How to embellish a vintage sweater


Trash to Couture

How to embellish a vintage sweater
How to embellish a vintage sweater

This refashion is a real Trash to Couture adventure. In this post “How to embellish a vintage sweater” I will demonstrate how to embellish a sweater with lace, how to bead lace, how to use a blanket binding to make a satin ruffled neckline and how to use decorative lace zippers to modify the sweater shape. The techniques that follow can apply and be used to modify any garment.

Let me tell you about this sweater hand knitted over 35 years ago.

The sweater history

My mother-in-law was an advanced level knitter. Her fingers were highly skilled mechanical instruments and she knitted with absolute control over the yarns and needles with an amazing ability to keep a constant tension. She could have made a living out of her talents. I never really observed how she knit and didn’t learn her tips and techniques, but I always envied the superior dexterity and perfectionism exhibited in her finished products. (One could never find a mistake on her knitted pieces). Her final products looked flawless as if made by an automated robot and not by human hands. Her rigorous discipline and control over her hands and fingers might have come from years playing the piano (she has a master’s degree in classical music with a major in piano). She knitted until the age of 92, she is now 98 years young.

I found this sweater in my mother-in-law’s old clothes bins (old as in a quarter century old).

Vintage hand knitted sweater
Vintage hand knit sweater

Looking through old photos trying to date when my mother-in-law would have knit this sweater, we found this photo taken in 1984 with my father-in-law wearing it. Making this sweater at least 35 years old!

Vintage hand knitted sweater
The sweater as I found it

Family members usually fight over my mother-in-law’s hand knitted pieces, but everyone disregarded this sweater because it had many set-in stains. As I marveled over the perfect regularity of the knitted rows I decided to find a way to save the sweater from the garbage bin.

First, to remove those stains.

I was able to remove most of them by making a paste with a stain remover product (not containing chlorine bleach). Saturated the stains for a few hours then soaked the sweater overnight. All stains disappeared for the exception of one-part where the sweater had a patch of discolored and hardened yarn. My husband guessed that it was probably a spot of melted yarn, the result of his father standing to close to the BBQ during one of his summer Sunday suppers ritual.

Because of this stubborn melted spot I have to cover the sweater front panel with some kind of fabric.

Lace fabric coupon
Lace fabric coupon

Went through my fabric stash and found this lace fabric coupon. The lace flowers are the same light corn color as the sweater and the lace background is a light yellow. The fabric will bring a feminine touch to the sweater and we will be able to see the knitted rows through it, making the lace fabric ideal for this stain covering job.

Embellish a sweater with lace
Measure twice

And I was in luck with just enough fabric to cover the sweater front panel.

How to embellish a sweater with lace

Embellish a sweater with lace
Copy the sweater front panel

How to copy and make a pattern from the sweater front panel.

Place the lace over the sweater aligning the fabric grainline with the sweater center front and pin the lace to the sweater.

Use sewing pins to follow the contour of the front panel. Pin through all the layers leaving the pins standing up. Follow the neckline contours (below the ribbed band), the raglan sleeves and the hip area (above the ribbed band).

Embellish a sweater with lace
Add seam allowances and cut the lace panel

Add a 5/8” (1.5 cm) seam allowance all around the pinned/traced contour and cut the front panel.

Embellish a sweater with lace
Fold over the seam allowance

Fold over and the seam allowance and pin to the sweater.

Embellish a sweater with lace
Attach the lace to the sweater with slip stitches

Hand sew the lace to the sweater with slip stitches passing the needle back and forth through all the layers. Keeping the stitches close together, about 1/8” (0.3 mm) from each other.

Embellish a sweater with lace
The slip stitches are invisible

Wool is the perfect medium as the stitches totally disappear into the yarn.

Embellish a sweater with lace
Give it a good press

Note that it is important to not over press knits because it will remove some of the surface texture.

Embellish a sweater with lace
The stain is now concealed

The lace sewn to the front panel looks really nice.

But…. we have a big surface of lace on the loose. It is best to attach the lace onto the sweater to prevent the lace from sagging in places.

How to bead lace
Satin finish beads

I will use beads to attach the lace to the sweater. I found some satin finish beads that look vintage and they are a perfect color match.

How to bead lace

How to bead lace
Deciding where to sew the beads

I will sew the beads in the center of the flower motifs in the pattern. This amount of beading will be sufficient to hold the lace in place.

How to bead lace
Sew the beads by group of three

Double thread a needle and knot the end. Pass the needle from underside to the outside of the sweater, through both the sweater and the lace. Pull the thread all the way through until the knot arrives at the underside of the fabric. String one bead by passing the needle through the carry on hole and pin the needle in the fabric to return the thread on the underside of the sweater. Repeat this process and sew three beads per flower center. On the last bead make a knot on the underside of the sweater.

How to bead lace
Almost invisible beads!

Well, two hours of beading and nothing to show up for! Ha Ha! The beads are such a good color match to the lace, you have to be real close to be able to see them.

Satin ruffled neckline
Use a satin blanket binding for embellishment

I went shopping for sewing supplies and happened upon this 2” (5 cm) wide satin blanket binding. I didn’t have the sweater with me but I was certain that the blanket binding was a perfect color match, and it was.

Let’s brain storm about what I can do with this binding. Ah! a ruffle around the neckline!

Satin ruffled neckline

Satin ruffled neckline
Sew the binding ends together

The V-neckline circumference is 34” (86.5 cm) and the blanket binding measures 4 3/4 yds (4.35 m). Therefore the binding is about 5 times the neckline length. I will keep the entire length of the binding which will make for tight ruffles.

Prepare the binding to create the ruffles; sew the ends of the blanket binding together (right sides together). Press open the seams. Turn the binding to the right side and press the fold line over the newly sewn seam. The binding is now a long circle.

Use a blanket binding to make a satin ruffled neckline
Sew a machine basting stitch

Prepare the blanket binding for gatherings. Keep the binding folded in two and we will close the binding by sewing the two layers together. Change your machine settings to a long stitch length to sew a basting stitch along the binding edges.

Stitch the entire length of the binding at about ¼” (0.7 cm) from the edge, keeping the thread tails at the beginning and end of your stitch lines.

Use a blanket binding to make a satin ruffled neckline
Decide where to attach the satin binding

Now let’s decide where to attach the binding on the neckline; the rib neckline is 1” (2.5 cm) wide. The satin binding is 2” (5 cm) wide.

By aligning the satin binding edge to the beginning of the ribbed neckline (as seen in the image above), the binding will be longer than the ribbed neckline by 1” (2.5 cm).

Vintage to couture knitted sweater
Divide the sweater in equal parts

To achieve an even ruffled neckline; divide both the sweater and your binding into at least 8 segments and mark those points with sewing pins.

Vintage to couture knitted sweater
Pin the binding to the sweater

1- Place the folded part of the binding outside the neckline.

2- Place the satin binding over the right side of the sweater and match the seam of the binding with the sweater neckline’s center back.

3- Align the binding edge with the beginning part of the ribbed neckline.

Pin the binding to the neckline matching the segment points.

How to make a ruffled neckline
Ruffle the binding to fit the neckline

To create the ruffles gather the binding by sections.

Starting by the center back, pull up the gathering stitches until the binding fits the neckline.

How to make a ruffled neckline
Pin as you go

Pin the gathers in place as you go (pin at close intervals). You will need plenty of sewing pins to keep those gathers in place.

How to make a ruffled neckline
Victorian ruffles

Once the binding is pinned make sure that the gathers are evenly distributed around the neckline. Remove sewing pins and adjust the areas that need straightening.

How to hand sew the ruffled binding to the sweater.

How to make a ruffled neckline
Hand stitch the ruffles to the sweater

Chose a thread that is matching the color of the satin binding. Work from the right side of the sweater (the satin binding facing you).

Pass the needle back and forth through all the layers.

Sew at least 4 stitches in the ditch of each fold catching the sweater ribbed neckline underneath. Placing your stitches close to the sides of each gathering in order to keep them in place.

How to hand sew a ruffled neckline
8 hours later

Once the ruffles are sewn in place, gently remove the sewing needles ensuring that the binding is well attached to the sweater neckline. Add a few stitches to secure some of the gathers if needed.

I like the result. The ruffled neckline gave the sweater a feminine Victorian flare.

Embellish a vintage sweater

Now, if you’ve read a few of my previous blog posts you know that this is when I always ask myself  “Is it done?…. What else could I add to the garment?”.

How to hand bead ruffled neckline
Choose matching beads

10 hours of beading and hand sewing the ruffles in place weren’t enough. I decided to add beads to the ruffled neckline. I had some glass seed beads and crystal beads purchased in NYC that were a perfect color match to the lace yellow background color. It is time to use them.

How to hand bead ruffled neckline
Seed beads sewn in the ruffle folds

I started by sewing the seed beads all around the neckline trying to cover/hide thread stitches when it was possible.

How to hand bead ruffled neckline
Close-up of the beading and the ruffles

Since I had only 20 crystal beads I reserved them for the front part of the neckline.

Handmade ruffled neckline
Beautiful as a flower in bloom

And I didn’t stopped at beading …. I also added a satin rattail cord to the mix!

While looking through my stash for beads I came upon this satin rattail cord that was the same color than the satin binding. I wanted to use it somewhere on the sweater to bring an element of shine and to balance the colors of the added elements.

Weave a satin rattail within the ribbed band
Weave a satin rattail within the ribbed band

I opted to weave the satin cord into the sweater, between the rows of the hip ribbed band.

At this point the sweater was gorgeous with all the added elements except that I didn’t like the sweater shape. Yes deep V-necklines of the 80s are back in style although “too tight” rib band at the hip level aren’t.

Adding decorative lace zippers

Decorative lace zippers
Decorative lace zippers

I will add decorative lace zippers to the sweater sides. The zippers are of the same color than the lace flowers and keeping them open will modify the sweater shape.

How to use flexible washable glue
Cut open the sweater laterals

Cut the sweater on the sides (laterals) to accommodate the length of the zipper. (8“, 20.5 cm for my zippers).

How to use flexible washable glue
Apply glue to the cut lateral edges

I really feared that the edges would fray and I quickly applied some washable flexible glue to the cut edges.

How to use flexible washable glue
The glue dried clear

The glue dried clear and remained flexible. Looks like I wont need to overlock the edges, this is a perfect finish.

How to sew decorative lace zippers
Hand baste the zippers in place

These exposed zippers will be easy to sew. Place the teeth of the zipper over the sweater glued edges and hand baste in place.

How to sew decorative lace zippers
Hand stitch the zipper edges

Machine stitch the zippers in place through all layers. I didn’t fancy the zipper scalloped edges sticking out and hand sew the zipper edges to the sweater.

How to sew decorative lace zippers
Zipper close

The decorative zipper sewn in place.

How to sew decorative lace zippers
Zipper open

And here is the finished sweater.

The added embellishments shades only vary by a few color gradients and sadly don’t stand out well in the pictures. Nevertheless the sweater does look stunning in person (you will have to take my word for it).

How to embellish a vintage sweater
Embellished a vintage sweater

In all I spent about 40 hours revamping this vintage sweater.

How to embellish a vintage sweater
Embellish a sweater with lace, beads and zippers

Now the real question being…. will I ever wear this sweater?  What do you think, was it worth the time?

I really enjoyed doing this Trash to Couture venture and I hope that it will inspire you to revamp one of your own hand knit family heirloom.

Thank you for passing by

Au revoir!


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