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July 5, 2014

I bought this Faded Glory maxi sundress at Walmart. I had to shorten the straps by 2 and a 1/2 inches, and took off the ridiculously long ties on the front, but after that I really liked how it fit.  It was super comfy and secure.  As in, if I didn't feel like putting a bra on, I didn't have to worry about flashing people.  I decided it was worth having multiples, but all the other colors were extremely dark, which is kind of stupid for a sundress.  Dark colors absorb heat!  So I studied and measured it for a while and eventually came up with a pattern.

 I don't know what my problem is.  I buy all sorts of patterns, but the dresses I seem to actually wear are the ones that I made by looking at dresses I already owned.  I wear my peacock dress, made from the bottom half of a maxi dress, all the time, but haven't yet worn my pink dress, made from a pattern.  Is it because I know how it will look on me and that it will likely fit the first try?

 I happened to have several yards of challis fabric that I had claimed from my sister's abandoned stash. (I expect any fabric I leave in someone else's basement for over 6 years to be fair game for whoever wants it.)  With nothing to stop me, I made a dress.  And now I'm sharing a tutorial, because I am definitely making this again.  There was a lot of challis in that stash . . .

I liked this dress because it seemed so simple.  No zippers, no buttons, no sleeves, no collars, and the way I designed it, only two pattern pieces to deal with!

I had to learn two new techniques for this dress, and found two great online tutorials for sewing with elastic thread and making bias tape.   Don't be intimidated!  The waistband proved to be extremely easy for me, and the bias tape would have been even easier if I had waited and bought the right tool.

2 yards of challis or similar lightweight fabric - 60" width
thread to match your fabric
Elastic thread

Wow, that's it?  You'll also need a few . . .

sewing machine
an iron and ironing board
a marking pen or chalk
sewing and safety pins
seam ripper (no one's perfect!)

To make the bias tape, I found a rotary cutter, cutting mat, and a see-through quilting ruler to be invaluable, and should have had a bias tape maker, which I bought after the fact for future projects. It's possible to do carefully with an iron and your fingers, but someone designed a cheap tool to make this easier, and we should use it!

  • Wash your fabric before cutting out.  (If it's not washable, then why are you
    Reenactment, and I used weights
     instead of pins
    making an easy-wearing sundress out of it?  Washability is part of the comfort level!)
  • Draw out the pattern.  I used brown Kraft paper from a Dollar Tree roll.
  • Cut two pieces from fabric.  (For the collar, I dipped down about 1" in the middle for the back piece, and 2" for the front.  Be sure to mark or cut notches to indicate where the waistband will go.
  • With right sides together, sew up one side of the dress.  lay it out flat, and clearly mark your sewing lines for the elastic, from one marked notch to the other.  You'll want to mark these lines on the right side (outside) of the fabric, as this will be the side facing up when you're sewing.  
  • Set up your machine for sewing with elastic as described in the elastic tutorial, and sew four rows across the entire width of the dress, about 1/4" apart.  (that's usually the edge of your sewing foot, which is what I used for reference.)  
  • With right sides together, line up the ends of your newly sewn rows of elastic, and run a seam across all four on the open side of the dress.  Then line up the rest of your fabric and sew the other side of the dress shut.  (If you're more accurate than me, you can just sew down the side and everything will magically line up.  I had to prioritize what part I wanted to be exact.)  
  • Make some 1/2" bias tape following the bias tape tutorial, or buy some if you don't mind it being a different color and fabric.  I suppose you can also do this right after you cut out the fabric.  You won't need much, I estimate about 2 yards.
  • Run a gathering stitch along the front and back sections of the dress, and pull it in, til the top measures roughly 10" across.  You may find you'd prefer it wider or narrower, adjust as you like.  I safety pinned temporary straps to the dress and tried it on so I could see where it would hit on me.  
  • To attach the tape, unfold it and place it right sides together along the edge of your dress.  Baste it down, then fold the rest of it over to the back of the fabric, and sew it in place.  If you have no idea what I just said, I understand.  Check out this tutorial on sewing with bias tape.  Check that your stitching doesn't wander off the front of the bias tape.  Do the armholes first, then the back.  Allow a little extra on the back so you can fold it over for a clean corner.  
  • For the front, allow about 7 to 9 inches of bias tape to overhang on each side of the collar.  These will be your straps, and you'll need to fold them in half and sew them down.  Then you can take your time adjusting the length before sewing them to the back of the dress.  (It's quite possible that this would be easier to do if you did this to the back, then you could actually adjust without taking them off.  Either way will work.)  I ended up making 7" straps.
  • Sew down your straps, lining them up with the edge of the back.  Fold over the bias tape from the top edge of the back and stitch down.  Cut all your threads.  Try it on again.  
  • Hem the dress and iron if needed.  Now put it back on and run around all happy and comfortable.  


To make a knee length dress, I hemmed it at 24" from the waistband.  Cut out around 25-26" from waistband instead of 36.  I did this partly because my fabric turned out to be 58.5" wide, and not 60", and partly because it's just as nice at either length!

I did not include seam allowances, mainly because I forgot, and was excited about getting even numbers on my measurements.  I used a half inch seam allowance when sewing.  Keep this in mind when drawing out the pattern and be sure to add on whatever seam allowance you prefer.  This style is REALLY forgiving, so if you forget, too, it will likely turn out all right anyway!

This pattern was based on the size small dress - I usually wear a medium, but the sizing was rather off.  My measurements are 34, 30, 42, and I'm 5'6" (yes I did just admit all that) so you might need to adjust slightly for your own measurements.  I think the waist ended up being about 22" wide on the fabric, (44" all the way around) and it fit perfectly around my torso after the elastic was installed.

inside view of the shirred elastic thread.  I swear it's
much straighter than it looks!
The elastic 'shrunk' the dress roughly 12", to give you some idea of how much shrinkage to expect when shirring fabric with elastic thread.  I started out with 44" of fabric, take off about 1" for seam allowances, and it fit quite nicely around my 30" torso.  Not too tight, not too loose.

I have a drop-in bobbin, and used the machine to wind the thread on the bobbin rather than doing it by hand, based on recommendations I read online.  It worked perfectly for me!

I COULD have just made a pocket to thread elastic through, but I feared the elastic would be too heavy for the fabric and drag the dress down.  I also could have foregone the bias tape and the spaghetti straps and gone with something simpler, but figured I might as well learn how to do it.  The nice thing about this pattern is it's easy to alter.  Add ruffles, add pin tucks, make wider straps, add sleeves!

If you want regular sleeves, try adding another 3.5" to the 4.5" measurement (this is the armhole sleeve height) on the pattern above.  Then your collar measurements will be a 4.5" deep curve for the back, and 5.5" curve for the front.

Once I cut out one arm hole curve, I used the cut piece to draw and cut the second armhole, so they would match exactly.  I also could have folded the pattern in half and cut both curves at the same time.  Otherwise I don't know what to tell you to do about drawing the armhole curves, except to eyeball it, or pull a sleeveless dress/shirt out of your closet that fits well, and copy that.

I folded the fabric in half following the selvage and cut out a full shape because the full piece of fabric allowed for it.  If you have a fabric you just HAVE to use that's narrower, I recommend buying 3 1/3 yards of fabric, opening it out flat, and cutting out two separate pieces (make sure the fabric is running the same way for both).  The dress measures about 48" long altogether, so two pieces (front and back) would require 2 2/3 yards.  the 2/3 yard left should give you enough fabric for the bias tape.

I realize there may be raised eyebrows about me 'copying' a dress, but frankly you can't copyright clothes, and I did not copy this dress exactly anyway.  The original dress is actually about 7 separate pieces - 4 skirt pieces, a separate waistband, and then the front and back of the bodice.  I also left out the keyhole in the bodice. I simplified quite a bit, mostly to see if it would still work.  So far it has!

Questions?  Comments?  Did I make a horrible mistake somewhere?  Please contact me, either through the comments section or click on 'my web site' on the left, and then the 'contact' link.  If you make a dress using this tutorial, I would love to see photos!