Thursday, August 9, 2012

bear with me, there is a sewing tutorial here somewhere.

with having so many girls to sew for and act as “models” for me to photograph, i’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to try and get decent photos of a mobile toddler baby. i did not just do that. i did not call my baby a toddler. she’s not. i’ve got my 12 year old and my 8 year old and even the 3 year old can sometimes cooperate. they smile and say cheese and stand still while i say one more shot! last one, i promise!

but not the little ones. you can dress ‘em up in the dress you made. you can fix their hair. you can vacuum the rug and set down a cute rocking chair and teddy bear as props.

what you can not do is control them.

they (the little ones) seriously could NOT POSSIBLY CARE LESS how much time you spent doing math, of all things. figuring out fabric sizes and percentage of increase and seam allowance and using a CALCULATOR which you absolutely detest…all in the name of producing an easy to follow sundress tutorial you were asked for. and the final step—cute pictures of the finished product—the only part requiring their assistance—is simply not in the realm of things they care about.


venn diagrams make everything funnier, don’t they?

so i end up with this:

shirred dress-03shirred dress-04shirred dress-08shirred dress-12shirred dress-14shirred dress-17

ahh yes. just what i (wasn’t) looking for.

but if you’ll accept my less-than-stellar shots of the end result, i am happy to share with you the tutorial for this super simple summer dress.

shirred dress-19

a couple of weeks ago i got a request for help with a dress tutorial on a now-defunct website (which i can no longer find the link to). it was cute, but no measurements were given. and there were dozens of comments from people all asking the same basic questions—how much fabric? what size pieces????

shirred dress-25

it’s an adorable simple sundress—top shirred with elastic thread, and the straps come around to the back, run through buttonholes and tie with a bow.
i made this one from some some fat quarters i got in a $2 clearance bundle at walmart, so this thing basically cost me about $1 to make.

shirred dress-02

a more experienced home sewer can look at the tute and easily gauge how much fabric will be needed. but some people (gasp!) want exact measurements. so i sat down and figured out a formula for you needy people. ;)


okay there’s no getting around it—some math is involved. and probably before you even buy fabric. but it’s simple enough. actually this entire dress is really an ideal beginner project. i’ve included a LOT of details in this tutorial, hopefully to answer questions and make things clear to anyone and everyone!

so let’s get started, shall we?

+ tape measure
+ ruler
+ scissors
+ fabric marker/chalk
+ elastic thread
+ regular thread in a coordinating color
+ fabric—something lightweight, like cotton or a knit—otherwise the shirring won’t work well.

first we’re going to get 4 quick measurements to find the sizes of your pattern pieces. this dress is constructed of a bodice piece, a skirt piece and 2 straps. easy, right?

hot-tipwhen i refer to the width of a piece, i’m talking about the horizontal line—the one that goes around your chest or waist. when i refer to the length of a piece i’m talking about the vertical line—the length of the skirt for example.



you need to measure around the chest at it’s widest point. on a child this will generally be up around their armpits.
next measure the height of the bodice you’d like—somewhere around collarbone to mid-chest or so.
with these 2 numbers you can find out the size of the piece you need for the bodice.

hot-tipi did a lot of test swatches, measuring how much my fabric shrank once i did all the rows of shirring. for basic rows, approximately 1/2” apart, once the fabric was hit with a steam iron i lost about 40% of the length and 20% of the height. this gave me a top that’s snug enough to fit but not too tight. so we take the circumference of the chest, add on 40% and then another 1” for seam allowance.

shirred dress-1

here’s a little chart to help out:


circumference of chest + 40% = ________ + 1” = _________ (BW)

height of bodice + 20% = __________ + 2” = __________ (BH)

use a calculator—this isn’t school, you don’t have to show your work. ;)

now for the skirt portion it’s even easier. take your final overall chest piece measurement (BW above) and add 50% to it. this gives you a skirt that’s full but not too full. you can always adjust this measurement—taking away inches if you’d like a straighter skirt, adding if you’d like a fuller skirt. the length will be from where you ended the bodice down to where ever you’d like the skirt to end—i went for just below knee length. then add on for seam allowance and hem.

hot-tipi’ve heard it said—and i tend to agree—hem length can be a deciding factor in something looking “professional” or “home-made”. not to say that your dresses and skirts need to be short…but there’s a mid-length that tends to look very homemade. if you sew or look around at clothing you’ll see what i’m talking about. stick to knee length, just below knee length, or long and avoid that mid-length, which just tends to look too big.


(BW) + 50% = ____________ (SW)

length + 2” = _____________ (SL)

shirred dress-18

CONTRAST BAND: i did a contrasting band around the bottom of the dress (that brown strip of different fabric at the bottom of the skirt). to do that you have to subtract off the size of the band you want + the hem allowance, and then add back 1/2” for seam allowance on the main fabric. on the contrast fabric you’re going to cut a piece that’s the size of the band you want + 2” hem allowance + 1/2” seam allowance. confused yet? if you want to do a contrast band ignore the first skirt worksheet and use this one instead:


(BW) + 50% = ____________ (SW)

length = _____________ (L)

length of contrast band = ____________ (B)

main skirt fabric

L – B + 1/2 = ________________ (MS)

contrast fabric

(B) + 2 + 1/2 = ________________ (CB)

cut your main fabric a rectangle (SW) x (MS)
cut your contrast border a rectangle (SW) x (CB)


hot-tipmy original skirt measurement (SL x SW) was 11” x 43”. i wanted a 3” band, so i cut the main skirt fabric 6 1/2 x 43 (11 – 3 – 2 + 1/2 = 6 1/2) and the band fabric 5 1/2 x 43 (3 + 2 1/2 = 5 1/2) then i sewed the contrasting band onto the bottom of the skirt with a 1/2 seam allowance and finished the seam, the same way we sewed the bodice to the skirt at the beginning. that gave me a new piece at the 11” x 43” i need.

honestly it sounds much more complicated than it actually is, and if you’re unsure you can just skip the contrast band and make your skirt from one fabric.

so now you have your 4 numbers. chances are you’ve ended up with some random numbers—something like 28.3 or 37.4 or 40.2. no need to get crazy—simply round them to the nearest 1/2” or 1/4”. elliot’s final bodice measurements were 28.3 x 6.2, i cut the piece at 28 1/2” x 6 1/4”.

but wait! what if i don’t have the kiddo here to measure? or she’s sleeping and i don’t want to wake her?

well, fortunately for you i happen to have a wide range of daughters i can measure and then share with you. i’m not guaranteeing this in any way, but feel free to use these numbers.

          size 14/16          size 8          size 3/4       size 12/18 months
   40 1/4x12 3/4     37 1/2x10 1/2       30x8            28 1/2x6 1/4  
skirt       60x32            56 1/4x27         45x19             43x11

(these are final cut fabric numbers, written width x length, by the way)

you’re going to use your final measurements to figure out your yardage. nothing crazy here—if you cut your fabric rectangles on the fold you shouldn’t need more than 1/2 a yard for the bodice, and 1 to 1 1/2 yards for the skirt, depending on size. i used a couple of fat quarters, and simply pieced them together to get the length i needed.


hot-tipan average apparel fabric is 44” wide. (on the bolt it’s folded in half) 1/2 a yard of that would give you a piece approximately 18” x 44”, easily enough to get the size 14/16 bodice from.



again we’re going for something lightweight—quilter’s cotton, apparel cotton, or a lightweight knit all work well. no bottom weights, no twill or denim or anything heavy.

the only other thing you’ll need is some small pieces for the straps. just include an extra 1/4 yard of whichever fabric you’d like to use for them. optionally—you could also use 2 pieces of ribbon for the straps.

cut 2 pieces 2” x 20”

so now we’re down to the nitty gritty—using your scissors and fabric marker or chalk, mark and cut:


okay, who’s ready to start sewing?

take the bodice piece and fold one long edge over 1/2” once, and then a second time.
press this, then sew it down with regular thread and press again.

shirred dress-5

(you can see where i’ve pieced my fabric together to make one long strip in this photo. if you’re not using fat quarters then you shouldn’t have that seam)

next take your skirt fabric and gather it to be the same length as your bodice piece.

hot-tipset your stitch length as long as it will go on your machine and sew 1/4” from the top edge. leave long tails of threads on both ends. do it a second time 1/4” below the first row of stitching. then separate out the bobbin threads from both rows of stitching on one end and gently pull them to gather your fabric.


pin your bodice and skirt right sides together and sew with a 1/2” seam allowance. press your seam.
finish the seam allowance—either with pinking shears, a serger, or by zigzagging the raw edges.

you should have this:

shirred dress-6

shirred dress-7

now it’s time to get your elastic thread. for a good tutorial on working with elastic thread i’ll refer you {here}. but basically you have to hand wind it onto your bobbin—some say with no tension, some say a bit of tension. you’re going to have to play around a bit. everyone’s machine is different. i have a husqvarna, and i’ve never had trouble with elastic thread—i simply drop it in and go. word on the street is that brother machines give people a hard time with elastic thread…but i can’t testify to that first hand. ;)

shirred dress-8

once you’re secure in your shirring and elastic thread abilities (HA! that’s a joke! ;) simply start about 1/2” down from the top seam, sewing one line after another. remember to backstitch at the beginning and end of each row of stitching.

this is hardly the most difficult or most exciting part of sewing, but it’s all worth it in the end!

i make my rows a little less than 1/2” apart, simply using the edge of my presser foot as a guide.


make as many rows as you need to cover the bodice, stopping about an inch above your skirt seam.

when you’re done you get to do the fun part: hit that baby with a nice hot steam iron. give it plenty of steam and watch the elastic thread—and your bodice with it—shrink right up. you’re not ironing it—just gently set the iron down on your rows of shirring and give it steam for a couple of seconds. then pick up the iron and place in down in a new spot.

shirred dress-9

next up: straps! take your two strap pieces and sew them right sides together along the long edge with 1/4” seam allowance. i like to sew with a nice small stitch—there’s nothing more annoying to me than finally turning a strap right side out and having loose stitches in it.

once they’re sewn turn them right side out and press.


find the center front of your dress. for little girls go out about 1 1/2” on either side and pin your strap on. for bigger girls go about 2” on either side.


sew the straps down well.

match up bodice top, center seam and bottom hem and sew your dress up right sides together, top to bottom.


now on the back you’re going to mark 1 1/2” down from the top and 1/2” out on either side of the back seam. this is the top of each of your two buttonholes.

again, everyone’s machine is different. you may have an automatic buttonhole attachment. in that case find a button about 3/4-1” big and use that to determine the size of the buttonhole. otherwise, make your buttonholes about 1” long on the back of the dress. i found this is somewhat difficult to do over the rows of shirring, but again—it doesn’t have to be perfect—the bow will cover a multitude of errors. so just give it your best shot.


shirred dress-02

feed your straps through your newly sewn buttonholes and finish off the ends by folding them over twice and sewing them down. this should help them not slide out as easily (not that that’s a big deal). also you can adjust the length before sewing them if you think they’re too long.

last step: hem that baby. fold the bottom up 1/2” and then 1”, press-sew-press.

and there you have it! an adorable little sundress for your adorable little girl!

phew! done! hopefully i didn’t overcomplicate things for you. i tried to include as much detail as i could so anyone (i’m looking at you laura) can whip these babys out one after another!


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  1. Hehe, that Venn diagram is pretty funny... and quite true. Cute dress!
    I've had a Brother, and can vouch for the difficulty of shirring on it... you have to use some tension as you wind the thread or it hardly gathers up at all. Now I have a Singer, so much easier to shirr with! =)
    Thanks for the tutorial!

  2. hehe, thank you very much googie. You know I'm going to probably call you anyway right?!?! But I have my fabric and my measurements and I'm ready to go!!! Now, finding 5 minutes to myself to start.....

  3. Holy shoot, the math! the fabric! you are a whirlwind.

  4. I TOTALLY feel the same way with the "Realm" chart with Sephira. I think to her, sewing (or any of it's contents), is like the nine levels of hell, mainly because it means mommie can't just have her nurse, and stare at her ALL day long! Geez Louise! My favorite is when she turns my chair around for me which she promptly does as soon as she toddles in... and by favorite I mean I hate it, errr I mean nothing she ever does bothers me ever ever... ;-)

    Great tutorial too! It's always more awesome when you can have them strut their stuff in something that costs a buck to make! This is bound for lots of "Pins!"

  5. This is a wonderful tutorial just what I was looking for ...explanation of sizing. I've just finished some shirring and my dress shrunk so much it would fit a mouse LOL. The dress looks lovely by the way and wee girl very cute..Thanks!

  6. Made it! Is it as lovely as yours? Nope! Do I care? Nope.

    1. haha! i'm certain it's even better! :)

  7. What happens to the shirring after you sew the button holes over it? Doesn't it cut the elastic and unravel?

    1. no it doesn't. the buttonholes are sewn with a tight enough stitch that everything stayed together. ;)

  8. Thanks! I'm making one now and so far it's pretty cute. I have one more question! In the pictures, the straps on the front look farther apart than 3". (my 18 mo. old lives far from me, so I can't try the dress on her!) Does it just look that way, or did you readjust ?

    1. yes, they're sewn down about 3" apart for a little girl--they look further apart on the photos because the bodice stretches around her chest when she wears it. :0) hope this helps!

    2. if you look at the 3rd photo up from the bottom of the post it's the dress when she's not wearing it, and you can see how the straps look closer together when it's not on.

  9. (The comment about my 18 mo.old, sounds weird!) She's actually my neice's daughter!


drop me a line. please? don't make me's not pretty.


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