Sunday, April 17, 2011

How To Sew My Red Dress

Here's a (somewhat rambling!) how to for how I came up with the red dress I made. I'm planning an Easter Dress this week, and I'll try to document it a little bit better because I began wishing I'd taken pictures as I sewed this one to help with the explanations!

I began by cutting a rectangular piece of fabric (the width of the fabric itself) that was roughly four yards long. This was to be the skirt. I then cut about six inches off the width (while it was still folded) so that the skirt would be a reasonable length. At that point it looked like it would be floor length, but I figured it would be easier to shorten later than to add fabric back (and somehow my skirts always end up being shorter than I originally planned, so I was taking extra precautions!).

I then sewed the two ends of the skirt together (right side facing). Next I ran a basting stitch along the top of the skirt (about an inch in) and gathered it.

For the top I cut another two more rectangular pieces. Together they were about eight inches wider than was necessary to go around my top under my arms (with a dress already on). I also over estimated the length this time, estimating it going down to above my hips since I knew there would be a wide hem for the elastic at the top and the bottom.

I stitched the two side seams of the dress top together (right sides facing) and folded over the bottom (twice so the edges weren’t showing, with the second fold being just enough to tuck the ends under) so that it was wide enough for a sewing allowance plus the width of the elastic that I planned on using (it ended up being about an inch). I sewed that seam. I did the same thing on the top of the top.

I then tried on the top. It should be much too wide. I then took two pins and used them to mark the amount, at both the waist and the bottom of the top seam that the back need to come in to make a snug fit. Using these pins as guides I made to vertical lines of stitches where the ends of the elastic would be and used a seam ripper to make to small gaps in the stitches of the hem where the elastic will be inserted (I repeated this on the top and the bottom).

I then adjusted the width on the top of the basted skirt to match the bottom of the top, faced the right sides together and sewed at slightly more than an inch (so that neither seams was showing).

I estimated the amount of elastic I would need to tighten the back (and make it wearable at fluctuating weights!) and inserted it into the top and bottom seams using a safety pin as a guide. The bottom piece of elastic was slightly shorter than the top piece (they were both between four and six inches). I then sewed two seams over the elastic (vertically at either end to hold it in place) and sewed the gaps where I’d removed stitches closed.

Here I retried the dress on and found that it was still a little loose. To make the top fit the way I had imagined I added two darts, one on either side (towards the sides but on the front). This basically consisted of figuring out how much the top needed to come in (about an inch on each side) and marking the location evenly with pins. I took the dress off and created a triangle with pins that was about three inches long. At the top of the dress it was around an inch wide and it narrowed along the three inches. I sewed along the pins, with two lines of stitches, removed the pins and then trimmed the inside of the triangle so it wasn’t bulky. When I tried the dress on a second time it fit perfectly (and would stay up without straps).

To add straps I folded two long pieces with one end short end tucked in and sewed in place first (3 to 4 inches wide and roughly the length of my arm) and tucked the edges in (so they were long enough to be sewed in place) and pinned them (I’ve sewed quite a few straps that were of the “turn inside out” variety and I just don’t have the patience for them very often!). While I sewed these because they were easy to do, they actually ended up contributing to the “look” of the dress with the neat white seam down the strap!

Holding the dress up I estimated where the straps would go and added pins to mark the location. I then folded the un-folded end of the strap over and matched it with the lower edge of the upper seam of the top. I sewed a seam at the lower edge of the strap (where it met with the bottom of the folded part of the top) and a second seam to secure it to the top. I repeated this with the second strap.

To finish the dress I hemmed it to the length I finally decided on (a little above the ankles) and had my third homemade dress!

If you have any questions on this (because I imagine parts are less than clear!) feel free to ask! And if you have any suggestions of improvements (because I’m very much a beginner!) feel free to add them here to help any of the newby sewers!


  1. Thank you for posting this! I had figured you gathered it somehow...I might have to try something similar! Thank you!

  2. Agh! I lost my original comment... Stupid server...

    I still want to comment on your post though, so I will try to rewrite what I said before.

    First off, great job on the tutorial. You did well at trying to explain all the steps and I was able to follow it with ease most of the time.

    Secondly, start using sewing terms as much as possible. It is really helpful if we have some landmarks to guide us along. In the beginning when you wrote about the skirt portion I would have found it helpful if you stated that you cut off the selvage edge by 6 inches (instead of saying the width). When you are talking about putting in darts for the bust use the term apex (point or fullest point of your breast) to help locate a dart (you should start a dart 1 inch below the apex).

    Third, when you change mediums, state what you are using. You went from elastic in the top to making the shoulder straps and it took me a moment to figure out you were using fabric and not elastic for the shoulder straps.

    Fourth, try breaking your tutorial up into sections with headers: skirt, top, fitting the top, shoulder straps, attaching the skirt, hemming the skirt, final fitting and adjustments. It really helps visually and keeps the reader reading. Maybe do an outline format.

    Fifth, make each section of the tutorial whole and complete so a project can be left off and picked back up. It might mean restating yourself and what you are doing but it really helps the reader know where you are at. Pretend like you can only work on the project in small increments and you need them in sections that have starting points and stopping points. I can easily equate this to knitting where you hear a knitter say, "just let me finish this row", or "let me get to a place where I can stop". These statements are serious because if the knitter leaves off without getting to a place where they know what happens next, then they might spend 20 minutes trying to figure out where they were or several hours of re-knitting a mistake they had to rip out. The same goes with sewing. If you don't compartmentalize each section you can get lost, miss a step, or make huge errors that make you frustrated.

    Lastly, know that commercial patterns are symmetrical. They are assuming that if you are a professional sewer using their patterns that you will make the adjustments to the pattern to make it fit the body properly. I have one breast that is bigger than the other. I have to make my garments asymmetrical to get them to look symmetrical once they are on. I messed up a really nice dress by not fitting it to my bust. All the lines were off and I looked really bad in it. My mom thought that it would be fine since I did such a nice job sewing it together. I had to show her what it looked like on for her to understand the huge mistake I made. After that she let me donate it to Goodwill. :)

    I look forward to your next tutorial and hopefully pictures will be included. Good job!

  3. Jana-
    Thank you so much for your comment! I need to print it out and keep it next to me when I write my next tutorial because I learned a lot about the terms just reading it! And I love the ideas about organizing it, because it was really stream of consciousness when I wrote this!

    I wish you lived near me so I could learn more about sewing from you in person!

  4. Cam,
    I learned to sew through friends who would help me make costumes for renaissance faires. I did that for years and picked up a lot of short cuts and inventive ways to accomplish what I wanted. This would often lead to me making things much more complicated than they had to be simply because I was self taught. Shortly before I got married I decided to take all the sewing classes my local college had to offer. I found it very interesting that all the other students would ask me for help and would often call me "miss perfect". I wasn't in it for the grade, like they were, but to gain knowledge I had been missing and to challenge myself to sew the proper way to the best of my abilities. It was a very different way of taking a class and I recommend it to everyone to try.

    To help you out you might want to get the book, The Readers Digest Complete guide to sewing. You can pick up a copy at a local used book store for a few bucks. We used this book in all of our classes and it is very well laid out and thorough. I would also recommend hunting around on websites that do sewing tutorials like historical reenactment groups, the SCA, and those mom blogs out there that have such great ideas. I mention the historical groups because they often have ideas on how to keep dresses modest, pretty an fun. I learned how to make bloomers (which I still wear weekly), chemises (doubles as a nightgown), cartridge pleating (good for skirts and curtains), circle skirts (fun to twirl in), snoods/hats, over dresses, and the list goes on. All of this info is out there for free, you just have to hunt for it.

    If you ever make it down to the Sacramento area, drop me an email and we could meet up.


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