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Re-make & Re-use: Napkins to Go from Dad's Old Shirts

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This very unique Re-make & Re-use project comes to us from Julia Chapman, a new member of our Sew4Home seamstress team. She developed the idea for a benefit in which all the items for sale had to be an ‘upcycle' product of one kind or another. We love cloth napkins here at S4H, but had never seen any made from old shirts, let alone with their own handy carrying case. There are racks and racks of men's short sleeve shirts at thrift and second hand stores... and probably in your own closets. Colors and patterns that might be too wild to wear would be perfect as napkins.

Men's shirts are recommended because you don't have to work around any darts, but women's shirts or even larger kid's shirts would do the trick as well. If you choose a shirt with a dart, you can take it out and press the fabric flat prior to cutting out your napkin square, or stitch the dart in place and press flat.

For other ‘upcycling' projects, take a look at our Re-make & Re-use category.

Sewing Tools You Need

Fabric and Other Supplies

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  • 1 large, short-sleeve 100% cotton men's shirt
  • 1 yard of ¼" ribbon or cotton cord
  • All purpose thread to match fabric
  • Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
  • Large safety pin
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Straight pins

Getting Started

  1. Launder the shirt and lightly press.
  2. Cut the sleeves off the shirt just below the seams that attach them to the body of of the shirt. Leave underarm seams intact on the sleeves. Set sleeves aside.  
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  3. Cut both of the shirt's side seams open, staying close to the seam, and lay out the entire shirt on your work surface. The front and back are now only attached to each other by the shoulder seams, so each will be laying right side up, flat on the table. Pin the placket of the shirt closed from both the front and back.
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  4. Make a paper pattern for a 15" - 19" square. The size will depend on the size of your shirt.
    NOTE: These napkins do not have to be a standard size; just let the shirt determine how big to make them.
  5. Place the paper pattern on the front of the shirt so the edge of the pattern is at least 1" from the top as well as at least 1" from the side edges of the pocket. The shirt's button placket should be centered on the pattern piece. Pin the pattern in place.
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  6. Using the paper pattern as your guide, cut out the napkin, taking care not to cut into the pins holding the button placket together. Press the square flat, being careful of the pins.
  7. Cut a square out of the back of the shirt using the same pattern, again making sure you are at least 1" from the top. Press the square flat. Set this piece aside.

At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board

  1. From the wrong side of the piece you cut from the front of the shirt, pin the facings down. The facing is the fabric that is folded to the inside of either side of the shirt’s original opening.
  2. Sew both facings down 1/8” from their edges.
  3. Also from the wrong side, sew the pinned placket shut 1/8” from the overlapping edge.
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  4. Turn this piece back over to the right side, and sew the placket shut 1/8” from the overlapping edge. You now have four seams securing the original shirt opening.
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  5. Make a simple ¼” double turn hem around all four sides of the front piece. To make this type of hem, fold under ¼" and press, then fold another ¼" and press, encasing the raw edge within the fold.
    NOTE: If there is a button in the way of your hemming simply remove it and hem right over the buttonhole.
  6. Find the piece cut from the back of the shirt and make a simple ¼” double turn hem around all four sides of this piece as well. 
    NOTE: If you are new to this type of hemming, especially to making the corners neat, take a look at two of our previous tutorials: How to Make a Simple Hem and Quick Tip: 1/4” Double-Turn Clean Finished Corner.

Napkin bag

  1. Take one of the sleeves you cut off and turn it inside out. Find and mark the center point of the sleeve cap with a pin by laying the folded sleeve flat.
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  2. With right sides together match up the sleeve’s underarm seam with pin where you marked the center point of the sleeve cap, and pin the raw edges together.
  3. Stitch together, using a 3/8” seam. Finish the seam allowance edges with a zig-zag stitch.
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  4. Turn sleeve right side out to form your bag.
  5. Fold the sleeve’s original hem over the outside of the bag exactly one hem width and pin in place. This forms the casing for the drawstring.
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  6. Edgestitch the casing in place all the way around, leaving a ½” opening over the seam.
  7. Cut approximately 22 inches of grosgrain ribbon or cotton cord, tie one end in a simple knot. Attach a large safety pin to the other end. Using the safety pin as your “threader” pull the ribbon/corn through the casing.
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  8. Once you come out the other end, remove the safety pin and tie a knot in that end.
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  9. Fold or stuff both napkins into their matching bag, cinch the drawstring and take them along to work or play.
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Project Concept, Sample Creation and Instructional Editing: Julia Chapman

Other machines suitable for this project include the Brother PS-3700 and the Kenmore 18221.


Comments (3)

Angela O'Connor said:
Angela O'Connor's picture


Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Angela O'Connor - the button placket is down the very center, giving the napkin user plenty of non-button space to use. And as you can see in the steps, we show four seams to secure the button placket. The buttons are really what make them cute and different - our idea was to emphasize that they are made from shirts. You have one buttoned-up napkin and one plain napkin (from the back) in each set. 

KBartnick said:
KBartnick's picture
So totally cool! I have a TON of old clothes that are too good to throw away and not good enough to fix or wear out of the house.