Upcycling Adventures: Turning a Women’s Shirt Into a Toddler Dress

Part of our quest to sustainable fashion and textiles is making the most of what we’ve already got on hand. When kids are in the equation, it can be a little challenging to make clothes stretch beyond a certain point. Because growth spurts 😉

One of the ways I’m trying to cut down on the amount of poorly sourced/unsustainable textiles that come into our house is to upcycle some of the items we already have. Some of the best advice that I’ve gotten since becoming a mom is that kids don’t always need new clothes. That is so, so true.

Thrifting and hand-me-downs are a legit way to get new clothes. But if you’re handy with a sewing machine, upcycling can be another way to put new clothing into the rotation without breaking the bank. In our case, I’ve saved a bunch of Josh’s and my old clothing to convert into new clothes for our kids.

One of my first challenges with upcycling clothes for our kiddos comes in the form of dresses for Paisley. She’s a tall, skinny kid, so it’s hard to find store-bought dresses that fit her properly. They’re either too bulky in the arm/chest area or too short.

I’m fairly newish to sewing, but thankfully dresses are pretty forgiving garments. So when I found an old button down of mine that needed some new life, I pretty quickly concocted this little dress for my little Pea.

The Shirt

The shirt I chose for this project is a button down top I’d gotten a loooong time ago. I was still living with my parents. How do I know this? Well… my mom cleans with bleach a LOT, and inevitably, my brothers and I would end up with a bleach stain here and there on our clothes from accidentally leaning across a bleachy counter before it dried.

As you can clearly see, this shirt is a victim of bleach stains. For a while, I would wear this shirt underneath a sweater or vest and no one had to know about the stains. But since having kids, my un-curvy college figure has vanished, and I’m not a huge fan of multiple layers across my middle anymore. Thus, this shirt ended up in my discard pile.

Luckily, it’s the perfect candidate for an upcycle project, since only a small portion of the fabric is unusable. I put it on Paisley to see how much of the front I could get away with chopping off.

Clearly, there was plenty of space for me to chop up the front of this dress and have room to play with the styling. I had a yard of floral fabric that coordinates well with the colors in the shirt, so I only needed enough shirt to create a bodice for my dress.

The Process

I went ahead and snipped off the bottom of the shirt to a proper toddler length. Then I cut off the sleeves at the seams so I had two long tubes to work with. To measure the bodice and arms, I simply held up a dress that fits Paisley well and marked my fabric.

Then I sewed up the sides of the bodice and bottoms of the sleeves to create my component pieces. After that, I pressed the right sides of the sleeves and bodice together and sewed the sleeves on at the shoulders.

I don’t have any photos of the process because it was late and I was a little tired and frustrated. But here’s the bodice with the skirt fabric and an inch-long band I cut for the bottom hem.

When these pieces were in place, I cut my yard of skirt fabric (minus the hem I’d already cut) down to roughly 19 inches for the main skirt portion. I like to make Paisley’s skirts extra long because she’s pretty active and I like to give her plenty of space for running or rolling around. Plus, I never know when the next growth spurt is going to hit.

When the skirt was cut, I added the hem (simply folded in half) to the bottom of the skirt. To the top I added a quick ruffle using the basting stitch method. Then, I adjusted the length to match the diameter of the bodice.

After that, I simply sewed the skirt onto the bodice and had a dress! I grabbed my model and we went outside to shoot some pictures.

Unfortunately, while I loved the colors, the fit was all off. Dress v. 1 looked something like what I’d expect to find from a Prairie Lookbook circa 1835. Ugh.


As I mentioned above, I’m a little new to sewing. While I’m certainly not new to the creative process, I somehow didn’t think to factor revisions into my sewing projects. Silly, silly.

When I’d poked around for some upcycle inspiration, I found some seriously swoon-worthy refashions that included sashes around the middle. I loved the look, but I really didn’t want to go to that level of effort for this dress.

But I’m also not a fan of sending my kid out into public like she’s some unfortunate part of an anabaptist cult that eschews any type of flattering clothing.

So I needed to figure out the sash. And stat. It was Saturday night, and I was determined for Paisley to wear her new dress to church on Sunday. I have great balance when it comes to meeting deadlines 😉

Thankfully, I had loads of fabric leftover from the main shirt, so I could fairly easily put something new together. I snipped up the remainder of the shirt body and did some creative folding and pressing to turn it into a sash-shaped piece of fabric.

Then I simply sewed that across the bottom of the bodice, above the skirt, and voila… An even cuter upcycled dress! By this point Paisley had long gone to bed, so I was stuck waiting until Sunday morning to try it on. I added a second button hole and button, and we were ready to go.

The Finished Product

Of course, the day of the dress debut, it was raining so I couldn’t get any “after” pictures. Thankfully, it fit wonderfully and is perfect for the up and down fall weather we’ve been having.

We were also visiting family out of state the next Sunday, so Paisley could wear her new dress again without looking like it’s the only thing in her wardrobe. Am I the only mother with this concern? (Haha)

Here’s the final dress in all of it’s glory:

I have to say, I’m pretty happy with how this turned out. It’s still a bit larger and longer than I’d prefer, but there’s a lot of room to grow. I’m already thinking through some modifications I can make as Paisley gets bigger. And I’m dreaming up an adorable pair of matching leggings to wear during deep winter.

This is definitely not my first or last upcycle. But as with any new craft, I’ve certainly got a lot to learn. Thankfully, toddlers are fairly forgiving models!


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Gabrielle Rystedt
Gabrielle Rystedt
Gabrielle Rystedt is a writer by day and a writer by night (because writers never sleep), who spends time balancing client orders, a couple of books and her blog at Raising Rystedts. She’s a business school grad who’s dabbled in management, both at the project and company level. She loves coffee and crafting, and enjoys settling down with a good book. Though as mom to three kiddos in three years, she realistically spends most of her time reheating her coffee and typing away like a crazy person on a laptop keyboard while surrounded by (clean) cloth diapers and cheddar bunnies.

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