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Upcycling Adventures: Four Shirts to Five Pairs of Pants (Plus One Pair of Mittens!)

Lately I’ve been motivated to work down my upcycle pile. The pile is one of those things that’s really been daunting me, especially when I consider trying to move with it or part with it.

On one hand, it’s amazing to have so many fabrics to dream up new uses for. On the other hand, it’s so big that it seems impossible to ever get through the whole thing.

When it comes to working through a pile of upcycle fabric, rather than with straight yards of fabric, you have to get a lot more creative with what you do with each piece. Just because a discarded garment has a yard of workable fabric, doesn’t mean that you have that full yard to work with. You have to play around with snipping seams, removing pockets, and so forth.

Take a pair of jeans, for example. The average adult pair of jeans might contain nearly two yards of fabric. But to access that fabric, you have to mow through a ton of seams. What you’re left with are some oddly leg-shaped pieces that probably add up to a yard or two, but are very limited in their application. You couldn’t make something like a blouse that requires flat pieces for the front or back. (Not that I can imagine anyone actually wanting a denim blouse, but that’s beside the point.)

And so it is for every to-be-upcycled garment sitting in the pile. Honestly, it’s overwhelming. Sometimes I want to just work on a project without spending the hour or two I’ve carved out for sewing deconstructing a bit of this and a bit of that.

I think I’ve come to a place where I’m going work through as much of the pile as I am motivated to work through and then look into donating the rest. That being said, there are a lot of projects I just need to get to work on. After all, my kids always need new clothes in bigger sizes!

The Starting Point

I decided to start working down the upcycle pile by pulling out a few shirts and converting them to pants for each kid. Pants are pretty straightforward and don’t usually require a pattern or a lot of fabric. This makes them ideal for stretching the limited fabric you might get off of any one garment.

The shirts I chose for this round of upcycles include:

  • One adult small tie dyed t-shirt. This shirt has been floating around my dresser for 16 years – I dyed it at horse camp the summer after fifth grade! I had cut the bottom off of the shirt to make a headband a few years ago, but much of the shirt was still intact.

Tie dyed shirt with bottom hem cut off

  • One women’s medium cable knit sweater vest. I used to wear this with button down Oxfords for the ultimate geeky look. But as I’ve shared before, this look isn’t the most flattering on me anymore, so the vest ended up in the upcycle pile.

Women's GAP cable knit sweater vest

  • One women’s small elbow-length knit cotton shirt. I got this shirt on clearance from Marshall’s and it’s one of those tops that you know is never going to fit well as soon as you put it on for the first time. The cut and color are adorable and I really tried to make this shirt work for me for way too long, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Women's small green Polo Ralph Lauren elbow-sleeved shirt

  • One men’s small cotton knit sweater. This sweater is from my most recent thrifting haul, and it was never meant for my husband’s or my wardrobe.

Men's small H&M blue knit sweater

Dividing the Spoils

After poking around a bit on Pinterest and finding some cute pants upcycle posts, I felt pretty confident that I could make baby/toddler pants from both the body portions and sleeves from each shirt. With three shirts and a vest to work from, this turned out to seven pairs of pants.

Here’s how I initially divided it up:

  • Tie die shirt: harem pants for Kyriakos (~6-9 month), shorties for Paisley (~3T)
  • Sweater vest: Leggings for Paisley (~4T)
  • Green shirt: Harem pants for Colm (~2T), shorties for Paisley (~3T)
  • Blue sweater: Sweater pants for Colm (~2T), leggings for Paisley (~4T)

(Note: The shorties for Paisley are supposed to be under dress-type shorts, not play shorts. Knit shirt sleeves aren’t the best material for making play pants for the older toddler.)

To help me gauge rough patterns for each pair of pants, I took some pants that already fit my children, or will fit them in the near future – after all, I want these pants to last a little while. To measure, I used:

  • One pair of 6 month knit pants
  • One pair of 2T dress pants
  • One pair of 3T under dress shorts
  • One pair of 4T leggings

Four pairs of baby and toddler pants

I laid these out on the shirts in the designated spaces and noticed some immediate problems with my plan.

The biggest problem was that Paisley’s leggings were far too long to fit on the sweater vest. I had seen an adorable cable sweater to leggings upcycle that I was thrilled to repeat for Paisley, but obviously that wasn’t meant to be during this round of upcycles.

I decided to use the sweater vest to make another pair of leggings for Kyriakos, and as it turns out, there was enough fabric left to make a little pair of mittens for Paisley.

Cutting and Sewing

Once I’d figured out who would get which piece of each shirt, I cut out some rough little patterns and pinned them together.

Harem pants (x2)

For the harem pants, I simply took the pants I wanted to mimic, folded them in half, and put them along one side of the shirt I was using. Then I traced very generous side seams, and a wide inseam that goes down nearly to the knee of each pair of model pants. Harem pants are supposed to be baggy and open, and with cloth diapered kiddos, this design more than accommodates for the extra space my kids need down there anyway.

Baby pants being used as a template for cutting harem pants
Measuring some 6M pants as a template for Kyriakos’ harem pants.

I also added some length for the boys to grow into – as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, they’re fairly skinny and tall.  I like to make their pants a little longer than standard pants for their size, just because I know they’ll grow into the length long before they grow out of the waist.

Harem pants pattern cut from tie dye shirt
Kyriakos’ harem pants cut and ready to sew.

To sew the harem pants, I simply did up the side seams, and then sewed a wide “U” to join the inseam. Looking back, I could’ve made things even easier on myself if I’d simply cut the pants along the existing shirt seams and allowed them to be a big baggier.

Once the legs were in place, then I just made an elastic casing, measured the boys, cut elastic lengths one inch shorter than their waist measurements, slipped the elastics into the casings, and finished them off.

For Kyriakos’ harem pants, I cut a little bit of ribbed fabric from an old tank top of mine and turned them into little cuffs for the bottoms of each leg. I really love the look of cuffed knit trousers, plus they give him that much more room to grow.

Baby boy in tie dyed harem pants
Kyriakos modeling his finished pants.
Baby boy in tie dyed harem pants
The tie dye pants in all their glory!
Baby feet and back of tie dyed harem pants
Perfect little feet and cuffs

For Colm’s harem pants, I used the bottom shirt seam as the leg seam, so I didn’t give him cuffs or anything fancy.

Here’s a better look at the whole harem pants process:

Removing seams from green Polo shirt pocket
Needed to remove a pocket from the shirt for Colm’s pants.
Plain green Polo shirt with pocket removed
Pocket is gone, but there’s a small indent – I’ll use this as the backside of the finished pants.
Using 2T pants as template for harem pants pattern
A pair of 2T pants as a template for Colm’s harem pants.
Pattern pieces for harem pants pinned together with right sides facing
Pattern cut, pinned and ready to sew.
Harem pants pattern with side seams sewn in
Side seams sewn up.
Inseam for harem pants sewn
Inside sewn up.
Mostly finished pair of sewn harem pants
Right sides out.
Sewing machine zigzag stitch green thread on green fabric
Sewing a seam – I used zigzag stitch on my sewing machine.
Small boy modeling green pants.
Colm preliminarily trying on his pants. This waistband was not quite right.

After a wear or two, Colm’s pants started to come apart at the top. I think this is mostly do to the poor quality fabric that the shirt was made from (there’s definitely a reason this shirt made it to the clearance rack). I tried to redo the elastic casing, but my needle kept skipping stitches and turned the whole thing into a gross disaster.

To remedy the waistband issue, I cut some fabric from yet another ribbed shirt and added a yoga waistband to his harem pants. I also went ahead and slipped the existing elastic into the top portion of the yoga waistband to ensure a good fit as he runs around.

Sweater pants (x2)

Sweater pants are my new favorite thing ever. These pants are basically sweatpants, but made with sweater knit material, rather than sweatshirt or jersey material. I know that’s a subtle distinction, but trust me, there’s a world of difference here!

To make the sweater pants patterns, I simply took the base pants and laid them out on the sweater torsos. Then I traced out a basic pattern and cut it out.

Measuring the sweater out for pants.
Using a template for side two.

Construction for these pants started with sewing up side seams and inner leg seams. Then I put one leg right side out into an inside out pant leg and sewed the inseam. I stitched the inseam twice for each pair, because this is an area that gets a lot of wear.

Once the legs were joined, I followed the same casing, elastic, waistband finishing as I initially did for both pairs of harem pants (before adding Colm’s yoga waistband). Neither pair of pants needed cuffs, since I cut them all the way down to the bottom of each shirt. I went ahead and used the sweater waistbands as foot cuffs for both pairs of sweater pants.

“No paparazzi!” – Colm doesn’t want his picture taken in his new pants.

I also turned the sweater vest into a pair of sweater pants for Kyriakos. However, I did this quickly and everything ended up packed and off my sewing table in anticipation of a family move, so I don’t have any photos. Sorry about that!

Sweater leggings

After using the torso sections of the sweaters and shirts, I had three sets of sleeves to work with. Paisley is my most slender child and doesn’t need to wear a diaper, so she doesn’t need an extra amount of space for the bottom of her pants.

The first pair of pants I made for her were sweater leggings from the sleeves of the blue sweater. I simply took her 4T leggings and laid them across the sleeves, one at a time, to get the angle right for cutting the inseam area. The sleeves were pretty much the exact right length, so there wasn’t much to cut away here.

Sweater sleeves cut off for leggings.

I did trim down the sleeves’ inside seams, because I wanted Paisley’s pants to be true leggings – not bulkier sweater pants like I’d made for Colm. Again, because Paisley is so slender, I needed to take in the width of the sleeves to give her finished pants a snug, close fit.

To put them together, I simply sewed the inner leg seams shut, then did the inseam the same as for the sweater pants. I did not make an elastic casing for these, because the rise was a bit shorter than I wanted, thanks to the taper of the original shoulder portions of the sleeves I was using. The rise was only off by an inch or two, but it was enough to fit a little weirdly when I had Paisley try them on.

To fix this problem, I took more of that blue ribbing from the tank top that I’d used for Kyriakos’ pant cuffs and made a narrow waistband. Into this waistband, I put an elastic. Then I sewed it shut.

Yoga waistband for Paisley’s leggings.

Once again, these pants didn’t need any leg cuffing because I used the original sweater sleeve cuffs. Done!

Paisley modeling her sweater leggings.

Shorties (x2)

With the remaining shirt sleeves, I had some material left to make shorties for Paisley to wear under skirts and dresses. It seems like she needs more of these every time I turn around!

To make the green shorties, I followed a similar model for what I did to make the sweater leggings. The only difference is that I used a pair of 3T shorts to measure my length.

Using a pair of shorts to measure sleeves for shorties.

I also needed to adjust the bottoms of the pants, since I wasn’t using the original seams from the shirt sleeves. To do this, I just added a straight stitched hem to the bottom of each leg. I don’t have a serger, so I used two straight hems right next to one another to keep the fabric in place and accommodate for stretching while she wears them.

Again, because of the original shoulder cutouts, the sleeves made a too-short rise for Paisley to wear the pants with a simple elastic casing sewn into the top. And because this was the green fabric from hell that gave me so much trouble for Colm’s pants, I decided to install a yoga waistband with blue ribbed fabric before even trying them on her.

Yoga waistband added to Paisley’s shorties.

However, the required rise for the green shorts necessitated the use of much more ribbing than the sweater leggings did. The result is much more like a pair of kid-sized yoga shorts (are those even a thing) than shorties, but they’re pretty cute.

The ribbing is a little worn and doesn’t hold as tightly as I’d like for an active three-year-old, so I went ahead and picked out a small section through which I fed an elastic band. Then I sewed it up, and now have a much more functional pair of pants.

Paisley modeling her shorties.

After dealing with the challenge of compensating for the green pants’ lack of rise, the tie dye shorties sat on my sewing table for a while. These are from a short-sleeved shirt and there’s almost nothing in the way of rise.

Finally, I decided that the tie dye shorties are just not happening. I’ve had them sitting on my desk forever and I have zero motivation to Frankenstein these pants into something workable. I’m just adding the sleeve bits to my scrap pile and maybe they’ll be something else someday.

Mittens

The mittens are a little bonus from this project set. My kids are always in need of little accessories like this, so when I’ve got the extra fabric, I don’t mind throwing something little into the mix.

For the mittens, I simply traced Paisley’s hand on the sweater remnant that I wanted to use. Then I cut along the line, and used that as a template for the second mitten.

Traced out mitten template.
Pre-sewn mittens.

After they were cut, I sewed them up, turned them right side out to check the fit, and sewed a small elastic casing along the wrists. To measure the elastic, I used Paisley’s wrist measurement and subtracted a little less than an inch. I want them to be snug around her wrist, and again, since my children have very slender features, it’s not a big deal to fit a slimmer elastic circumference around her entire fist as I put the mitten on.

Finishing Touches

Phew! Okay, that was a lot to talk about!

But, my upcycle pile is four shirts and two tank tops lighter – and I’ve got some nice winter clothes set aside for my kids.

I actually sat down and made a list of everything that my children need for the rest of the fall and winter… It’s overwhelming, to say the least.

I’ll be posting some of the progress as I sift through the upcycle pile and add more to my kids’ wardrobes. I’m hoping to also chronicle some of the creative process for you to follow along, if you’re interested in making some upcycled children’s clothing of your own.

It’s challenging to see how old clothes can become new – cute – additions to my kids’ wardrobes. And it’s a little addicting to eke as much fabric as I can from any one garment.

Back to the fabric pile I go!

Sweater pants and sweater leggings.

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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.

What are your thoughts?