Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

1 Comment

Extending the Life of an Old Favourite: My Picnic Mat

Have you ever embarked a project that you wish you hadn’t? One that really frustrates, and you are really not sure it has been worth all the effort? Well, that would describe the project that I have been working on for literally weeks.

Here’s some background: many years ago (possibly 15 or there about) I was sat in a park at lunchtime eating my sandwiches, when I was presented with a free promotional gift from a mobile phone company. It was a picnic mat and it turned out to be rather useful. It is made from some straw and the edges are bound with tape.

The picnic mat has, over the years, been taken to the park and the beach on numerous occasions. Sadly, it was showing its age and falling apart. I wanted to preserve / upgrade it for future use because it has been so useful. I decided to back it with some left-over fabric that I had used for making the base of the Closet Core Pouf and black-out fabric that was left-over from some curtains. I was super pleased with the idea for this project, mostly because I was actually enthused about doing this (not always the case with an upcycle) and it was going to use up some oddments that had been hanging around for a while. I forgot to take a before snap, so this is a photo from the internet to show you the mat as it existed before my modifications.

An idealised picture of a straw beach mat.

I really thought this was going to be one of those quick projects that I was just going to manage over a weekend, but no…..

I found out quickly how difficult this project was going to be. First of all, the mat is rather rigid and cumbersome to manipulate with the sewing machine. I always use the dining room table for sewing, but because the mat was so inflexible I had to remove absolutely everything from the table and the nearby shelf (I learned the hard way) to stop things clattering to the floor as I manipulated the fabric. Essentially, grabbing ten minutes to do this project was awkward because I had to clear so much space in order to use the sewing machine.

Next, I think I must have known this (but somehow forgot), but the reason that the matting was falling apart at the edges was that once you snag or lose one of the threads the whole thing starts to unravel. Anyway, as soon as I got to the point where I started to trim the original mat to get rid of the worst of the damage, it all started to come apart. The straw fibres went everywhere and it was a race against time to stop the shedding process. Luckily I managed to tie up all the threads before the whole thing unravelled but the mess was horrendous.

You can see both sides of the picnic mat in this photo. One side new waterproof backing (at the top) and the other has the original straw matting (at the bottom)

Finally, I finished the whole mat with some bias binding that I created originally, again for the Closet Core Pouf and hey presto, here is the result. I wish I had taken a before photo, but actually it doesn’t matter as it doesn’t actually look very different (on one side), it’s just not falling apart. I wish I could remember how the original was carried, the strap had fallen off years ago, so I will just go for a simple tie for carrying it.

The new improved picnic mat….just waiting for the sun…..

Well, a picnic mat isn’t going to get any use till next year, so I can’t really comment on how well my modification is standing up to wear. I hope it was worth the effort: I can’t help but think that most people would have thrown this out once it started to look tired or got damaged. I think this is why I had a hard time sticking with this project. After all, I was extending the life of an item I got for free. But, you know this is exactly how we should be looking after things.

Have you ever received a promotional gift that you have used endlessly? Ever given one an extended life because you loved it so much?

Leave a comment

August Upcycle – Belt loops

I must say I am a great fan of belts. I think this stems from my fluctuating waistline. A belt can take up a bit of slack around the waist (when I’ve just got up in the morning) and I can keep my waistbands slightly loose so that my lunch has enough room!

You will need:

  • Matching or contrasting fabric of your choice for the belt loops
  • Interfacing if using light-weight fabric

Before you start

1.  Work out how many belt loops you want to sew. Usually coats and dresses just have loops at the side seams. For trousers and skirts belt loops to accommodate the belt buckle and zip, belt loops can be positioned a few centimetres on either side of the centre front and centre back.

2.  Next decide how long each loop should be. Measure your waistband. Each belt loop length should be the waistband width + 2.5 centimetres for seam allowances. For example, my waistband is 4 centimetres, so each belt hoop should be 5.5 centimetres. Alternatively, if you are adding belt loops to a coat or dress where there is no waistband you may wish to calculate the belt loops size from the size of the belt. Measure the width of the belt. Each belt loop length should be the belt width + 1.5 centimetres for some ease + 2.5 centimetres for seam allowances, so for a 5 centimetre belt, each belt loop would be 9 centimetres.

How to calculate the fabric needed for the belt loops

1.  Work out the total length of fabric required for the belt loops. This is calculated as Total number of belt hoops x length of each belt loop

2.  Cut a strip of fabric slightly longer than this length. For example, if I was going to make 5 belt loops each 5.5 centimetres long, I would need to cut a strip of fabric 27.5 centimetres long at least.

3. The finished width of the belt loop is whatever you would like, but this may depend on the weight of the fabric. First of all decide what you would like the finished width to be. Then width of the strip should be 4 times the finished width. For example, to make belt loops with a finished width of 1.5 centimetres, the strip should have a width of 1.5 x 4 = 6 centimetres.

So using the example above I would wish to cut a fabric strip of 27.5 centimetres x 6 centimetres to create 5 loops which are 1.5 centimetres wide.

This is a method I use for sewing belt loops using light-weight fabric

I used fusible interfacing to add weight to my belt loops, but you can dispense with this if needed.

1.  Cut out a strip of interfacing the same size as your fabric strip

2.  Fold your strip in half lengthwise, right-sides together

3.  Trim 0.5 cm off each of the long sides of the interfacing

4.  Fuse the interfacing to the fabric

5.  Stitch 0.5 cm from the raw edges.

Belt Loop 1

6.  Trim the edges and turn the belt loops right-side out. Press.


7.  With the seam at the centre back, top-stitch close to the edge of both long sides of the strip.


8.  Cut into individual loops.

 For the skirt pictured here, I unpicked the waistband a little where each belt loop was to be placed. 

1.  Mark placements around the skirt or trousers to show where you wish to place the belt loops. I’ve marked them here with pins.

2.  Insert the belt loops into the waistband seam edge (where the waistband meets the trousers or skirt)



3.  Sew the waistband to the skirt.


4.  Fold 1 centimetre at the top of the belt loop and pin in place.

5.  Bar tack at the top and buottom of each belt loop to attach them to the waistband.



May Upcycle – Old t-shirt into knickers

For my first venture in sewing with knits, I decided that I didn’t want to spend much money on just in case…..

Belle at Belle and Burger has a tutorial on making your own knickers from old t-shirts and I thought this would be a perfect project for a beginner.


An old t-shirt

Paper for pattern

Pair of knickers on which to base my pattern

Elastic with lace trim

Ball-point sewing machine needle

Finished Knickers

I chose an old comfy pair of pants (too despicable for a photo!) for my pattern. I used the same t-shirt for both the lining and the front and back (although actually you could use different t-shirts for each of these if you so wished).

I have been experimenting lately with my Swiss zig-zagger and thought that this would be ideal for creating that perfect zig-zag stitch. It was a little tricky sewing the elastic to the waistband and legs. In some places my zig-zag stitching is far from beautiful. I think I should have cut out the fabric a little more generously. It would have been easier with a little more fabric to play with and I could have trimmed the excess off rather than sewing right up against the edge.

I enjoyed my introduction to knits and I shall definitely be making some more of these in the near future and perhaps embark making something else with a knit fabric. I wore them at the weekend and found them very comfortable.

1 Comment

April Upcycle – Slimmer Purple Trousers

Purple Trousers (Before and After)

I nearly didn’t write this post, because I’m not sure that this upcycle is a success. After all, I’m upcycling to bring an item of clothing back into use again and I’m not convinced I’ve manage it with this pair of trousers. But I think it’s just as worth-while to write about the things that don’t go so well as the successes. Looking at the photos above, I’m not even sure whether the “after” is an improvement on the “before”.

I bought this pair of purple trousers for all the wrong reasons. In fact, I shamefully confess that I can’t think of a worse purchasing decision for an item of clothing. I bought them for a “Wear Purple to Work for Charity” day a few years ago. I didn’t have any existing purple clothing at the time and instead of making a sensible decision and buying something I liked, I went out and bought the cheapest purple item I could lay my hands on at the supermarket. What’s more I didn’t even try them on. Needless to say, after the infamous day they have languished at the back of the drawer. What’s more, hanging my head in shame, I spent more money on the purchase, than I donated to charity. I can’t even remember the name of the charity we supported.

So, to appease for my sins, I have decided to try to get a bit more wear out of these trousers. I must admit this is going to be a fairly simple upcycle, just making them fit a little better by slimming them.


Matching thread

Measuring tape

1. First of all, wear the trousers inside-out and get a handsome assistant to place a few pins parallel to the inside leg seam according to the fit required.

An added complication for my trousers was that they have a decorative seam running down the centre front and back. We just placed the pins parallel to the original inside leg seam so as to not make this centre seam twist to the inside and look odd on the trousers. This may also be also be an issue with trousers that have a vertical striped pattern. In this case, it may be neceassry to take excess fabric from both the inside and outside leg seams to compensate. Fortunately I noticed that the distance between the centre front and inside leg seam seemed to be several centimetres more than the distance between the centre front and the outside leg seam so taking aware excess fabric from the inside leg seam still meant that the centre seam ran down the centre.

2. Unpick the hem on the trousers just enough so you can sew the whole length of the trouser leg seam.

Inside Leg Seam

3. Next, tack along the new seam line, making sure that the distance from the original seam to the new seam is the same for the entire length of the trousers. Repeat this step for the other trouser leg, making sure that the same distance from the original seam to the new seam is used. At this stage, try the trousers on again to make sure you’re happy with the fit.

Unpicked hem

4. Then, machine stitch the new seams.

5. Cut away the excess fabric from the inside leg seam and then finish the raw edges.

Also note that taking the inside leg seams in also shortens the crotch.

In the case of these trousers this wasn’t a problem, since being generally too big in all dimensions, the waistband sat above my waist anyway. Shortening the crotch seam where they meet the inside leg seams did benefit the fit.

6. Finally sew the hems back up again, using the same method used in the original construction

For these trousers I used a double row of stitching.

Finished Hem

After trying the trousers on again, I do feel that they are a better fit. I’m no longer trying to hitch them up or feel there is too much excess fabric generally.

But do I love these trousers anymore than I did? I don’t think so. I’m still considering their colour. Aren’t they just a bit too purple? Don’t get me wrong, I actually like purple. I have been contemplating making a top of a similar hue. It’s just on trousers, I just can’t seem to like it. I’m also not sure about those huge front and back decorative seams, they just seem too large. Perhaps they just don’t work on my skinny legs.

I’ll give them the rest of the summer and if I still don’t wear them, they’ll be getting a dyeing too.




March Upcycle – Star T-shirt

I’ve seen so many freeze paper stencil on the web that I just had to give this a go. They look like such an easy idea and the possibilities are endless. I had another rather faded old t-shirt to experiment on. I decided to give it a dye first to a more vibrant shade of mauve and then add a star in grey to the front. I also got to try out a bit more Inkscape functionality. I’m really getting the hang of the software.


Dylon Ocean Blue hand dye (or similar dye)

Reynolds Freezer Paper (This isn’t generally available in the UK. I’m not sure if there is any other equivalent that would do the same job. I found that it sold on Amazon)

Fabric paint (I used Marabu Texil)Star T-shirt (Before and After)Dyeing the T-shirt

1. Wash the t-shirt first.

2. Next, dye the t-shirt according to the instructions. I used the whole packet of dye to get a deep colour, but it is possible to use less or mix colours.

3. Let the t-shirt dry and then wash the t-shirt on its own in the washing machine just to make sure that it is colour-fast. Allow to dry.

Creating the template

1. (Optional) Create a template on your computer. I used the freeware program Inkscape to create my star template. I simply drew a star using the Star and Polygon tool and five circles using the Circle tool. I also rounded the stars corners and used the randomise tool to change my star to give it a slightly asymmetrical “hand-drawn” look.

2. Cut out the design and use it as a template on the freezer paper

3. Cut out the design from the freezer paper

4. Place the freezer paper on the t-shirt and iron gently on a hot setting. The paper should adhere to the t-shirt.

Star T-shirt template

5. Apply the paint to the t-shirt using a paintbrush or sponge.

6. Apply another coat of paint if needed (I found to get a solid look that I needed two coats). Allow to dry. Peel off the freezer paper

7. Place a cloth over the paint and fix the dye using the iron on Cotton setting

Leave a comment

February Upcycle – Heart t-shirt

Such is the romance of my life that I am sitting writing my blog on Valentine’s day! But never mind perhaps the weekend might be livelier.

Anyway, I have a couple of t-shirts that are quite old and plain. They are quite a bit thicker than any t-shirts I have bought recently because they are so old. They have actually stood the test of time well, but I don’t wear them much, probably because they just aren’t very interesting.

Madeline at Uber chic for cheap has this very easy tutorial for embellishing t-shirts with a cross-stitch heart.


Plain t-shirt

Embroidery floss (I used 3 strands)

Needle with a large eye

Heart T-shirt

Heart T-shirt

It’s such a simple and effective up-cycle, I couldn’t wait to try it out. I used the 2nd template which has the least stitching and is symmetrical. It makes a rather cute t-shirt, I think.

Heart template

One thing I had noticed though is that I think I am going to have to be careful washing this t-shirt in the future. When it isn’t being worn, the stitches are a bit slack and could easier get caught. It is fine when it is worn as the body fills out any of this slack.


January Upcycle – Wardrobe sorting and Jumper mend

My pledge for the new year involved buying no new clothes, but I still have a large number, too many I would say, that aren’t used.

So, this morning, I rummaged through my wardrobe and identified those items that I could refashion, upcycle or mend. Many of these items are slightly scruffy-looking old favourites or they are items I’ve hardly worn because they don’t fit or I don’t like the style anymore.

In the past, I would have taken them to the charity shop, but now I’m actually going to mend or upcycle them. I realised that a few of the items, though quite old, have better quality fabric than you generally see these days and it makes sense to make the most of this.

Here’s the list:

3 shirts – oversized
2 short-sleeved t-shirts – faded
1 short-sleeved t-shirt – faded
1 pair trousers – size too large
1 pair 3/4 length trousers – again too large in general
1 pair of slippers – top worn out, but sole good
1 pair of slippers – look nice, but sole uncomfortably thin (no carpets in this house)
2 skirts – too long for my liking
1 skirt – length fine, but doesn’t fit at the waist
1 jacket – a bit short
2 jumpers – made of wool / lambswool, thin at the elbow

My plan is to gradually work my way through this list; it should keep me busy. There are so many good tutorials and ideas for upcycling on the web I’m sure I’ll be able to find some way to improve these clothes and start wearing them again.

Mending a jumper with holes at the elbow

Lambswool jumper - before and afterI’ll start with an easy mend. Jumper number 1, made of lambswool It has a hole in one elbow and is very thin on the other. I’ve decided to darn the elbows and then put elbow patches on. Elbow patches seem quite popular at the moment, they’re not just the apparel of choice for school teachers!


Jumper that needs mending

Matching wool for darning

Paper to make the patch template

Faux suede for elbow patches

Embroidery floss in matching or contrasting colour (whichever you prefer)

Leather needle (optional, depending on thickness of faux suede used)

First the darning – here’s an online tutorial.  Strangely I found that I was able to match the green easier than the blue. Sadly there wasn’t just a hole, but also a large thin area around it, so the mend was bigger than I first thought.

Jumper - elbow darned

Next, I made a template for my elbow patches. I folded a piece of paper into quarters and drew a shape corresponding to a quarter of the oval I required. When folded out you get the whole oval and using this method you get a good symmetrical shape.

The template was then used to cut out the elbow patches from the faux suede.

Elbow patches - supplies

Wearing the jumper I placed one of the patches in the correct place on the jumper, covering the darned area. You can use some tape to hold the patch in place while you take the jumper off. Alternatively, get someone else to pin the patch in place. I then lined up the other patch to match on the other arm.

Finally, I sewed around the patch with three strands of my embroidery floss using blanket stitch. I used a leather needle, as the faux suede is rather thick.

Elbow patch - close-up