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Making a Simple Dress

Choosing a Pattern

For your first try at sewing with a pattern, choose something simple. A dress with no waistline, sleeves, or collar is ideal. Look for a pattern that pictures a dress that gets its shape from vertical seams or from darts. If you don’t like sleeveless dresses, choose a jumper you can wear over a T-shirt or blouse, or choose a pattern with cap sleeves. This means the sleeves are part of the dress’s body piece rather than cut separately and set in. If you’re having trouble telling from the picture how the sleeves are made, check the back of the pattern envelope. There is usually a line drawing of the back of the pattern that shows every seam.

You might want to look specifically for a dress pattern that includes several styles so you can use the pattern again and again without feeling like you’re filling your closet with duplicates of the same dress. If you’re worried, look for patterns marked as “Easy” These are often patterns that go together very quickly They may even include some short cuts that you can use on other projects.

If you’ve never looked through a pattern book before, don’t be overwhelmed. There are several pattern companies with large catalogs you can choose from. Go armed with your measurements and something to mark the pages with possible choices, such as a pad of sticky notes, and plan on spending some time.

Reading the Envelope

The front of the pattern envelope has an attractive drawing or a picture of a model wearing the dress you’ve chosen. There will usually be pictures showing all the pattern styles in the envelope. Also, near the top, you will find the sizes available in the envelope. Most of the information you need, however, is on the back.

At first glance, the back of the envelope may look too confusing to decipher. You will find a chart of body measurements and the corresponding size. Sometimes the size is listed both in American sizes— such as 8, 10, 12, and so on—and in the European sizes, like 34, 36, 38. There may also be a chart that gives the finished measurements of the garment itself.

These will all help you decide which size to use.

As part of this same chart you will find a yardage chart. Find the style you plan to make, and read across to the row with your size to determine how many yards of fabric you will need. There will probably be a listing for fabric 45” wide and one for 60”. Asterisks beside these widths will refer you to notes that indicate whether this amount will be enough for napped fabrics. If your fabric has a one-way print, use what is indicated for napped fabrics.

Fitting the Pattern

Few of us are proportioned exactly the way the pattern chart seems to expect. Though you will have already decided which size comes the closest to your measurements, in order for your dress to really fit, you may need to make some changes.


Refer back to the measurement chart on the back of the pattern. Use a highlighter to indicate which bust, waist, and hip measurement is closest to your own. Next, open out the folded pattern pieces and find the ones that are labeled for your style. Cut these pieces apart enough to separate them. You don’t need to cut them all out exactly on the cutting line—that you can do when you actually cut your dress out.

You will notice that the pattern pieces have all the sizes on them. This makes altering a breeze. Simply use your highlighter to mark the cutting line of the appropriate size at the hips, waist, and bust. Gradually angle the line from one to the next, marking over the many cutting lines printed there.

Lengthening or Shortening

You can easily lengthen a hemline by adding to the bottom of each piece when you cut it out. Shortening’s just as easy and can be done in the final stages of construction. However, among the body measurements listed on the chart is the distance from the back of the neck to the waist. If this is different from your own, you should alter the pattern.

You will notice on the primary pattern pieces there is a line marked “lengthen or shorten here.” This is often a pair of lines about 1/8” apart. To lengthen, cut along this line and splice in a piece of paper that adds the appropriate amount. Tape it to the pattern tissue. To shorten, measure the pattern up from this line the amount you need to shorten and draw a new line. Fold the pattern’s line up to the new line and tape it in place.

Laying Out the Pattern

The pattern guide that comes with your pattern will probably have illustrations of several cutting layouts. These will be labeled as to which dress style and fabric width they are intended for. There may be illustrations for fabrics with and without nap. You can follow these illustrations, paying particular attention to fold lines and selvage edges. The usual way to lay out your fabric is right sides together with the selvages aligned. In some instances, however, this won’t work. Your pattern guide’s illustration will help you decide how this needs to be done.

Begin by pinning the largest pieces to the fabric. Be sure the fabric is smooth and folded properly The long double-ended arrows on the pieces need to be straight with the grain of the fabric. Check by measuring to the selvage or center fold from one end of the arrow and again from the other end. If they are the same, the arrow is straight with the grain.

Also be alert to pieces that need to be placed on the fold. These are indicated by long arrows that curve toward the edge of the pattern.

Use straight pins to pin your pattern to the fabric. A pin every 10” to 12” is sufficient. Be sure your pins don’t extend beyond the pattern’s cutting line. Pin all your pieces in place before you begin to cut them out in case you discover a need to move the pieces closer together or rearrange them in order to fit them all to the fabric. Check for pieces, such as optional ties, or some types of facing pieces that call for more than two, and be sure you are leaving fabric scraps large enough to cut these out when the first set is cut.

Cutting and Marking the Pieces

Before you begin cutting out your garment, double-check to be sure all
the pieces that you will need are pinned to your fabric. The pattern guide
will have an outline drawing of each of the pieces and a list indicating which style uses each piece. Often the layout diagrams list all the pieces used for a particular style.

Stitching Darts and Seams

Your pattern guide will lead you through all the steps of making your dress. As with any project, you should read through all the directions before beginning. The guide will probably ask you to begin with stay stitching, which is never a bad idea. Stay stitching is most necessary with stretchy fabric or along curving seams. Be sure to sew in the direction indicated by the arrows or you will defeat much of the purpose of the stitching.

This will probably be followed by darts or shaping seams on the front of your dress. To sew seams, put the pieces right sides together, matching the notches. The pieces need to fit at the stitching line, not at the cutting line, so you may have to clip some seam allowances. This is where the stay stitching is important so you don’t clip too deep.

Sew ~1/8” from the edge. Clip curves and press seams open. If your fabric tends to fray use pinking shears to trim the seams or zigzag just beyond the seam. These zigzag stitches don’t have to be as close together as they did for appliqué stitching. They can be about as far apart as usual straight stitches. Trim the seam allowance close to these zigzag stitches to finish the seams.

To make darts, fold the fabric, right sides together, bringing the two lines together. Be sure the fabric folds at the point of the dart and the lines or dots match. To check this, insert a pin through the marking on one layer, and check to see that it emerges at the marking on the other layer. The lines need to match at the seam line, too.

Sew from the outside edge toward the center point. Darts are generally pressed downward or, in the case of vertical darts, outward, away from the center of the garment.

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