For most of my life, buying a pair of jeans has been somewhat of an ordeal. It all started in middle school, when I suddenly realized (probably due to the less-than-gracious observation of a classmate) that all of my pants were WAY too short. Determined not to be unfashionable for a single second longer, I dragged my mom to the mall. Several stores and dressing rooms later, we discovered that unless the shop sold pants with different lengths, anything that fit around my waist would have a comically short inseam. On top of finding a size and cut of jeans to fit my gangly preteen body, I had to look for a pair designated as “long”.
Now that there’s a much wider range of acceptable jean lengths, I’ve got other problems– if I find a pair of pants that fits around my hips, the odds are pretty good that I’ll have an extra handful of loose, gaping fabric around my waist. Since it’s an issue with the cut of the jeans and not the size, all I can really do is try on pair after pair and settle for whatever fits the best. Sometimes the best option is to go thrifting, because I’ll have access to a bevy of different brands of jeans, all with a different style and cut.
Although I always seem to have a backlog of several dozen ideas for personal sewing projects, I’m usually too invested in other endeavors to make time to sew myself clothes. Altering thrifted clothes is a nice compromise– most of the work is already done, and sometimes something as simple as moving a hem or replacing some buttons can make a garment your own. It’s also a good option if you’re not sure about the longevity of a trend, and you don’t want to spend money on a piece of clothing that may not be in style in six months. Unfortunately, I’m usually so excited about the prospect of new-to-me clothes that I never remember to document the alteration process (case in point: the shirt in the photo below, which used to be large and long-sleeved).
This time, I made sure to take a picture through each step of the transformation. Brightly colored jeans were a perfect candidate for this project– even the higher-quality versions of these pants seem to be made of a super stretchy cotton/spandex blend, which is not my favorite fabric for jeans. Altering a thrifted pair gives me total control over the fit of the jeans and the color they’re dyed, and I was able to select a pair that was 100% cotton and not stretchy at all.
Step One: Select a pair of jeans. Find a pair that fits well, and don’t worry about the style of the pant legs or the length (unless they’re too short) because those things are easy to alter. I ended up with a pair of boot cut Levi’s, and knew I’d want a narrower and shorter pant leg.
Step Two: If you’d like to alter the shape of the pant legs, start by ripping out the hem around the bottom of each leg. If you’re not changing the length, you can roll it back up and re-hem it after adjusting the sides. Next, put the jeans on inside-out. While standing up with your legs as straight as possible, pin the outside of one pant leg so that it’s better fitted to you. (Although it’s more visible, the outside seam is a flat seam, and is much easier to adjust than the felled seam on the inside of the leg. Unless you’re prepared to rip out a couple existing seams up most of the length of the pant leg, you should leave that one alone.) I usually pin the leg in front of a mirror so I can see what I’m doing, and I typically start pinning a little above the knee.
After you’ve got the leg pinned the way you like it, test out the fit by walking around, (carefully!) sitting down, and removing the jeans while they’re still pinned. You want to be sure there’s enough extra room for movement and that the bottom of the leg is large enough to fit over your heel. You’ll need much more leeway if the jeans you’ve selected aren’t stretchy. Once the jeans pass the fit test, lay them flat and scrutinize the pin placement. Make sure the front and back sides of the pant leg lay flat against each other, so you can avoid any accidental gathers when you sew the new seam. I usually make small changes to my pin placement to ensure they’re all in a straight line. When you’re satisfied with the first leg, fold the jeans in half, carefully lining up the outside seam of each pant leg. Begin pinning the un-pinned leg, checking as you go to make sure their placement matches the first leg. When both legs are pinned, I usually just do a visual check to see if they look identical. If you’re really diligent about accuracy, you can measure as well. Try them on once more while they’re both pinned to make sure you like the fit.
To sew the new seam, start a few inches above the first pin. Sew along the existing seam, then gradually move in, meeting each of your pins until you reach the bottom of the leg. After you’ve sewn each leg, try the jeans on again. Really test them out this time– do some lunges or try sitting indian-style to make sure you’ve given yourself enough room to comfortably move. If necessary, make adjustments to the seam. When you’re happy with the fit, serge the outside of the seam (or, if you don’t have a serger, trim and sew a zig-zag stitch to prevent fraying). Re-hem the bottom of each pant leg, and you’ve got yourself a new pair of skinny jeans.
Step Three: If you want to dye your newly-skinny jeans a really bright, vibrant color, it may be a good idea to bleach them first, so the blue of the denim doesn’t contribute as much to the final color. I mixed up a bleach solution in a large plastic bin and let them soak for a few hours (I used about 4 gallons of water and 3/4 of a gallon of bleach). After you’ve removed a sufficient amount of color, thoroughly wash the jeans to remove any bleach. If you’re okay with a more muted color, or the jeans you selected were really light to begin with, you can skip this step. If you’re dying your jeans a warm color (yellow, orange, red, or pink) you’ll want to get as much blue as possible out of your jeans, and this may take more bleach and a longer soak. Because I was planning on dyeing them turquoise, I stopped bleaching when they were a faint blue color.
Step Four: You’ve got a few different options for dyeing your jeans. Most craft stores carry Rit dye, which is a good option if you’re not planning on doing a lot of dyeing in the future. They’re uncomplicated, cheap, and work on a variety of fabrics, but often don’t have the longevity or brilliance of fiber reactive dyes. I inherited a big box of procion dyes from my mom, so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time or money amassing all the materials needed for this process. This is a pretty good starter kit with some basic colors, if you want to give fiber reactive dyeing a try. Remember, procion dyes only work on natural fibers (cotton, linen, hemp, wool, or silk), so keep this in mind when selecting a garment to dye. If you’ve got all the materials needed for fiber reactive dyeing, all you need are these instructions.