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 …

 

Recycle Fabric Scraps and Worn Out Clothes at Goodwill

 

fabric scraps for recycling

 

I like saving scraps of fabric from my sewing.  They usually come in handy for other projects.  However, there is a point when a scrap is just too small to be worth saving, and I don’t want to clutter up my storage space with tiny little bits.  On the other hand, I feel like the scraps are perfectly good clean fibers, and I hate to just send them to the landfill.

A while back, Zoe mentioned that in the UK, the charity she used to work for (TRAID) sent scraps on for textile recycling—to be turned into insulation and stuffing and whatever else uses short mixed fibers.  I wondered if any of the thrift shops on my side of the pond were doing the same thing.  I started saving a (large) bag of just the fabric scraps too small to keep, which took a surprisingly long time to fill up, considering it had all the scraps from this fall’s batches of Fiddleheads.  (Probably due to the fact that I can’t bring myself to part with any piece of slightly felted cashmere big enough to be remotely useful.  Want some cashmere pieces? Let me know!)  I also had a few garments that weren’t really fixable any more, but I figured had life left in at least some of the fibers.

I thought about contacting charity shops every once in a while, but basically put it off until the scrap bag was too full to ignore, and then sent out emails.  Good news, USA-dwelling, fabric-cutting folks: Goodwill will take your scraps!

 

This was my message:

Hello,

I have some worn-out clothing and fabric scraps which I don’t think a thrift store would be able to sell.  However, I would still like to keep them out of the landfill!  I know that some thrift stores pass on worn out clothes and scraps to recyclers so that they can be remade into something else, and I am wondering if your store does this?

 

And this is what I got back:

Yes, most fabrics that cannot be sold continue to be recycled in the manner outlined below at all our locations.

 

Hooray!  Now I don’t feel like an idiot for saving a big bag of tiny fabric scraps can be a good citizen and recycle.  I also took some things I was ready to part with that I thought Goodwill would be able to sell—seems only fair as they are providing this service.

A note: if you don’t have a Goodwill store in your area and decide to contact local thrift shops, I’ve had much better results via email than over the phone.  The people I got when I called were more likely to assure me that they try to sell everything before sending it overseas, etc., than to have the answer I was looking for.

Good luck!