Make Do and Mend: Thrifty Summer Dress (Tutorial)

27 Jul

The other week, I was roaming the miles and miles of online clothes stores that I can never afford anything from, when I came across a real beauty on Lily Allen’s (sorry, Cooper’s) boutique, Lucy In Disguise:

At £145, this was the same old story: look but don’t touch (don’t even think about trying it on). It was not so much the print — although I did see some fabric in a very similar print going cheap at Wolverhampton indoor market! — as the cut that I love about this dress. My poor friends have been dragged all over the high street in the search of a dress like this, but nothing has ever been quite right; too loose in some places, too tight in others, the wrong cut, wrong colour, or just too short on me (I’m horribly tall).

 I remembered I had some leftover fabric in a cupboard somewhere from my grandma; she’s a keen seamstress and has made her fair share of curtains in the past! Stiff, canvassy, curtainy material or not, I was going to have a dress like that. Well, not exactly like that. I’ve never made anything with a lining before!

So, if you fancy grabbing a few old scraps together and scooping them up into some sort of dress, here’s what you’ll need:

– Some fabric (I actually love that print)

– Measuring tape… for measuring your wobbly bits

– Pencils, tailor’s chalk; anything you can mark your fabric with

– The greaseproof paper is just for cutting a pattern out of. But you don’t necessarily need to. In hindsight I hardly used it

– A ruler is useful

– Wundaweb! It’s a lifesaver

– Pins, for holding bits in place

– An iron

– A sewing machine, unless you fancy doing it all by hand

– A zip, if you’re making a close-fitting dress like I am. Sometimes you can get away without, depending on the amount of give in the fabric and the cut of the dress. (See this video tutorial to make a simple, zip-less shift dress)

– Scissors, thread, other obvious necessities.

Right! First you’ll need to cut your main pieces out. I knew that I wanted a dress like the one above, and I was also quite taken by Cheryl Cole’s dress in that L’Oreal advert, so I decided to make mine in two separate parts: a top and a skirt. I wasn’t going to go through the rigmarole of making a whole dress pattern, so I just cut out two big squares of fabric for the top half (which were roughly the right size for me, according to my measurements) allowing at least an extra inch on all sides for seams. You can always take more off, but you can’t put it back on! (Well, you can, but it’s awkward, so just leave a seam allowance.)

I took a dress of mine that had a slash-neck cut and used the greaseproof paper to mark the shape of the neckline, and made an ‘arm’ pattern aswell.

I then pinned these onto my squares of fabric and cut around them, until I had two pieces: the front and back of my top.

They’re pretty similar, right? That’s just because mine is a really simple, slash-neck style. If you’re making a different style of neckline, ie. a scoop-neck or sweetheart, you can’t always get away with cutting your front and back the same. (Or you can just do what I do and make up the type of dress as you go along.)

I then turned them inside out, pinned all the seams together in place, and tried it on for size to see how it would hang on me (you’ll be doing a lot of trying it on, taking it off, altering bits here and there, trying it on again, etc. so best to do it somewhere you can sit around in your underwear).

The shoulders are a bit wide, but that’s okay ’cause I’ll be hemming them soon so I can take them in a bit. It fits around my body and the lengths vaguely match up, so I’ve got the green light to start stitching!

It’s easier to hem as you go along, rather than leave it right ’til the end, so this is when you can hem the neckline before sewing the front and back together. Just fold down the edges, iron flat, and then fold that over and iron again. This keeps them from fraying.

The ironing bit isn’t essential, but it really helps it to stay put when it comes to sewing.

Now you’re ready to stitch the front and back together, just at the shoulders.
Mine looked a bit like this when I laid it flat:

As you can see, the arm holes don’t seem to match up so much any more. Because the shoulder bits are so wide I have plenty of room to re-cut the arm holes so that they match and then hem them in the same way as the neckline. Easy!

This is where your zip comes in. Zips are, generally, pretty expensive from most haberdashery places (I once panic-bought a load in bulk from Beatties when they were having a 50p clearout sale) and the longer they are, the dearer they get. Sometimes it’s even worth buying something cheap from a sale in Primark or at a charity shop, just to glean from it the precious, precious zip.

This time I was lucky enough to stumble across a real bargain! In a haberdashery shop in Wombourne, I found this:

Zip on a roll! I got half a metre (more than enough) for just £1.50 and, best of all, it was the perfect colour match for my fabric.  All you need to remember to do with these is to sew off each end of the zip tape, otherwise the slider could just zip right off it.

Turn your fabric inside out and sew up just one side of your dress. Since I wanted the zip on my left hand side, I sewed up the right hand side. Then you can try the top bit on and pin the loose (zip) side shut, and just check that it all looks in order. If you’re happy with it, then start sewing on the zip and take the pins out as you go along.

You’ll need to sew the zip, front side down, onto the front side of your fabric. It’s confusing to explain, but try pinning your zip to your pieces of fabric first and just checking that you’ve got the mechanics of it right. (You’d be surprised how easy it is to let your mind wander while you do this and find yourself with an inside-out zip.)

Once you’ve done that, it should look a bit like this when it’s zipped up:

I didn’t really fancy the idea of an exposed zip on a dress like this, so I left a tiny bit of surplus fabric around the zip, which would hopefully cover it up when I was wearing it. To make these little flaps lie flat over the zip, instead of being pulled taught whilst on, I used the trusty Wundaweb to iron them into a flat, rigid edge that stays put.

Hurrah! A concealed zip. It’s a bit messy because I maybe folded a bit too much fabric over the top, but it will look a bit neater when it’s on and I’m stretching it all out.

At this point you want to try it on again and see how it looks. When I did this, it showed how baggy it was on me. So here’s where the tailoring comes in (I use that term loosely; I am no tailor!).

To make the darts that really help a dress hug your figure, you just need to give the loose bits of fabric a pinch and figure out how much you can afford to take off. If you look at most fitted dresses, you’ll see that there are lines leading down from the bust on either side, usually all the way to the waistline. This is basically dependent on precisely where your ladylumps are and how much of a difference there is between your ‘peaks’ and your ‘troughs’ – sadly, for me, not so much. If you find dresses in shops that you really like and are in your size but they just don’t fit right on you, this is probably the reason – one size does not fit all.

Once you’ve decided on a safe amount to squeeze out of your dress, you can draw up your darts. These will just look like a long triangle shape, with the narrow, pointed end usually being at the bust and the wider, base end being at the waist. It’s pretty clear when you come to make them; the wider the triangle the more material you’ll be taking out. Start off narrow at first — remember you can always take more off later.

If none of what I have written makes sense (I wouldn’t be surprised), there is a great video tutorial on darts here.

Fold your darts in half and then pin them in place. Sew along along the longest line of your triangle, and you should have something that looks like this on the inside of your fabric.

Well, I didn’t exactly stick to my lines and ended up neatening up both my darts afterwards but hey.

On the outside of your fabric you’ll have a neat line like this:

And your dress should be fitting you a bit more closely now! Try it on for size.

Don’t worry too much about the fitting for now; you can always tweak it later.

It was at this point that I realised my top half was going to be a bit short, especially as I didn’t have that much fabric to work with for my skirt part. So I decided to craftily add a waistband onto the bottom and give my dress an extra three inches. See what I mean about making it up as I go along?

And the top is finished.

Now for the skirt: because of the size of the scraps of fabric I had two separate strips, which I cut to equal size and then sewed together.

This really depends on the style of skirt you want. I was set on having a pleated skirt, which requires a lot more fabric than, say, a tulip skirt or just a plain a-line. It’s not a science; just hold the fabric to your body and decide on roughly how much you’re going to need. If you’re unsure, always pin first to see how it looks. Measure twice, cut once! Or don’t measure, cut once, realise it’s too small and add extra bits on afterwards. Whatever.

Arrange the skirt however you want it, and then pin to the bottom of your top half. Try it on to make sure it’ll work, and then sew and remove the pins as you go.

You’re nearly there! Just need to hem the bottom of your skirt. In exactly the same way as before, just fold over the edge, iron flat, fold again and iron. Then sew carefully, keeping it as neat as possible.

And that’s it!

Team with a pair of cute brogues ( or any summer shoes; these were £8 from Primark) and you’re good to go.

I tried to take pictures of the dress on me but have no floor-length mirror or ability to work the timer function on my camera (I should show you the results of my attempts, haha) so my mom and I had a photo shoot in the back garden. With the dog.

As you can see, despite having just been ironed, the material was really easy to crease. I don’t suppose curtain fabric is intended for dresses. But anyway!

I’m quite pleased with the fit of the waistband, despite the wrinkles in this picture!

That dog. Always sticking her nose in.

Anyway, enough posing. You’ve seen it. It can be done! As you can see I am still a complete novice and anything I know about sewing I have just learnt from playing around with things. The internet is your friend, too! There are tons of tutorials on all sorts of sewing projects, you just have to go find them.

A great place to start is Craftster, for all-round inspiration and friendly advice, and if you’re into using patterns then BurdaStyle is a goldmine. I’m not really bothered about them but I like looking at the stuff on there for ideas.

That’s it; I hope this has been somewhat useful. Don’t splash out on some mass-manufactured thing that hugs in all the wrong places; make do and mend and wear what you like!

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