes for an extremely fast sew-up. It took me much longer to write this post, than it did for me to make any one of these t-shirts, for instance.
Let’s talk about those sleeve and shirt hems. With careful pinning and tidying of your thread tails, the end result looks great. And while you may not be able to use the shirt’s hem for your resize, you can almost always use the sleeve hems if you’re making a short-sleeved shirt, as you simply fold the sleeve and cut as low on the sleeve as you need do . Shown below: a photo tutorial of how I tidy up the thread tails (in this case, a serge-finish) to keep these sleeve hems looking good.
So as for the neckband: in the seven new shirts shown at the top of this post, I re-used the neckband for all the shirts except the cowl hoodie and the GBO shirt.
When removing the neckband, oftentimes you can just tear it out. Be careful here, however. If you aren’t rather nimble-fingered and experience you can end up tearing right into the shirt. When in doubt, carefully cut this neckline out and use a seam ripper to clear the ribbing! Go ahead and get all those little bits of thread off the neckband before applying.
The new neckband will likely be too large for your new raw neckline – but that all depends on the neckline you have cut and selected. The ribbing of neckbands usually stretches well with good recovery – a good rule of thumb is you want a neckband about 80% of the neckline it is affixed to. After I have my neckband I usually pin the center front of the shirt to the band, stretch firmly and evenly, and pin toward the center-back. At that point I will get a good feel for how much of the original band to cut off. I then cut the neckband to size at the center back, sew the center-back seam of the band, finger-press this seam open, re-pin, and sew up. It is incredibly fast!
I like to give a steam press of this neckline, on a tailor’s ham. Some people finish this neckline with topstitching but I generally omit that.
If you can’t use the original shirt’s neckband or don’t want to, you can use a contrast ribbing, a self-fabric neckband. Tthe Timmel lessons I mentioned above, go into detail here on neckline finishes.
6. Finally: make it your own!
Seriously? the possibilities for t-shirt upcycle are endless! An inexpensive and unique screenprinted patch (below), stripey sleeves and gathered necklines (above), slot seams, asymmetrical detailing, double-hoods (with or without ears!), cold-shoulder tops – after you do a few t-shirts you are going to find a lot of inspiration out in the world and eventually from your own little braincase! And let me tell you – it’s pretty special to go out and about and have people stop you to say – “I love your shirt! Where did you get it?”