The Sweet, Swingy Dress ~ by Sam

There has been a lot going on here at the homestead ~ Kaia is playing in the orchestra pit for her school’s production of Into the Woods, Hallie was just cast as Balthasar in her school’s production of “Romeo & Juliet 3015,” and Justice just found out she has been accepted to Cal State, Northridge (her #1 choice ~ they have an excellent Music Therapy program)!!  There have been plays and rehearsals, Girl Scout Cookie sales, auditions, performances, school projects…not to mention my foot.  Ugh.  Did we have to mention my foot!?!!  More about that late.  Maybe.  Thinking about it makes me grumpy.  Suffice it to say, we have been busy.

Then, suddenly, I was not.  One day, the girls were at school.  I had done some cleaning, some PT, some laundry, some dishes, practiced my banjo, hit the grocery store…and it was, like. noon.  I realized that my kids were all at school until 5:30 or 6pm, due to various rehearsals.  So, there I was ~ and believe me, I did consider practicing banjo for another five hours ~ with all this time on my hands ~ and I remembered (when I removed the pile of outgrown clothes that had been set aside for yard sale and/or donation, and could actually see the sewing machine again) that I had bought some beautiful, super-soft, lightweight knit in a blue print the week before, with plans to make myself a dress in time for the day-after-Valentine’s-Day date Shane and I have planned.  I had even laundered it, so, I decided to spend at least a part of my afternoon sewing.  This time, I remembered to take lots of pics while I worked, so I could put together a detailed tutorial.  This, my friends, is that tutorial.

You will need:
T-shirt that fits the way you want the bodice of your dress to fit
3 yards lightweight knit fabric
1 spool coordinating thread
paper bags or wrapping paper
a pencil
scissors (for paper ~ don;t use your fabric scissors to cut paper)
a good pair of fabric scissors
measuring tape
a sewing machine
A rotary cutter, cutting mat and straightedge, if you have them (not necessary)

For all sewing, you will want to use a zigzag stitch.

If you have not worked with knits before, you might want to practice with a scrap.  I know a lot of people shy away from sewing knits, but I love them.  It is not necessary to hem them, which makes projects super quick and simple, and I love the way they fall.  That said, they can be a little tricky.  You will always want to use a zigzag stitch, which will allow your seams to stretch a little, but keep their shape.  When sewing, never “push” or “pull” your fabric through the machine.  Use your hand to guide the fabric, but let it ease through the machine at a natural pace.  I find it helpful to move at a slower pace while sewing knits.  You might want to practice with a small scrap of the fabric you will be using, if this is the first time you have worked with a knit fabric.  Don’t worry, you can do this.


Of course, before you can begin to sew, you have to choose your fabric.  If possible, find coupons and/or sales.  I recommend signing up for mailing lists at your favourite sewing/craft shops, if it means you will get coupons.  Also, search online.  I never buy fabric at full price, because there is almost always a deal to be found.  For this project, you need a knit fabric that stretches easily, but retains its shape fairly well.  Choose something that feels as good as it looks.  The one chose is ever-so-soft.  I think it might be a microfiber knit of some kind.  Make sure you choose a fabric you absolutely love, and take a moment to imagine how it will look all over a dress.  Think about what accessories you have that might coordinate.  I will wear mine with black flats or combat boots.  I might add a wide black belt sometimes, or a little cardigan sweater.  The point is, you want to make something you will wear.  Because you are making a circle skirt, you need to get fabric that is fairly wide.  60″ would be prefect, I think, but the one I found was 58.”  Close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.  You can find the width of your fabric on the end of the cardboard core around which it is wrapped.  Here, you will also find information like the fiber content and washing instructions.  Make a note of those (or snap a pic with your phone).  I bought 3 yards of fabric, knowing that I would probably not need that much, and I did have a good bit left over.  I still think 3 yards is the right amount to buy, because you are going to need to be able to fold your fabric over twice to cut your circle skirt, and still have enough left to make the sleeves and bodice.  Take your fabric home and launder it according to the washing instructions you noted.  In my case, this was: “Machine wash cold, gentle cycle.  Tumble dry low.”  You want to launder the fabric before you start cutting so that any shrinkage that is going to occur does so before you cut.  (If your fabric has a high content of a fiber known to shrink, such as cotton, you might want to buy a little extra, just to be sure.)

Okay.  I think you are ready to get started.

Find a t-shirt that fits the way you want the bodice of your dress to fit.  I happen to have a 3/4-sleeve T that skims my sides, but is not too tight.  I used it before to make a pattern for a shift dress.  It has exactly the fit I wanted.  I wanted the sleeves to fit close to my arms, but not bind, and for the bodice to skim my body, rather than hug it tightly.  You decide.  You can always make adjustments to the fit as you go.  Don’t worry about harming the shirt.  You are just going to use it as a guide, and it will be left intact.

Got it?  Great!  You are ready to make your pattern.  Don’t worry.  It’s really not that difficult.

I like to use cheap wrapping paper to make my patterns.  I can usually find rolls at the 99-cents store, and they store easily.  If you don’t have wrapping paper, you can cut open paper bags, tape together sheets of standard-sized paper, or use butcher paper.  For the skirt, you might have to tape together a couple of pieces of paper, in order for the pattern to fit.  My wrapping paper was wide enough, luckily, but don’t worry if yours is not.  Just tape on an extra piece and proceed.

I already had a circle skirt pattern I had made, so I used that. To make the pattern, I followed this wonderful tutorial (, with this adjustment:  DO NOT ADD 2″ TO WAIST MEASUREMENT.  I found that, using a knit, I did not need the extra fabric, since the fabric is very stretchy.  So, follow this tutorial to learn how to draw the skirt pattern, but do not add 2″ to your waist measurement.  For the record, my waist measurement is 25″, so my equation was 25/6.28.  To determine the length of my skirt, I stood in front of a full-length mirror and held one end of a measuring tape right at my natural waist (because that’s about where I wanted the waistline of my dress to sit), and let the other end fall to the floor.  I wanted the skirt to hit at just about the knee, so I decided, based on what I saw in the mirror, that 18.5″ would be the right length.  So, click the link, and draft the pattern for your skirt just like it says, but remember: DO NOT ADD 2″ TO YOUR WAIST MEASUREMENT.  Also, ignore all of the elastic stuff.  You aren’t going to need elastic.

Now, It’s time to draft the pattern for the bodice of your dress.  Turn your shirt inside out, then very carefully tuck the sleeves inside, being sure to keep them nice and flat.  Make sure you match up the shoulder seams, the edge of the armholes, and that the shirt is lying as flat on your table (or floor, if you’re me) as possible.


Carefully fold the shirt lengthwise, matching the side seams and armholes.  Place your neatly(ish) folded shirt on top of your paper.


I should have ironed my paper ~ and, probably, my shirt, too ~ but I didn’t.  It turned out okay.  So, it’s up to you.  I am probably supposed to tell you to iron them.

Using your pencil, trace the general shape of your shirt, leaving a 1/4″ seam allowance around the armholes and sides. I just eyeballed this, and it worked out fine.


You will notice, in the picture, that I folded up the hem of my shirt  by a few inches.  This is because I knew my bodice didn’t need to be as long as my shirt, which hits me at about the top of my hipbones.

Cut out your bodice pattern.  It should look like this:


Next, you need to create the sleeve pattern.  I quite liked the 3/4-length of my t-shirt sleeve, and I had used the same shirt to make a different style of dress, so I had already created a sleeve pattern.  What I did was this:  While the shirt is still folded, with the arms tucked in, place it on a new piece of paper.  With your pencil, trace the armhole.  Now, carefully un-tuck the sleeve, making sure to keep the the edge of the armhole lined up with the line you just drew.  Now, carefully trace the rest of the sleeve.  (I will try to make another sleeve pattern and take pics of the process soon, so I can add them here.)  When you cut out the pattern, leave a 1/4″ seam allowance at the armhole and around the bottom of the sleeve (the area that will extend from the underarm toward your elbow).  You will place the top of the sleeve on the fold to cut.

Okay.  You now have the three pattern pieces you need.

To cut your skirt, fold your fabric lengthwise, lining up the selvedges and smoothing out any wrinkles or lumps.  I am going to warn you: this will drive you nuts.  This is one of the more difficult things about working with knit.  It will cling to itself, the bottom layer will secretly wrinkle under the top layer, and it will want to stretch out of shape and refuse to line up for you.  Just relax, do the best you can, try to use a gentle touch and not pull at the fabric, and accept that it will probably not be perfect (I know ~ that is SO. HARD.).  If there is someone around who is willing to help, give it a shot.  I work best alone.

Once you have folded your fabric in half lengthwise, fold it down on itself from the top, just enough to fit your circle skirt pattern on it.  You could figure this out mathematically (my circle skirt equation = about 4″ and my skirt length was 18.5.  18.5 + 4 = 22.5, so I needed to fold it down at least 23″ in order to be able to fit my pattern).  Check out that circle skirt tutorial to see how to fold the fabric and place your pattern.  I tried to get a good pic, but…well, it’s hard to see exactly how it’s folded.


Pin and carefully cut your circle skirt.  You should be cutting through 4 layers of fabric, and, when you unfurl your freshly cut skirt, it will look like a giant doughnut.

Fold your remaining fabric (the part that is folded in half lengthwise) in half lengthwise again.  Place the center of your bodice pattern (the part that would go down your spine) on the fold you just created.  Pin and carefully cut your bodice pieces (you will be cutting both pieces at once).


Now place your sleeve pattern so the part that will be on top of your arm is on that same fold, just below the bodice piece, if it will fit there.  If not, undo your last fold, and place the pattern on the remaining (original) fold and cut one sleeve, then move down and cut the other ~ sorry, I was sloppy about this.  It doesn’t really matter which part of the fabric you use, as long as you place the right part of the pattern on the fold.  Pin and cut your sleeves.


You should now have 5 fabric dress pieces:
2 bodice pieces
2 sleeves
1 circle skirt


This is all you will need.

Thread your sewing machine.  Pin your bodice pieces at the shoulder, right sides together.

IMG_2534   IMG_2535

Stitch along one shoulder, leaving a 1/4″ seam allowance, then the other.


Open the pieces out flat, like this:


Now, pin the sleeves into place.  I pinned and sewed one sleeve, then the other, instead of pinning both at once.  It’s hard to explain how to pin in the sleeves, so I took some pictures.  You need to pin the sleeve in to the dress with the right sides of the fabric together, and it is going to look like your armhole curves one way, and your sleeve curves the other way when you first lay down the pieces (before you start pinning).  You might wonder how this will work. Trust me, it does.  Start by lining up the center of of the shoulder curve in the sleeve with the shoulder seam you just sewed in the bodice.


Now, carefully pin the edge of the sleeve to the edge of the armhole.  I recommend using lots of pins, slowly working the edges together so they line up well.  Work from the center (shoulder seam) out to what will be the underarm area of your dress.  Then work out from the center to the other side.

IMG_2541  IMG_2542

It was really hard to get a picture of this.  The picture above shows how it will look when you have pinned from the center to one side.  You want to repeat that process from the center to the other side, too, so the whole curved edge of the sleeve is pinned to the the whole armhole curve.  I hope that makes sense.

Make sure to open the seam allowance so it lays flat.  I took a picture after I sewed in the sleeve of how this should look.  Make sure you pin it this way.


When your sleeve is pinned in to place, sew all along the pinned edge, leaving a 1/4″ seam allowance.  Repeat this process with the second sleeve.  Clip your curves ~ which means “make a few little cuts perpendicular to the seam you just sewed, but not cutting through it.”  Here’s a pic of how it looked when I did this under the arm, a little later in the process.  I forgot to take a pic of the finished seam after I attached the sleeve:


Your bodice should be starting to resemble a shirt.  With right sides together, line up and pin all along the sides, under the arm and all the way down the length of the sleeve.


Now sew one seam all the way along the bottom edge of the sleeve and down the side.  Repeat on the other side.


You bodice is done.  It should look a lot like the shirt you used to make your bodice pattern.  You should now have these two pieces:


You are almost done!

At this point, you will want to try on your bodice and decide if it is the right length.  Mine wasn’t.  I am 5’1″ and I have a very short waist.  Since I wanted the waistline of my dress to sit near my natural waist, I decided to shorten the bodice.  Standing in front of a full length mirror, I used pins to mark my waistline,


then carefully removed the shirt, and used my rotary cutter, cutting mat and straightedge to lop off a few inches.  You could use scissors, but you might want to mark your line using a ruler and some tailor’s chalk.


Okay.  You are coming in to the homestretch.

With right sides together, pin the bottom edge of your bodice to the top edge of your circle skirt.  The easiest way to do this is start at the center front or back of the bodice (they are identical, so it doesn’t matter which is which, really), and pin the edges together all the way to one side seam on the bodice; then, go back to your starting point and work in the other direction until you get to the other side seam.


You now have the whole front (or back) of the bodice pinned to about half of your skirt’s waistline.  Flip the other half of your skirt over the other side of the bodice.  So, your bodice is now upside-down inside your skirt.  Continue pinning the other side of your bodice to the other side of your skirt.

IMG_2560  IMG_2562

It is important to note that your skirt’s top edge and your bodice’s bottom edge might not be exactly the same size.  That’s okay.  Just let the larger piece gather a little bit to fit.  You might have to go back and adjust some of your pins, so the gathers are kind of evenly distributed about the waist, instead of being all gathered in one area.


You can see in the above photo that mine was not perfect.  That’s going to be okay.  This is the trickiest part, and you might get frustrated here, but just remind yourself that your are almost done, relax, and know that you almost have a new dress.

Now, you just have to stitch your bodice to your skirt.  I stitched all the way around the waistline once, and then I ran a second seam right next to the first, to reinforce it.


That’s it.  You’re done.

*** And this is where I say: If you are hemming your edges, you are not quite done.  You will need to fold, pin and stitch the edges of your neckline, sleeves and skirt ***

Here is the very first picture I took of myself wearing my dress.


I will be wearing it out to dinner on the 15th, so I will be sure to get a couple of better picture then, and add them below.

Try on your new dress.
photo 2-5
Revel in your amazing pattern-drafting and dressmaking prowess.
photo 1-5
photo 4