Four Upcycled Winter Tops

In which I think about the difference between fit and flatter, ways to seam knits for a pear shape, and the pros and cons of sewing with recycled sweaters.

 

Last fall, I knew I could use some more long-sleeve cozy tops for the coming winter, and I decided to see if I could find some “fabric” (in the form of large garments) at our local thrift stores, figuring that it would be cheaper than ordering quality wool knit, and I would be more willing to experiment if I wasn’t super attached to the materials.

Many things still take longer than I think they will, so I just finished the last of these a couple of weeks ago … luckily they still work as light sweaters for spring, and I’m now set for next fall/winter. Some people would probably call these light sweaters at any time, but for my winter wardrobe they’re shirts, something soft and warm that goes under a bigger sweater. (If it’s winter, I’m pretty much always cold. Heck, if it’s Texas in Spring but I’m inside and the is AC on, I’m still probably cold.) I’ve switched pretty much exclusively to wool (or cashmere etc.) and silk for winter wear, and I just love it that way, so those were the fibers I was looking for.

One of the biggest problems I’ve found with trying to upcycle tops for me out of existing tops, is that for there to be enough fabric to cut a new garment, the original sweater must be truly huge. Yet in the past, trying to reshape something without treating it as fabric and cutting new shapes has been a recycling nightmare that eats up way more of my time than the results are worth …

The first top I found this time was a women’s size large, with a pretty awful turtleneck, but in a nice brown cashmere. There just wasn’t enough fabric to dramatically reshape it, but it definitely needed a new neckline, and some ease around the hips (not a surprise to my pear-shaped self). I decided to take a wedge of the cable pattern from the old neck, cut a slit at center back, and splice it in.

 

brown winter top alterations

 

This worked—and I learned a few things. Probably the most obvious thing is that the wedge can’t be too large, unless you want it to ripple like a little peplum. I ended up folding in the sides and sewing them down again to make a flat wedge. It doesn’t look perfect, but I was experimenting. If I did this again I’d also add a little more pull-in factor to the neckline, probably with some slightly stretched clear elastic in the neck seam. But the biggest issue with this shirt is that it just isn’t that flattering. It fits OK, but I’m aiming for better. This one found a good use as my new winter sleep shirt.

 

brown winter top on form

 

The next top I found to use was a little bigger, at least big enough to cut out new pieces from it. My favorite part about this one is the fabric; it’s Merino, and just the perfect amount of stretchy, cozy, soft and wooly. If I could buy a bolt of this I probably would. This top came out quite a bit shorter than I’d like (again due to lack of fabric—by the time I cut the old sweater apart and put the pieces for my regular knit top pattern on it, this is what I got), but I’ve been wearing it all the time.

I played with the ribbing on this one a little more, cutting and sewing lengths from the original hem ribbing and treating it more like elastic, stretching it to sew around the neckline. That worked well, the ribbing on these sweaters has a tighter structure, and I suspect some added stretchy fiber that makes it behave quite differently from the rest of the garment. Sewing ribbing on things reminds me of the late 80’s, when my mom would order fabric by mail to make tops for us, along with coordinating ribbing in various colors. I wish I’d had a little more of the matching ribbing for this project, as it is the tiny hem on the bottom has to be encouraged to lie flat as it’s drying, otherwise it will flip up, and I had to baste it on before sewing to keep those little bits in place.

 

tan winter top on form

 

I’d been thinking how, in order to fit my figure better, I really need more seams, even in a knit fabric, than just one at each side. I love princess lines, but I thought that traditional ones would be more structure and more of a closely fitted, formal look than I want in a knit top. I was thinking of making a curved panel at each side, when I realized that I already have a top/sweater like that, it just fits a little looser than I’d want for this. So, I tried it on and pinned out the extra to get a fit I liked, traced a new pattern from the old one following those modifications, and cut it out.

This berry colored top was my most frustrated moment in this batch of upcycling. It came from a men’s XXL sweater in “cotton (90%) cashmere (10%)” which I went for despite the fiber content, going on color and the fact that I could definitely treat this one as a “muslin.” At first I was kind of miffed that even starting with a sweater this big, I couldn’t cut the sleeves long enough and I had to piece the side panels … but as soon as I gave up wanting it to work out “right” and embraced the experimentation and improvisation of working with recycled materials, suddenly it was fun again.

I really like the ribbing on the side panels, but the double sleeve ribbing came out wonky no matter how you look at it, the back neck has too much ease, making it slide off one shoulder sometimes (again with the 80’s), and the whole thing has all the baggy/low-recovery properties of thick cotton knit. However, it’s good to have at least one top that I don’t really care what happens to, and I brought it on the road for that purpose, it’s great to throw on in the truck etc.

 

berry winter top on form

 

I’m also having an ongoing thought process about the difference between fit and flatter. I want things to fit well, as in to harmonize with my shape—but maybe not to hug every curve. Sometimes if I aim for enough ease to really skim my hips it ends up emphasizing my pear shape instead, in a way I don’t find flattering, especially if I don’t also add ease around the bust. Also, if I curve a back seam in enough to fit close around my waist, the amount of curve required to flare it back out again over my hips is not really workable or looks a little crazy.

With that in mind, I cut the last shirt a little less curved in at the waist and out at the hips in back. I also added a side seam, mostly so that I could cut set-in sleeves (doesn’t save as much fabric as I thought it would vs. raglan) and set them in flat, then sew the side seam and underarm in one go, which apparently I like so much better than setting in knit sleeves in the round that I’ll do extra pattern tracing to get it.

I’m so happy with this last top. I dig the length, the slight high-low hemline, the side panels, and even the lighter accents (piecing again). And the bottom ribbing! This is every single millimeter of the ribbing at the hem of a men’s XL cashmere sweater (a bit frightening) and it’s just right. I flipped it over so that the original seam is at the bottom, so if anything it flares out a bit at the hem rather than cupping in. It hugs in just enough to feel cozy without riding up too much—like the dream of what ribbing could be on my figure. I’m still undecided about the extra fabric around the small of my back. It’s definitely a bit baggy there, but is that a bad thing?

 

grey winter top on form

 

Since I had to piece in a little lighter grey scrap at the side panels, I decided I should also add some to at least one arm to make it look purposeful. I also decided, after the berry ribbing, to make a real effort at getting the two knits to play well together, rather than sticking them under the machine together and hoping for the best. I tried sewing with tissue paper under the bottom layer (inside the sleeve) and it actually worked really well. However, I’m not in love with trying to position the paper around the free arm inside the sleeve, or with picking out tiny bits of tissue from the seam, so further experiments are still necessary.

 

grey winter top detail

 

I may have to go for another round of cozy top upcycling at some point, I’m getting kind of fond of the built-in matching ribbing. Although, I think I should resign myself to the need for an extra sweater for every couple finished tops, one to one just doesn’t quite work. And then, since I can’t be nearly as efficient with layout as I could with the same amount of raw fabric, it feels a little wasteful to cut up a shirt which is really perfectly good as it is … unless it has holes in it etc. So there’s a Holy Grail of thrift shopping, as if finding huge sizes in quality fibers wasn’t hard enough, now I need two or three that all coordinate with each other or with another one for extra fabric, preferably damaged! Maybe I’ll just order some nice fabric next time …

 

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How to Add Pockets in Seams

finished pockets on

I used to joke about this, but I’ve decided it’s actually true: the lack of pockets is holding women back.  I mean, if our choices are either carry a purse everywhere and don’t let it out of sight, ask someone of the opposite gender to hold things for us, or attempt to stick our phones in our bras, of course we’re going to struggle to be taken seriously.

I do carry some kind of bag most places I go (with essential stuff like my notebook, and sometimes knitting in it), but there are lots of times when just pockets will do.  Everyone needs pockets, good pockets that are actually big enough to put your phone in, and sit down afterwards.

 

I was so exited about finishing this dress that I forgot to add the pockets, and had to go back and put them in! I’ll include a bit about the decorative edging I used at the end of the post.

 

This is why maker & fixer skills are important: instead of complaining about the lack of pockets, we can change it, and add some ourselves.  Guys who don’t have enough pockets in their lives are welcome too!

In this post I’ll go over adding pockets to a seam in your garment, commonly called “side-seam” or “in-seam” pockets.  You can do this as you’re sewing, or retrofit pockets into a garment that’s already finished.  In short, the steps are: 1. Plan your pocket, and prepare the pieces.  2. Sew the pocket pieces to the garment seams.  3. Sew the garment seams, including around the pocket.  If you have some beginner sewing skills, you can handle this.  (Ahem, get some skills here.)  Let’s get started!  As usual, click on any of the photos to enlarge for a closer look.

 

Plan & Prepare Your Pocket

measuring pocket patternFirst figure out how big and what shape you’d like your pocket to be.  You can use a pocket piece from a pattern you have, or trace the shape of an existing pocket that you like onto paper for a pattern.  (If you trace an existing pocket, remember to add extra space—seam allowance—all around it to account for the fabric that will be used up in the seams.)  I used the pattern piece at right, which is a common shape for side-seam pockets.

Figure out where along your seam you want your pocket to go, and mark it with pins.  Measure the length of the flat side of your pocket, the part that you’ll sew into the seam.  This is how much space you’ll need on your seam for the pocket.  If you’re sewing from scratch, you can just center the pocket on your pin marks, and sew it as explained below, before you sew the seam.  If you’re adding pockets to a garment that’s already finished, you’ll need to rip the seam where you want the pocket to go, taking out a space a bit bigger than the pocket piece, to give yourself room to work.  I really like using this method to rip seams.  Don’t worry about tying off the ends of the old seam here, because you’ll sew over them later.

 

adding ss pockets drawing 1

 

Fabric and Piecing

You’ll need two pocket pieces for each pocket you want to add.  Cut them so that they’re mirror images, i.e. so that you can sew the shape together and have the right (public/outside) sides of the fabric touching.

This kind of pocket doesn’t show much, but you’ll probably be able to see a bit of it peeking out.  If you have matching fabric, obviously cutting your pockets from that will make it blend in the most.  If not, choose something you like that you won’t mind seeing a bit of.  The pocket fabric should be fairly tightly woven/sturdy, especially if you plan to carry heavy objects in it.

If you have only a bit of matching fabric, you can cut each side of the pocket in two pieces, so that the matching part is at the top.  When planning this, don’t forget to add extra seam allowance where the pieces meet.  Sew the pieces together into the pocket shape before you attach them.

 

pieced pocketOn close inspection you can see that the two halves of this pocket are pieced in different places, and that’s fine.  The printed fabric matches the outside of this dress, and the white is scraps from the lining.

 

Note: You can also add to a skimpy existing pocket (I hate those!), by cutting off the bottom and adding more.  Rip a bit of the old pocket seams along the sides to give yourself room to work.  Sew each side of the new pocket bottoms to the old pocket tops, then sew around the pocket, overlapping the old seam.  The finished pocket may look something like the one above.

 

Sew the Pocket to the Seam

Once you have your pocket ready and know where it will go, pin one pocket piece onto one side of the garment seam.  Line up the seam allowances, and make sure you place the right side of the pocket touching the right side of the garment piece.  Sew the pocket on, using the same seam allowance as the garment seam, or just slightly narrower.  Start and stop a little bit outside the pocket.  You don’t need to back-tack your seams, they’ll be held in place by other stitches later.

adding ss pockets drawing 2This illustration shows attaching the pocket to a seam you’ve ripped, which is still in place above and below the pocket.  It’s the same if you’re starting from scratch, except that the other piece of the garment won’t be attached yet.

 

Repeat this procedure with the other pocket pieces, making sure that any two sides which will be one pocket are aligned at the same place on the garment seam.

Using your iron, press the pockets open, away from the garment.  Don’t skip this step!  It will make all the difference in a clean finish.

 

adding ss pockets drawing 3Here’s what it looks like in real life, with one side of the pocket sewn on and pressed open, although it’s a little hard to see in the tiny print:

pocket seams one side done

 

 Sew the Seam with a New Pocket

To finish, sew the garment seam, including around the pocket.  When you get to the top of the pocket, sew just inside of the pocket stitching and fabric, to avoid catching anything in the seam that will show.  Stop with the needle down, and pivot at the point where the seam allowance matches on the garment and the pocket.  Keep sewing, around the pocket, and pivot again when you reach a point just inside (towards the garment, not the pocket) the first seam at the bottom of the pocket.  If you’re sewing from scratch, you’ll sew the whole seam above and below the pocket in this step as well.  If you’re refashioning a pocket, you’ll start and stop just enough away from the pocket to overlap the old seam stitching.

 

adding ss pockets drawing 4The stitching for this step is shown in the darkest color, overlapping the old seam, and just outside of the seam that attaches the pocket pieces.

 

Look, brand new wonderful pockets!

If your garment has a lining, you now have two choices.  You can leave it alone, meaning the pocket will sit between the garment and the lining, which is usually good.  On my lightweight dresses, I decided to make an opening in the lining seam, so that the pocket would be inside the lining too, and show less from the outside.  All you need to do for this option is to rip the lining seam at the pocket opening, or leave a gap when you are sewing the seam.  Knot the thread ends, or back-tack your stitching, to hold the edges of the gap in place.

finished pocket inside

 

And Finally, Optional Decorative Pocket Strips

Since I was thinking about celebrating pockets, I decided to make the ones on my latest sundress a little more visible by adding fabric strips that matched the binding and straps on the dress.  Just in case you like this look, here’s how I did it:

1. Cut strips 1/2″ wider and longer (for 1/4″ SA) than you want them to appear when finished.  I made them 1/2″ wide finished, (cut 1″ wide) and slightly longer than the pocket opening.

2. Press the strips in half to mark the center, then press the SA under all around.

pocket decorative strip 1

 

3. Topstitch each strip in place, close to the edge of the strips.

pocket decorative strip 2

 

4. Sew the seam, and around the pocket, as you normally would.

finished pocket outside

 

Have you ever added or improved pockets?  What do you think about how the pockets in ready-to-wear relate to our society’s image of women?  Any other relevant thoughts?