Quick and Easy Gift Alert! Turn a Basic Graphic Tee into a Fun Pieced Dress or Top

 Have an outgrown tee laying around? You’ll love this tutorial! Upcycling graphic tees is quick, easy and fun!

Posey upcycles collage

Hard to believe that Thanksgiving is this week and the holiday season is already in full swing – where did this year go??! When Amy asked the contributor team to come up with some posts for holiday-themed decor or edible treats, I was a bit stumped. My family celebrates Chanukah and as festive as it is (hello, 8 nights of gifts to exchange! And fried foods aplenty!), we just don’t do much in the way of decor aside from setting up the menorahs (which really isn’t about being decorative, but they look nice anyway). As for edible treats, suffice it to say I’m a Rice Krispies treats type of baker. ;)

I decided to share a quick and easy gift idea that I use for birthday gifts year round, but would make a great personalized holiday gift for the kids on your list. There are a number of popular sewing patterns for upcycled t-shirt dresses (I’ve used, and love, several of them) and in general they offer more options than I’ll be including in this tutorial. Sometimes I find all of the options overwhelming, though, and I just want to turn an outgrown tee into something new for my kiddo – chances are you already have a lot of these pattern pieces (knit bodice, sleeves) in your files, and with a few measurements you can pretty easily and inexpensively transform a basic tee into something fun.

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Nana will also be getting a framed pic this holiday season ;)

You’ll need your usual sewing supplies (including a ballpoint needle for knits and your serger if you have one – if not, I’d recommend using a zigzag or stretch stitch on your sewing machine), a graphic tee, and a few coordinating knits. You can use scraps for some of the pieces (especially the smaller panels for the front bodice and often sleeves as well) but will likely need a slightly larger piece (half yard or more, depending on the size you are making) for the skirt if you’re making a dress. I love using solids, polka dots, and stripes to coordinate with my tees – I like the solid cotton/lycra knits from the Purple Seamstress (Melinda Dozal) on Facebook or the Kaufman Laguna Jersey knits (you can find them on fabric.com among other internet retailers) and I get a lot of my stripes and dots from Purple Seamstress as well. I also buy a lot of knits from Funkalicious Fabrics and from Fabric Dealers on Facebook. Joanns has a small selection of knits but some stores have more than others and you’ll want to poke around in various sections to find them all – I’ve found nice knits with the juvenile prints, the performance fabrics, and the seasonal “fashion fabrics” sections. And I don’t have a Hancock’s Fabrics anywhere near me but have ordered their cotton interlock in various colors online and it is thick and a great quality. I prefer to stick to jersey knits and cotton/lycra knit blends for the skirts, though, since they have better drape than interlock.

When it comes to graphic tees, I find them all over the place! I have bought them at Old Navy (they have TONS and are one of my favorite spots for tees), Target, Children’s Place, KMart, Walmart, H&M, Uniqlo, and I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting! The “big sister” shirt in the photo above is from Carters, and had been given to Miss P when her brother was born. Miss P loves when I use character tees for these dresses (Frozen, Lalaloopsy, and Rapunzel are the ones she wears most often, but she has a Smurfette one and a Jasmine one that have gotten a bit of love as well), and those are her favorites to ask me to make for her friends’ birthdays. For her friend who loves Brave, I bought a Merida tee and turned it into a dress, and then added a small MagiClip Merida doll to the package. It was a hit! This Frozen dress from last winter is one of Miss P’s all-time favorites:

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This was less than a year ago, and P looks so little here – wow!

The easiest and simplest way to do this is to buy a shirt that is the recipient’s size, add a skirt, and you’re done! :) Most of the time it’s not quite that simple, though, and I have found that the knits used for graphic tees is often quite thin and less than ideal anyway. Using this basic method, you can use any size shirt you find (which is great when you’re shopping the clearance rack and can’t find the exact size you want) as long as the graphic isn’t significantly bigger than the size of your bodice (as the graphic would get cut off when you trimmed your pattern piece).

Start by measuring around your pattern piece, and note the height and width from the highest/widest point. For my 3T Grand Slam tee (slim fit), I needed a rectangle that was 16″ tall by 12 1/2″ wide – see the photo below for how I arrived at these dimensions.

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grainy nighttime pic, but hopefully you get the idea!

The Toy Story tee that I had for my little guy was about 1-2 sizes too small, so I cut down around the graphic until it was a nice even rectangle. I’ll refer to this as my panel from here on – in this case it was 11″ tall by 8″ wide. So, I needed to add 5″ to the height and 4 1/2″ to the width.

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You can decide if you want to add all of that to the top or bottom, or split it between the two as I did. It’s really just a design/aesthetic choice. (Actually, if you look at the big sister dress above, you’ll notice that the graphic sits rather high on the bodice – I had wanted to cut the panel much smaller but my daughter wanted a big pink panel so we went with that. I think she looks a little like a robot, but hey, she likes it. ;) ) You can see in the photo below how I cut the strips to surround the panel and make up the rest of the bodice.

"Big sister" panel trimmed and ready to be pieced

“Big sister” panel trimmed and ready to be pieced

*Make sure to remember to add seam allowances to your strips when you cut them! I usually add 1/4″ and just don’t trim anything when I serge the pieces together, but you can add whatever seam allowance is most comfortable for you to work with.*  

I attached the side pieces to the panel first, pressed them toward the sides, and then attached the top and bottom strips. I pressed those away from the panel as well. You can topstitch those seams to keep them flat if you prefer, I’ve done that (with a long straight stitch) and it is a nice finish.

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Once you’ve assembled your panel, take your pattern pieces and cut your bodice (as well as the sleeves, neckband, and skirt if desired). When I use the Grand Slam tee pattern to make a dress, I shorten the bodice by about 3 inches so that the skirt begins right at the waist and isn’t too much of a drop waist. Personal preference here, too, though. Here are what some of my pieces looked like once they were all cut:

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If you’re making a tee, assemble per pattern instructions, hem the sleeves and the bottom and you’re done!

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If you’re adding a skirt, there are lots of different ways you can do this. For the “I Love Nana” dress, I added a short circle skirt and did a rolled hem on my serger to finish the edge. I used a pattern piece that I had on hand from another dress pattern, but you can always draft your own using the width of the bodice to calculate the radius you’ll need for the circle skirt. There are a number of tutorials online to help if you get stuck with the calculations. I’ve used the one from Dana at MADE here and this pattern from Figgy’s is great, too.

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You can also add a simple gathered skirt to the bodice. For the “big sister” dress, I cut front and back panels that were twice the width of the bodice and gathered to fit. I made mine a little on the short side, since Miss P wears these as playdresses with leggings underneath. Usually a ratio of 1.5-2x the width of the bodice will give you a nice full skirt that isn’t too heavy but still spins and twirls well.

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Miss P has also requested one with a tiered skirt, like this dress (shown below) that I made for my first PAB tutorial – I have a cute My Little Pony tee stashed away that I think would be cute for this style.

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That tutorial has tips for how to calculate the height and width for your tiers, and can be found here. I like to bind the necklines of these dresses instead of using the neckband, since I think it makes the neckline a little more feminine.

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Amy included instructions for how to do a bound neckline in the Rio Racerback tee and dress pattern if you’ve got that one to refer to. You can also make your own panel if you’d prefer – piece your bodice as you’d like, and use freezer paper stenciling or applique to embellish. You can easily achieve the look of the paneled bodice without a store-bought graphic! These are a fun way to use those school spirit tees that are the wrong size, or an old favorite college or concert tee of yours. There are so many options for these fun upcycles – I especially love that you can personalize them and they can really be one-of-a-kind creations. :)

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Author of handcrafted by RED.

A desire to make a cute little dress for my daughter a few summers ago has turned into what some (like my family) might call a full-blown obsession with learning to sew. I’ve got two fun kids (ages 4.5 and 2) who get to be the primary beneficiaries of my successes and misadventures – I love being able to make clothes that fit their personalities and not just their bodies. I’ve recently begun blogging my sewing exploits – hope to see you there as well!

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