Efficiency in Upcycling

After reading yesterday’s blog article, a friend asked me how to get the most fabric from a shirt. She knows this is a particular skill of mine: pinching pennies until they turn into dollars. I may not have grown up during the Depression, but I’ve always been attracted to stories about the Westward Expansion period and other tales of resourceful survival. In the book “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” the mother saved and re-used basting threads. That has stuck with me for 40 years.

NO, I am not a hoarder. YES, I do use it all eventually, or I pass it on to someone who will. NO, I do not save basting threads.

The process of harvesting usable fabric from a shirt is the reverse of sewing it together. You disassemble it so you have the largest possible flat pieces of fabric. You can cut the shirt apart with scissors, but I prefer to use the rotary cutter.


The last step of sewing a shirt is the sewing on of the buttons, so they come off first. I like to use a sharp seam ripper to remove them quickly, sliding the point between the button and the fabric and cutting the threads there.


Don’t forget that some shirts have collar buttons, buttons in the sleeve plackets, and a spare button or two sewn on the inside of the shirt, at the bottom edge of the front placket or side seam. You don’t want to miss any of them, especially if you are using a rotary cutter and might run into them while you are cutting!


I save the buttons, looped together so I have a full set when I need one.

5-21-2014 shirts b

Lay the shirt on the cutting mat and cut off each sleeve along the armhole sleeve. It’s okay if you don’t get it perfectly on the seam all the way around.

5-21-2014 shirts d

Cut up the side seams and open up the shirt as shown. Cut off the collar first, and then cut along each shoulder seam and the back yoke seam.

5-21-2014 shirts c

Lay the sleeves out as shown and cut off the cuffs. Don’t worry about the cuff placket, if there is one. Then cut the sleeves open by slicing off the seam. You don’t need to reach inside to cut it open; just cut the seam off as shown. Cut the front plackets off of the two front pieces.

You now have the pieces you originally used to make the shirt – two fronts, one back, two sleeves, a yoke (actually two layers), front placket(s), one collar (and maybe a band), and two cuffs (and maybe cuff plackets). I toss out the collar and front plackets, but I can cut strips from the cuffs and yoke.

If the shirt has a pocket, you may be able to pick it off neatly with a seam ripper and use the fabric underneath. I was able to do that with this shirt, but it doesn’t always come off without leaving marks.

5-21-2014 shirts f

This shirt – Eddie Bauer size Medium – yielded 14 -8” squares for my Nine-Patch quilt and plenty of 2” and 1.5” strips for my strip stash. The actual waste is minimal. I am sure a creative person with more spare time would come up with a use for it!

Mrs. Pepper would approve!

So I Have These Little Nine-Patch Blocks…

So I Have These Little Nine-Patch Blocks...

I live in a wonderful small city, with a few fabric sources – WalMart has some fabrics, and JoAnn is only ten miles away. And, of course, I have enough fabric living in my attic and studio to keep me sewing for a very long time. There is a Hobby Lobby 25 miles from here, and a sewing machine repair shop that carries some quiltshop-quality fabrics in that same city. There were two quilt shops there, but they have both closed within the last ten years. There used to be a quilt shop right here in our town, where I taught classes, but it closed, too.

The problem with quilt shops and most other fabric stores/departments is that they carry what is trendy. And you know… I am seldom trendy. My tastes are eclectic, and my quilt-spiration even more so. I have works-in-progress in several different styles: batik, flannel, very modern, romantic, youthful, primitive, brights, darks, monochromatic, Civil War reproduction prints, Depression Era reproduction prints, Christmas, autumn, polka dot, plaid, traditional, contemporary, art quilts, bed quilts…. You name it, I’ve probably got it sitting half-finished on my sewing room shelves.

So once I had exhausted all of my local resources and found just four different fabrics appropriate for setting those unfashionable “lodge look” Nine-Patch blocks, I started scrounging. My husband didn’t have any tan plaid shirts in his closet, so we made a trip to the Salvation Army. Our Salvation Army isn’t particularly large, but it is crammed full of clothing. There were probably 500 shirts! The “tan stripe/plaid” section had about 30 shirts. The first thing I did was weed out any that weren’t 100% cotton. Then I eliminated any that had too much texture, like seersucker. A few of them looked as if they had been well-worn. Ugh. In the end, I collected three nearly-new shirts. I found another one in the women’s department, with some pretty beaded embroidery on the front.

Just a note here – buying these items does not deprive some poor low-income person of the opportunity to get clothing at bargain prices. I left nearly 500 shirts there. And our Salvation Army isn’t all that cheap. And I recycle! All of the buttons will be cut off and strung together so I have a full set ready when I need one. Anything I can’t use for these blocks will be used for household rags or cut into 2” strips for my stash! There is nothing wrong with buying clothing at the thrift store to cut up for quilts.

The next and very important step: I took them home and laundered them. Thoroughly! No matter how nice the fabric is, that thrift store smell is nasty.

I love scrap quilts. They look so natural! I wish I had another four or five fabrics for these quilts, but this will have to do until I can make a trip into the big city. And I will probably have moved on to something different by then.
LOOK! A squirrel!