What I want to do here is attempt to walk you through the steps I used to make myself a cute, easy-fit knit dress based on an existing dress I own.
I have a cute dress that fits me well, and I had some knit fabric that I loved (I want to say I had about 2.5 yards of it, which was plenty. The amount you need will vary, and I wish I could tell you exactly how to figure that out, but I am not sure, other than laying out the pieces and seeing if it will work. Maybe read through this and see what you think. It will depend on a) your size, b) the style and length of your dress, c) features like the length and cut of your sleeves and skirt.) The point of this post is to give you an idea of the process I used to make my new dress. Hopefully, it will be helpful should you decide you want to try this.
I started with a dress that was fairly simple in shape, and also knit. I like sewing on knits, because it is forgiving, but some people find it challenging. I’ll offer a few tips I’ve learned as we go.
The fabric I chose was lighter weight than the fabric of the existing dress, but I thought it would work out all right (and it did). I decided to make a few changes in style to my new dress: I wanted the neckline slightly different, the sleeves shorter, and I decided to skip the pockets. My sister may never forgive me for purposely making a dress without pockets, but I felt the lightweight fabric would hang better without pockets, and I wanted simple, clean lines. I also decided to make the dress slightly less fitted…but only after I accidentally made it that way and decided not to adjust the size because I like it. Sometimes, an accident turns into a design choice.
Here we go. I took lots of picture, which I hope will help clarify the process.
The first step is to wash and dry your fabric exactly as you intend to launder the finished article of clothing. Always prewash you fabric before you sew to take care of any shrinking before you start cutting and sewing. If necessary, iron your fabric. You can find washing instructions on the end of the bolt of fabric when you purchase it (I sometimes snap a pic).
Now, fold your fabric lengthwise, so the selvage edges are together on one side (I hope that makes sense ~ you should have a fold on one side, and both selvages running the length of the other side). It will be a long, narrow rectangle.
*For all of the the cutting steps, you could, instead of placing the dress directly on the fabric and cutting around it, place it on paper, draw a pencil line around it, and create actual paper pattern pieces you can use again. You can buy a roll of paper that is specially made for creating patterns ~ or you can tape together smaller sheets of paper, ask for paper bags at the grocer store and cut them open, or (one of my favourite low-cost options) pick up a roll of wrapping paper at the 99-cents store. I sort of wish I had created a paper pattern for this one, and I might have to draw up one for future use. But ~ here’s exactly what I did:
You are going to cut your skirt front and back first. turn your dress inside out, so you can see all the seams. Carefully fold it down, right where the skirt meets the bodice (at the waistline), tucking in the sleeves. Trying to keep everything as flat and even as possible. It helps to work on a flat surface. I used my floor, because it is the largest flat surface I have. Next, carefully fold your skirt (because it is now basically a skirt) in half lengthwise, tucking all of the other bits (bodice, sleeves, the whole shebang) inside, being extra careful to line up side seams, hem and waistline, as best you can. Place the fold of your “skirt” right on the fold of your fabric, and cut all around the shape, being sure to leave a seam allowance (How much seam allowance? What do you like? I usually leave about 5/8″ seam allowance, but I think I cut about a 1/2″ here, which is how I got a more relaxed fit. I just kind of eyeballed it. After you’ve cut one this way, move the skirt down, being careful not to unfold it, place it along the fold of the fabric again, and repeat the cutting process. Congrats ~ you have cut your skirt front and back!
The bodice is a bit trickier, but you can do it. The first thing I had to do was figure out where on my fabric I could cut two bodice pieces. I unfolded my fabric and folded each selvage edge in toward the center. (Sorry, I don’t have a picture of this: open the fabric out flat, and then bring the selvage edged to meet in the center, instead of meeting on one side, so you now have a fold on each side to work with)
Unfold your dress. Tuck in the sleeves. Try to get them as flat as possible, and really isolate the shape of the armhole. Now, fold your dress in half lengthwise, again, trying to get it as flat as possible. Place it on your fabric, so the fold of your dress lines up with the fold of your fabric. Remembering to leave a seam allowance, cut around the neckline, armhole and sideseam. Then, fold the skirt up and out of the way, so you can cut along the waistline. I feel bad that I somehow neglected to get a picture of cutting along the waistline. If I make another dress soon, I will add a pic here.
You’ve cut your bodice back. Now, I cut my bodice front differently. I should probably have folded it in half, just like I did the back, but that didn’t occur to me, so I’ll show this method, and you can decide which you prefer. Depending on the style and fit of your dress, you might find this method works better.
I unfolded my dress leaving the sleeves tucked in, and lay it halfway on top of my fabric, using my tape measure to make sure the neckline and waistline were both resting at their midpoint on the fold of my fabric. Then, I cut around it exactly as I had cut the bodice back.
Now, I had to cut the neckline for the front. I decided I did want kind of a V, but slightly gentler, and not quite as deep. So, I measured the original neckline, and then, based on that measurement, I made some adjustments. I measured down from the center of the neckline and made a mark (use tailor’s chalk or a pin), then folded my front bodice in half lengthwise. I then cut a line from that point to the point where the original neckline I had cut (which was actually the back neckline) met the shoulder. I gave my line just a tiny bit of a curve, rather than making it a straight diagonal. You can draw your line first, if that helps. I just cut. (I also forgot to take pics before I cut, but hopefully these ones help)
Next up: Sleeves! We finally get to pull out those sleeves. Leaving your dress inside out, pull out your sleeves. You should now see your whole dress, inside out. For your sleeves, you will need to find two places on your fabric that you can fold and place your sleeve on the fold to cut. I cut mine one at a time. You might be able to cut both at once, but I found this easy. Lay your sleeve so that the top edge is right on the fold of the fabric. (I knew I wanted my sleeves a little shorter than the original dress, so I let the sleeve hang over the edge of my fabric, and cut my new sleeve a little bit shorter. If you want yours the same length, obviously, you will need to cut around the entire sleeve, and add a hem allowance.) Leaving a seam allowance, cut along the bottom and wrist edge of your sleeve. Now, carefully flip the rest of your entire dress up out of the way (you can pin the sleeve to the fabric, if you are afraid it might move) and, leaving a seam allowance, cut along the curved edge of your sleeve (this is where it will attach to the armhole).
After you have cut one sleeve, you can use it as a pattern to cut your other sleeve. Simply place it on your fabric, making sure the fold of your sleeve is right on the fold of your fabric. Remember, this sleeve is cut to exactly the size you need, so there is NO NEED TO ADD SEAM ALLOWANCE. Cut the 2nd sleeve exactly the same size as the first.
Well, I think this is cause for celebration. You have now cut all of the basic pieces for your dress. You can lay them out and admire them. I did.
So, now you get to pin it together. Right sides together.
This is when I realized I had one piece left to cut. I needed a facing for the neckline. So I measured the neckline as best I could with my measuring tape, and added two inches. I think I should have added more. I decided, to cut a strip 22.5 inches long and 2 inches wide for my facing, but I think a 1″ wide strip would have worked better because I ended up trimming a lot later. In the end, I wished I had cut a separate facing for the front and back bodice, and, although this worked, I did find it a tad fussy. I’ll give directions for what I did, but I might come back later with an update on a better way to finish a neckline like this.
And NOW, you can finally start sewing!
Here are some tips for sewing on knits that I have found helpful:
I use a zigzag stitch, and that works just fine, but I know there are other stitches that work well, too. You can check your sewing machine’s manual to see what is recommended for knits
Use a needle that is made for stretch or knit fabrics.
Do not push or pull your fabric through the machine ~ both can cause bunching.
If you’ve never sewn on knits before just try a little scrap first to get a feel for it. It’s really not that tricky, but if you’ve never done it before, it might feel different.
You just need to sew everywhere you’ve pinned: Skirt side seams, Bodice Front and Back (side seams and shoulders), and sleeves (just the bottom seam). When you’re done, you can turn it all out, and hang it, or put it on a dress form, if you have one (I pinned the sleeves in place to get an idea of how it would look). Alternatively, you could try it on. This also gives you a chance to check and adjust the fit, and make decisions about things like skirt length, sleeve length, neckline and collar, should those things need to be adjusted.
Sewing in sleeves can be a bit tricky, so I had Kaia help me take pics. I will try to explain, too. Start with your bodice inside out, and your sleeve right side out. It will be helpful to mark the center top of each sleeve with a pin, tailor’s chalk, or something similar. Hold the armhole of your bodice open.
When you get the sleeve inside the armhole, match the sideseam of the bodice to the seam of the armhole, and match the center top of the sleeve to the shoulder seam of the bodice. Pin those in place first, then pin the rest of the sleeve in place inside the armhole. If you find the sleeve gathers a bit that is okay, just distribute the gathers as evenly as possible between your pins.
Once you get it all pinned in place, you can sew your sleeve into your armhole. I sew a 5/8″ seam, then move in and sew another seam inside the seam allowance very close to that one, because sleeves sleeves take a lot of wear and tear, so I like to give them a reinforced seam.
After you get both of your sleeves sewn in, turn your bodice right side out again. I found it easy to work on my dress form, but you could hang your bodice, or place it on a flat surface.
Fold the long strip you cut in half, and pin the center to the cent front of your bodice, with the right sides together. Now, carefully work the facing to fit around the edge of your neckline. You can stretch the facing to fit, but DO NOT STRETCH YOUR NECKLINE. That’s a little bit tricky. Use LOTS of pins and make sure it is laying flat against the neckline. (I overlapped my ends and sewed right through them, because they didn’t overlap much at all. If yours do, you can cut off the excess.)
You can release tension and help your facing turn and fit better by clipping the curves. Make small vertical cuts through both layers of fabric, within the seam allowance, and not all the way to the seam, as below.
Turn facing to inside and press (iron). I found that, in order to get my facing to lay perfectly flat, I had to make a vertical cut in the facing right at the point where it met the V of my neckline (but not all the way up to the seam), and another vertical slit near each shoulder.
Facing turned to inside
Pin facing in place along edge of neckline.
Pin facing in place all around the edge of neckline
I stitched 5/8″ from the edge, using a straight stitch. Then, I moved over and added a second row of stitching about 1/4″ inside that seam (closer to the edge). Trim close to stitching.
Sew two rows of stitching about 1/4″ apart, then trim off excess facing.
Mark the center front of your skirt (with tailor’s chalk, or a pin. I did this:
I marked the center front of my skirt with pins (you could use tailor’s chalk)
Turn your skirt inside out. Turn your bodice right side out. Now, fold your bodice in half lengthwise and turn it upside down, so the waistline of the bodice and the waistline of the skirt meet, and the top of the bodice is down toward the bottom of the skirt.
This is how your pieces should be lined up ~ Waistlines and center fronts together.
Pin center front of bodice to center front of skirt, then slip the bodice inside the skirt, and unfold it.
This is the best picture I could get of the bodice inside the skirt.
Pin side seams to side seams of bodice to side seams of skirt at waistline, then pin the bodice and skirt together all along the rest of the waistline.
Bodice and skirt, all pinned together and ready to sew.
Now, all you have to do is sew all around the waistline, and your dress will be pretty much a dress.
Sewing the waistline.
Well, I’m at the end now, and I realize I got no photos whatsoever of hemming the sleeves and skirt, but that’s what you have to do now. So, turn your dress right side out and take a look at it. Try it on and/or put it on your dress form. Decide how long you would like your sleeves and skirt. My skirt was already cut to just the right length, so I turned it up about 1/2″, used my iron to press in place the hem, pinned, and stitched it in place. For the sleeves, I decided to go with a slightly shorter length than the original dress. I cut an additional inch off my sleeves, then turned them up about 1/2″, pressed in place, pinned and stitched.
My finished dress!
I decided to use a contrasting colour thread so the stitching at the neckline and hems would stand out instead of blending in, and I like the effect. My stitching is not perfect, but I’m still happy with the finished product.
I used contrasting yellow thread to add a subtle detail.
I was able to finish this project in a day, and I am very happy with the result. I hope you will find this tutorial helpful. If you decide to make a dress of your own, I would love to see it.
Me in my dress, the day after I made it.