Photo credit: Getty Images / Phil Oh

A pair of pants that fits well can be one of the most empowering and stunning pieces of clothing. I love the way pants can make me look and feel. Unfortunately, those perfect pants are hard to find. Especially given how wildly cuts and styles have fluctuated in the past few decades, your local thrift shop may have quite the array. I’m going to walk you through a few of my favorite ways to freshen up pants and make them work for you! This series will come in three parts. We will walk through options for how to adjust fit, style, and aesthetic. As we release this series, we would love to hear from you! What are your favorites? Let us see you making your thrifted pants work for you!!

Please note that, although there are a plethora of tutorials available online, I won’t be recommending any specific ones today. Everyone has access to different tools and skill sets, so a tutorial that is at an approachable and understandable level for one reader might be totally outside of another’s comfort zone with upcycling. I hope that you’ll come away from this article with some ideas of what you want to google or type into pinterest. “beginner’s frayed hem, no sewing machine” or “adding side panels to pants, intermediate sewist”, or whatever feels like it’s going to be most helpful to you!

Length

In this first installment, we will be discussing how to alter the length of pants. These might be the easiest of all fixes with regard to how to make pants work. Over the last few decades, the length of pants has changed wildly. In the 90s, long jeans worn with heels were the height of fashion. Gradually, cropped pants moved into style. Regardless of trends, your height will also play a role in finding pants that are the right length.

Too long:

Time to Hem! I will be doing a full tutorial on hemming at a later date, but until then, here are your three basic options:

** Frayed edge: I would recommend running a line of hand stitches about 1 cm above where you intend to cut the pant leg off. This will just help the pant leg to not fray too much so that you can achieve a raw edge look without actually letting your pants begin to disintegrate. You can let nature take its course or use a needle, serrated knife, or seam ripper to encourage fraying.

** Fold and hem: If you are cutting off about an inch or less, I would recommend just folding the cloth up and running a line of stitches along the top. You can use small hem stitches which are hidden or brightly colored contrast thread. Whatever fits your vibe.

** Cut and hem: If you are needing to make the pants more than an inch shorter, you will need to cut the pants off.Again, you can use invisible stitching in a matching thread or go for contrast! You do you!

Also, let’s not forget, if you want to just cuff them and go along with your life, more power to you.

Pictured: frayed hem and a folded & sewn hem.

Too short

Add a trim! If you like fringe, lace, or contrast fabric, this can be a great way to add a little extra length and personality. It isn’t everyone’s style, but I love a trim added to pants. You can stitch it in flat or do a gathered version for extra volume. If you have a little time to invest in some online tutorials, there are some great options out there. Trim is a fairly reversible alteration, so if you want to change it up or try a more cropped look, it is easily undone. 

Giving credit: This image came from this tutorial.

Size/Fit:

Now that we’ve gotten the low hanging fruit out of the way, we will be running through some options for size and fit. This can be a difficult topic to address. Remember that sizes and fits are all relative. Sizing means next to nothing, and fit has fluctuated wildly over the years. Sizes are not consistent brand to brand or even style to style within a brand.  

Jeans do not have to fit as intended. If you love a slouchy pant, a “skinny” jean which is too big for you with a belt will match your style. If you like high rise mom jeans, check out 100% cotton denim originally marketed in the “men’s section”, and you might be in luck! Remember that you wear clothes; they don’t wear you. When you are shopping, try pants on and let yourself be free to imagine the possibilities beyond the original intent of the manufacturer.

Too small

There are a lot of tutorials that demonstrate techniques for upsizing clothing. Unfortunately, remaking a garment with additional fabric can turn into a time intensive job requiring more advanced sewing skills. A quality job can give a piece a new life, but a shoddy upsizing will result in an unwearable or “wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen” outfit. However, there are a few options for quick fixes. 

** If the pants fit everywhere except the waist, you can move the button over to give yourself a little extra room (or try that hair tie trick for a quick fix.) 

** If the pants are just a little tighter than normal, you can mist them lightly with water and stretch them with your hands. Especially if you’ve been putting your jeans in the dryer, they may feel a little too tight when you first put them on.

A little side panel inspo

** When you wash a pair of pants, do not put them in the dryer if they are on the small side. Instead, remove them from the washer, stretch them with your hands, and hang them to dry. Obviously, this won’t magically create extra fabric, but it will keep what’s there from shrinking.

**You may also consider cutting the jeans down the exterior side seams and adding a panel of stretchy, tiered, or decorative fabric. While there are some great tutorials out there for this, it seems like it might be a lot of work if you don’t have access to a sewing machine and some basic sewing skills. If you’re feeling inspired, this could be the moment to jump into some more advanced DIY.

In general, I pass on clothing that is too small. For me, life is too short to spend time wrestling with clothes that just don’t have enough fabric. 

Some skillful refashioning.

Too big:

Taking in a pair of pants can be a lot of work, depending on how big they are and how much structure they have. It can definitely be done, but you’ll want to be careful about what you take on. 

** If the waist is too big, it’s fairly easy to sew a piece of elastic along the waist to gather it in if you like the scrunchy waist look. If not, you might consider moving the button over and down to create a more secure fit.

** If the pants are too big everywhere and you want them to be a fitted style, it will be a fairly large job to pick out all of those seams and essentially remake the pants. If you have a sewing machine and some free time, go for it! 

**You might also want to consider turning them into something else altogether. If you’re feeling into the idea of DIY and have access to time/materials, there are some great tutorials for turning oversized pants into a dress or top.

Style:

In the third and final part of our making pants work series, we’re moving to style! This can be such a fun way to add a unique spin to an outfit. We’ll be talking structural and superficial ways that you can create a personalized spin.

The cut:

When we consider the “cut” of pants, we need to think about the shape of the leg and the rise of the pants. Unless you are an accomplished sewist with a lot of experience, I would not recommend trying to do major structural alterations to pants. The last thing you want is to do a shoddy job and then have your pants fall apart while you are wearing them. This is not empowering!

First, let’s overcome years of socialization and open ourselves to reject gendering of clothing. When you are shopping, wander the racks and see if you can find pants that are a style you like. Opening up all the pants possibilities gives you greater freedom to find pants in a rise and style that you like! While the pants marketed to women have changed wildly in the past few decades, the pants marketed to men have been more similar in style. This means that in any given thrift store, you may be able to find a great deal of variety in cuts, styles, rises, etc., especially if you reject the notion of gendering pants.

** If you want a little extra volume at the bottom of the leg, you might look into adding what a sewist might call a godet to a skinny jean to create a more flared shape. This is a funky, hippie vibe way to make your pants work for you, but it may require a little more elbow grease than other options.

** Add elastic cuff to the bottom of pants to create a more jogger-esque style. There are a number of tutorials for this technique online. Some don’t even involve sewing, merely strategic placement of scrunchies or elastic.

Above: Look at that contrast flare!

Below: Jogger style finish.

Fixing Holes:

Patching and mending perhaps the oldest and most amazing ways to keep the clothing you love for longer! #normalizemending 

When selecting a patch material, you may use old jeans that are beyond repair, a premade iron on type patch, or a patch of another type of material. In general, you want to consider comfort and durability. Denim or thick fabric without stretch are your best bet in general for functional patches.

When you cut a patch, make it larger than the hole you intend to cover (or if you are just adding it for decoration, cut it to whatever size you want!). Finish the edges by pressing with an iron and folding the fabric under once or twice (twice is better but it can be annoying). Then stitch the patch on. You can use a subtle stitch in a matching color if you want to hide it or you can use a bold contract color and large stitches. 

If the fabric seems worn, you may want to run some stay stitches around the hole before patching it to help the fabric keep from fraying and wearing.  (To make these stay stitches, just use a matching thread and make tiny stitches around the perimeter of the hole.)

**Interior patch: place the patch inside the pants. Sew using very small stitches so that the join is basically invisible. 

**Exterior patch: Sew the patch on the pants from the outside. This will be more visible, and may be a style choice that you prefer.

**Prefabricated patch: In general, I find these uncomfortable to wear. I really don’t like the way they feel on skin. Rather than using this as functional patches in high stress areas, like the knees for instance, I would highly recommend that you use these as decoration or to repair small holes around pockets or just over cloth that has no holes. 

Rather than using a patch, you may choose to use thread to create a decorative and functional cover over smaller holes. The possibilities for shape, color, and size are endless!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the many ways to mend. I hope this gives you some inspo or at least some better search terms as you find your favorite patching/mending methods!

An interior patch

Just a couple well-placed rips.

Making holes:

This can be a really fun way to add a little extra character to jeans. (Plus if you decide you don’t like them, you can always patch them. See above!).

Put the jeans on your body, mark with pen or marker where you would like to see some holes. In general, try to avoid directly over the knees, as this is a high traffic area which will not age well. I think aiming for mid thigh or calf is usually a good bet. 

Using scissors carefully make the desired slit or hole. You can use a needle, seam ripper, or serrated knife to fray the fabric around the hole or let nature take its course as you wash and wear them. You may want to run some subtle stay stitching around the hole as well just to keep the pants from fraying excessively. (To make these stay stitches, just use a matching thread and make tiny stitches in a circle around the hole. This will also help prevent the fabric from stretching too much!)

If you are looking to distress jeans, you might also explore removing one of the back pockets, cutting the hems in a jagged or asymmetrical way, or using paint or other colorants. Read on for a few more ideas.



Other ideas:

Here’s a little list of quick ideas to add your own twist to a pair of pants. Since those fabulous vintage finds can be few and far between, these can help to jazz up the more “boring” clothes that largely populate thrift stores. 

  1. Paint them
  2. Acid wash them (There are tutorials online for this, but this is something we might be willing to try ourselves.)
  3. Embroider something fun on the back pocket or really anywhere.
  4. Add a decorative patch to the pocket (or anywhere).
  5. Add decorative ribbons, trim, lace, especially running down the sides of jeans.
  6. Dye them
  7. Remove the existing pockets using a seam ripper, and replace with a contrasting material (maybe swap pockets between two pairs of pants).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I am so excited to hear from you! How have you made pants work for you? Is there anything you’d like to hear more about! Let us know!!

Eleni Georgiadis

Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.