What makes a great thrift store refashion?

I started out this post as a DIY tutorial for this chevron sweater. Soon it was more complicated than useful. But as I’ve been staring at the blank screen for far too long, I started thinking long about refashioning.

thrift store refashion of a ivory poncho into a chevron sweater with buttons

What makes a great thrift store refashion?

Probably an unpopular opinion: if you take in the sides of a dress that’s too big, it’s not a refashion. It’s an alteration. While altering clothes to fit is a useful skill in your sewing, it’s not the most creative way to refashion.

thrift store refashion of a ivory poncho into a chevron sweater with buttons

It’s always always my goal to help you sew something creative, so here’s 6 things you can do for a great thrift store refashion.

1. Go for transformation

If you aim for transformation, you’ll almost always end up with a great thrift store refashion. Starting with a skirt? Make a top. If you have a pair of jeans–cut them into a coat like denim trench coat.

refashioned denim coat

Curtains can become so many, many things. If you’re having a hard time seeing beyond what the original garment is, here’s a simple trick. Fold up the garment as if it were a bolt of fabric. When you take away the reference of what’s on the hanger, the ideas will start popping!

woman wearing refashioned caftan into a jacket, throwing hat

One of my favorite jackets started life as the world’s most questionable caftan. Wow, it was horrid, but this rain jacket from a caftan is still one of my favorite transformations.

2. Always go for the fabric

Thrift stores are where a lot of old clothes go to die. And some things should. Regularly I see old dated 90s dresses in icky lifeless fabric with dated prints or pilled surfaces. Pass them by. If you’re taking the time to sew something new from something old, always go for the fabric.

french terry bomber jacket thrift store refashion with blush ponte dress and peach booties
olive french terry sweatshirt gets new life as a bomber jacket

The quality of fabric will make or break a good thrift store refashion. Look at tags to know what the fiber content is. Natural fibers will always age better than synthetics. Cashmere, 100% cotton, linen and linen blends are my favorite. Feel the fabric. Is it scratchy? Buh-bye. And it’s a hard pass on any type of knit that’s stretched out.

graphic quote: "Good fabric = good fabric no matter the source"

3. You can always change a weird color

So in your thrifting adventures, you’ve stumbled on a great quality fabric, but the color is just…off. Buy it anyway. Hear me now, you can ALWAYS change a weird fabric color. Always.

Natural fibers can be bleached, or you can experiment with something like RIT Dye Remover. I used Dye Remover on the linen/cotton curtains for this Blank Slate bleached Marigold dress and added stripes with a bleach pen.

back of dress upcycled from curtain

If bleach freaks you out, grab a bottle of dye. Natural fibers + dye= easy win and synthetics are simple to dye with the right dye. I could write sonnets to Rit DyeMore I love it so much for synthetics. It shows up in so many of my projects like this coat, a lot of zippers like for this hoodie, and this experimental distressed sweatshirt thrift store refashion.

colorblocked boiled wool coat

4. Be fearless and creative with your cutting

The best thrift store refashions are going to be innovative with cutting. You can’t always be 100% true to the grainline like you can when you sew with yardage. You will be short somewhere almost always. So piece the fabric where you need it. If you can do that invisibly, great, and if not, make it a design element.

ivory chevron sweater side

Add a contrast color to make up for your lack of yardage. Or purposely colorblock. The contrast chevrons in this sweater came from an old cashmere sweater. The ivory fabric was an old knit poncho. While the cutting work was really precise and complicated, it makes a big impact on the final sweater.

ivory chevron sweater back

5. Be wise when you mix fabrics

I’m sure you’ve seen them–those projects where fabrics are sewn together that just don’t look right. It’s always good to choose fabrics whose colors play well together. Also, keep in mind the weight and the composition of the fabrics.

For instance, when you mix knits together, they really need to have the same weight and stretch to them. If they’re not, they will fight each other and you’ll have a pretty homemade looking creation. This Patternreview Winter Street geometric dress isn’t a refashion, but this dress works well because all of the different knits are almost identical in weight and stretch.

colorblocked knit dress

When you mix wovens, they should have similar weights but also similar drapes. A man’s shirt with its rather stiff drape is going to wage war with a drapey rayon you found in a vintage dress. But mixing the fabrics in 2 men’s shirts can make for a creative thrift store refashion.

refashioned shirt dress made from shirts

6. Use cool buttons

If you sew for yourself, you know the eternal struggle of finding good quality buttons that aren’t a million dollars. This is where the thrift store can really have your back.

closeup of ivory chevron sweater

Sometimes garments way past their prime will still have usable buttons in perfect condition. Often they’re much more interesting than the ones you’ll find in fabric stores. The ones for this sweater came off of a very worn and shrunken sweater. With some loops and added embroidery, the buttons now are a focal point. Definitely a successful thrift store refashion!

Creativity is a muscle that you work!

In the end, almost all the fun of a good refashion project is seeing how limited resources will force you to rethink what you’re doing. Yes, it will frustrate you, yes, the ideas won’t be obvious when you start, but take a step back, and I promise you will come up with a good solution.

The next time you start a refashion project, keep the transformation in mind. Always go for good quality fabric, and know that you can always change the color of the fabric. Be fearless and creative when you pick up your scissors and wise when you mix fabrics together. And if you can top it off with cool buttons, you’re well on your way to a great thrift store refashion!

Looking for more refashioning goodness? Check out this apron from a skirt refashion and the ultimate no-sew ugly Christmas sweater.

4 Comments

  1. Elizabeth, what a great post on refashioning! You’ve hit ever point I think one needs to know when beginning at thrift refashioning. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful wisdom!

    • Thanks Myra for the encouragement! Refashioning is a process and a little different than picking up yardage, and it has its own quirks and rewards. It will always be part of my lifeblood!

  2. Great post! I have started thrifting a lot ever since I decided to begin my journey towards living zero waste, and I recently begain to work on my sewing skills as well. I hope to be able to start refashion some pieces I find! Thanks for sharing!
    -Jenna ♥
    Stay in touch? The Chic Cupcake

    • Thanks Jenna! You will love refashioning. It’s such a wonderful creative puzzle to look at what you have and take it apart to make something different. Good luck with your future projects!

Write A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.