How can I salvage my clothes into something Frankencool?
April 6, 2010 12:14 PM   Subscribe

I want to start making clothes for myself. I have basic sewing skills.

Specifically, I want to turn the many busted pieces of clothing I have into something awesome. I have a lot of clothes lying around that I just don't wear: many pairs of jeans that have big gaping holes in them, t-shirts that are alright except they don't fit well/have a graphic I'm not especially fond of, etc. etc. I'm a dude, if it matters.

My goals here:

1. I don't want to buy more clothes to make clothes out of the clothes I already have. I'm definitely up for buying some fabric, if need be.

2. I do want to make clothes that don't get me arrested for indecency.

3. Nothing would please me more than if the result were totally wild and insane looking, but I do want it to be a focussed insanity. Using a bunch of completely unrelated and not especially complementary fabrics to patch up my tattered pants is an example of what I'm not going for.

4. I want the result to fit me fairly closely, assuming I change the shape of anything. I know that probably makes it a lot more challenging.

So, I know this is a very broad question, but I'm basically interested in finding out where to start. Have you tried this before? What skills do I need for the end result not to just look like an ugly burlap sack? Do you know of any good beginner-level projects that would suit me?

posted by invitapriore to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (20 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Miranda Caroligne wrote a book about this. I've tried on (and to my eternal regret not bought) things in her shop and her techniques produce really great clothes.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:21 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely look into taking a sewing class where you make an article of knit clothing (t-shirt.) Knit fabric can be frustrating to work with if you've never worked with it before.

A good basic class will help you learn how to read patterns, adjust patterns, cut fabric, etc. You really want a strong set of foundation skills before you start making and/or revamping your own clothes.

Check the class offerings at your local JoAnn's store, check your local library to see if they have a sewing or quilt group (those little old lady quilters KNOW THEIR SHIT and will likely have great tips and pointers to people/stores that can help you.) Make sure you also check the sewing section at half-price books or your local used bookshop...the library is also very much your friend for these books.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:25 PM on April 6, 2010

4. I want the result to fit me fairly closely, assuming I change the shape of anything. I know that probably makes it a lot more challenging.

If you've got a favorite, well-fitting shirt and/or pair of pants that are beyond saving, undo all the seams and lay out the pieces flat. Don't just cut along the seams, but take a knife or a seam-ripper and remove the stitching. (That way you're not losing any of the extra cloth used to hold the pieces together.) The pieces you are left with can be used as a pattern for other creations in the same size and shape that you like.
posted by carsonb at 12:30 PM on April 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

The burlap sack issue is easy to avoid by using patterns (technical term!) that you either find online or copy from other clothes (in the method described above).
posted by carsonb at 12:33 PM on April 6, 2010

You might enjoy Wardrobe Refashion, which has some pretty darn high fashion creations mixed in with the jeans-made-into-ruffled-miniskirts-for-toddlers. It's a good inspirational blog.

If you're a visual learner, you might get a lot of what you need skills-wise from the Built By Wendy books, which would also be a good adjunct to a sewing class.
posted by padraigin at 12:39 PM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

This book is a nice place to start playing around with your t-shirts.
posted by mirileh at 12:52 PM on April 6, 2010

Mirileh, while that is a good resource for the ladies, the poster above is male.

I second the ideas of a local sewing class at a fabric store, or perhaps an adult-ed class at a nearby high school.
posted by rachaelfaith at 1:10 PM on April 6, 2010

Here is a simple tutorial on reverse applique. The example is pretty feminine, but if you have several t-shirts with graphics on them, you could cut out the graphic and stick another graphic underneath. Or you could just make eyeballs.

I have no idea what you could do with the jeans, though.
posted by dogmom at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2010

4. I want the result to fit me fairly closely, assuming I change the shape of anything. I know that probably makes it a lot more challenging.

Speaking generally, this is the most difficult part of this process. It's not trivial. I don't do this myself, but mrs. is a talented professional patternmaker and designer, and I can report that in her years of designing everything from children's wear to dance costumes to pro football cheerleader swimsuits, the single most challenging aspect of the entire process is fit.

Check out any given episode of Project Runway and note how much time they spend getting the thing to fit well.

The considerations will vary depending on fabric, construction technique, etc. carsonb has the right idea with deconstructing an existing garment as a starting point. However, know that the resulting pattern will be good for the most part only for making more clothes out of the same fabric.

Imagine taking your favorite snug t-shirt and remaking it from the same pattern out of, say, leather. You'd never get it on. A garment that was shaped and fits like your favorite tshirt, but is made from leather, will be an entirely different pattern and garment than that tshirt.

The mrs. used to do a flavor of what you're talking about. She remanufactured adult clothing into children's coats. They are/were beautiful, but the process is far more complicated than it sounds.

A large part of fit is something called "draping". The mrs. studied draping for at least two quarters at University.

So, n-thing taking some classes.
posted by chazlarson at 1:39 PM on April 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you have a garment that fits well, you can use low-tack blue painter's tape to clone a pattern from it. There was an article in Threads magazine a few years back; this blog comment discusses the principle, and this links to the article summary on the Threads website, from which you can purchase the back issue if you want. (Or your local library may have it, if you're lucky.)
posted by Lexica at 1:54 PM on April 6, 2010

As a reference book on sewing, The Complete Book of Sewing Shortcuts is awesome. It is not shortcuts, but a fairly complete reference on how to, well, sew.
posted by plinth at 1:58 PM on April 6, 2010

Check out it's a great site for DIY clothing projects. They've got tons of videos and resources you can sift through to pull out the kinds of projects you're interested in along with all kinds of quick tips and tricks.
posted by platinum at 2:18 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

A couple of thoughts...

1. I've learned how to sew without taking a class. It's a learning curve, so be patient with yourself. The internet is your friend, for sure!

2. Go buy a pattern or two from Joann's. (Look for a sale, never pay full price.) You will find that, in most cases, it's not as difficult as you think. Pick something simple to start. A lot of patterns tell you the skill level required, and the people at the store are awesome (usually). However, when you get to a spot in a pattern where you just don't get what the fuck they're talking about, trust your instincts! Even though I'm fairly new to the hobby, I've found errors or been able to achieve the same thing more simply just by using the old noggin. I'd start with t-shirts from scratch, if I were you.

3. Go to to look up specific patterns, before or after buying them. This site is a goldmine of great advice that is targeted to exactly the pattern you have/want. Learn how to read the back of a pattern, which tells you what type of fabric to buy, what notions you might need (i.e., buttons, elastic, interfacing, what-have-you).

4. Once you're comfortable with a pattern, having made it once, you'll be able to think of all kinds of ways to embellish or slightly alter it. You can even merge two patterns together, for instance if you like the collar on one shirt, but the sleeve on another. Not sure what your style is, but thinking of grunge, I might experiment with adding grommets, using fabric paints, doing some cool zigzag or other stitching in a contrasting color from the fabric, etc.

5. Regarding your jeans: buy a pair or two of cheap jeans at Goodwill to cut up to use as patches on your existing jeans. There's no way to repair jeans so it doesn't look like they were repaired (that I know of). I recommend Goodwill over buying new denim at the fabric store so that you can at least try to achieve the same "wear" as what you have. Don't just head straight to your size, in this case. Buying larger sizes is advised simply to get more fabric to work with.

6. To take in t-shirts, you'll need someone to help you. Put on your shirt inside out, and have someone pin it to the fit you're wanting. Take off and sew along that "line". Things will get a little klugy around the armhole, so look up techniques on the internet. Recommend buying slightly larger sizes at Goodwill and practicing on those, instead of ruining your faves.

7. Make sure you use the right tools for the job!! There are special needles for sewing machines for different types of fabrics. Get heavy duty needles for sewing denim. Get needles specific to knit fabrics for your t-shirts. Make sure you read the manual for your machine so you can properly select a stretch stitch to use with knits. Needles are relatively inexpensive, so change them often (for instance, I put in a new needle after sewing one quilt. But that's a lot of sewing, so you could do at least 10 t-shirts before needing a change, I'd think.)

8. To cover up graphics you no longer like, consider doing your own iron-on. You can buy iron-on "paper" that goes through your inkjet printer, so you can design or print whatever you want. Look for it at hobby/craft stores or the fabric store. Also, you can buy a product called Wonder Under that will turn other fabric into an iron on. That gets slightly tricky, so google it before trying. You can also use basic freezer paper (in grocery stores near ziploc baggies) to create stencils. Cut out a design you like (skull and cross bones, maybe? nothing too complicated) from the freezer paper and iron the shiny side onto your shirt. Use fabric paint. Then peel the freezer paper off. It won't leave a residue, once washed.

9. Know that you may not like the fabric selection at your local store very much (not sure what size city you live in, though). But you need to buy stuff locally for awhile just to make sure you know what it feels like, how it drapes, how it sews, etc., before you start ordering off the internet. Don't just buy fabric that you think looks cool, tempting as that may be. Get a pattern first and buy the exact type of fabric called for, or you may end up with a useless stash.

10. When using a pattern, make sure you use YOUR MEASUREMENTS to compare to the back of the pattern envelope to determine which size to make. Just because you wear XL from the store doesn't mean the XL in the pattern will be the same.

11. Tools you'll need at a minimum: sewing machine with proper needles and proper sewing feet (make sure you have one that accommodates a zigzag stitch). A tape measure (the flexible kind for tailors. the one from your toolbox will not suffice). Good scissors that you use on NOTHING BUT FABRIC. Snip-sized scissors, too. A pin cushion and pins (get the kind with a ball head). A hand-sewing needle or ten. A seam ripper. A fabric marking pen.

Whew! Sorry to spew all that at you at once! :) Feel free to memail me with questions.
posted by wwartorff at 2:30 PM on April 6, 2010 [9 favorites]

Make yourself a duct tape dummy. Then you can try the item on the dummy and make the adjustments for fit correctly. Google 'Duct Tape Dress Form' or Duct Tape Dressmaker's Dummy' for lots of sites with instructions and tutorials. You'll have to adjust the instructions a little since you're a dude and (probably) don't have the same curves, but the basic tutorials should give you a good place to start.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:52 PM on April 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Good point about buying patterns and, in particular buying patterns at JoAnn's, always wait for a sale they do a 40%-50% off patterns sale pretty regularly...once every 2-3 months. They also normally have a 40% off in the Sunday paper every week.

Make sure you go by your actual measurements when buying patterns - store sizes and pattern sizes don't match up/aren't the same at all.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 3:17 PM on April 6, 2010

The Generation T books do have patterns for men in there, for the record.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:21 PM on April 6, 2010

The absolute best rip-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands basic sewing book I have is the Vogue Sewing Book. It has the BEST info on alterations for various body types I've ever seen. The new version is like $20, but some stuff never changes. I use a 1970 edition from a used book shop. Ebay has a bunch for under $5 right now. It's not about modifying existing stuff, but the techniques are easily translated.

You'll also need to learn to be completely brutally honest about your body. Do your shoulders slump, is your waist actually 2" bigger than you tell yourself, etc etc etc. I've run into so many problems sewing for other people who actually suck in their stomach when taking measurements.

Oh, and if you don't have a sewing machine already, I'd strongly advise you not to buy more than you need. A lot of people will push the European brands (and really, in many ways they are better), but I've always been of the opinion that you get the least you need and upgrade later, AFTER you're sure you'll stick with the hobby. Go used, or cheap new. If you plan on doing anything with buttons get a machine with an automatic buttonholer, and for tight things you'll at least want a stretch stitch (a serger is ideal, but they're even more money than sewing machines) otherwise forget all the fancy shit. Dropping $600 on a machine and then determining that you'd rather shove bamboo under your nails than sew another hem would be very frustrating at best.
posted by Kellydamnit at 12:17 AM on April 7, 2010

Seconding the Boook of Sewing Shortcuts and making a duct tape dummy. Most importantly though, sew a lot of things and make a lot of mistakes. For the first five years of making clothes for myself I made nearly as many unwearable garments as wearable ones. But I learned a lot from every one of them.

Also, if you want to get serious about sewing, pick up a used industrial machine. An older straight stitch Consew or the like can be had for a few hundred bucks. They are a world apart from a home sewing machine. If that's out of your price range or you don't have the space find a 1950's or earlier home machine. Something made out of metal and controled by gears and levers not electronic bits. An old straight stitch Singer would be great. I have a 50's era zig zag Pfaff that is fantastic, and it will do buttonholes. The modern machines with two dozen different stitches really aren't all that useful, 99% of everything you will ever sew will be a straight stitch, and most of the remaining one percent will be a zig zag/bartack/buttonhole.

Good luck!
posted by Jawn at 3:22 PM on April 7, 2010

Copying existing clothes that fit reasonably well is a great plan for avoiding fitting hassles with basic garments, and you absolutely don't need to take apart your shirts and pants to get patterns from them. I've posted videos on doing so at my blog.

Nth-ing the duct-tape double idea; it's invaluable to be able to look at and adjust your project on "yourself" from all sides. But duct tape is only one way to get a personalized body form and not necessarily the best, especially for a male figure. Check out Don McCunn's book How to Make Sewing Patterns for some very sensible, easy to follow talk about patternmaking, and a clever and much simpler way to make a personal form from the basic fitting pattern he shows you how to make for yourself. Duct tape might be better if your shoulders are very curved and/or uneven or if you slump seriously, but you'll learn a lot of invaluable basics from the McCunn book regardless.

As to refreshing your existing wardrobe, I've always found it easier to start from scratch with new garments than to come up with good-looking, wearable fixes for old ones, but perhaps my sense of what I can comfortably get away with wearing is more limited than yours. It's certainly vastly less flexible than that of any woman sewer I've ever met, and that's a key problem, I've always thought, for the male sewer looking for useful info in the very female-oriented and fashion-playful world of home sewing instruction. But it's a very friendly and generous world, and I welcome you to it; have fun, ask anything and try everything!

btw, there's a surprising amount of good talk about sewing right here at ask-metafilter. By all means search about for it…
posted by dpcoffin at 8:58 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

On a similar note, does anyone have resources for learning how to do things like tailor a suit? Narrowing sleeves, taking in torsos, etc?
posted by craven_morhead at 1:01 PM on April 9, 2010

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