Retro-cycling Modern Sweaters to Make Vintage Sweaters

Rocket Originals UK – reproduction patterned sweater in claret.

I’m sweater obsessed at the moment. It might be that it’s November and  snowing outside (yay!), but it’s also because ready-made vintage style knits are hard to find and/or hard to afford.

There are some beautiful reproduction sweaters out there, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just going to be honest and say I can’t afford them. I splurged on a Rocket Originals sweater from the UK, and after the exchange rate + international shipping, it worked out to be one of the most expensive pieces of clothing I own.  I love it, but I can’t do that again, no matter how badly I want an Emmy Designs knit top (or four).

Original 1950s Featherknit nylon sweater from Two Old Beans on Etsy

Other ways to acquire vintage knits:

  • Knit them myself (haha ha hahahahaha)
  • Buy original vintage (also hard to find, can be expensive, might be uncomfortable to wear, hard to care for, or in a fragile state)
  • Sew my own (working on that)
  • Retro-cycle modern sweaters

That last one – retro-cycling modern sweaters – is what I’m sharing with you today.

A trip to the thrift store will usually turn up a gazillion sweaters – men’s and women’s – that can be cut up to re-shape into a vintage style. Sweaters that are too big for you offer options for refashioning sleeves to create puffed shoulders, different necklines, etc. so don’t pass those by!

Modern H&M sweater, un-altered.

My example today admittedly didn’t come from a thrift shop, but H&M (I hit the thrift shop first, but didn’t find what I was looking for – a tasteful, classic reindeer sweater), which was a surprise. It was about $35, which made me mildly nervous to slice into it (and really it was quite cute as a modern, long-length sweater), but the alterations were straightforward:

1. Shorten the length to at-waist
2. Taper the sides.

Rocket Originals repro sweater over the modern H&M sweater – both have similar stretchiness and measurements at the shoulders and bust

I used my Rocket Originals repro sweater as a guide, laying it atop the reindeer sweater to compare length and width. Both sweaters had about the same stretchiness (very important!)

I tapered the sides first, stitching along the lines I marked from the other sweater, making sure not to stretch the material as it went through the machine. I followed up with a second, wider zig-zag in the seam allowance, close to the seam stitching, then cut off the excess.

Turning up the band – I stitched along the line between the solid and patterned portion, then cut all that extra seam allowance off.

The second step was to cut off the ribbed band at the bottom, leaving the very wide seam allowance, flip it up to position it at the waist, and stitch. Again I ran a second, wider zig-zag right next to the seam line, then cut off the excess last.

The shortened sweater complete.

And that was it! It’s a very very easy alteration to make, and leaves you with a great vintage-length sweater to wear with at-waist trousers and skirts.

The shortened sweater worn with at-waist trousers.

Tips & Tricks:

  • Stitch with wooly nylon thread + ball point needle + narrow zig zag stitch. This is the magic knits-without-a-serger combo for your regular machine.
  • Let the machine feed the fabric through -don’t pull it!
  • Leave as wide a seam allowance as possible. Stitch first, trim seam allowances second. Especially on a looser knit, this will prevent a rippled seam.
  • Vintage sweaters often have quite fitted ribbed bands at the waist, then a blousier top. You can achieve this by reducing the band at the side seams, then gathering the fullness of the rest of the sweater onto the band, either with a gathering stitch (recommended for quite a lot of gathering), or stretch-gathering onto the band as you sew (ribbed band on the bottom stays un-stretched; fullness on the top, stretch and sewn down as you go)
  • When scouring the thrift store for sweaters to cut down, consider the scale of the motif. Example: A man’s large reindeer sweater may not work for retro-cycling into a ladies’ medium because you may cut off half the reindeer reducing the width across the chest.
  • Also consider necklines when hunting much larger sweaters to cut down.

As the weather gets colder and my vintage sweater adventures continue, I’ll be sure to share them with you, from more advanced sweater refashions, to sewing your own with pre-knitted yardage. Stay tuned!


  • Emileigh

    November 3, 2015 at 9:59 PM

    This is great! I'm constantly frustrated by not-short-enough sweaters, but I haven't worked up the guts to try this yet. So you use a normal straight stitch on the seams and a zig-zag stitch on the seam allowance to keep it from raveling? Or do I have that backwards?

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 3, 2015 at 10:04 PM

      Almost – you use a narrow zig zag for the seam itself. Barely there, like a "1.0" setting (I know each machine is different, but that's what mine is set at). That narrow zig in combination with the wooly nylon thread creates a very stretchy seam. You can get away with a straight stitch + wooly nylon thread, but for body seams that will be under stress when putting the garment on/off, I really recommend a stretchier stitch.

      Then the wider zig zag in the seam allowance, before you clip the excess. I do this right next to the seam line I just sewed with the narrow zig zag. You can use a different kind of stitch – overcast is a popular one, really anything that'll help finish that edge a bit, and mimic a serger or overlock.

      Did that explain it a little better?

  • AuntieNan

    November 3, 2015 at 10:49 PM

    Wow this is so great! And looks very cute with those pants. You could also do a plain crew neck with an applied lacy collar. I've rescued an old cashmere sweater that had a holey neck that way. Look forward to your next post — maybe a letter jacket over it all??
    Nancy N from NYC

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 4, 2015 at 6:10 AM

      Yes, absolutely! There are tons of options. It's a fun way to be creative and also problem solve. I find it challenging and stimulating, plus it results in something everyday-wearable. 🙂

  • Sarah Rachelle

    November 3, 2015 at 11:16 PM

    This is fantastic and an answer to my question of what to do with my large pile of wool sweaters I hunted down at thrift stores ages ago. (I had an obsession with buying up old wool sweaters…) Your post couldn't come at a more perfect time! Thank you!!

  • Laura D

    November 4, 2015 at 4:46 PM

    Oh dear…I'd just talked myself out of my weekly Goodwill trip, but after reading this I'm fairly sure I'll be there after work because I simply must make myself a cute sweater!

  • Sarah Rachelle

    November 8, 2015 at 12:47 PM

    I just paid a visit to my favorite Goodwill and scored a wool sweater vest that I think will work perfectly! Wool was surprisingly scarce though even thought there are tons of clothes there. I wonder if someone else is buying up the wool sweaters like me…

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