Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thrifty Thursday: sewing with shirts as fabric: what to buy

Hey, friends!  I'm revisiting the Thrifty Thursday series, and hope you'll consider buying some of your fabrics at the thrift stores.  :)  Today, I'll share how to shop for the best shirts for your projects.

** For the purposes of this post, we're discussing woven shirts, not knits or t-shirts. **

*** And I apologize in advance for some of the crappy photos.  Shooting pics quickly in a busy thrift store didn't make for a nicely lit, well-composed photo shoot.  :(  I'm sorry! ***

First, some ground rules for ALL thrift store clothing and fabric shopping. . . .

Pass on an item if you find these blemishes or issues:
-- holes
-- stains
-- funky smells (especially moth balls!  UGH!)

inspect all items carefully and closely!

Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules.  I buy vintage linens all the time, and 99% of the time, there are stains or tiny holes in them somewhere, but there's enough good, usable fabric to justify the purchase.

Another example would be if you find a cool shirt with some amazing embroidered detail that would be perfect on a tote bag, but you spot a small stain near the hem.  Buy it anyway!  You can probably work around the stain, and hey -- it might even wash out!

The only rule I would never break is the funky moth ball smell rule.  Just don't.  Not worth it.

Choosing your shirt. . . .

Some fabrics, while very wearable, aren't good choices for, say, home decor projects or tote bags.  They're too flimsy or soft, and won't hold up to daily use.  If it feels too flimsy or soft in the hand, it's probably best to pass on it.  (Rayons, satins and silks are good examples of what to avoid.)  Like this one. . . .

This next shirt caught my eye.  I liked the unique print and boxy shape (no darts, tucks or seams!). . .

but upon closer inspection. . .

I can see my hand through the fabric, 
so I passed on it.

If the fabrics feel stiffer, heavier, "bolder," then it's probably a better fit for your sewing needs.  Look for cotton, cotton blends, poly blends, linens, linen blends, even wool and wool blends. . . .

nice poly-cotton blend, so this one's a. . . .

Men's shirts. . . .

As far as shirts go, you'll find the most yardage in men's shirts.  They also tend to have the least amount of tailoring and darts, so the fabric will lay the flattest = easiest for you to use in your planning and cutting.

 if possible, go for the bigger sizes!  
bigger sizes = more fabric

no stains, no holes, no tucks, darts or seams!

Many men's dress shirts are constructed of  high quality fabrics, so you can easily find nice fabrics in unique prints and solids, and are suitable for a large array of sewing projects. . . .

 sturdy wool blend shirt

 now a pillow. . .

. . . or two! (leaf pillow is also backed with the wool plaid shirt!)

I often use men's shirts for bag linings. . . .

Women's shirts. . . .

. . . are a little bit trickier.  While you'll have a much larger array of gorgeous fabrics, colors and prints from which to choose, you'll have to be more careful in your selections.  Pay close attention to fabric choices (remember: sturdier is better!) and garment construction.

Try to avoid shirts with lots of darts and seams. . . .


 it looks promising. . .  a good, sturdy fabric, a nice stripe, 
neat pocket with lace details, but. . . 

I'll pass on this one, too.

This next shirt is pretty close to perfect:  high quality fabric, unique print, no stains or holes, and no darts, tucks or seams. . .

the back = lots of usable fabric!  
Jump on something like this!

Jackets and blazers make for some neat, heavy-duty fabric choices, like this one. . . .

 boxy, lots of fabric, no seams or tucks.

unique fabric!  heavy duty!  yay!

Since women's shirts tend to have more tailoring and darts in them, there's considerably less fabric available for sewing.  I choose women's shirts for smaller projects, like zipper pouches or patchwork projects.

used to be a blazer!

These were all once ladies' shirts. . . .

Kids' shirts. . . .

too small to be of much use

No.  Just not worth the hassle.

Wash it. . . .

Wash your thrifted shirts according to care instructions, or however you feel comfortable.  I personally don't follow any special washing guidelines or instructions, other than making sure it goes through the wash until it doesn't stink.  I've washed at least 1,000 thrifted shirts, and have ruined only 2 by just dumping them in the washer all together.  However, if it's a very special, vintage, rare, precious and delicate item, then be careful with it.  Use your best judgement on all of that, folks.

 these fun buntings are mostly made from 
thrifted clothing and vintage fabrics!

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions about finding shirts for sewing, please leave a comment!  I'd love to hear from you!

Tomorrow. . . .

I'll post how to deconstruct your new / thrifted shirts for sewing!

UPDATE:  The Part 2: Deconstruction tutorial is HERE!  :)

And be sure to check out my other posts on reclaimed sewing with thrifted clothing. . . .

click HERE to

click HERE to
Talk to you soon!


  1. I love sewing with thrifted shirts! I've got a Craft Gossip post scheduled for later today that features your tutorial: --Anne

  2. Isn't it fun? :) Thanks so much for sharing my tutorial, Anne! I really appreciate that! (And love Craft Gossip!)

  3. Sometimes you can break all the rules ... this was a size teensy tank top of sleazy polyster material. What saved it was the price and the stitching that held it to the opaque lining. It made a good boho pillow cover.

    Usually I look for the larger sizes and full skirts. Do you know how many American Girl dresses you can get out of one bridesmaid dress! It's a lot.

    1. Love the pillow! It's perfect! Yes, you're exactly right -- sometimes you CAN break all the rules, and you've shown a perfect example of when to do so! Thanks for dropping by, and for sharing your creation with us! :)

  4. Moth ball smell is not a bad smell. That is a good smell. It indicates that the item was handled with care. We always put wools in moth balls to prevent MOTHS. The smell dissipates in a few hours to a few days. Hang it outside for a while, even in the garage to give it outside air. After a while you don't even notice it.

    1. You are right about the handling, Mavis, and that's a great point. I suppose I didn't air the items out long enough, because the times I've dealt with the smell, I couldn't get it to dissipate completely. It seemed like the next time I'd wash an article after airing out, the smell would be back again; never truly gone.
      Thank you for the tips, and thanks for dropping by! :)

  5. I love this post too! Especially the way you used a men's shirt as a bag lining, because of the pockets and buttons that go inside, they look really neat. Well done :)

    1. Thank you, Jelena! That's one of my favorite ways to use men's shirts... so fun! :)


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