The Many Lives of a T-Shirt Pattern, Part 1: Hacking a T-Shirt into Tops

Image of a black t-shirt hanging from a hanger against a cream-colored wall
The Plantain T-Shirt

I have way more patterns than I will ever sew. I used to jump from one pattern to the next, making a bunch of garments that did not fit me well but hey, I had a lot of garments! As I grew and developed as a sewist, I realized that it takes a lot more than one try to get a pattern to fit my body. I need at least one muslim before I can tell 1) if this pattern is something I will actually enjoy wearing and 2) what needs to be adjusted to make it fit me properly. After putting so much effort into a pattern, it just seems silly not to spend more time with it—making more than one version, changing it here and there, adding or subtracting to come up with something different.

That’s when I learned that what I was doing has a name: Hacking. To hack a pattern is to take something you have already mastered and use it as the basis for many variations. After being done with all the fitting adjustments and having a pattern that works for you, you can play around it with. And when it comes to hacking,  no other garment is as versatile as a t-shirt. Once you find a t-shirt pattern that works for you, you can hack it to create tops, dresses, even cardigans. 

Plantain Line Drawing
Plantain Line Drawing

My most favorite t-shirt pattern of all time is the Plantain by Deer and Doe. This pattern is FREE!!!! Just download and tape it, and you are ready to go! Here are just a few ideas when it comes to hacking a t-shirt into tops:

Boat Neckline Top

Image of a dressform wearing a black t-shirt with a boat neckline
Boat Neckline

This is the easiest hack. All you have to do is raise the neckline to about the top of your clavicle and redraw the neckline as a shallow curve. If you are working with a more stable knit, finish the raw edge of the neckline, fold over once, and stitch in place. Voilá! You have sewn a boat neckline! 

Flutter Sleeves

Image of the sleeve piece with the sleeve cap slashed and taped to a larger piece of paper.
Slashing and Spreading a Sleeve Pattern Piece for Flutter Sleeves

For this one, I suggest you copy the sleeve pattern piece—you will be slashing and spreading the hell out of it! Start with a line that goes from the middle of the sleeve cap all the way down to the hem. From this line, trace parallel lines to the right and left of it. You get to determine how many lines and how close to each other they are—the more lines, the more volume you will add.

You will cut into the lines, making sure that you DO NOT cut all the way—leave a little bit of paper. The pattern piece may get a little unyielding; just make sure that all little tentacles are attached together! It is better if you put a piece of paper under the slashed sleeve. Tape the top of the sleeve pattern to give the piece some stability, and start spreading the tentacles. Tape the tentacles as you go. Once you are done, I recommend that you copy the new sleeve piece to another paper. It will be much easier to work with.

For a full tutorial, you can go HERE.

Puff Sleeves

Image of the sleeve piece with the sleeve hem slashed and taped to a larger piece of paper.
Slashing and Spreading a Sleeve Pattern Piece for Puff Sleeves

To create puff sleeves, spread the top of the sleeve piece. The process is the same as creating flutter sleeves, but all the volume will go on the sleeve cap. Cut from the top of the sleeve piece, making sure not to cut through the hem. Once you have your sleeves cut in fabric, run three lines of basting close to each other on the sleeve cap side and use them to create your gathers. Finally, sew the sleeves to the bodice, and remove the lines of basting.

This is the same method you would use to create bishop sleeves if working with a pattern with long sleeves.

Puffed Sleeves with a Cuff

You can combine puff and flutter and add a cuff to your sleeves to get cute, puffed ones. Cut two bands of fabric based on the circumference of your biceps (or wherever the sleeve will end), twice as long as you want your cuffs to be. Fold each cuff lengthwise, right sides together, and sew. Fold the cuffs widthwise, wrong sides together. 

Gather both the top and hem sections of the sleeve. Attach the cuff to the hem, right sides together, and stitch. Then, attach the sleeves to the bodice, and sew. 

For a full tutorial, you can go HERE.


Top with Yoke

This is a great idea if you want to color block your t-shirt to make use of some of your knit scraps. Copy the front and back pattern pieces (you always want to have a safe copy of your original pattern). Just draw a straight line that is perpendicular to the grainline right above your bust for both front and back pattern pieces. Cut all the way, separating the pieces. Then, add seam allowance to the button of the top piece and the top of the button piece. Finally, true your pattern by pinning the front pieces to the back pieces. They should match perfectly. If they don’t, add or subtract to make them match.

For a full tutorial, you can go HERE.

Small Tweaks

Two lace sleeves on a green cutting table
Lace Sleeves

If you don’t feel confident enough to hack a pattern, you can make small tweaks to add variety to your t-shirts. You can color block by cutting the neckband and sleeves from a different color knit. You can also use stretchy lace for the sleeves for a fancier, more goth look. T-shirts are easy and quick to sew, so you can end up with a collection of tees for each day of the week… or even month!


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