The clothes we love the most tend to wear out the fastest. Today I’m going to teach you how to upcycle a worn out long-sleeved dress shirt by turning it into a pristine short-sleeved shirt.
I still remember the text message my husband sent to tell me he had ripped a hole in the elbow of his favorite shirt. I was surprised because although I’ve put lots of holes in jeans (ALWAYS the right knee), I have never gotten one in the sleeve of my shirt. Justin has done this twice. It’s probably because he leans on his elbow while he studies, and he studies a lot. But I couldn’t bear to see him lose his favorite shirt! So I promised I’d try to fix it and I put it on the mending pile.
Two moves and three-and-a-half years later, that shirt was still in my mending pile—until Justin came home with another ripped out elbow in another one of his favorite shirts. I took this opportunity to pull the other torn shirt out of the mending pile and upcycle both at the same time.
There are lots of ways to upcycle dress shirts. I have seen adorable children’s dresses made from daddy’s shirts. My friend made beautiful pillow cases from her late grandfather’s flannel shirts (similar here). Perhaps my favorite upcycling method is the Japanese boro technique, which employs sashiko embroidery to mend and extend the life of tattered textiles (modern applications here and here ). I am waiting for the right mending issue to come up to try it myself.
But because these shirts were structurally sound everywhere except for the elbows, I decided to simply upcycle both old long-sleeved shirts into new short-sleeved shirts. Today I’d like to show you how I did it. It sounds simple, and it really is, but there are a few tips that I hope will help you along the way.
- Long-sleeved dress shirt with elbow tear
- Short-sleeved dress shirt (for reference)
- Rotary cutter or scissors
- Marking pen (I used a tailor’s chalk wheel)
- Pattern weights
- Sewing machine
Start by measuring the sleeve length and sleeve opening of a short-sleeved dress shirt that the shirt owner likes. To measure, press the sleeve exactly in half, with the seam line on the bottom fold. Measure the length along the pressed sleeve from the seam line at the shoulder down to the finished hem. Also, measure the sleeve opening from fold to fold.
Prepare your long-sleeved shirt for marking by turning it inside out and pressing both sleeves exactly in half, with the seam line on the bottom fold. The rest of the garment will be wrinkled and messy. That’s okay. Just make sure the sleeve itself is really flat.
Lay out one sleeve on a cutting surface, using pattern weights to help the sleeve lay flat. Measure down the top of the sleeve along the pressed edge and mark your desired length (I made my men’s Medium 9″ long). Draw a line perpendicular to the pressed edge down through the seam line. This is your finished hemline.
Do not cut yet! First you need to add a hem allowance.
I wanted a 1” hem, so first I drew a parallel line 1” from the first. This is your fold line. Then I drew another parallel line ¼” beyond that (this part will be pressed under). This is your cut line. Now cut the bottom of the sleeve off along the last line you drew (it should be 1.25” from your finished length line).
Stop and Think
Before you plow ahead and start hemming, you have to correct the underarm seam. The sleeve opening on a short sleeve usually has a smaller circumference than the bicep of a long sleeve (it looks better that way). This makes your job much easier, since it means that you will have more than enough fabric to make your hem out of.
Let’s look at the hem a little closer. If you were to try to turn up the hem without modifying the underarm seam, you would find it is impossible to do without major puckering. That’s because the tapering of the underarm seam makes it so that the length of fabric at the cut edge is quite a bit shorter than the length of fabric at the desired level of the hem stitching. To create an attractive sleeve and easy to sew hem, we are going to modify the underarm seam line and perfect the hem allowance.
Seam Line Modification
To modify the seam line, we will start by unpicking the underarm seam from the sleeve opening to about 1.5” beyond the underarm. Press the seam allowances flat.
Based on the sleeve opening from the short-sleeved reference garment, measure and mark the new sleeve opening from the top folded edge of the sleeve along the finished hemline. Next, draw a straight underarm seam from the armpit intersection (right on the old seam line) to your mark along the finished the finished hemline. This is your new finished seam line.
Perfecting the Hem Allowance
Now we will perfect the hem allowance. To do this, we need to mirror the angle of the underarm seam onto the hem allowance. There are a few ways you could do this, but I’ll show you one.
Draw a parallel reference line 1” away from the finished hemline that intersects the seam line. This is where the fabric from the hem will lay when you turn the hem up. Now draw a line perpendicular to the reference line that runs through the intersection point you just made. Extend this second reference line through the fold line. Now connect the end of your seam line to the point where the second reference line intersects the fold line. Voila! You have a perfectly mirrored seam line on your hem allowance.
Cleaning Up Seam Allowances
With a newly tapered underarm seam line, you will need to clean up the seam allowances. I needed a ½” seam allowance to recreate the seam finish on the rest of the shirt. You may need a different width, so use what works for you. Cut off any excess fabric that extends beyond your seam allowance line.
Recreating The Underarm Seam
Both shirts that I modified had a mock flat-felled seam on the underarm/side seam. I didn’t want to unpick and re-sew any more than I had to, so I applied the same method my new underarm seam. Here’s how to do it.
First, stitch the seam line. Start at the end of your unpicked stitches and sew, following the line you drew. Make sure to put your needle down and pivot at the finished hemline to create a clean hem allowance.
Clip through the seam allowance at the finished hemline halfway to the stitches. Now press the seam allowance in half so that the cut edge is right next to the seam line. The clip you just made will allow you to do this without strain at the pivot point.
Now fold over the folded seam allowance again so it lays flat against the sleeve and press. Turn the sleeve right side out and pin the seam allowance from the top. Now topstitch the seam allowance to the sleeve starting at the end of your unpicked stitches, until you get ¼” away from the raw edge.
Hemming the Sleeve
Finally we are ready to hem! Hem by double folding the bottom edge to the wrong side of the sleeve first ¼” and then 1”. Press these folds well. Top stitch at ⅞” and you’re done! With one sleeve anyway. Repeat all of these steps for the other sleeve and now your upcycle project is really complete.
A Couple Notes
There is a mistake in the construction of one of these shirts that in the eight years that my husband has owned this shirt, I had never noticed. Look at the intersection of the body and sleeve at the underarm. It doesn’t match up! It turns out that even people who produce garments all day every day make mistakes that they don’t bother to fix. When you sew your own garments, you know where every little flaw and mistake is. And it can be hard to get past them. But guess what? It’s probably good enough. No one is going to notice. And if they do, they aren’t going to be bothered by it.
So next time you’re feeling bad about every little mistake in a garment that you’ve made, be kind to yourself. Remember that even store-bought garments aren’t perfect. Sewing professionals make mistakes and move on. Chances are, you’re the only one who will notice the flaw. So don’t strain your brain by holding onto it.
Shirt Upcycle Success
Justin was so excited to get his shirt back that he stained it with mulberries before I could get blog pictures of him in it. Thank goodness for the stain remover that made this photo shoot possible! He’s really happy to have a couple more summer shirts, and I’m happy to have rescued these shirts from the discard bin.
How do you extend the life of your well-loved garments?
Am I the only one leaves clothing in the mending pile for years and years?