Turning a Pre-owned Men’s Suit into a New Ensemble
The mission: Transform a pre-owned men’s suit into a new garment or ensemble, using fabrics and notions from my own stash to complete the project.
I bought a men’s suit, pullover sweater, shirt, and ladies’ blouse at my local Goodwill store. My goal was to find items in coordinating fabrics in order to create an ensemble. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how I would transform my Goodwill purchases, but I needed enough fabric in case my ideas changed during the design process.
All the items I chose would make most of us run away from them. But I decided to be brave and get out of my comfort zone. The colors, in a variety of plaids and patterned fabrics, appealed to me and worked together. I decided to do as Tim Gunn, from the Project Runway television series, says and “make it work.”
The suit was sized for a tall man with a large build. It had a single-breasted jacket and pants made of a superfine rayon-polyester blend in a nice pale gray/green windowpane plaid. I faced three challenges with the suit: Match the plaid during the upcycling process, resize the 54-inch-waist pants, and resize the jacket made for a 56-inch chest.
I set the men’s suit aside for the moment to work on the other pieces of my ensemble, an upcycled “shweater” and coordinating blouse.
The upcycled shweater
My approach to fitting garments is the drape-fitting method, and I started with two of my purchases—the men’s large-sized shirt and sweater. I pinned away excess fabric at the sides, shortened the sleeves, and added darts to help shape the shirt/sweater to fit me. My idea was to incorporate the pullover men’s sweater into the shirt. You can follow this method for a similar project.
Deconstruct and mark
1. Carefully pick out the stitching to remove the shirt sleeves to work with the body of the shirt.
2. Next, remove the shirt back below the yoke.
3. Place the sweater on a dress form, and put the shirt on top of it.
Find and mark the sweater’s center back (below the shirt yoke), as well as the shoulder line.
In this case, the shirt had a forward shoulder yoke. Once the shoulder line is established, match it to the center of the sweater sleeves.
These markings can help establish design lines. It’s always good to have points of reference to help you along the way.
Add seam allowances, ladies’ shirt details
3. Remove the garments from the dress form. You only need the sweater back, so cut away the other sections. Add a seam allowance to the top area where it will be attached to the shirt yoke.
The yoke of my shirt had a facing, so I sandwiched the sweater back between the shirt and facing to attach it. The side seams can be drape-fitted when sewn to the shirt.
4. Hand-baste the new sleeve placement lines onto the shirt and sweater back.
5. Add elements from the ladies’ blouse to soften the look of the shirt/sweater, if you wish:
• Hand-appliqué the collar band to the shirt collar band and one blouse front placket.
• Use extra blouse fabric to appliqué onto the underlay of the shirt sleeve plackets. (See how to transform the blouse below.)
• Keep in mind, men’s and ladies’ shirts button in opposite directions. For my shirt, I placed the button through the existing buttonhole in the collar band before applying it to the shirt neckline.
• Wrap the excess fabric of the front placket around to the inside of the shirt to give the look of a Hong Kong seam finish. Hand-baste it in place before fell-stitching it.
6. Determine the shirt length by the length of the blouse front placket. In this case, the shirt was shortened and rehemmed to match.
Hand-sew the shirt buttons in place when finishing the shirt.
I thought this would add a little interest and utilize another fabric from the group.
Note: When deconstructing the shirt, I noticed that fusible basting tape was used to assist in matching the plaids during manufacturing. Great tip.
Finish and shape some more
7. Reinstall the sleeves after determining the new length. Once they are sewn in, you can use a 3/4-inch seam allowance, since the sweater portion is included in the sleeves. Thicker fabrics require wider seam allowances for flat-felled seams, so I didn’t want to come up short. You can shorten the sleeves from the sleeve cap.
Mark the excess fabric to be cut away.
8. Cut away the underseam allowance so that the upper one can be wrapped around it to bind the seam. Hand-baste in place before finishing seams to eliminate the need for lots of pins to hold them in place.
9. Flat-fell the side and sleeve seams.
10. Try on the garment. If it needs additional shaping, as mine did, pin out fish-eye darts on each side of the center back. This is a way to keep a garment from appearing too straight on a curvy silhouette.
Here is the finished garment from the back and the front.
The next upcycle garment in the ensemble was the blouse. I wanted to create a component that would add a feminine vibe. The paisley printed blouse/tunic in soft colors would work well with the suit.
Notice that I removed some of the blouse components and added them to the shirt in an effort to make the ensemble cohesive.
The original blouse had a collar and band, long sleeves with separate cuffs and continuous-lap sleeve plackets. It also had front bands with buttons and tabs sewn inside the sleeves that could be buttoned if you wanted to roll up the sleeves. The blouse was about three sizes larger than I would purchase, but I needed garments with extra fabric. Then I could determine the amount of wearing ease during fitting.
This is the blouse upcycling process I used and which you can follow for a similar project.
Alter the collar; remake armscyes and sleeves
1. Remove the blouse collar and collar band as well as the sleeves. Fold the blouse in half and pin it to your dress form to see the depth of the armhole and how much fabric to remove at the sides for a better fit. Mark the new armscye.
2. Press and place the blouse sleeves wrong sides together. Lay a sleeve pattern you like on top of the blouse sleeves and cut a new sleeve on grain. I used one of my favorite shirt sleeve patterns, part of a vintage McCall’s pattern. I added to the sleeve seam width to help the sleeves fit into the the blouse armholes.
Tip: Use 100 percent cotton hand-basting thread to baste along the chalk markings at the armscye. Sometimes the chalk disappears, but this practice helps ensure you can get the sleeves in the right place.
Reimagine the front placket and neckline
3. Re-create the left-side front button placket. It was removed to appliqué onto the shirt front. I found a solid China silk fabric in my stash to re-create it on my blouse. I applied a fusible interfacing to the silk so that it would have the same weight as the blouse.
4. Stitch the front plackets together, starting at the bust level to just above the bottom two buttons. The blouse can now be worn as a pullover tunic with buttons from the bust up, or from just below the waist down, if desired. Pin and sew the side and sleeve seams.
5. Create a new neckline finish to replace the collar and band removed earlier from the blouse.
I wanted to add a scarf/tie, so I auditioned a few fabrics from my stash.
I liked this fifth option with a different paisley print the best, but I wasn’t sure of the color combo.
About a week later, I got a brochure in the mail from the New York-based Lafayette 148 with separates made in the same colors: ochre and blue. That sealed the deal.
The sleeve tabs that were part of the original blouse were not needed.
6. Fell-stitch the original continuous-lap sleeve plackets closed so you can later make a casing and run elastic through it to finish the sleeve hems.
This helped me to create the tailored Boho style trend that I’m currently fascinated with.
Keep the original blouse/tunic length. You can tuck in the blouse, leave it out, or even wear it as a soft jacket over a lightweight mock neck with skirts or pants. It’s nice to have options.
A skirt—from pants
My first inclination was to transform the pants into a pair of above-ankle culottes. This was not to be, so I decided to upcycle the pants into a skirt.
Most tailored men’s pants are made like this: waistband/waist curtain with Ban-rol sewn or fused within. These pants also had an expandable elastic piece at both sides of the waist.
The pant fronts were partially lined to below the knee to reduce wrinkling and to prevent knee impressions after sitting. Once I decided to make a straight skirt, the pants needed to be deconstructed. This is the process I used.
Prepare the “fabric” and pattern
1. Remove the front pockets, waistband, front lining, etc.
2. Steam-press the pant fronts and backs to remove any creases and folds.
3. Place the pieces right sides together—fronts together, backs together—on a worksurface and lay your favorite skirt pattern on top. Check that the plaids are matching, if using a plaid fabric. Cut one piece at a time. I decided to be brave and go for it.
My skirt pattern called for the front to be placed on the fold, but the pant legs did not provide the necessary fabric width. So I added a 3/4-inch seam to the skirt front at the sides (front and back) to give myself extra fabric before fitting or for alteration later. I also lengthened the skirt for finishing options and for insurance that the finished skirt length proportion would work with the jacket length.
Sew the skirt and harvest a waistband
4. Sew the skirt together using the Hong Kong lining method.
Install the zipper in the center-back seam using a hand-picked method that also conceals the zipper pull.
5. Repurpose the pants’ waistband for the skirt by shortening and piecing it together to fit. Keep the original waistband hooks in place to use as the skirt waist closure. The Ban-rol stays inside. You may use fusible stay tape to hold the waistband fabric in place.
6. Attach the waistband to the skirt.
Cover raw edges and finish
7. Pin the ends near the hooks in place.
8. Cut bias strips from the original shirt back. Sew them together and use as the waistband facing.
9. Press under the edges to fit, and hand-fell-stitch in place.
The pieced section near the side seam is barely noticeable on my skirt’s finished waistband.
10. Determine the skirt length.
11. Sew together bias strips (I made mine of Bemberg lining) to bind the hem using the Hong Kong seam finish. Trim away excess bias strips after stitching in the ditch.
Sleeveless women’s jacket
Next up was the jacket. Many of you are aware that I love making jackets. Because the original, single-breasted style was made for a large man, there was plenty of fabric to work with.
I decided first to remove the sleeves so that I would be able to work with the rest of the jacket. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to use the sleeves or not, so they were set aside.
One interesting thing I noticed was that the back jacket lining had a crescent shaped piece at the back armscye made in a jersey knit. It appeared to be there for ease when a person’s arms move forward. This is a functional feature that could be added to any jacket pattern if desired.
Here is the rest of my thought process and the steps I took to achieve the sleeveless jacket look.
Reduce width-wise bulk, resize the collar
1. Try on the jacket and pin out excess fabric at the available seams: center back, side-back seams, and front darts. I was able to remove a lot of fabric in every available seam of my jacket.
2. Open the collar at the center-back neckline so that the jacket can fit better there and can match the new center-back jacket seam.
3. Sew a center seam in the upper collar to match the amount taken in at the undercollar/felt.
Hand-stitch the undercollar felt in place and press.
Tip: Try on the garment multiple times during the drape-fitting stage to see the garment from all angles and to be sure it is symmetrical and balanced.
4. If necessary, cut away excess fabric from the seams at the side back to eliminate bulk and give a contoured shape to the straight jacket. Remember, garments made for men have a straighter silhouette than clothes made for women.
Note: Be mindful to not overfit garments. There needs to be enough room, or ease, in garments to move in them and to wear over other garments if needed.
5. Create a back yoke if you need to eliminate excess fabric between the shoulders and shoulder blades.
Turn the excess length into a horizontal seam.
Topstitch and edgestitch it to accentuate the yoke as a design feature. Taper the lower center-back seam so the jacket hangs correctly.
Adjust the fit of the lining
Once you are satisfied with the fit of the jacket…
… you can start adjusting the lining to fit.
6. Put the jacket on the dress form and pin out the excess lining to fit the outer shell.
In most cases, the amount of fabric removed from lining fabrics will not be the same amount as in fashion fabrics. Woven linings without Lycra don’t stretch or give as much as fashion fabric. If you remove the same amount, it will cause the garment to be too tight.
Be sure to leave a little room in the lining. Ask me how I know.
There’s no need to create a back yoke in the lining.
7. Place the jacket on an ironing board or flat surface and use tailor tacks to mark the new stitching lines. Press the center-back wearing ease pleat. This pleat is important: It provides ease by expanding when your arms go forward while the jacket is being worn. It keeps the lining from ripping open at the center-back seam.
Make the tailor’s tacks every couple of inches so you can follow them when creating the new seams.
8. Using catch stitches, close up the chest-level horizontal tucks on the jacket front. This will ensure that these features, included for ease of movement, are not disturbed during the upcycling.
Luckily, I was able to leave all of the inside front welt pockets and lining undisturbed on my jacket. They had been beautifully made, and I was hoping to keep them.
Adjust and finish shoulders and armholes
9. Adjust the shoulder slope so that the sleeveless jacket lies along the shoulder line. Achieve this by opening the shoulder seams enough to adjust the angle toward the back. This is similar to the way Victorian jackets were made.
Before the shoulder adjustment:
After the shoulder adjustment:
Below, notice the amount that the shoulder seams were moved, as well as a close up of the shoulder seam.
I decided that I wanted to maintain my sanity, and not to use the sleeves in the finished jacket (now a sleeveless jacket). That would have required me to recut them and open up a proverbial can of worms.
10. Cut bias fabric strips from the pants for narrow bias facings at the jacket armholes edges. Use the original sleeve heads to pad the jacket back between the shoulders and shoulder blades. This helps to keep the area smooth.
The jacket front had hair canvas and fleece to prevent the front from caving between the shoulders and the bust.
11. Attach the bias strips to the armholes, turn them to the jacket’s interior, and hand-baste them in place. Finish by fell-stitching the facings by hand.
Move the buttons, add a flourish, and finish
12. The original jacket buttons from left to right. Move the buttons to the right side, so the jacket can have an asymmetrical closure. The single-breasted jacket became a double-breasted style on me.
13. Add an accent by using a remnant of the blouse neck tie to make a pocket square.
14. Cover snaps and sew them to the inside the upper left jacket to maintain a level hem when closed.
Finished sleeveless jacket
This sleeveless jacket can be worn with the matching skirt, and with the shirt/sweater or blouse. It depends on the look you desire. I can also see it worn alone as a dress with opaque tights and a mock neck sweater underneath.
The process of upcycling garments has been an interesting challenge for me. I was able to use so many of the skills I’m fortunate to have learned over the years. Techniques such as garment construction, drape fitting, alterations, specialty seam finishes, couture hand finishing, and pressing techniques made it possible for me to realize my design plans. For me, sewing garments helps me think and to be a better problem-solver.
I’m so happy to have you join me on this upcycled men’s suit challenge. It was an adventure.
See two more men’s suit transformations from Threads digital ambassadors:
Becky Fulgoni created business overalls with a complementary jacket for herself;
Peter Lappin made an elegant 1940s women’s suit out of a 1990s men striped wool flannel suit.
Which of the three men’s upcycled suits is your favorite?
Photos courtesy of Pamela Howard, except where noted.
Sorry, I can't choose a favorite! These are all three so inspiring. To see the design possibilities in a generic man's suit, then come out with such creative results is wonderful. And I gleaned several ideas from each one. Thank you!