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Upcycle Sewing

Hello Love Notions family! Anjori here from Bee Threadly. to share how you can incorporate upcycling into your everyday sewing. Today I’ll walk through how I made a Summer Basics maxi for myself, the Cartwheel Collection shirt, and the girl’s Skater Skirt for my daughter.

Before continuing, I want to say Happy Mother’s Day to all the great moms out there – and you are all great in one way or another. Aaand if you want to get yourself a little gift, all Love Notion patterns are on sale right now for 40% off until May 10 (no code needed)!

Mother’s day is a tough time for me, since losing my mother almost 9 years ago. I still swing between “can’t believe it’s been that long” and the raw emotions of the early days. Each year, I like to do something to honor my mother for Mother’s day. And this year, I am honoring her, as well as Mother Earth.

summer basics

Ways to incorporate the mentality of reduce, reuse, and recycle

Somehow, I understood at a very early age (1st/2nd grade) that we as humans have got to change the way we do things to preserve this planet, the only planet we have. As I got older, I learned new ways to incorporate the mentality of reduce, reuse, and recycle; from saving all glass jars as containers, to using reusable grocery bags.

What I didn’t know was how my clothes buying was affecting the environment. Before I sewed for myself, I would usually buy clothes from the clearance section or deep discounted sales to save some money. So when a garment didn’t work for me later, I used to just toss it to the donation pile thinking, I just paid $5 for that, no big deal.

summer basics

Why Upcycle?

But it is a big deal. Garments are tossed or donated in huge numbers in the United States; not to mention overwhelmed donation centers.+ Multiple resources state that the textile industry is one of the top contributors of pollution today (both carbon emissions and water). There is fabric waste (scraps from cutting out pieces), fabric dyes, microplastics that we wash away each time in the washing machine.++ Ok, confession time – raise your hand if you have a huge fabric stash but keep buying fabric! ????‍♀️ Yup, both my hands are up. Even if we as sewists, don’t contribute to the fast fashions, we unknowingly contribute to the larger problem.

The fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans. ~ UN Environment Programme

summer basics

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

I know I am. Pollution is a big problem and while it needs a big solution, that is nearly impossible without government intervention. But there is good news. We all can make a difference going forward. Am I saying that we should stop making clothes? NO! I would be a very angry person if I had to stop sewing.

But we can take small measures and commitments to ourselves to use our resources wisely. Make purchases wisely. And look at items we want to discard in a new light.

If you want to read more about the textile industry you can read my post on Bee Threadly.

summer basics

How to Upcycle

Just like when we were buying clothes, we will get tired of the clothes in our closets, me-made or not. Before you toss that garment, see if you can change it or upcycle it. I mean, sewing is our sew-per power, right? We take flat pieces of fabric and magically turn them into clothes, why not take existing clothes and turn them into new ones? It takes a bit of creativity but isn’t that what sewing is all about?! And I will show you how I do my upcycles below, through a series of videos, pictures, and descriptions – from taking existing garments apart to working with smaller pieces. I got 4 steps for:

  • Picking the Pattern
  • Prepping Fabric
  • Working the Pattern and/or Working the Fabric
  • Adding Details

Picking the Pattern 

Personally, I like to pick a pattern to make before finding “fabric”. This allows me to determine how much “yardage” is really required as well as whether it needs to be a knit or woven fabric.

Prepping Fabrics

After deciding which items to upcycle (this can be old clothes, curtains, fabric shower curtains, etc) we need to prepare it for use. 

Pro Tip: If your item to be upcycled has been in storage, it might be a good idea to launder (I had pulled out some onesies that smelled musty after 5 years).


Next step is to separate into flat pieces. This may mean cutting away seam allowances or ripping serger and machine stitching. I have a few techniques to rip out serger stitches to help you out. Each garment is different and sometimes it is more time effective to cut it off. 

Pro Tip: Once you have all the pieces separated, it’s a good idea to iron them all so the seam allowance creases are flat.

One more thing about prepping the fabric – see if you have pieces that can be used in your project without alteration. For example, one of my daughter’s old shirts had flutter sleeves that I removed intact so I was able to reuse them as the sleeve in the Cartwheel Collection shirt.

cartwheel collection

Working the Pattern  

Going from a larger size “fabric” to a smaller one is pretty straightforward because there is enough yardage to cut out pieces as a whole. Just make sure you follow the grainline or know when you can break that rule. But when going from smaller garments to larger ones, it is helpful to do some colorblocking. 

Pro Tip: Think about complimentary colors when picking out older items, so they can work together well.

To colorblock, it is helpful to trace out the pattern piece on tracing paper, and trace both halves if a pattern is on the fold. This makes it easier to visualize what the end product will look like. The two videos below show how I used different approaches for the child vs adult garments. For my daughter’s Cartwheel Collection shirt, I tried to assemble the different fabrics to how I liked it and then drew cut lines onto my pattern piece. 

But when I went to make my Summer Basic maxi, I had a vision in mind and worked the block pieces based on both the vision and my limited fabric. Some things I kept in mind were how best to have the seam lines to fall on my body to be most flattering. For example, on the back, having the lines converging at the waist instead of at the top of my back.

Pro Tip: However you decide to colorblock, when you go to cut your fabric, make sure to add seam allowance! Ask me how I know! I decided to draw the seam allowance straight onto the fabric with a heat erasable pen.

summer basics

Working the Fabric 

What about when you don’t want to colorblock but don’t have enough fabric for your pattern pieces? You can alter the pattern to work with your fabric. When I was making the Skater Skirt, I needed the skirt piece to fit in a much narrower fabric – there was about 4 inches too much flare at the bottom of the skirt. So I used the slit-and-overlap method to reduce the skirt flare of the pattern piece. The waist remained unchanged, which meant I didn’t have to change my waistband piece either.

Adding Details  

The key to making upcycled garments not look like a hodge-podge of fabrics is to make it look intentional. In my Summer Basic maxi, to make the colorblocking look more part of the design, I added topstitching to each of the seams. 

But for the Cartwheel Collection shirt, I made the focus fabric the yellow shirt, by adding yellow sleeves, yellow side panels, and the peeking yellow neck binding. 

I hope I was able to inspire you to tackle some upcycling in the near future. It can be intimidating at first because it is different, but as with anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it. So go out and be creative with what you have in your closets! And remember, don’t stress and have fun!

You can follow me on Instagram @bee.threadly and my blog.

I’m running a fundraiser in my shop to raise money to provide oxygen cylinders to those in need in India due to the rise in covid cases. If you can, please consider donating, thank you!





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Author Tessa

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Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • Judy Sewell says:

    You are an inspiration! Thank you for these lovely ideas. The top stitching is great on your dress, and I love your pattern weights.

  • Sue Ketchum says:

    Thank you for this blog. I just ran onto some things in a donate bin in my basement that I pulled out. One was a dress that looked too tight and too short. I cut the bodice off to start prepping it to use the skirt fabric and discovered that now it was great as a simple skirt. The rest of the garments need some adjusting but I don’t have coordinating fabric, so I will wait a bit. They would be good with black at the top but black by my face is horrible. I know something will come along.
    I will use some of your suggestions as I begin to change these garments.

  • Nicole says:

    I love to upcycle but have stopped over the years. Thank you for the reminder of how wonderful it can be to reuse well loved clothes.

  • Josie says:

    This is a brilliant post, Anjori. It has opened my eyes to actually using old clothes not just fabric scraps. Thank you and yes we need to take care of our environment.

  • I love to upcycle and you’ve inspired me to do an upcycle project today! Thank you for the great tips!

  • Linda ross says:

    You are so innovative and inspiring in all of your makes. Thank you for all of your encouragement to all of us.

  • Mary Hull says:

    This was so good . Very inspirational and necessary . I now think of the clothes I donated and what I could have done with them . My mother in law use to cut down her own clothes forty years ago to sew for her grandkids . She definitely was into recycling . Love what you did . Thank you

  • Heather says:

    Thank you for this post and your tips and ideas! I have loads of things saved for upcycing but needed some know how!

  • Debi Mager says:

    Thank you for all the detailed information. I have some dresses and 3xl shirts I bought at a sale for $1 each and just didn’t know how to really upcycle them. Your information has inspired me!

  • Janelle Theron says:

    Really inspiring 😀 love the idea and detailed description, it also helps to think for those starter sewing projects that are falling apart because of my skill at the time I can still use the material again and not just throw it away! Does all the fabric have to have the same amount of stretch and thickness and such? I assume weird things will happen if they are not in a similar range

  • Caitlin A. says:

    Thank you so much for this awesome and inspiring blog! I’ve done a few upcycling projects but love all your tips on how to do it with smaller pieces instead of just oversize ones. All of your makes turned out beautiful and stylish!

  • snyder2501 says:

    What a great way to use pieces in my closet in other ways. Thank you.

  • Juanita Borle says:

    Thank you for all the information, it’s given me a great start to up cycling clothes????

  • Kkmack says:

    I’ve been trying to do more upcycling. With two granddaughters to sew for, I always feel guilty buying a yard f fabric for a pair of leggings and then consigning the leftovers to my bits and pieces collection. However, about two years ago, I was looking for some matching fabric for a set of pajamas. There in my donation pile was a tshirt that was the perfect color. Was so cool because I realized I could fit the sleeve pieces onto the hem of the shirt sleeves. One less set of hems to do! Anyways, now, before I get rid of anything I look at it through fresh eyes. I’ve even gone thriftng for women’s clothing to turn into a girls new outfit. One maxi made matching summer dresses for them. And it was so much cheaper than new fabric.

    I’m trying to do more like that for my daughters and myself but it’s more challenging to repurpose adult clothing into another adult outfit. But your post gives me some ideas!!

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