Life Cycle of a T-shirt- Building a Refashion Stash

Recently I set myself the task of clearing out all my worn and semi-worn clothes to decide what to keep and what to cull.  It’s one of those tasks I avoid, preferring to stuff the undesirables into any space they’ll fit and ignoring them.  It’s hard to face an old project that doesn’t work for any of several reasons- wrong color, weird fit, a design experiment gone wrong or an unfortunate fabric choice.  And even worse- the clothes that are just fine but never get worn.  How to let go?  As I worked my way through the pile of unwearables, I couldn’t help but think about Sarai’s post about “Killing Your Darlings.”

I certainly felt like I killed a whole laundry load of darlings when my whites came out of a wash dyed an implacable shade of pepto-bismal pink.  (Yep, I’m still gutted about that and don’t care if it’s silly.)  I stuffed them into a bottom drawer, and every now and then I’d peek at them regretfully.  I tried everything known to man to change them white again, and I can also say without reservation that several months in a drawer will not restore whites to their proper color.

Spurred by the challenge I set myself for Frosting Fortnight to find and cull my “Unworns,” I dyed my ugly whites purple.  Why not?  At least purple is a color, right?

As soon as I pulled the whites-gone-pinks-gone-purples out of the washing machine, I knew there was no way I’d wear them.  Ever.  I’m not saying purple lace insertion is a bad look, it’s just not me.  I gamely squared off the shirts for rags, but before I relegated them to the cupboard under the kitchen sink, Lila expressed her delight in their color.  The monkey liked a bit of lace lying around, too.

What can I make for a little girl from large squares of purple jersey in less than half an hour?  Pillows!  I finished squaring off my ruined favorite tops, put a little pink lining fabric culled from another Unworn behind it, and together Lila and I stitched them into little pillows.  So far they’ve been used for sleeping, as extra walls for her dollhouse, as lilypads, and as weapons in a giggly pillow fight.  I count that as a win.

Once I got honest with myself about what I wear and what I don’t, I had a nice big pile of garments.  The guilt!  Oh, the guilt… I hesitated over this skirt for quite some time.  It’s a plain and simple 6-gore from a 50’s suit pattern, nicely made from a medium weight hemp fabric that shows almost no signs of wear though I wore it constantly for years.  I like the way it looks on my body, the way it feels and the many small and unnecessary details stitched into her.   I like everything about this skirt but my lifestyle does not realistically permit me to wear such things anymore.  I haven’t worn her for over a year.

Once I started ripping out the zipper and findings, I realized something about the magic of sewing.  I’ve always loved the process of taking a length of fabric, some thread and various notions and rendering them into a garment that was more than the sum of its parts.  Yet as I stripped down a favorite skirt, I saw myself doing the same thing in reverse.  Fabric becomes a garment, and a garment becomes fabric.  It’s really easy to look at a skirt and only see the object.  But if I reduce that skirt to a flat piece of fabric and some notions, then I can stitch a new garment from old-but still lively- cloth.

That purple hemp…. Dear me… I’ll find a use for it, the fabric is good. And I’m way, way impressed that my Shisha mirror embroidery stood up to a summer of constant wear, washing, and dyeing. Well done, embroidery.

When I “ripped” this skirt, I only ripped one seam and removed the waistband and notions.  I did this for several skirts I don’t wear- reduced them to a single flat piece of fabric.  Now I have several pieces of linen, hemp, and cotton canvas I can remake into anything I want.  For free.  Completely free- reclaimed fabric is a “pass” in my book.  I have the idea these fabrics will become summer shorts, maybe an industrial seamed skirt or tote bags- we’ll see.  The next project will carry the seams from the previous garment, but I like that.  It’s a history, a reincarnation.

There were so many buttons… And I liked all of them! Imagine that…

Reclaiming my mis-placed sewing materials is definitely not very interesting or sexy, but it didn’t take much time once I started.  When I finished, I had “new” lace and buttons and zippers and hooks and bars to add to my stash.  I can always use more of those things.  And I have more closet space, less clutter, and several pieces of free pass fabric.

I’ve had a few questions from some of you about how to refashion.  I don’t know.  I honestly, really don’t know how to answer that question.  I think the main thing is to remember that a skirt isn’t just a skirt (it’s also a piece of fabric).  Also remember to allow a little serendipity into the process- like making a set of purple lace throw pillows for a little girl.  I doubt I’d come up with that as a project even if I sat and thought for years, but in the moment it seemed like a great idea.  She loves her new pillows and we had a great time sewing and stuffing them.

It’s really satisfying to re-use old projects and I’m challenging myself to continue to re-make, re-fashion or discard Unworns.  In fact, I want to feature little refashioning projects regularly.  Next week’s re-make:

click for “source.” If you know the real source, please let me know so I can update the links.

How great is this little tote made from a felted sweater?  Yeah, I have one of those… Handknit, alpaca… And now I know what to do with it!  I wonder if little bows would be as charming as the roses?

Besides rags, charity donations, and fabric reclamation, what other ways do you deal with Unworns?  Trash?  Do you have a clever or satisfying “life-cycle” story to tell?

Next time: deep, dark wardrobe secrets.  Maybe with zombies or vampires, something nice and festive, anyway…


    • Thank you thank you for that! I think I updated all the links… :)

      You can do it! That’s what was keeping me from finishing off the last of the Unworns… A bit of courage… Some things are really easy to cut up, others less so. But I was glad once I did it.

  1. I end up turning many small bits of remnants and reclaimed fabric into tote bags to store fabric in, lol. Also for rag yarn, to make up into sturdy rugs and hot pads.

  2. I love refashioning! I got back into sewing after many years by refasioning – I took apart a beautiful embroidered jacket shaped like a mao thing and made a bolero with collar – lined, etc… after at least ten years of nothing more than hemming pants… the cheek:). Turned me back on. And I am more pleased with my refashionings than the rest. I just turned one of big sis’s expensive cast offs into a sort of Sewaholic Alma – it was a big boxy YSL white linen button back blouse. I kept the round neck and placket, changed the buttons to painted wooden ones, and remade the rest. Totally wearable and cute. Now I’m doing the same with a huge red linen shirt I never wear. such a buzz!

    • Oh cool! Sounds like a great refashion… Yes, it’s a bit of a buzz to make something that’s basically worthless into a useful thing. I love that.

  3. Oh, I love this post! I love hearing and seeing just how interesting a garment’s life-cycle can be. And how darling is that pic of Sleeping Beauty on those pillows. I am just starting to wrap my head around re-fashioning. I’ve currently 2 garments sitting in my stash waiting for re-fashioning. I will always salvage rag-appropriate fabrics for the rag bin, if nothing else can be done with them. But there are those garments that I just don’t have the heart to re-fashion…… so I just cannibalize them (mostly for buttons) as much as possible and either trash them or give them away. I’m not a quilter, and probably won’t ever be a quilter, so keeping smallish remnants becomes a pack-rat issue eventually. I love the idea, but realistically, it ain’t gonna happen.

    • Aw thanks… I put the pillows on her bed and she jumped in and pretended to be asleep… Wouldn’t budge…

      How do you make your rugs? Woven? Crocheted?

      Yeah, I cannibalized a heap of things… But it’s so so so boring to see/talk about…. Even though very rewarding and kind of fun to do..

      Quilting isn’t for everyone, definitely. As it is, I have more quilting scraps than I need, though I do tend to sort them by colors and not keep too many.. But yes, I have to keep a sharp eye out for it not to become a pack rat issue. ;)

  4. I love that felted bag. I want to make some more softies for my classroom using some of my old sweaters and felting them. One day…. I have a whole pile of clothes that I can’t bear to get rid of because I want to make them in to something else. Now I’m thinking baby clothes…. ;)

    • It’s soooo swoonworthy! I love it… Sometimes a refashion really looks like it, sometimes I wonder what was the point, but this is something else altogether.. I can’t wait to take some scissors and thread to that poor poor alpaca sweater I ruined… It will make it all better…

      BABY CLOTHES! I’m so excited for you! I’m going over to your blog right now.. :) Lucky baby, to have a mom like you.

  5. Out of all the wonderful hints, tips, knowledge, information & inspiration I have obtained from reading sewing blogs, the greatest is simply the knowledge that other sewists make mistakes too! I always thought my failed projects were unique to me – I was inexperienced, or careless, or unskilled. How valuable to find out that no, it happens to us all! Now instead of hiding those wadders in shame, I will learn from them (what went wrong; what do I need to do differently next time) & then refashion, reclaim – or send them off for a new life with someone else!

    • Oh yes, dear me, I’d never learn anything if I didn’t make mistakes. I try to remind myself that no one on the face of the earth is perfect, everyone makes mistakes sometimes and what matters is how you deal with it… The only time it gets me down is when I’ve had several failures in a row, or when I can’t figure out why something failed. But mostly, I consider it a mistake worth making if I can figure out what went wrong… It takes a bit of practice maybe to develop that skill as an intermediate sewist, but it’s worth the effort. :)

      I’m so pleased you liked the post! :)

    • Let us all proudly flaunt our mistakes on the web so that others can learn from them! :D It’s always good to see that even sewists you admire make them – which is why I’m glad that you, Steph, post about them, and now give us ideas what to do about them!

  6. I’ve shredded a few knit garments and a whole lot of scraps up with a rotary cutter to use as stuffing for pillows and stuffed animals. That’s what I always did when I was a kid making dolls because I didn’t always have polyfil on hand…After becoming a Mom and seeing the polyfil seep out of the seams of a little handmade pony as it went into the mouth of my little guy, scraps have become my stuffing of choice. The scraps make for a dense, weightier stuffing too–your animals really stand up well–like Steif animals, but softer. And the frustration that those bits of random fabric or failed garments disappears in the very satisfying shredding process.

    • Oh this is brilliant. I have heaps of old t-shirts that are way past wearable and would make great stuffing. Thanks.

    • That is a great tip, Elizabeth! I stuffed a floor pillow with regular scraps once, but didn’t bother shredding them. Hmm maybe that’s why the pillow is crazy lumpy.. ;) Excellent.

    • Yes, I’ve done this myself. I also stuffed a draught-stopper (?) with scraps. You know, a long cylindrical thing to stop the draught from the window. It ate LOTS of scraps! And during the summer it was sitting on top of our sofa where it made for a very nice headrest, so I’m thinking of making a headrest the same way.

  7. Oh this is so timely! While I haven’t dressed up for Frosting Fortnight I did spend Saturday going through all my clothes! Your courage has boosted mine. I am now excited to reclaim my notions.
    One refashion I am doing is cutting my old store bought turtlenecks in to skirts for my not-nieces. There will be a blog post on that soon…
    Love your pillows and re-dye! Sometimes children really are the best inspiration!
    Congrats on the courage to say goodbye and reuse!

    • Oh cool, that’s so nice to know. :) I suggest treating yourself to a new seam ripper, the blades dull over time and it makes the whole ripping process so much simpler to use a sharp blade.

      Little skirts? neat. :) and thanks!

  8. Aw, I’m glad to see that you’ve done something good with your poor ‘whites’ disaster. Lila looks adorable and happy, snuggled up with her new pillows! It’s an interesting though, reversing the garment making process and turing the garments into fabric again. I hadn’t really ever thought of it quite that way before.

    I love refashioning. I haven’t been doing it as much since building up a stash and learning to use patterns, but I learned to sew by taking garments from the thrift store and remaking them into something else. A lot of failure, but there were some gems too. Like the denim skirt I made from an old pair of jeans I didn’t like anymore that I still have and wear to this day, despite culling my me-made non-wearables in two big moves across the country. I have another dress that I made last year that I hope to refashion into something else, once I find inspiration. Poor boxy dress just doesn’t work for me as is.

    Your post is perfect timing though. PR is having a refashion contest, and I know I’m using it to both kick me in the pants to start sewing again and make a jacket I fell in love with out of two thrifted jackets. I’m excited to see what everyone else is going to do too. Would you consider entering it, or are you not into the contests there anymore?

    • Yes, now that I’ve given them up and reclaimed the fabric and made Lila something, I can kind of get over it… I have been pretty dramatic over the whole pinks problem, but that’s fine.. I’ll rebuild… New whites, possibly better whites..

      Excellent excellent. It’s such a good feeling to know something you sewed is such a useful garment, isn’t it?

      I might… I got super cranky with the PR contests a while back and decided if I was going to get that irritated, I should just quit… (tailored jacket contest where a single-button cardi with no particular tailoring merits won…. still don’t know what that was about… maybe because it was freakin’ purple…)

      I’d probably go enter now except I just don’t have the time or brainspace… Maybe. I don’t know. If I could lay my hands on that missing make do and mend blazer pattern, I’d cut up that Fijian suit to make myself a smart pinstriped blazer, but I just can’t find the darn thing.. Beginning to wonder if (gulp) I threw them out…

  9. Currently my unworns are stuffed back into spots to be addressed another day. I had some bad dye jobs on articles I tried to rescue, or my chest has gotten bigger and I can’t fit into some of my button downs, or the fit isn’t quite right. I’d never thought to take them apart and use them for fabric, but I think that’s a brilliant idea. I love that you are working to re-use the pieces! Definitely an inspiration for the rest of us.

    • Oh dear… A collection of sewing/fitting woe. I hear that… ;)

      Aw, you’re so sweet. Thanks. I also just bought a rush of fabrics to use for Cake samples… So I guess I feel like adding to my refashion stash sort of balances it out? Maybe? ;)

  10. You’ve already said my best refashion advice, which is think of the pieces as fabric, and cut out the way you would any other fabric. Any time I try to do it the other way, as if I am altering something that doesn’t quite fit, it ends up taking so much longer!

    I am also trying to clear out some things that have been waiting to be refashioned for quite some time. So far I have made two tank tops out of tee shirts, and I have another super weird fitting (but on sale and organic cotton!) shirt in my stack for the same process. It helps me to tackle them one at a time and in between other projects, especially if you have a bunch, it can be overwhelming!

    • Yes… Except for simple alterations like hemlines or mending, I usually reduce a to-be-refashioned garment to flat pieces before I cut a new garment from the fabric. It’s way easier. And often the old seamlines look cool on the new garment.. The trick is to remember while I’m working that the second garment *must* be smaller than the original. For some reason I have to constantly remind myself of that simple fact…

      My Pinterest feed has been a wellspring of refashioning ideas for me, and I’ve been doing it for ages… There’s so many clever people sharing ideas, and I’m finding more and more good stuff and interesting ideas for t-shirts especially…

      Hmmm… I like to clear the dining table, turn on a movie or whatever and set up a bowl to catch the buttons and hooks, then I just dive in.. Do as much as I can at one time, then it’s done… But that’s me, I think I more or less apply the same work ethic to most things.. ;)

  11. Love to remake and restyle! Your pillows are great, my little girl would also love those!

    Then I have collected to many things to remake and resew and realize I don’t have time to use it all I give them away to other people so they can do it instead. Usually through my blog or through facebook. It is most appreciated and especially if you don not have that much to buy fabrics for. T-shirts becomes beanies or dresses for little boys and girls. :)

    • Yes, definitely… Lots of sewing people I know irl are constantly giving things away, fabric changing hands, it’s great. One woman’s de-stash is another woman’s treasure and all that.. It’s cool that you do that through your site! I thought about trying something similar, but the logistics would drive me up the wall probably. ;)

  12. I’m currently making two pairs of jeans and a top for Button from The Husband’s old jeans and a shirt. I count this as free fabric too and it just feels so great to be reusing something that still has life in it.
    I also feel the connection to generations of women before us who’ve done exactly the same thing… a feeling of continuity of skills and values across generations.

    • Awww! I love it! And it’s pretty easy to do that with kids’ clothes… I salvaged a little stack of jersey to make Lila some t-shirts… No sweat… ;)

      You know, I hadn’t quite thought about that- the continuity… You’ve just sparked my imagination a little, I’ll be thinking about that for a while…

  13. I bet lots of clothes with cute details would make good pillows. I’m picturing a skirt sewn closed at the waist and hem for a skirt shaped pillow. Or a button-down pillow with a collar and tie. Not so comfy for sleeping but awesome for playtime!

    • That’s such a cute idea! :) I’m kind of annoyed that I cut up a button-down for rags now… It smelled a bit but I could have cut that off.. let me know if you make one, I’d love to see it.

  14. I have just cut down several garments into notions and fabric to re-use. I now have a nice little collection of sliders for spaghetti straps, zips, buttons, plastic bikini snaps to re-use. It feels great. I also have a ruined 100% cotton doona cover (puppy got it and ripped it on the front too badly to repair) which I am going to use the back for a muslin and can reclaim parts of the front cotton for other garments.
    I have been using my hubby’s old worn out polo shirts to make toys for our dog. I cut them into thick strips and plait them to make rope toys. The dog loves it and plays with them until they are shredded and then still carts the scraps around. Even better they have hubby’s scent on them.

  15. Other than reclamation and donations, it’s generally rags. I haven’t done this, but in Japan school children are sometimes taught to make dishwashing cloth/scrubbers with scraps of fabric and sashiko type stitching. They just look to cute to actually use…

    • Oh! That is a great idea! Oh ! Hahaha, I’ve been racking my brains to come up with a good craft project to do with Lila’s pre-schoolmates… This might be a good one. Nice. It’s a little step up from the squares we use for our rags, and maybe the stitching gives it a bit of texture for scrubbing. Nice. Thanks for that, Jen!

  16. My cast-offs are either in quite-good condition, thus donated, or rubbish, and thus cut into rags. Once I got enthused with some stuff that was in-between and made patchwork cushions.

    If you want to donate women’s clothes in good condition and suitable for work-wear, this is an excellent organisation which provides them to women (re-) entering the workforce:

    There’s an office in the Valley for Brisbane-ites.

  17. Thinking of clothing as just fabric is a great idea. I’ve been doing that lately with bras- tearing apart old ones for their parts, but even that is hard. Not sure why I find it so difficult to cut into things that have already been made up! How did you like working with iDye? I bought some a few weeks ago but haven’t tried it out yet. You probably haven’t washed the pillows, but do you think any more dye would come out in subsequent washings?

    • NO, probably not will come out with washings.. I’ve used iDye extensively in the past and it’s been fine. The only, only only time I had problems was when I used the red. Red dyes are already kind of funny, different qualities to reds than other dyes… I dyed some wool and rinsed it out afterwards, then we went away for two weeks and came back… When I came back, I washed a load of darks and then my whites, which came out pink. It was probably my fault, I should have washed the machine out with washing powder afterwards but didn’t… Anyway of all the dyes I’ve tried (and it’s been all kinds/brands/concoctions) iDye gives the best consistent results. I’ve never had any issues except with red.

      After I dye something, I make sure I only wash it with like colors… I do that anyway pretty much… So if any dye goes away, it’s enhancing the colors of the other garments in the wash..

  18. I find it much easier to hand over my old expensive RTW to charity shops than my home made clothes – Am I too attached? but we do need to cull every so often. I’m building up to the expedition into the attic to put away the summer things and bring out the winter – wonder what I’ll find?

    • ooooh you’ll find all kinds of treasures… :)

      Usually, usually, by the time I’m finished wearing something I don’t kid myself that the charity shops want it. But then, I tend to wear things into the ground… ;)

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