My deep dive into refashioning started when my sons were little. Packing them up in the car to drive across town to a fabric store that might not have had what I needed was really difficult.
What I discovered instead was my local thrift store aka my weird fabric store. It’s 5 minutes away and after some patient work, I realized that old clothes are the start to some pretty fantastic sewing projects.
I’m going to cover the reasons I think that refashioning is awesome not just for tired Moms, but for every sewist. If you were sitting down to tea with me right now, I could talk you ear off about the benefits of refashioning, but I’ll try to keep it succinct here!
Hopefully by the end, I want you to look at old clothes with a different mindset and a ready courage.
So get ready to rifle through your closet, and let’s get into this!
Table of Contents
Why refashioning is awesome for all sewists
Refashioning is a creative challenge
You have x amount of fabric and what can you do with that?
Your choices can lead you to creative cutting, piecing, or all kinds of other things. When you’re forced to explore other options besides let’s cut a perfect pattern out from a pristine piece of fabric, it makes your mind go in directions you’d never think of normally. And Orson Welles said it well here:
It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true that when you are limited somehow in your creative process, that’s when the best ideas happen.
Try this challenge:
- Go find an old garment in your closet you haven’t worn in a while.
- Write down 5 things you think you could remake it into. Make them 5 totally different things. You can use patterns you’ve been thinking of or go totally rogue and sew without a pattern*.
- Limit yourself to cutting up just this garment.
- Allow yourself to add a little contrast fabric or trim.
- Pick your favorite idea from your list and get to it.
Or a different challenge: take one old garment with a lot of yardage like a maxi dress. See how many things you can make from it. This old maxi dress turned into this maxi dress refashion, this DIY drawstring cowl, and a pair of leggings for my daughter.
I just bet at the end of this you’ll surprise yourself!
Refashioning saves you money
This one makes sense! When you can upcycle old clothes into new projects, you’ll save a whole lot in raw materials.
Think of clothes you’re not wearing as free fabric! It’s just waiting there ready to sew. Thrifted clothes can be picked up for not much money at all. Even better, a lot of thrift stores have half-price days and special sales weekly and throughout the year.
You can better believe I’m always at the 99 cent sweater sale searching for cashmere and merino sweaters every year, LOL! This khaki cashmere sweater chopped up with another coral sweater turned into one of my favorite refashions!
Refashioning lets you sew with hard to find fabrics
I already alluded to my personal fabric thrift store unicorn: cashmere knits. If you were to buy a cashmere sweater knit in yardage it’d be $$$, but they regularly pop up in sweater form at thrift stores for a couple bucks.
There’s tons of other type fabrics that are hard to find in fabric stores that you can find when you thrift. I just passed up a 100% linen knit tee that would have made a dreamy tank this weekend. Linen knits are very often $20/yard, and the cheaper ones are blended with polyester (totally ruining the heat beating properties of linen!). That tee–it was $1.50 and had about 3/4 yard of usable fabric.
Be on the hunt for natural fibers and natural fiber blends like linen/cotton or cashmere/silk.
Study construction when you upcycle fabrics
Another reason why refashioning is great for every level of sewist is that it gives you a peek inside already made items.
When you seam rip up a top to sew it into something new, you start to get an idea of how it was made in the first place.
After cutting up dozens of t-shirts for my line of upcycled clothing I created for the Denver boutique SEWN, I noticed that the back neck seams on t-shirts are almost always covered with a tape or binding. I liked the look so much, that I rarely sew a knit jacket or top without adding that in there. That little bit of twill tape on the back neck just classes up the place in my opinion!
Look inside old clothes for things like seam finishes, the way that linings or facings are sewn, how darts are finished. You’ll be surprised at how many great ideas you find!
Refashioning lets you practice with fabrics that make you break out into a cold sweat
One of my friends at church does professional alterations. She’s currently working on her future daughter-in-laws’ bridal ensemble. They went looking for laces at a local fabric store, finding goods to the tune of $80 a yard!
You don’t want to screw up lace that’s $80 a yard. The heartbreak that will ensue might make you give up on sewing entirely!
Instead, try to find a less expensive version of whatever fabric you want to work with and practice. You can always thrift for laces, and deconstructing them and refashioning them will teach you about how to sew them into a garment!
I say this often but so much of sewing is teaching your hands the feel of different fabrics as you sew with them.
Real example: Cut up a thrifted silk scarf into smaller rectangles and practice seaming them together to learn how it feels to sew with silk. If you destroy the scarf in the process, you’re only out a buck or two. Bonus: when you find a beautiful silk fabric, you’ll have more confidence to sew it without fear because you’ve put in that practice!
Rescue vintage materials when you upcycle fabric
Once in a while you’ll come across vintage materials that you can’t pass up. You could let them die in a landfill or become a Fabric Rescuer.
Fabric Rescuers take those awesome vintage tablecloths or old suits and stitch them together into something that gives that beautiful old fabric new life.
I’m just waiting for the day when I find an old quilt that’s perfect to turn into a coat. There’s so much history in those quilts! Why not preserve it in a way that honors the original maker but is also practical for your own life?
Refashioning makes you use what you have
I’m grateful I grew up in a family that has always believed in using what you have. Not that spending money on stuff is bad, but when you have something that you CAN use, you should.
And that’s just refashioning allows you to do. When you use what you have, you’re not wasting time and energy searching for the *right* x, y, or z.
Using what you have also gives you the chance to continue a fabric’s personal history. One of my favorite children’s books is Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback. The story follows our hero Joseph through his journey of his life with his favorite overcoat. The coat gets “old and worn” so then Joseph reinvents it over and over again until he has nothing, at which point… well, I won’t spoil it for you!
I can imagine that Joseph loved that overcoat more and more as it went through his life in different forms. We put so much heart into our sewing projects, we should preserve the work!
Refashioning teaches you about different fabrics.
To sew well, I truly believe you need to be a student of fabric.
Here’s some things we all need to learn about fabric:
- How they drape
- The weight of different types of fabrics
- Natural fibers vs. synthetics and how they feel different separately and in blends
- Which fabrics are suited for certain styles
Pay attention to how a fabric flows in old clothes, then look at the fabric label. You may not get the exact name of the fabric, but you’ll start to understand things about a certain type of fabric. Also pay attention to how a fabric is used, and think about that when you refashion.
A men’s shirt for instance, with it’s stiff, heavy drape won’t make a good flowy skirt, but it will make a great A-line skirt that has more structure.
Refashioning helps you evaluate the quality of fabric
Ugly fabric is forever. Don’t refashion with ugly fabric!!!!
One of my favorite things about thrifting expeditions is reading the fabric labels. I try to test my knowledge of the feel of fabrics by guessing the content before I look at the label. You can do the same! After a while of this, you’ll quickly figure out which are the fabrics that age well, and the ones that feel the best.
Explore DIY techniques with upcycled sewing projects
I did just literally say that ugly fabric is forever. Sometimes, however there’s good quality fabric bound up in an old garment that’s worth refashioning, but it just needs some DIY magic. I know it’s hard for me to pass on old white jeans so I can ice dye them like these:
Here’s some DIY magic you can do to reinvent your refashioned projects:
66 embellishment ideas for all your sewing projects
Ways to spice up all your sewing projects and especially your refashions!
Refashioning can save you a lot of time
The last point I want to drive home is that refashioning can be a big time saver.
Let’s say you want to make a denim jacket from old jeans. Now, you could spend a lot of time sewing a fly to make for a unique sleeve vent on your jacket, or you could use what’s already there in the old pair of jeans.
The hardware alone on this sleeve was totally worth figuring out how to save it for this sleeve!
Other times refashioning can save you time: you may be able to use existing buttons and buttonholes vs. sewing them fresh yourself. You’ll save time, and it’ll help you think creatively about how to cut your projects out!
Have I convinced you yet how refashioning can change your creative life as a sewist? If you’re currently running for your scissors, so you can get at this thing, be sure to check out these refashions you can do today.
Sew an asymmetric top from a maxi dress
Your old maxi dress + scissors = a creative showstopper for summer .
Make a skirt from your old jeans
A great beginning upcycling sewing project with some added sass
How to turn a skirt into an apron
Give new life to a worn out skirt with this fun refashion project + a free pattern for you.
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.