xoDIY: Make This Dress

There are no rules; this isn't some kind of sewing Fight Club.
Publish date:
June 15, 2014
dresses, sewing, pattern making, alterations, hard to fit, clothes you love

I knew when I ordered the dress from eShakti that it was going to be one of those magical moments when a person and an article of clothing come together under the aligned stars to form a greater and more powerful union of style.

There I was, with my summer style profile (Victorian orphan adopted by punk gang). There it was, with its pockets and lace trim and whimsical pastel elephant print.

And when I put it on, that instinct was confirmed -- it felt like wearing the most comfortable of nightgowns but looked like something I could wear to the office when it was 90+ degrees with humidity you don't even want me to talk about. Suddenly and completely, I was hooked on a trapeze dress.

I had to have more. I searched the usual sites and came up with nothing -- or at least nothing that was made of any sort of natural fiber. Sure, I could have ordered the plainest of plain trapeze dresses from -- but they'd have come to me made from weird synthetic knits that wouldn't breathe in the heat.

I was six when my great-grandmother taught me to sew. She didn't give me patterns from which to learn. She handed me fabric scraps and I sat down with my Barbie dolls and got to work. I sat on the floor of the living room in her single-wide trailer and learned about garment construction in a very practical way.

That's probably why I'm bad at using patterns -- and why I've never really been afraid to wing it when it comes time to make a simple garment. And as I despaired of finding more trapeze dresses to measure up to the amazingness of the one I'd gotten from eShakti, I realized that I already had the solution to my problem sitting on my coffee table: my sewing machine.

Obsessive sewing commenced -- and now my summer wardrobe is a lot more whimsical. Well, I call it whimsical. Y'all might call it a hot mess but to each their own and I won't judge you for what you wear either.

The first thing I did was turn my garment inside out -- that way I could see all of the seam lines and how the thing was put together. There was a clever pocket construction that seemed like it might be fiddly, so I went ahead and made the decision that my first attempt wouldn't try to duplicate that.

The players: two gathered panels (one for the center front and one for the center back), two yoke pieces (front and back), and the sides, which were constructed of two pieces each because of the aforementioned pockets. I gave it a think and decided to keep the two separate pieces for each side because I wanted the structure provided by the seams.

Once I'd identified all the parts and established that there weren't any weird darts to deal with, I needed to duplicate the pieces. I laid my dress out on my fabric -- I have a cutting table that folds up for easy storage, but I never do manage to stow that thing away. You will need some space for this so if you don't have a cutting table, use your eating table or your floor.

Then I traced around the general shape of the yoke of the dress. I used Sharpie marker because I like to walk on the wild side and endanger the clothes that I love but you can also use chalk or one of those disappearing ink pens. This methodology left me with a Sharpie cutting path on the fabric I was using for my first dress attempt, and it worked for all of the dress parts -- but what it didn't do was help me when I went to make another version.

And that's why it's good to be a learning animal. The second time I did this, I used a roll of brown craft paper to make my own paper pattern. I put the paper on top of the dress, and used my fingers to feel the seam lines. The hardest part of this was preventing my paper from curling up. That was a giant pain, let me tell you all about it. (Except not because that would be boring.)

Once I had made myself paper pattern pieces for each part of my original dress, I was in serious business -- I hung that original dress back up in my closet where it belongs and got to work avoiding all of the other stuff I was supposed to be doing.

Here's a tip if you hate using scissors: put your paper pattern pieces on top of your fabric and weigh them down with something. You can use books or cats or cans of soda -- whatever you have on hand. Then, if you have a steady hand (and a cutting mat), use a rotary cutter to follow the outline of your pattern pieces (be sure to include seam allowances either on your pattern pieces themselves or as you cut). This goes so much faster than pinning paper to fabric and then tediously cutting things out with scissors.

Ugh, scissors.

I jest, I jest. I love scissors.

Now, this dress has gathered center front and center back panels. I was so ready for this, because I own a ruffle foot. It's this contraption that, depending on how you set it, crams the fabric under the needle at set intervals in order to bunch it up and make a ruffle. Hence the name ruffle foot in the first place, right? But you don't need a ruffle foot to make gathers -- just check out this tutorial on YouTube.

Once my panels were gathered, I sewed the center front to the appropriate side pieces, and then I sewed that unit to the front yoke. Then I assembled the back in the same order. And THEN I got to sew the front to the back -- that's when the whole thing kind of took shape as a dress. Some quickly rolled hems, and I was in business -- and things got even better when I used these instructions to make pleated patch pockets.

A dress without pockets is like a something without its very necessary something, am I right?

The beauty of making your own pattern for something like this is that you can customize the results in just about any way you wish. Want it to be three inches longer? Tape some paper to your paper. Want the yoke to be a little smaller to fit your chest? Trim the edges off until it's perfect.

If you don't have a perfect trapeze dress from which to make your pattern, all is not lost. You can draft the simple shapes of this dress -- I have confidence in you! And I also have a couple of sizing tricks for you, too.

First, the center front and back panels: take off your shirt, and look at your bra. Your center front panel should be (after you gather it) wide enough to stretch from the inner edge of one bra strap to the other one. Checking out your bra is also the key to figuring out where to place the straps on your yoke. (I almost typed yolk and, well, that would just be different.)

Trapeze dresses look great at just above knee length, so measure from where the cups of your bra turn into the straps down to where you want your dress to end. That's going to be the length of your front panel. The center back panel is going to be shorter, but as long as you know the length of the front, you won't mess things up.

When you cut out your yoke, cut both a front and a back. Then take the back piece and trim a lower neckline into place. You won't actually be making a super low-cut trapeze dress -- but you want the sides of the yoke pieces to line up even as you want the front yoke to sit above your bust.

Stay with me -- I promise this works out once you've got everything put together.

Because the front yoke sits higher than the back yoke, your side pieces will be flat across the bottom but angle on the top. They'll slope down to meet each other (the front yoke will have a much steeper slope and be higher in the front) -- and where they meet will be your arm pit.

Once you have your paper pieces drafted, the process kicks into gear in pretty much the exact same way. And before you know it, you've got a whole summer wardrobe full of dresses that feel like nightgowns -- which increases your odds of surviving the heat.

I like to mix prints, so my dresses are about as obnoxious as I could make them. And I used quilting cotton, because it's available fairly cheaply, especially at big-box craft stores that have coupons. But you could make this out of a very breezy and soft linen if that was what floated your stylistic boat. Or some sort of gauze, especially if you wanted to make an actual factual nightgown.

If you aren't the trapeze dress type, that's okay -- you can take your favorite simple shirt and apply the same method of using it to make your own pattern. The more confident you feel, the more complicated the garments you can recreate.

Do you think you are going to give this a try? Do you think trapeze dresses are the one true dress of summer? Let me know, please, in the comments!