Tee shirt remix — big into little, two into one

When I wrote about some upcoming projects for the fall, high on the list was refashioning some of my teenage boy's discard clothes to make the toddler boy something wearable.  One of the discards, sadly, was this excellent tee I picked up just this summer during an excursion to the thrift store.

I like the bold colours, the sweet little bird (I know, I know), and the way the print is a bit worn. The teenage boy confessed, when we were going through his clothes, that he would probably never wear it out of the house.  Fair enough: what kind of jerk mom would I be if I insisted he wear it to school?  I wasn't worried though - the toddler boy actually needed some new shirts for the fall.

It was prime time to turn it into the shirt it was obviously meant to be -- a toddler-sized tee with contrasting long sleeves and a bound neckline. I remixed that old tee shirt and you can too.

A Tee Shirt Remix

For this project, you will need:

  • two adult tee shirts in contrasting colours
  • thread to match at least the main tee
  • a tee shirt pattern that fits your kid (self-drafted or commercial)
  • a sewing machine (a serger is nice too, but you don't really have to have one)
  • all the usual sewing supplies like scissors, an iron, a measuring tape, etc.
  • a machine needle meant for stretch fabrics
  • optional fancy sewing items like a twin needle (if you don't have one already, now's your big chance)

Step One:  Draft or Acquire a Tee Shirt Pattern

In this tutorial, I'm using the Flashback Skinny Tee Pattern from Made by Rae.  It's fairly snug, which gives it a good retro vibe and I make a lot of tee shirts, so the purchase was worth it.  (Another thing that I will say about this pattern -- the instructional PDF contains a generous amount of full-colour illustrations for various the various steps and it's very easy to follow.)  If you have your pattern, proceed to Step Two.

Those of you who don't have a pattern, probably already have the means to make one.  Grab a tee shirt that fits your kid already and follow the instructions at Shwin &Shwin - it's nice and clear.

Do keep in mind that when you draft a pattern yourself, you will have to add your own seam allowances.  A lot of people seem intimidated by this, but it's really not so bad!  You can either add the seam allowance to the pattern itself or to the fabric when you're tracing (or cutting -- I think there are rotary cutters with a seam guide on them now, but I don't have any experience with these, myself).

Doing it right on the fabric is the way of the pros.  You can buy a double tracing wheel for this and it marks your sewing line and the cutting line at the same time.  Fancy!  The advantage to adding your own seam allowance like this is, of course, that your pattern is more flexible in the long term.  If you want to try a different seam finish the next time, you just adjust the distance between the wheels.  If you need to size up or down, or adjust your pattern in any way, you need only to deal with the actual measurements, not begin by getting rid of the seam allowance.

But if you don't have one of these, or don't think you're going to be refashioning the pattern, don't despair, just add the seam allowance directly to your pattern (3/8" is good for this project, especially if you're going to serge your seams).  You can be very precise and measure using a seam gauge, make little dots, and then marry up those dots with a smoothly drawn line.

Or, you can do what I do: just grab one of the many math compasses that seem to breed in every junk drawer in your house and use it to create a fairly accurate seam allowance.

(Pull the compass apart to the width you'd like your seam allowance to be and gently (really! don't tear the paper) run the metal end along the line you've traced while the pencil draws a parallel cutting line.)

Remember that you add seam allowances where you want the seams to be.  You want to add a hem allowance where you're going to add hems -- like at the bottom of the shirt or the ends of the sleeves.  It is really, really handy to mark on your pattern where you want the finished edge of your shirt sleeve and hem to be.  If you're working with a tee shirt that fits well, just trace what's there.  If your shirt is looking a little short, you can add the inch or two you feel would make it perfect.  (If you're adjusting the length of a commercial pattern that already has a hem allowance, remember to make your adjustment by cutting apart the pattern where this is indicated (usually mid-shirt) and not at the bottom of the pattern.)

Step Two:  Cut it Out

You should have a pattern that's really half a pattern for the front and back pieces.  If you've self-drafted, it's good to do this because then your two halves of each side will be nice and even. BUT, if you're reusing a tee shirt with a graphic, you might be nervous that you will not get the graphic evenly placed in the middle of the shirt when you fold it.  No fear!  Just create a full front piece pattern by tracing your piece on a folded piece of paper and cut it out:

(Wrapping paper, cheap and big, is my pattern-drafting paper of choice). If you're extra paranoid about placing that graphic correctly, you can use the leftover paper as a "window" to help you place the pattern piece. (Save that window too -- in future projects, you can use it to see if the image you want is going to be too close to the neckline of the shirt to work.)

If you're not trying to capture a graphic, you can, obviously, not bother with this step.  (And the less anxiety-prone among us have already rolled their eyes, folded the tee in half, and cut with confidence.)

If you're not dealing with a graphic, do move that pattern to the bottom of the shirt to capture the existing hem!  Remember how I said it was handy to mark the finished edge line on your pattern?  This is why:  you can line up your pattern piece so that it follows the finished edge and saves you hemming the bottom of your tee shirt.  Commercial manufacturers use coverlock machines to create the finished hem on knits (more expensive sergers come with this feature).  Your handmade tee shirt won't have that edge and, frankly, it might look a little wobbly because of the way knit stretches as it's handled and stitched.  There are ways to mitigate this (which I'll share), but by far the easiest solution is just to keep the hems that already exist.  My graphic was too high for me to save the original shirt hem, but I did keep the sleeve hems. 

If you just want to make a tee-shirt, these are all of the pieces you need:  two sleeves (long or short), a back body, a front body, and some ribbing for the neck (and you can keep the original neck rib if you're careful about cutting it off):

This would have made a cute tee shirt -- a teeny version of the tee I liked enough to buy for my older son, in fact -- but I wanted something long-sleeved.  I also wanted something that evoked ye olden days of grunge.  (That is because I am old.)

I wanted to do the old short-sleeve over long-sleeve look.  I did not have a yellow t-shirt (which would have looked swell with the yellow on the graphic), but I did have this red ribbed shirt that used to belong to my mom.

Nice ribbing is a hard to find and expensive fabric (at least in my neck of the woods), so it's something I pick up in used shirt form whenever I see a good colour.  I did not like the hem of the sleeve though.  I could avoid the little button detailing, but I thought the multiple lines of contrast stitching were too feminine.

No problem though -- I just cut my long-sleeve pieces on the bottom hem of the shirt, since I didn't need it for anything else.  You'll note that I traced and cut the entire sleeve piece, even though I really only needed the part of the sleeve that hangs below the short sleeve. If you're trying to save fabric, you can measure and cut off only what you need, but I had lots of fabric and I grabbed the whole thing just to give myself a bit of extra room to adjust the length.

You also need to cut yourself a piece of ribbing for the neckband, but I do this at the end.

Step Three:  Sewing with Knits

When you sew with knits, you must use a needle appropriate for stretch fabrics.  It will be extremely frustrating if you try to get by with a universal needle.  So switch out that needle and set your machine to a narrow zig-zag.

On my machine, I'm all of the way over near the zero mark on the stitch width (higher number = wider stitches) and this is generally where I sew knits.  Using a zig-zag (or one of the stiches on your machine especially designed for knits) is just as important as using a stretch needle.  The zig-zag will let the seam stretch when the fabric stretches.  If you use a straight stitch, the seams will "pop" when the wearer moves around.  If you want to really up your knit-sewing game, the internet is positively bursting at the seams (see what I did there?) with helpful tutorials and tips for sewing with knits.  Here's a good one at Kitschy Coo.

Step Four:  (Optional) Short Over Long Sleeves

If you're making the grunge sleeves, tuck the long sleeve piece under the short sleeve piece and top stitch it into place. (You can cut off the excess fabric from the long sleeve piece and finish it off with a serged edge, but knit doesn't fray and you can just trim it either before or after top stitching.  If you don't finish the edge, for added security, you can top stitch along both lines on the short sleeve piece.)

See how I'm just following the stitching line?  Because my zig-zag is so narrow, you will need to look at this really closely to see the extra line of stitching.

Before you sew the second sleeve, take a moment to line up the finished sleeve beside the unfinished one so that they match.

Doesn't that make your anal-retentive little heart soar?

When both sleeves are top stitched and finished as desired, you can sew up the rest of the shirt, lickety-quick.

Step Five:  Sew the Shirt Body

Match up and sew the shoulder seams (right sides together!).

Match the curve of each sleeve to the curve of each arm hole and pin into place.  Basically, you are leaving the sleeve seam and the side seam of the shirt undone at this point.  You want to achieve this:

See that nice, curvy seam?  The top of the arm piece has been matched and sewn to the curve of the arm hole.  Because knits are stretchy, I pin this fairly heavily, smoothing out the fabric.  Sewing curves can be tricky.  There's no shame in going slowly here, stopping to smooth the bottom fabric as you go.  Try not to pull on the fabric, which will be tempting due to its stretchiness.

Finish off those seams as desired.

Full disclosure -- I own a serger and I didn't bother to use it for this project.  I finished up the raw edges using an over lock foot I have on my machine:

You could also zig-zag (nice and wide stitches for this) the edges or even leave them alone.  Knit won't fray.  Finishing your edges will make them more sturdy, but you're probably safe here.  All of the little lazy-seamstress cheater clothes I've made my kid have been outgrown before they've been out worn.

Okay, now you have what's starting to look a lot like a shirt:


Right side to right side (the shirt is inside out) match the seams and stitch it up.  Take some time here to match the various points of the seams where they come together (hemmed edge, armpit, where the short and long-sleeves meet).  A little old lady in a quilt shop gave me the best advice on keeping seams matched up, "oh I just pin the hell out of it."  You can also try a walking foot, but I didn't bother.

It's really delightful when these come out well:

You will like it a lot less when you discover things like this:

If this happens to you (as it obviously happened to me), remember that this is the bottom edge of the sleeve of a shirt belonging to a two-year old.  You could rip it out and try again, but you are probably the only person who will either notice or care.  Your toddler certainly won't.

Step Six:  Hem the Shirt

If you weren't trying to save a graphic from the original shirt, you probably saved your hem.  If you did, you're a sweepstakes winner and you get to move on to putting in the neckband!

But the rest of us have to make a hem.  Finish your hem edge as desired (serge, zig-zag, or whatever) then turn the hem up and press into place. Using lots of steam can help to shrink your hem into place so it waves and bumps less and that's a good thing.

There are a lot of ways you can finish off your hem, but I like to use a double (or "twin") needle:

You'll have to follow the instructions that came with your machine to thread the needle, but it's generally less scary than you probably think.  (Go here for visual walk through on using your twin needle.) For the hem, you just switch back to a plain straight stitch.  The needle creates a set of perfectly parallel lines of stitching on the top (right side) of the fabric while on the underside, the bobbin thread creates a little zig-zag.  The zig-zag keeps the hem stretchy which, as we've discussed, is important for knits.

Step Seven:  Finish the Neckband

To finish the neckband the way that I did -- it's called a "bound" neckband and it means that all of the raw edges are hidden -- then you need to measure and cut a piece of ribbing for your neckband, sew the ends together, press the seam open, pin it correctly to the shirt's open neck, sew it, and then flip the ribbing back over to the right side of the shirt and top stitch it down.

That's a lot of steps!  There's a very good video at Threads Magazine that demonstrates how to measure, cut, and sew the neckband together (forming a loop) and then follows with how to create a regular neckband with the raw edge on the inside.  If you carefully saved the neckband from the original shirt, you can just follow that tutorial all the way through.  For those of you making a bound neckband (I did mine in the red fabric), measure the length of the neckband by finding the neck opening's circumference as they show in the video, but cut the width two full inches.

Line up the seam of the neckband with the centre back of the neck opening. The shirt should be inside out (wrong side facing) and you want to put the right side of the neckband against the wrong side of the shirt, raw edges together.  Pin.  (This always makes my head hurt.)  Take it slowly, stretching out the neckband to fit the opening and smoothing out the shirt fabric on the underside.  Here I am sewing down the neckband with a 3/8" seam allowance:


When it's all on, turn the shirt to the right side and flip your ribbed neckband over.  Fold it up so that it creates a bound edge.  Sew this edge down.

There's a very fine pictorial demonstration of what you want to achieve here and if you've never done a bound neckline before, it's worth checking out.

Step Eight:  Give it to Your Child

Congratulations!  You did it.  You remixed that shirt up and now your kid is super delighted.  Older children might even be impressed.

Our model is also wearing a pair of jeans I recreated out of his Dad's discards.  Upcoming tutorial?  Probably!


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