4 Tips to Fix a Frumpy T-shirt

I found this t-shirt in a little t-shirt shop in Sausalito, California. We were on a 3 week roadtrip driving up the California coast to celebrate my husband’s 50th birthday. It was a great time full of family memories I’ll cherish forever. This shirt caught my eye for one reason – the graphic. I love cats, and the graphic of cats running an ice cream truck, and the little details like their expressions and colors and the way their paws were drawn had me hooked. Not to mention that a portion of the funds benefitted the Hawaiian Humane Society & promoted cat adoption! I’m not a big t-shirt wearer, but I had to have it. Never mind that the only size left was an XL. I normally would wear a medium, but I just knew I could make it work somehow…

As much as I wanted to wear it as is, it had a lot of issues I knew I needed to fix before I could enjoy it and wear it as much as I wanted to. This is the process of how I fixed the frump factor of this shirt. Here is an overview of the issues I identified leading to me not wearing it as is:

1. Fix the fit

This could be achieved by adding bust darts, taking away excessive or unwanted fullness, making armholes that fit and don’t gape open, and making sleeves that fit or get rid of them altogether! I did all these things to this shirt and it transformed the fit. Good fit feels AND looks good!

2. Give it intentional style

Find an inspirational look online, or copy the style of an existing t-shirt you like. For this shirt, I thought that its stable, hefty cotton fabric would make a cute cropped top that would stay down, and not flip up in the wind the way a lighter fabric might. By removing the sleeves and giving it a comfortably fitted armhole, it also lent itself to a muscle-tee look that I had been wanting to try out.

3. Make it comfortable

No matter how cute, you won’t wear clothing if it’s uncomfortable or too impractical. I find this to be true time, and time again in my closet. Although this top was 100% cotton, the knit was thick and the addition of a large graphic front and back only made it thicker. This left me with the feeling of drowning in a not-very-breathable, oversized top. Not to mention that the oversized armholes and sleeves had me worried that you could see into the front of my shirt when I raised my arm – that is never a comfortable feeling. Fixing the armhole size and removing the sleeves gave me instant comfort and coolness. I also avoid tops where the text or logo is displayed horizontally directly over my bustline. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable seeing eyes reading my chest!

4. Make it flattering

We tend to reach for the clothes in our closet that make us feel good. While not every piece of clothing needs to be flattering, we tend to favor the ones that are flattering. There’s good reason for this. If we feel good in our clothes, we can focus on the day ahead. Choose styles that you feel bring out your best, and stick to variations on that theme!

What I did to make it work:

  • added bust darts
  • raised the graphic
  • raised the neckline
  • cut off the sleeves
  • cropped it
  • took away excess fullness
  • gave it style – kept it intentionally boxy
  • gave it armholes that fit me
  • Gave it a 2″ hem to allow for extra weight (helps the shirt stay down!)

How I made the changes:

Lay out the pattern

I used a pattern that I knew fit me. It was a pattern for a boxy, crew-neck tee, that included a bust dart. Mine happened to be self-drafted, but it doesn’t have to be. If I had a pattern that I had used before and worked, I could use that, but I didn’t have one with a dart, and I wanted to put one in this shirt. You could also use an existing t-shirt that fits the way you like. You would just lay it out like a pattern and cut out with seam allowance, like I show in this blog post on cloning your favorite t-shirt. All that matters is that the pattern fits on the t-shirt you are fixing! Here is how I made mine work…

Don’t cut the shirt open at the side seams and don’t cut off the sleeves! You have limited fabric and you want to be able to squeeze every drop of fabric out of this shirt. This may require some creative pattern cutting! Since the back pattern piece is usually narrower than the front, you want to cut that out first and save any excess on the sides to be used for the front, as I show below.

I have a special way that I folded the t-shirt before I laid it out with the back pattern piece that allowed me to keep the shirt intact but still lay it out on the center back fold. This makes it easier to cut the back out with minimal waste! I put one sleeve inside the other, then it leaves the front and back folded each at their center line. It’s hard to describe it in words, but for more clarification you can watch my YouTube video on this t-shirt transformation, where I show you how to fold the t-shirt.

When I laid the front pattern piece on the shirt lined up with center front fold, I noticed some issues.

Address Problem # 1

The first problem was the neckline. In order to change it to a crew neckline like I wanted, I needed more fabric at the neckline or the front wouldn’t match the back pattern piece when I went to sew it together at the shoulder seam.  I fixed this problem by patching it in with some excess neckband sewn in at an angle in the shape of the red-outlined area.  This worked great and fit the casual vibe of the shirt, barely being visible at all.

Even though the neckline patches had a seam running across them and weren’t 100% symmetrical, I sewed them in nice and flat so they are comfortable and not really visible when worn since they are so close to my neck.

Address Problem #2

The second problem was that I needed more fabric at the side seam area under the bust dart. Since my back pattern piece didn’t use up the entire width of the back of the shirt, once I cut out the back, I opened up the excess to the front and it was just enough to allow me to cut out the front piece.

Address Problem #3

The third problem was that the area of my pattern above the bust dart would extend onto the sleeves and would have a seam running across it.  This worked just fine and added to the casual, sporty vibe.  It ended up just looking like a decorative seam.

Again, like the neckline, even though this wasn’t an ideal pattern layout situation, it shows that you can improvise and still end up with a great solution. Just like the neckline, the patch did have a seam running across it, but when worn, it is comfortable, and under my arm, so not really visible!


I am really happy with the results of this t-shirt makeover! I successfully identified & fixed the problems keeping me from wearing & enjoying my t-shirt with the adorable cat graphic on it. Now every time I wear it I remember the roadtrip and now this new journey to fix it! I hope you enjoyed coming along this journey with me. I also hope my sharing this process helps you to figure out & fix something you’d like to wear in your closet! Happy Sewing!

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