Manipulating fabric – T shirt Transformation Project

I recently read an article about Olivier Saillard’s sensational fashion show, where he took cheap cotton T-shirts and transformed them – with twisting and draping, pleating and stitching – to create a new sensation.

Saillard has only come to designing relatively late in life (he is 51), having worked as a museum director. He is famous for curating the 2011 Madame Gres exhibition, and the following year creating performance art of sorts combining priceless items of dress with runway shows featuring Tilda Swinton in The Impossible Wardrobe.

Vogue explains that he was not only inspired by Madame Gres; he also located one of her old seamstresses to help him learn how to create some of her original techniques.

I felt suddenly very excited.

Madame Gres (in a turban, first picture) created Grecian inspired costumes with lots of draping and pleating. I learnt some of these techniques when I attended a course on bias drape at Morley college, mainly using very light weight fabrics.

Obviously working with silk chiffon, or creating full length evening dresses is an expensive hobby with limited value in today’s society (for most of us). What appealed to me was the idea of taking a very simple, ubiquitous item like a cotton T-shirt and transforming it into a unique and lovely item that could be worn with jeans or slim cut trousers and boots. Or of course wear your T as part of your uniform (I am still head to toe in navy corduroy!)

So here is a possible challenge you might to consider. I am going to find a couple of T-shirts (or acquire from the charity shop or cheap vendor) and see if I can create something similar but also unique.

Pink (with Saillard)

Here are some more inspiration pictures.

Mode Povera Couture Fall 2018
Deep green

The issues I am considering are

  • How to use pleating, tucking, slashing, gathering and possibly other techniques like smocking to transform a T-shirt
  • How the transformation might be temporary and dynamic – possibly using safety pins, elastic bands or zips – for example
  • Whether to use the techniques to flatter the body (a voluminous large T can be unflattering to a woman’s body) or to create additional bulk or structure
  • Creating a shape or style that needs to be worn over something else (the green slashed and orange versions)
  • Putting the embellishment to the side, the back, the sleeve or the neckline will give very different effects.
  • Making your own T-shirt to start with or using a T-shirt with stripes or a pattern, or in a soft, drapey fabric.

I am thinking of having this project finished by Christmas, feeling sure there will be an occasion for a unique T-shirt whatever the weather. In the next two weeks I will give more information on suitable techniques, more inspiration and updates on how I am getting on.

Care to join me for a Sewalong? #TransformTSAL

32 Responses

  1. Courtney

    Fabulous. Thank you for introducing me to Olivier Saillard and his work. Having just finished my pleated Fen dress in mid-weight jersey, I am quite ready for this sort of adventure.

    I’m going to have a long think and see what I can come up with.

    • fabrickated

      Thank you Courtney. This challenge definitely needs lots of thinking and experimentation. I tried a range of T shirt types and lots of pins, safety pins and the mirror before I found shapes that I found interesting, attractive and flattering.

  2. Jenny

    Now this sounds like fun! I haven’t done any dress making for 35+ years but I’m up for some fabric manipulation although I think I can be confident that the final result will not expose my bra! But I’m just thinking how big these t shirts on the models must have been to start with! If I’m brutal I’m not sure I find the t shirt manipulation on those runway models makes for a flattering fit. Maybe the high necks put me off. So over to you Kate for some inspiration and for me baggy t shirt acquisition!

    • fabrickated

      I agree that the final looks are not that flattering, despite the obvious beauty of the models. I bought a “scoop” neck T and it looked even more horrible so I am going to see what I can do to the neckline. I hope this might give you back into dressmaking as it is really just an alteration. For me the draping on the stand (or my body) is the most interesting part of this challenge. Where to put the shaping or darting to creating a pleasing look. I would think your patchwork and quilting skills are similar.

    • fabrickated

      Oh gosh Hila – I would love to see you in a slashed T — I know you would make this a very exciting project with your amazing sense of style, drama and dressmaking skills.

  3. Wendy

    Brilliant post as always, I am always inspired by your challenges. Have you come across the book by Colette Wolff? “The Art of Manipulating Fabric” if not it may be something you would enjoy. My textile tutor introduced me to it.

  4. Elaine

    Intriguing, but I’m with Jenny- those high necklines and the sheer volume of fabric won’t work for me. The techniques are glorious of course- the orange and white ones are mathematically fascinating but look totally unwearable for all but the tall and stick-thin. The pink looks feasible for someone without a belly, and the green is most wearable, but not as striking or unusual. I’ll be watching for your versions!

    • fabrickated

      Yes, great insight as always dear Elaine. I am playing around with a variety of Ts at the moment and the maths is indeed fascinating. How to take up fullness is always the interesting issue with both pattern cutting and draping. I agree that many of these looks border on ugly, but that is fashion – we stare and are shocked at first, then we come to covert. However this challenge brings in our own creativity and aesthetic. For myself I am looking for wearable not outlandish outfits – as with the Freda Kahlo project.

  5. Theresa in Tucson

    I’m with you, Elaine, the pink one is as far as I would go and even then I would probably look in the mirror, laugh at myself, and take it off. But that evening gown with all the pleats; swoon worthy. Oh, to have a life and a figure where one could wear that! I will be watching as well.
    Theresa in Tucson

    • fabrickated

      Thanks for your support Theresa. I agree that the original Madame Gres outfits are astonishing for their virtuoso skills and dramatic lines. But again I would probably never wear one. I thought a T shirt is such a common, unthoughtabout item, it might take some pleating, or smocking, or bending or draping. Let’s see what I, and the others come up with!

  6. Carole Jones

    Many thanks! I am sure that thinking along these ‘slash and gather’ lines may well help me to expand my current big, baggy ‘T’ shirt repertoire. For a few years I have being buying massive and relatively inexpensive, cotton ‘T’ shirts, in white, black or any appropriate colours, in order to make tops to my own design. Obviously, with some the cotton is too cheap and falls into odd shapes or is too thin, but the better ones can be transformed. Often I dye the tops, in order to obtain the colours I love … which are seldom in the shops. However, one problem is that the thread used is nearly always polyester, and will not dye, whereupon all seams need to be resewn.
    I’m already imagining some cunningly gathered and re-shaped inventions.
    Nb I rarely find voluminous ‘T’shirts to be unflattering: slash necks, slipping off shoulders, plus what you pair them with, make all the difference. Great challenge.

    • fabrickated

      Ah yes – the question of colour. I agree that the colours tend to be crude – black, white, navy, a nasty bright blue, a nasty light blue, brash yellow, orange and green. How lovely that you are already in the zone with dying and re-shaping these items.

      In terms of the shapes I have to admit I didn’t buy T shirts exactly like Saillard uses – I am on the look out in the charity shops. I want to see what I can do with the XXL heavyish cotton Men’s styles, but I would normally shy away from these for the reasons that Jenny and Elaine mention.

  7. Vancouver Barbara

    Very inspiring. Men’s XXXL is the place to start. I like the idea of making a chiffon t-shirt too. But plain. I think it could be quite useful to wear over other clothes and the informality of the shape would make it quite wearable.

    • fabrickated

      I have not seen XXXL men’s T shirts – but they probably exist! To be honest I just bought large ladies sizes (UK s16), or Medium Mens to get me a bust size about 8″ larger than usual.

      A chiffon T shape sounds wonderful too Barbara – I would love to see what you do with this.

  8. Chris

    Most fascinating! I doubt I’m going to join in right now as I have heaps of work to do and little creative energy right now, but once the muse kisses me I’ll be excited to look at your work!

    • fabrickated

      Ah for a kiss from a muse!! I am low on the creative energy too right now – my work is overwhelming me and I spend most of the weekend sleeping! I hope you get your job under control Chris, and make some time for yourself in due course.

      Despite my being a bit “low” at present I thought this would be a fairly easy project, with a chance to play rather than anything too challenging. The creativity is more in the design than in the sewing, although there is a chance to try new techniques for people who are interested in draping, fabric manipulation or learning new ways of creating texture and structure.

  9. Hélène

    Yes, yes and yes! My heart is ponding just thinking about this project. I need more Tilda Swinton’s attitude in my life right now. Thanks Kate!

  10. Raquel

    I’m in! I need to study the images and figure out how they will fit on my shape. It’s going to be fun to play with the fabric. Thanks Kate

    • fabrickated

      I have every confidence in you Raquel – don’t feel constrained by the Saillard approaches. There are endless possibilities with this project. Find a big T, put it on, have a look at yourself in the mirror. Then nip, tuck, pinch, pleat, pull, pin and go….

  11. Mary

    This is such a great challenge! I really enjoy pleating anything and know I will be absorbed by this challenge in the best possible way. One question, must we start with a cotton t shirt or could I start with the extra large silk blouse I have in my refashion box?

    • fabrickated

      Thanks for your enthusiasm, as ever, Mary. There are no rules! Feel free to interpret how you like. However I am using T shirts and I think there is great learning in doing this as it is quite hard to make them look beautiful. I think the restriction to using something cheap and ubiquitous, which are frankly difficult for many women to wear due to their “masculine” shape, or because they are inherently dull, will push your creativity more. But, entirely up to you!

  12. Tracey Bos

    What a great challence, i m looking forward to see all the shirts that
    you are creating. There are several idees in my head all ready. I think In will join you all in this yourney.

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