Introduction: Braided Racerback Tank From a Tshirt

About: Enthusiastic cook, blogger and (sometimes) crafter.

This summer has already been sweltering across much of the US. To help beat the heat I've schemed up a super-easy sewing pattern to make a cute, finished tank top out of an old t shirt. Really it’s a stretch to call this a sewing project– there’s just one little 6″ seam in the whole thing. So it’s a totally approachable undertaking, even for a sewing newbie.  I've made a graphic to give you an overview of how it all comes together.  Read on for the detailed, nitty-gritty instructions. 

(Oh, and naturally I also have the project posted on my blog.)

Step 1: Select a T Shirt

Start with a t shirt with no side seams. Printing is okay, as long as it  doesn’t make the fabric stiff or pucker. Also check how the printing looks on the inside of the fabric (the finished tank is turned inside out)– some designs show up through the fabric.  Old, beat-up t shirts work great!  100% cotton will work for this pattern, but I think that a cotton/poly blend often has a nicer drape, and is more resistant to unraveling.

Select a shirt that has a width 3-6″ larger than your bust measurement. So: 30″ bust= 36″ t shirt (or 18″ across); 36″ bust = 42″ t shirt (or 21″ across). The bigger the t shirt you use in relation to your size, the more drape the tank will have. This pattern works for size 30-42″ bust. (There is no reason this technique wouldn’t work for smaller or larger sizes, but the pattern pieces will start to be out of proportion. You could also experiment with scaling up or down the pattern pieces for extra small or large sizes.)

Step 2: Cut Fabric

Cut out Paper Pattern:

Print out the pattern. Cut out the grey portion of the pattern.

Cut off sleeves:

Starting at the collar, cut outward along the shoulder seam. Cut off the sleeves, cutting as close to the seam as you can. (You can reserve the sleeves for another use)

Cut along pattern lines:

Rearrange the shirt so that the holes from the sleeves are lined up and in the center. Straighten fabric so that it lies flat. This is the one point that you want to be really fussy– after all, you’re hardly sewing anything , so your cut lines are even more important. Lay a ruler (or something else with a straight edge) across the tshirt horizontally. Place your pattern pieces on the tshirt aligned with the folds and move the ruler (and pattern) up or down until the pieces can completely fit on the tee. If possible, try to avoid having printed fabric run through the straps (on the front pattern piece). Printing sometimes affects the stretch of the fabric, which can show up in the braided strap.

It’s all lined up? Now cut it out! I didn’t pin my pattern down or trace the pattern onto the fabric, but you should do whatever works best for you and helps you keep  your cuts neat.

Step 3: Braid the Straps

Gently pull the strands  to stretch them out. As you pull, they will begin to curl over onto themselves. Snip the top strand in two, right in the middle. (The other two strands remain attached at both ends.) Begin the braid by bringing the outside piece (the one you snipped) into the center. Continue braiding normally until you reach the end of the snipped piece. Pin your braid while you work on the other side.  Repeat the same process on the other side. Once you get to the center, you will probably have one loop of fabric that is longer that the other. Wrap the looser loop around the tighter loop until the excess length is gone. Weave the loose ends through the twisted portion and into the rest of the braid. Generally I’ve been able to weave the ends in tight enough that it is secure on its own, but if you’d like, you can reinforce the connection with a few stitches.

Step 4: Sew Up the Back:

Turn the shirt inside out. (Any printing should now be on the inside of the shirt) Fold the top edges over to meet each other in the center. Either machine or hand sew a seam between the notches. (You are just sewing the two flaps together, not sewing them down to the fabric beneath.) If you are hand sewing, start at the bottom, and do not cut your thread, just leave your thread hanging off the top of the seam. Turn the triangle inside out so now the lining is facing the inside. If you left a string at the end of your seam, thread it through the top of the triangle. Pull the braided strap below the racerback triangle. Fold the tip of the triangle (about an inch) over the braid to hold up the strap. Pin in place. Now try on the shirt. Adjust the fit by changing how much of the triangle you have folded down. Once you’re satisfied with the fit, sew a few stitches securing the top of the folded triangle to the lining.

Step 5: Finishing

Hem treatments:

There’s a number of things you can do to finish the edge. 1. Like the way it looks as is? Just leave it. 2. Want a little more length? Rip out the existing hem seam and iron flat. 3. Want less length? Just cut off the hem and leave the edge unfinished.

Personally, I like it best when the edge is left raw– I think it gels with the rest of the shirt a little better.

Extra credit! Tailoring

Now you have a completely finished shirt (easy, right?) There’s a number of ways you can modify the basic design. Obviously fabric paint and dying can give you quick, bold results. I also like a shirt that has a bit more definition. It’s pretty easy to play around with adding little darts to change the drape of the shirt. My favorite modification is to just pull some of the excess fabric and bring it forward together right around my natural waistline, and add either a button closure or a tie to hold it in place. (You can use strips cut from the sleeves to make a matching tie.)

Step 6: FAQs

Won’t the edges unravel? Surprisingly, not really. Especially if the fabric blend has elastic fiber in the mix. Eventually the fibers will stretch and wear out, and you’ll have a loose thread every once in a while. But I’ve found the raw edges to be surprisingly durable and  have an average life span for a knit garment.

If the edges aren’t sewn, why don’t the raw edges show? Knit fabric curls in a complicated way. It curls in one direction if cut horizontally and another if cut vertically. Most of the fussing I did with this design was trying to figure out how to get the fabric to curl the way that I wanted it (inward) and still be in the shape I wanted. This pattern works because the two areas of vertical cuts are secured in a different way. On the front, it’s by braiding, and on the back it’s by folding over extra fabric to make a lining. The rest of the cuts curl inward on their own, just like magic.

Can I use a v-neck or a polo shirt? Well… not really. Fitting the pattern to a shirt with a deep cut in the front doesn’t work quite as well. Usually you have to scoot the pattern down so far that you’ll end up with a very short shirt. I’m sure there are other ways to work around it, but if you’re looking for the no-fuss method with a reliable result, I’d stick to a crew neck.

I found the perfect tee, but it has side seams. Can I still use it? Does it have to be turned inside out to work?
This pattern definitely needs to be turned inside out to work (otherwise all the edges will curl exactly the wrong way). But, you can still use a tee with side seams. Just make the pattern as specified and then sew new side seams, turning the old ones to the inside. (You’ll have to factor in your seam allowance into the overall width of the tee for sizing.)  If you sew side seams, adding buttons or a tie in the front will not work. But you can always add some shaping or darts to your new seam.