Making the Sassy Pillowcase Dress: 20 Years Later

Yes, it's still a pillowcase. But a cute one!
Publish date:
May 25, 2011
clothes, nostalgia, sassy, sewing

SceneIt's 1992 and I've just turned 15. I open the pages of Sassy magazine and find a tutorial on how to make a dress from a pillowcase. I don't get along with my parents for all the reasons teenagers don't get along with their parents.

This whole conversation is yelled from different parts of the house.

Me: Mom! Can I have an old pillowcase?Mom: No. Me: Pleeasee!?! It's for a project.Mom: What kind of project?Me: I want to make a dress from a pillowcase.Mom: No.Me: Can I buy a pillowcase?Mom: No.Me: What about one at Goodwill?Mom: Ewww. You'll get lice!Me: No I won't!Mom: You'll get something bad.Me: No, I won't!Mom: You don't need to make a dress out of a pillowcase. You'll look like a homeless person.Me: No, I won't! You're so unfair. (Slams door)

And scene.

For the same reasons that my mom didn't want me to put Manic Panic in my hair or wear "clodhoppers," she didn't want me to make a DIY dress out of her linens. Any attempt to be alternative, for lack of a better word, was met with severe criticism followed by my car being taken away from me. I doubled-pierced my ears by myself and my Ford Tempo was taken away for two weeks. I broke the rules and dyed my hair purple and my car was taken away for two weeks. I wanted to go to the beach and tried to run over my dad while I sped away and my car -- well, I don't even remember what happened but it wasn't good. I think that one was greeted with family therapy.

So all these years later, I have a copy of the pillowcase dress tutorial in front of me (sent to me by Jane Pratt herself!) and I have decided to break my mom's rule and make a dress from a thrifted pillowcase that, when washed, has no more traces of lice or gonorrhea crawling all over it.

The pillowcase itself is an extra-long sham that I thrifted for 25 cents. If you're over 15, I highly suggest you go for a California King or extra-long pillowcase. Otherwise, make it a top.

The fact that I bought the pillowcase myself, washed it myself in the washing machine I own (in a house I own) and had my three year-old daughter hold up the pillowcase for a photo makes the whole project seem far less counter-culture than I could ever imagine, by the way.

Disclosure: I now know how to sew pretty well. In fact, I almost exclusively make all my own clothes. Therefore I approach this project a little bit more informed than I would when I was 15.

The original Sassy instructions are minimal: "On the closed end of the pillowcase, mark a half-circle in the middle for the neckline. Then mark a half-circle in each corner for the arm holes. Cut out the circles and hem (optional)."

The article continues: "Could this be the sexy New Year's dress you were wanting?"

Um. Sure?

I can't remember what I thought of that line. The dress, and I say this as lovingly as possible, looks like a busted-up pillowcase with holes. If I had to come up with a word to describe it, it wouldn't be "sexy." It brings me much pain to say that I've turned into my mom and that "hoboesque" is the first word that pops into my mind. It's the sort of dress that Lucille Ball would have made in that movie where she's a homeless person who eats a cat.*

Now here is my challenge: Can I make a version of this dress following fundamentally the same pattern and have it (1) Not look like a pillowcase (2) be a dress a 33-year-old, not a 15-year-old will want to wear (3) prove my mom wrong?

I decide to modify the cutting lines in the original tutorial because I don't believe that those are even the cutting lines they followed to make the dress in the photograph -- the neckline is too deep and the armholes are too low. I decide to make the silhouette a little more of a "sophisticated boatneck" and a little less "guy at the docks."

I try the dress on and, voila, I'm wearing a pillowcase!

This is easily remedied by stitching up the sides where my waist goes in and my hips go out (see above illustration). That does the trick. I hem the neckline and armholes, add a sassy belt and am fairly surprised with the results.

Total time to complete: 30 minutes.

And there you go. In your face, mom!

* I saw this movie (Stone Pillow) when I was a child and there was a scene where she's hungry or something and sees a cat walk by. I was so terrified that she was going to eat the cat that I turned the channel immediately. So, I never knew if she actually ate that cat or not. Even if she didn't in the movie, it doesn't erase the image in my head.