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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40 Responses to “Make Do and Mend: Thrifty Summer Dress (Tutorial)”

  1. Anna July 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    I love this dress, but have lack of time and sewing machine otherwise I would definitely try it out! Maybe you could find time to make one for me too…?? hehe

    Looking forward to more thrifty tips!

    • slovenlymole July 27, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

      Haha, thanks Anna! I would love to, but I’d need you on hand for constant fittings and things, and if I could have your company for that long I doubt I would spend the time wrapping you up in curtain fabric and prodding you with pins! It’s quite therapeutic though, if you ever find yourself with time on your hands it’s great to do in stages. (As you can tell from the gradual transition in nail colour, this is what I opted for haha.)

      Oh and as for the sewing machine, I’ve always wanted to get this cheap and cheery number: http://www.johnlewis.com/230958290/Product.aspx 😀

  2. G July 27, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    thank you so much! The dress is lovely, and I’ll definitely be using yours as inspiration (I’m not to hot on patterns either, my process is pretty similar to yours! ;D ) I love the tutorial you put together, perfect for a new seamstress in the making!

    • slovenlymole July 27, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

      Thank you! If it can help people find ideas for stuff then I’m happy 🙂

  3. Anna Mette July 29, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    I saw you on crafters, and just wanted to tell you, your dress is great!

  4. Bee July 29, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Beautiful! You’ve inspired me to try my own version soon!

    • slovenlymole July 30, 2011 at 12:48 am #

      Thanks! That’s great! I’d love to see it if you decide to make one 🙂

  5. Dominique July 30, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    I was looking for something to use with a cool print I picked up and this is perfect! I just wanted to know if the waistband was part of the zipper (I guess what I’m asking is if the waistband unzips.)
    Can’t wait to give this a try, thanks for taking the time to make a tutorial!

    • slovenlymole July 30, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

      Yeah the waistband is literally just stitched over the top of the original fabric (well… it connects the top and the bottom really cause I didn’t have *quite* enough fabric to make the dress as long as I wanted (lol) so the waistband is just a crafty extension bit in the middle. So yes, the zip does run through it, and quite a bit further too! (I have a big bum so these things are necessary.) It just means that there is a break in the waistband to accommodate for the zip. Hope this helps! 🙂

  6. Soetkin September 8, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    I’ts a very nice dress. I would like to make it.
    Roughly how much fabric did you use?

  7. christine June 5, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    This is a really great tutorial- Thanks! I too, am a young ,novice seamstress in London with an affinity for vintage styles 🙂 Looking forward to seeing what else you make.

  8. Yvonne June 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    How many yards did you use?

  9. Jennifer Douglas October 17, 2012 at 4:44 am #

    I was trying to figure out how to make a dress exactly how I want and this blog gave me the confidence to just “have a go” without a pattern. I always seem to mess up with patterns anyway!

    I love the print on the curtain fabric, it’s very trendy despite being something your Granny threw out!

  10. Michelle February 28, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    thanks for providing this tutorial! I found this great photo on Pinterest that I wanted to do my own version of (only started dressmaking in the latter half of last year) that is somewhat similar to yours. I prefer mine as an A-line skirt though, so your invaluable information has given me a starting point and now I don’t feel as if I’m floundering so much! Will definitely reference your blog as one of my sources for making my final dress 🙂

    • slovenlymole March 1, 2013 at 1:14 am #

      Thanks Michelle! If it has helped anyone, even if it helps them to see how NOT to do it, I’m glad! Have fun with your dress 🙂

  11. Sandy March 9, 2013 at 3:54 am #

    What a great idea! I love this tutorial! I have improvised so many sewing projects for my house but never clothes. I’m inspired! Thank you! The dress looks amazing!

    • slovenlymole May 10, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

      Aw thanks 🙂 you should get on it! you’ll probably do a better job than me! Haha.

  12. Autumn Macarthur March 25, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    Fabulous! You know, I used to sew like that in my early teens, just make it up as I went, till I got caught up in “doing it right” and using paper patterns. This looks far more fun and I love the finished dress! I can’t wait to give it a try with some gorgeous thrifted vintage fabric I found (50p for 3 1/2 yards!)

    • slovenlymole May 10, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      Yes, do it!! Even if it turns out a bit wobbly like mine, at least you’ll have fun with it!

  13. jaqueline April 15, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    that was so inspiring ! what is the best type of fabric for a skater dress ?(other than 100%cotton or stretchable fabrics )

    • slovenlymole May 10, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      No idea what is the best! I think cotton is always nice. I haven’t tried with stretchy jersey type fabrics so maybe they’d be good too. Why not have a play around and see what you like the best 🙂

  14. zoevleach May 10, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    Arghhh!! I typed “how to make a skater dress” into google believing alas I shall never find an understandable walk through of how to achieve my dream…. but i DID!! I love this design and as soon as my exams are over, I am making this! Thank you so much for sharing!!

    • slovenlymole May 10, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

      Aww thanks! I know your pain. I am in the middle of exams and assignments. I keep telling myself, as soon as I finish them I am gonna get back into sewing! I think this dress was the last thing I sewed, that’s how long it’s been! 😦 let me know how you get on with yours! Good luck with your exams too!

      • zoevleach June 13, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

        Just finished the dreaded exams and am now back into the sewing world! Have bought some fabric but not sure if the pattern will work. I’m still a newbie so I find knowing what to make with different patterns confusing.. If that makes sense? My exams went well (fingers crossed), hope yours went well?

  15. Giulyanna June 10, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    Wow, it looks great! Do you reckon 2m of fabric would be enough to make a UK size 10 dress? I’m a proper beginner and this would be my first attempt at making a dress. I’m very excited! thank you.

  16. panties June 17, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    THIS IS AMAZING – Will get right on it after my essay is done… Just about to cycle to the fabric shop, how much dyu reckon?? 2m?

    • slovenlymole October 29, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

      Hey! thanks for your comment and sorry this is so late. I honestly can’t remember how much fabric I used for this… but it all depends on your size, your height, the style of dress/fullness of the skirt, etc. It’s all up to you! I would always go with a bit more material than you think you’ll need, just so you have some room for mistakes and playing around with it. Have fun!

  17. Jane June 22, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    Love it !

  18. bettylion July 1, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    Wow, I love this! Your dress came out great, it looks totally pro! I have a short waist, and most dresses tends to hit me in the wrong places. It’s time I tried making my own. I’m mystified on how you did the pleats in the skirt, though… doesn’t seem to be much explanation on that. Are they like the darts in the top?

    • slovenlymole October 29, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

      Hey, thanks! The pleats in the skirt are a bit like the darts, yeah – you just fold over a bit of material in each place that you would want a pleat, and sew over all of your flat folds of material as normal. It should come out in some neat pleats! Just pin it with dress pins first to see how it would look, and then sew it on. Good luck!

  19. luxedlyani July 5, 2013 at 6:35 am #

    If I were to add sleeves, it wouldn’t affect the measurement for the top/bust part of the dress right? How much material do I need?

    • slovenlymole October 29, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

      Hello! no, it wouldn’t make any difference to the rest of your dress. I dunno how much material you would need; it depends on your size (or whoever will be wearing it) and the style of sleeve you will want. Look up some sleeve tutorials for some inspiration! Generally I would buy a bit more material than you actually need so you have some room for mistakes. Good luck!

  20. hannakirillovskaya May 14, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    Oh, i love this dress! Good job)

  21. Pani Motylkowa June 14, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    This dress is beautiful. I’m trying to sew herself has just something for the first time.
    Can you help me?
    I dream of such a dress like yours.
    if you can tell me how to make up this dress?
    where to get her template?
    I thought that it will be on your website but it is not: (

    I’m waiting for a message
    regards, Anna
    my e-mail: aniasweet@poczta.onet.pl

    thank you very much for your help!

    • slovenlymole June 15, 2014 at 7:23 pm #

      Hi Anna,

      Thank you for your sweet comment! I’m sorry but there isn’t a template – I just made it up as I went along (as you can probably tell haha). I hope the pictures/text can help you in some way. If not then you can try BurdaStyle.com for lots of free patterns!

      Hope this helps 🙂

  22. Lorraine September 12, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    I had to come back here a year after I found your site and made my attempt at this dress to tell you how much I love it! It didn’t go well from the start, but I put it aside for months and finally tackled it last month to correct my issues (I have zip-allergy in a big way and was all set to fix it until I realised my fabric had JUST enough give to allow me to just chop off my failure of a zip and leave a plain side-seam, yaaay!). It’s perfect now and I really love it. I have started a new blog because, like you were in this post it sounds like, I sew on a whim, I figure stuff out as I go along, I make up my own patterns or use the internet for inspiration, and I try to spend as little as possible as I go along! I referenced this post there when I talked about trying to copy this dress: see my “classic checked dress” post. 🙂 Thanks so much for the inspiration! http://onasewstring.blogspot.com

    • slovenlymole September 12, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      Aww thank you! So glad you’ve started a blog on it! I will be sure to follow you. I keep meaning to get back into ‘free-sewing’ (haha) but never seem to find the time! Maybe I will now. Good luck with the blog!

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