How to Alter and Upcycle a T-shirt

On average we own 22 T-shirts and tops. 24% of these are unworn, this is the top of all items of clothing and only second to footwear. For September’s Zero Waste Week we are focusing on one item of clothing in our wardrobes, the T-shirt.

There are many ways to alter and upcycle a T-shirt to extend it’s life cycle. We bought two men’s T-shirts from a charity shop and experimented with a couple of techniques.

Notes about T-shirt fabric

T-shirts are nearly always made from jersey, a fabric that is created by knitting long yarns (threads) together. The same construction as a jumper but with much smaller loops holding them together. Knitting the yarns gives the fabric a natural stretch. 100% cotton T-shirts will have less stretch and recovery than a fabric that contains Polyester or Elastane. Elastane (such as Lycra) is an elastic that means the garment recovers back to it’s original position when it is stretched. 100% cotton T-shirts can stretch out of shape, which is what has happened with the Miami T-shirt that we bought.

The good thing about jersey fabric is it doesn’t fray when it is cut. So you can use your scissors to alter and upcycle T-shirts without a sewing machine. The fabric rolls back on itself, so after multiple wears and washes it will keep rolling and get smaller. But that can also look good.

We have used a sewing machine on the techniques below. If you are using a sewing machine then a zig zag stitch generally works best on jersey as it allows the fabric to stretch without breaking the stitches.


  • Sharp scissors to cut fabric
  • Sewing machine or follow our guide on how to sew without a sewing machine
  • Ruler and felt tip pen (doesn’t have to be a fabric pen)
  • Polyester all sew thread
  • Elastic: 1cm wide for shoulder seams / 2 to 3cm wide for waistband of skirt

How to shorten and ruche a T-shirt

You can find more detailed instructions on our ‘how to shorten sleeves video‘. We shorten the sleeves on a jumper using elastic, which is the same technique we have used on the sleeves of this T-shirt.

How to Upcycle a T-shirt into a skirt

More T-shirt alteration ideas:

  • Trim the sleeves to create a cap sleeve.
  • Cut off the sleeves for a sleeveless top
  • Cut off the neck edging and reshape the neckline to a slash neck or V-neck
  • Shorten to a waist length or crop top
  • Shorten the hem by adding a length of elastic to the side seams, the same technique I mentioned above.

Shorts can also be created from T-shirts. We recommend finding a sewing pattern that you like. Cutting up two T-shirts for the fabric then following the pattern. Charity shops have lots of sewing patterns often for a couple of pounds. If you pick up a vintage one, measure the flat paper pattern and compare it to your body measurements. Vintage patterns are often much smaller than our modern sizing.

How to use up fabric scraps

We were left with the above scraps of fabric after upcycling two T-shirts. These scraps will be reused in other mending projects. Keep a box of fabric scraps left over from alterations. They are useful for patching other items of clothing.

basic sewing kit for clothes mending repairs
Read our blog on how to build your own clothes repair kit