Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Making of a Dress: Part 1—Designing

Making a dress without a pattern is a lot harder than a top. You have so many more variables to work with—how will it get over your head, fitting the bust, hips and length all at the same time, so many more pieces to fit together, and lots of other little details that, if missed, can really mess the whole thing up. Now don’t think I’m a dress making pro—I have several incompletes and flops sitting in my sewing room waiting to be fixed or scrapped. But I have found that a well thought out process makes the biggest difference when designing your own dress.

Most of the dresses I make are inspired in one way or another by one I see online. I shared in this post how I make a knock off. I’m going to review the process again today as well as show you how I start to formulate a plan when making a more complex clothing item. This plan is essential when I am using fabric that I don’t want to sacrifice.


For this year’s Easter dress I’m knocking off this Gray Ruched Flower Dress from Dorothy Perkins. I pinned this dress 10 weeks ago, and I can’t even begin to predict how many times I’ve pulled the link up and stared at it, enlarged it, analyzed it, admired it, stared at it… You get the picture.

There’s something in the way that my brain works where I can visualize how something is assembled. I can look at it, envision how pieces come together, and then (with some work) translate that into my own version. I’ve practiced the most with fabric, but I really think that I can wrap my brain around how most things assemble. My problems happen when I don’t take the time to think enough.

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After becoming acquainted with every inch of every view provided of the dress, the next step is to draw out what the individual pieces of the dress will look like and then plan out how I’ll assemble it. Back and front in a dress like this are not the same. So I have to think through drape and fit and what will affect how the dress falls (like your chest, hips, belly, butt). All those are taken into account. For example, since my stomach is expanding and I’ll belt the dress above it, it’ll cause the front of the dress to be shorter than the back if I were to cut them the same length. So I’ll do a gentle curve down in the front at the hem.

My next step is to actually write out the steps I’ll take in assembling the dress. As you can see, I changed my mind a bit along the way. I had to picture how the fabric will sit after each seam. How I’ll then turn it inside out, how the steps will flow from one to the next, and how my seams will be best hidden. And then, I have to hope it’ll actually work! It’s very likely I’ll be changing some of these steps along the way as I actually sew.

As a little soapbox thought: I’ve seen pins on Pinterest where the pinner will caption a project with, “Wish the blogger actually gave a tutorial,” or, “I’d love to make this but there isn’t a tutorial.” I feel like these are critical captions. What I don’t think those pinners understand is that making something totally off the top of your head takes work. And not everyone can process through a piece ahead of time like I do. Some might be better at just winging it. Or maybe their plan changes so many times as they go (I’ve been there) that it’s impossible to explain what all you did. Or maybe they’re working with little time and taking pictures of every step would slow down the process too much. I don’t think any of my followers would caption like this, but I just had to get it off my chest. Ok, stepping off my soapbox now.

My next post in The Making of a Dress will be about actually drafting up pattern pieces for the dress. Which can now be seen here.

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Oh my goodness, that inspiration dress is gorgeous! I can't wait to see your version. And I totally agree with your little soapbox thought - I think you summed it up really well for a lot of people. - Cherie

  2. Your work is beautiful!
    I totally agree with your soapbox, and I am glad you wrote it. I think we, as an American society, are starting to expect everything for "free." A tutorial is a lot of work, but everyone wants someone else to write one. I'm sure that some of those pinners were expressing wishful thinking, but I agree with you that some of them were certainly being critical, and that is a sad commentary on where we are. Although we say DIY, everyone expects to receive help doing it themselves without ever having to pay the other person for that person's work and effort. We share music, embroidery design CD's and patterns, and we seem to think that is okay. Why?

    I am very grateful for everyone who shares tutorials on the web, but inspirational posts are just as valuable, especially when, like yours, they explain some reasoning processes, such as hem length needs.

    I wish that as sewists we were more grateful and less demanding.

    Thank you for all that you put into your blog. It's very inspirational and you have a lot of talent. I appreciate all that you share with us. You are generous with both your time and your talent. Thank you.
    Cherished Needle Creations

    1. Oh thanks so much Sherilyn! You're too sweet! I think you echoed my sentiments wonderfully too.

  3. I love pretty much everything you do! You are so talented! I am excited about learning the steps you take to create a dress. I can visualize how a garment is pieced together, but my skills at drafting a pattern are non-existent. So, any pearls of wisdom you are willing to share are always appreciated. And, your hard work never goes unnoticed.

  4. How funny that your posting now about how to make a dress without a pattern. I JUST finished my first dress yesterday and I decided not to use much of a pattern for it. I definitely learned a ton and you're so right on with "You have so many more variables to work with—how will it get over your head, fitting the bust, hips and length all at the same time...lots of other little details that, if missed, can really mess the whole thing up" I got my whole dress done, sewed in the invisible zipper, went to slip it on for the first whole-dress-sewn-together-try-on and WHAMMY - the pin tucks at the bottom prevented it from fitting over hips and with the bodice sewn on I could no longer step into it. Dilemma! But some of the fun is in working through the problems - the solution: a second invisible zipper hidden behind one the the pin tucks at the hem. ANYWAY, I'm excited to read the rest of your posts about making a dress!

    If you want to see my dress, it's posted over at sewvivior...http://www.familyeverafterblog.com/2012/04/sew-vivor-top-10-projects-revealed.html (contestant #6)

    1. Kelly I love your dress! It turned out wonderfully and you'd never know about the trouble you had along the way by looking at the pictures! Excited to watch you in Sewvivor!

  5. I love this...and your "soapbox" :o) I am pinning this to remember next time I want to make something for myself. Thanks for all the information.

  6. I am going to be featuring you tomorrow morning on Blissful and Domestic. Stop by and grab a button.


  7. this is great! i just started sewing for myself and my little ones. clothes always seemed so hard to do, but im learning quickly that it is not as hard as i first thought. im very curious about pattern making so this was great! and that dress is to die for:)

  8. Your soapbox comment made me giggle! I recently completed a project at church when I made several modest garments for each of our teen girls who were going to camp. At first, I thought this would be a wonderful sewing party for some of the ladies at church who also sew. About an hour into the "party" I realized that I was creating as I went and completely at a loss to convey those mental images to the others. I wish I had a tutorial to explain what we were doing, but this was prior to my "discovery" of the wonder DIY tutorials you and all the other creative people post. THANK YOU for the time you take to share your ideas with the rest of us!


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