Upcycled Men’s T-Shirts


Mens t-shirts have this odd way of continually entering my life. People keep buying them for me, and I don’t want them. Why must every event with every group of people involve matching t-shirts that no one else will ever want after you’ve owned it? Or that no one will ever wear again, except for Uncle George, who has no other clothing in his closet than family reunion t-shirts, two pairs of 15-year-old cargo shorts, six pairs of white tube socks that all came in the same package from the now defunct K-Mart, and a single pair of sneakers his wife bought him at Costco. God bless his simplicity. He is the relic of a bygone era, when all your car parts were purchased at Sears and a man could get by with one J.C. Penney suit that was durable enough to survive a nuclear war. We salute you and your tube socks, George…

But I live in the real world. The modern world. Don’t get me wrong. Like every red-blooded American girl I love a cute t-shirt and jeans. I just don’t want one that looks like it was designed for Sponge Bob Square Pants. Some of the shirts which enter my life are really cute, like the hand-me-downs from my Fella, whose taste in things I appreciate. I also like looking through the used shirts at Thrift stores, because you never know when you might find a cool older Harley tee or something like that. As a result, I have a carefully curated collection of upcycled tees in my closet.

A random sampling.

I’ve grown to appreciate the thick, heavy-duty fabric of men’s shirts and prefer to tailor them to myself than to buy the women’s version. Women’s shirts are made of flimsy stuff, and the logos are too girly. Upcycling male hand-me-downs has become my go-to for logo tees, or anything solid that comes in a color choice that is not easily found in the women’s section. I get them in men’s large or XL. This gives me enough yardage to work with.

I discovered years ago that the perfect fitting white tee (for my body and tastes) was found for $4 at Walmart. In the interest of building a more sustainable wardrobe, I drafted a pattern from one of them using poster board:


Now, whenever a t-shirt with a great logo enters my life, I can upcycle like a master. Or, if I can’t find a solid color knit fabric that is to my liking, I can hit the men’s department armed and ready to DIY a high-quality shirt on a budget.

Here’s the process: 

Step one:  Remove the sleeve, leaving the underarm seam intact. Cut the body of the shirt apart along the side seams and lay it out flat. Depending on the shirt, you may be able to leave the shoulder seams and neckband intact and simply trace new armhole openings and sides. If the logo is especially large or placed low relative to the neckline, this won’t work.

Step two:  Lay the front and back pattern pieces on the front and back of the t-shirt. Be mindful of logo placement. It will look weird if it’s too low. Trace around the pieces, using pattern weights to keep them in place (heavy bolts from a hardware store are a cheap and effective option). Cut pieces out along tracing lines.

Step three:  Attach front and back pieces at side seams (and shoulders if you aren’t preserving the existing ones).

Step four:  Add two rows of gathering stitches to the middle third of each sleeve cap. You now have a smaller armhole than the original shirt, and this is a pretty, feminine way to take up the excess. Pin sleeves into arm hole matching underarm seams and the top of the sleeve at the shoulder seam. Work the gathers to make it fit, pin the rest of sleeve into place, and sew it in there. *Alternative: If you’re not a gathered sleeve kind of person, you can open the sleeve along the underarm seam and cut it down along this edge to make it fit the new armhole. All you have to do is ONLY sew the shoulder seam; pin the top of the sleeve cap to the shoulder seam and then pin from there down on each side. remove the excess that extends beyond the sides of the body of the tee; stitch up the entire side, sleeve and all, making sure to match up the seams under the arm.

Step five: Let’s include it all as one step – shirt hem, sleeve hem, and neckline. It’s time for the finishing details. This is the point where you can really add some unique detail and make it your own. If you leave the existing neckband, you can add some fun and colorful topstitching to give it some flair:


If you decide to remove the neckband, or it doesn’t work with your pattern, just fold it under about 1/4 inch, press it down, and add some fun topstitching:


I have a coverstitch machine, but you can do a lot with a zig-zag stitch. You can do the same with sleeve hems. If you leave the pre-existing hems, you can go over the existing stitch line with something more fun. Or, you can cut off the existing hem, fold it under about 1/2 inch, press and add some topstitching. This shorter length can add to the femininity of the finished product:

You can do the same thing with the hemline. In the end your boxy tee will be a nice, feminine, and well-fitting addition to your casual wardrobe:

Things I Sew


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