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Turning a Pre-owned Men’s Suit into a New Ensemble

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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.

Shirt sleeves removed from red plaid shirt that is lying on gridded worksurface

2. Next, remove the shirt back below the yoke.

Lower shirt back removed from the rest of red plaid shirt lying on gridded worksurface
3. Place the sweater on a dress form, and put the shirt on top of it.

Red plaid shirt laid on top of olive green sweater on dress from

Secure shirt to sweater with pins

Find and mark the sweater’s center back (below the shirt yoke), as well as the shoulder line.

Locate design lines on red plain shirt and olive green sweater on dress form

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.

Close-up of thread markings on center of sleeve

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.

Center back and seam allowance along top edge marked on olive green sweater back

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.

Sew the sweater back to the red plaid shirt back yoke

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.

Blouse collar band appliqued to shirt collar stand

Blouse collar band appliqued to the shirt collar band

Appliqued red plaid shirt collar band, back view

•  Use extra blouse fabric to appliqué onto the underlay of the shirt sleeve plackets. (See how to transform the blouse below.)

Appliqued right sleeve placket on red plaid shirt

Appliqued left sleeve placket on red plaid shirt

•  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.

Hand-baste the front placket to the shirt front

 

Underside view of the front placket

Wrap the fabric and pin to bind the edge by hand

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.

Front neck view of red plaid shirt on dress form

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.

Manufacturer used basting tape to match the plaids

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.

Sleeve shortened at the sleeve cap

Mark the excess fabric to be cut away.

Measuring and marking the excess fabric to be cut away at the armscye edge

 

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.

Underseam allowance cut away to prepare for flat-felling the seam

Hand-basted flat-felled seam at the sleeve cap

9. Flat-fell the side and sleeve seams.

Flat-felled side seam

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.

Fish-eye darts pinned at sweater back to add shape
Here is the finished garment from the back and the front.

Finished shweater back with fish-eye darts
Photo by Mike Yamin

 

 

Finished red shirt front with appliqued placket
Photo by Mike Yamin

Coordinating blouse

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.

Original paisley blouse to complement the men's 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.

Half blouse front pinned on dress form

Half blouse back pinned on dress form
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.

Sleeve pattern pinned to the opened blouse sleeve on gridded worksurface
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.

four neckline fabric options for blue paisley blouse

I liked this fifth option with a different paisley print the best, but I wasn’t sure of the color combo.

Reddish-brown print fabric wrapped at neckline of blue paisley blouse on dress form

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.

Paisley print sleeve tabs from original blouse were not used for the upcycle project

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.

Hand-sew to close the blouse's continuous laps

Elastic casing for the blouse sleeve hem

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.

Finished upcycled paisley blouse front

Finished upcycled paisley blouse back

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.

Original men's suit pants zipped up

Original men's suit pants, full front view

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.

men's suit pants inner waistband

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.

Deconstructing the men's suit pants waistband

Deconstructed men's suit pants front
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.

Deconstructed men's suit pant legs laid out with skirt patterns pinned to them
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.

Deconstructed men's suit pant legs laid out with skirt patterns pinned on top

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.

Skirt waistband with hand-picked zipper created from men's suit pants
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.

Original men's suit pants waistband with Hong Kong lining on men's suit pants

Close-up of men's suit pants waistband back with original closure

Fusible stay tape holds the raw edge in place

6. Attach the waistband to the skirt.

Waistband skirt front made from men's suit pants

Cover raw edges and finish

7. Pin the ends near the hooks in place.

Pin the ends near the hooks in placeWaistband underlap seam allowance pinned

8. Cut bias strips from the original shirt back. Sew them together and use as the waistband facing.

bias strips cut from the shirt

9. Press under the edges to fit, and hand-fell-stitch in place.

Bias strip cut from the plaid shirt pinned and sewn to the waistband, which originated from men's suit pants

View of finished inner waistband featuring the bias strips cut from the plaid shirt

Finished skirt waistband at back showing closure
Photo by Mike Yamin

The pieced section near the side seam is barely noticeable on my skirt’s finished waistband.

Pieced section of finished waistband from the right side
Photo by Mike Yamin

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.

Hong Kong Seam Finish for Skirt Hem being sewn on sewing machine

Skirt hem from the right side

Cut away excess lining at the hem

12. Hem the skirt by hand.

Finished skirt hem from the wrong side
Photo by Mike Yamin

Finished skirt front, on dress form; skirt created from men's suit pants

Finished skirt back, on dress form; skirt created from men's suit pants

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.

Removing the sleeve on the original men's suit

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.

Interesting stretch panel on the men's suit jacket's back lining

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.

Drape-fitting the men's suit jacket body

More fitting and draping on the men's suit jacket

Adjusting the side-front dart on the men's suit jacket

Adding adjustment at the side of the men's suit 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.

Upper collar of the men's suit jacket is taken in, shown from the right side

Hand-stitch the undercollar felt in place and press.

undercollar felt adjustment on men's suit jacket

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.

Removing excess seam allowances from the men's suit jacket

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.

Men's suit jacket back length is adjusted by adding a yoke

Topstitch and edgestitch it to accentuate the yoke as a design feature. Taper the lower center-back seam so the jacket hangs correctly.

Sleeveless suit jacket back with new yoke

Close-up of new yoke

Adjust the fit of the lining

Once you are satisfied with the fit of the jacket…

check the fit of the jacket before adjusting the lining

… 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.

Drape-fitting the jacket lining

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.

adjusted suit jacket lining

Adjusted suit jacket lining, side view

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.

tailor's tacks on the back lining

tailor's tacks at the side back lining

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.

catchstitch the front lining pleat

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.

Close-up of the font lining with beautifully made pockets

Close-up of other front suit jacket lining with beautifully finished pockets

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:

Suit jacket front before the shoulder adjustment

Jacket side view before the shoulder adjustment

After the shoulder adjustment:

Moved shoulder seam

Opposite shoulder seam

Below, notice the amount that the shoulder seams were moved, as well as a close up of the shoulder seam.

Adjusted shoulder seam, from the inside

Adjusted shoulder seam, from the outside

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.

Repurpose bias binding from pants and sleeve heads from jacket

Sleeve heads used to pad the jacket back

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.

Bound armholes on new sleeveless jacket

Hand-fell-stitched armhole on women's jacket, created from men's suit

Hand-fell-stitched armhole, view from front
Three above photos by Mike Yamin

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.

Add a pocket square
Photo by Mike Yamin

14. Cover snaps and sew them to the inside the upper left jacket to maintain a level hem when closed.

Covered snaps for inner jacket closure

Add covered snaps to jacket for a closure
Photo by Mike Yamin

Finished sleeveless jacket

Finished Sleeveless Jacket
Photo by Mike Yamin

 

 

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.

Finished ensemble dressing options created from a men's suit

 

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? You can cast your vote here.


Photos courtesy of Pamela Howard, except where noted.

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