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Reflections on T-Shirts and Process


T-shirts are our most baseline, unexceptional and uncreative souvenirs.  You can find a t-shirt for anything you so value- a place, a trip, an event, a cause, an interest, an idea, an organization- but what value does that t-shirt have?  Ill-fitting and predictable, the lowly t-shirt is such a ubiquitous souvenir that the “souvenir t-shirt” look itself is often marketed devoid of actual meaning- stop into any department store, and you’ll find collections of t-shirts spouting places and events that don’t exist.  By sheer volume, by sheer accessibility, the t-shirt as a meaningful reminder has been rendered, well, meaningless.  The butt of bad jokes (“My friend did something awesome and all I got was this t-shirt”), an easy wardrobe fallback and a source of shop rags, sure, but unique and valuable and precious?

It’s just not unique… unless you make it unique yourself, with your own two hands.   My favorite souvenir from any event or trip or experience is materials to feed to my creative muse, and t-shirts, viewed correctly, are just that (though you’ll get some strange looks when you, as a 5’4″ 130lb woman, ask for an XXL).

I love reclaiming t-shirts.  I love to take t-shirts which represent something to me, but which are invisible to the rest of the world, and make them into something interesting and flattering and useful.  I even have a bit of a process I follow to do so.  For example, this t-shirt is a never-worn reminder of the two semesters I spent getting my Basic and then Advanced PADI certifications my senior year of high school.  I paired it with a basic blue thrift-store rescue, then sat down with a pencil and my mind.  This is my initial idea sketch:

You’ll notice long sleeves, a hood, and a contrast band at the bottom.  This is not the plan I followed (well, except for the bottom band); I actually ended up going after a different sketch for another equally-meaningful-yet-meaningless shirt:

Once I have an idea I’m happy with (and believe me, the inspirations are everywhere and endless) I sit down and break it into its essential design elements, forming a “to do” list.  The essential elements of this design are as follows: a) fitted shirt, b) blue contrast band at bottom of shirt, c) square neckline with contrast band, d) contrasting puffy sleeves.

Then I get to work.

A) Fitted Shirt

I started off by pulling the shirt onto my dressform and figuring out where and how I’d have to take it in to make it fit in a flattering fashion.  I considered both adding darts and princess seaming, but eventually settled for simply cutting the sides to fit.   I marked where the shirt needed to come in with chalk, leaving dots at a few strategic points, took it off the dressform, and folded in half along the centerline of the shirt.  I drew a smooth chalk curve connecting my marks, then cut it while folded so that both sides matched.  I actually pinned it together with safety pins and tried it on before stitching it up, just to make sure I had the fit right- a basting stitch would work just as well for a quick check, but I tend to avoid sewing anything until I’ve got all the component bits cut out.  I don’t know why- force of habit, perhaps.  I also cut the sleeves off both this and the blue shirt, as I planned to swap them out.  More about that to come.

B) Blue Contrast Bands at Bottom (And Neckline)

I unpicked the bottom seam of the blue shirt (it could just be cut off, but I’m a sucker for using every scrap), then measured out however wide I wanted each band to be and doubled it.  This way, I could fold the bands over and have no edges to finish.  I measured up from the bottom of the shirt multiple times, then connected the dots with my handy dandy chalk.  Once cut, I folded each band in half and ironed the fold.

C) Square Neckline With Contrast Band

I marked where I wanted the bottom of the neckline to fall while the shirt was on the dressform, then laid it out (folded along the center of the shirt front, in such a way that I would cut only through the two layers of the shirt front and not the back) and did some measuring and marking with my ruler, adding about an inch to account for the border I was to add.  Then I cut it out.  Simple!

D) Contrasting Puffy Sleeves

This one was actually quite easy.  The sleeves of the blue shirt already fit relatively well; I cut the sleeves off it, unpicked the seams (because I wanted them a bit longer- you could just cut the seams off), then ran two lines of loose stitching around the top of the sleeve cap and gathered it slightly for the puffy effect.  I also unpicked the ribbed neck binding of the white shirt and cut it in half- turns out it was the perfect size to finish the sleeves.    Voila!  Poofy contrasting sleeves.

I did all the cutting of each little piece before I sewed anything together, then laid it out like this and checked measurements:

And then I sewed, and sewed, and sewed some more.

Ta da!

Ooo La La

Next up: an old Renaissance Festival t-shirt.  And my Microbiology Student Association t-shirts.  And my Stanley Livingstone Expedition 2008 t-shirt.  Oh yes.  I’m keeping busy.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/19/2010 8:14 AM

    Great re-work, such style!

  2. 03/19/2010 3:53 PM

    I love your shirt, and this cool tutorial! I only wish I could assemble something like that: while knowing it would look good AND fit, hehe, but I think you have practiced a bit beforehand, right?! ;-) Thanks for sharing the inspiration though. I might just be brave and try it some day!

    • 03/22/2010 11:13 AM

      Sewing is certainly a skill like any skill, but I’d say as long as you were willing to take it slow, check and re-check things before cutting, and be willing to tear out and re-stitch seams, you could make just about anything fit. T-shirt reconstructions are a great place to start, too, because you’re modifying an already-existing garment, rather than having to do everything from scratch (plus, if you start at a thrift store, materials are cheap).

      If you do decide to try it, drop me a line and I’ll help you out if you need it- I love teaching crafty sorts of things.

  3. 03/19/2010 6:05 PM

    Your tshirt looks fantastic. Thanks for showing us how as well. I can’t wait to see more.

  4. 03/28/2010 11:44 AM

    I really appreciate the time you take to give step-by-step photos of the process. I am learning a LOT that I can apply to my knitwear designs.
    Plus it’s just col to see how artists work.
    (I love reading about how authors write, their quirks, surroundings and processes, too)

    • 03/31/2010 6:39 PM

      I’ve doodled down a bunch of knitwear designs before, but never actually designed something. I’d be interested to know how sewing design translates over, for whenever I finally feel knitting-experienced enough to work on some of said doodles!


  1. Rawr! « Corvus tristis: Art, Craft and an Odd Bird

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