Denim maxi skirts continue to persist as one of the hottest denim trends for 2023, as a counter-movement to the micro mini trend we saw last year. There are plenty of styles available to shop — but what if you could make one yourself?
Viral tutorials on how to upcycle a pair of jeans into a maxi skirt have dominated TikTok recently, so naturally we had to give it a go to see if it's worth the effort. The project lets you flex your craft skills while also doing your bit for the planet. By DIY-ing, you get to engage with the fashion cycle without buying something new — and also save a pair of jeans from landfill. It's a win-win situation for your wardrobe and the environment.
On paper, this should be a relatively easy task and has been hailed as a beginner activity for anyone who has the basics of sewing down. The crux of the DIY is taking out the seams between the inner crotch on both sides so that the legs turn into a deconstructed flat panel, before stitching the flappy bits together to create a beautiful new skirt. Simple enough, right? Let's find out.
So, armed with a dream, a thrifted pair of jeans and a sewing machine, off I went into the world of DIY. As someone who only owns one pair of jeans (shocking, I know) I wasn't going to risk never seeing them again, so I hopped to my nearest thrift store and found a pair of True Religion straight jeans that not only fit, but had a sturdiness to them that was needed to handle my wishful thinking and Year 9 textiles-level skillset. Turns out, I severely undershot the time I would actually need to put aside, with a one and a half hour commitment turning into a five-hour process.
Perhaps watching between two and five videos without taking notes wasn't the best idea. It was all fun and games stitching in a straight line until I realised (too late) that following the lines of the former legs religiously meant that I had created a little tail for myself, where the crotch point formerly was. When I went to redo it, following a new line that would encase the little denim elephant trunk I had brought into the world, it then created the opposite problem — an unfortunately placed pucker. In the process of unpicking, I also lost some of the original stitching from the hem and got quite flustered trying to keep the front panel flat where I had crossed the bottom of the zipper over.
After re-familiarising myself with the nifty unpicker tool, many breaks and breathing exercises, I finally had something that resembled a skirt, but I couldn't help but feel like I had messed with a perfectly good pair of jeans. (Again, I'm very thankful I didn't touch my precious daily wear pair but I also have faith that a re-do would go a long way.) So, I chatted with co-founder of Sydney's sewing studio Bobbin & Ink, Laura Walsh, to help shed light onto how to hack this project without it literally being a hack job. She explained that the best way to set yourself up for success with a project like this is to double check the basics.
"Most machines can sew through denim, but you might find that getting through thicker parts of the denim, some might struggle or you might need to tweak your settings," she tells Refinery29 Australia, explaining that little things like having a sharp needle can make all the difference with how a sewing project will turn out. "If you’re not a super confident sewer and you don’t set up the machine properly, obviously things can go wrong and the fabric can get caught in the machine.”
Walsh agrees the best approach is to unpick the inner leg seam to the crotch (and sometimes the outer ones too) to see how much fabric you’re working with. “Obviously skinny leg jeans are very skinny towards to bottom, so if you’re wanting a skirt you can walk in, maybe go for flared, wide-leg or straight jeans in order to get the bottom of it not looking too tight.” It's always better to be safe than sorry though, because even if it fits at the end, it might not when you're out and about.
“You don’t want to sew something up and have it hanging on for dear life because the minute you stress the skirt out by sitting down or being bloated, that’s going to put on strain and pop your jeans out," says Walsh. Sizing up will give you the best shot at success, but most important is to make sure the jeans fit at your waist to reduce the amount of work you have to do.
“If you can get the jeans on and pin it while you’re wearing it, that will probably help, but that’s a bit tricky so you might need help from a friend," adds Walsh, explaining that continually trying on before you sew is equivalent of sharpening an axe.
As for my artificial tail, you can avoid my mistake by cutting away some of the fabric, says Walsh. “You’d have to lay one section on top of the other section. In your jeans, the crotch and butt area has a little bit of extra fabric that goes into your butt crack essentially,” she says. “Obviously you don’t need that for a skirt, because it’s flat at the back so that bulk has to go somewhere. And if you don’t cut it away, it’s going to be folded into the garment somewhere.” This can be remedied by unpicking a little bit higher than where the tailbone sits, then laying the prettier excess fabric over the rest.
If you're nervous, start off with a pair of jeans you really won't miss — and cut yourself some slack. Remember, you can always buy a new denim skirt worst-case scenario, or even invest in a tailoring service or sewing class to support a local business and ensure that the jeans actually get a second life this season.
“The blessing and problem with upcycling is that it requires a little imagination, which sucks, because you have to decide how you like it to fit,” concludes Walsh. "I think it’s all about expectations — if you’re a beginner, you have to be realistic about what it’s going to look like especially if you don’t have skills in pattern-making or alterations yet. Treat it as a project; it’s an experiment, expect mistakes and if you don’t cut to much away you can always unpick. Be kind to yourself."