How to sew a child’s dress

This post has been a long time coming, the first photo I took back in April this year, and it’s taken me 3 months to finish the dress and be able to tell you about it. Actually it’s been even longer than that, because I bought the fabric and pattern last year, and I had to give myself a shove to get it done, otherwise my niece (the lucky recipient of the dress) would have outgrown the pattern size. I find sewing a little more tiring than knitting, and my health was the main factor in the delay.

I wanted to make a long-sleeved cotton Summer dress, because my niece has had eczema on her arms and needed long sleeves to stop her scratching. I had a A-line 60’s style dress in mind, and bought a vintage pattern online.

Pattern cover

Laying out and cutting the pattern

I found some gorgeous fabric, and thought it would be good to run the line of flowers down 4 panels and the sleeves of the dress. As the dress pattern was for 6 panels, that meant I had to slightly adapt the pattern: by folding the centre panel in half lengthways and pinning it on the fabric next to the side panel, and pulling it in slightly to reflect the waist shaping. I also wanted the flower lines to match each other at centre front and back, so I had to be careful how I laid out the dress patterns on the fabric. I had bought extra fabric to allow for this, and I didn’t follow the cutting layouts suggested on the pattern instructions. I based my design on style A. Pattern pieces should be laid with the marked arrows running in the same direction as the warp and weft of the fabric, i.e. parallel or at right angles to the straight uncut edge (selvedge).

Pinning out the pattern

Before I even pinned out the pattern pieces, I checked that the pattern piece measurements would fit the measurements I had been given for my niece: chest, waist, underarm length, dress length. I also allowed a little extra spare room for growing into, and (because flat cotton fabric does not stretch), to give ease of movement.

Marking the pieces

After cutting out all the required pieces:

Cut pieces

I marked the dots on the pattern with tailor tacks – great video instructions for this here. I snipped notches along the edges where the triangles occurred on the pattern. These markings align with the markings on corresponding pattern pieces, and ensure all the parts fit together correctly.

Notches

A Mistake!

At this point I realised I had made a horrible mistake! I had cut the sleeves out, two at the same time, through two layers of fabric, and although the flower pattern ran centrally down the sleeve of the top piece, the one underneath had the flower pattern off to one side. This would be really noticeable when it was made into the dress, a bit like mis-matching a large print wallpaper. Luckily, I had a bit of fabric left and I managed to find a bit that matched the pattern, and with a great deal of effort managed to sew it to one side of the sleeve, and I cut off the same amount from the other side of the sleeve, making the pattern more central. Not perfect, but acceptable. I was quite annoyed with myself. I guess it just shows how careful you need to be before you cut the fabric. Not too noticeable in the end:

Mistake rectified on sleeve

Sewing the main seams

I sewed up the panels of the dress, matching the notches, and did a zig zag stitch along the raw edges to stop them fraying. On the centre back seam, I measured and marked where the zip would fit, and sewed the seam from the neck in the largest stitch length, to the zip marker, changed to normal stitch length , and stitched forward and back to strengthen the seam at the zip end, then carried on sewing to the hem. I also sewed the sleeve underarm seam, the shoulders and the facing seams. I ironed all the seams flat, where I had  just sewn, to fix the stitching in, and opened the seams out and ironed them flat. It really helps to iron as you go along. I also ironed the iron-on interfacing to the under collar pieces, which I had chosen to do in white, as a contrast to the main fabric.

Putting in the zip

I pinned the zip along the centre back seam while it was inside out and flat on the ironing board. Then I turned it right-side out and carefully transferred the pins to the right-side. I put a pin across the base of the zip so I would know where to stop sewing. I used the zipper foot on the sewing machine to get the needle closer to the zipper teeth, aligning the needle left, as I sewed from the right shoulder neck edge, pulling out the pins as I got to them. When I reached the bottom pin, I left the needle in the work, lifted the foot and turned the work 90 degrees to sew across the base of the zip; I lowered the foot and turned the wheel by hand counting how many stitches there were to the centre seam, I then sewed the same number of stitches on the other side, so the sides matched.  I turned the work 90 degrees and sewed up the other side. I usually slide the zipper head down to start sewing the zip, and stop sewing when I reach it, I leave the needle in, lift the foot and slide the zipper head past the machine foot, and do the same up the other side of the zip; this stops the seam swerving around the zipper head. I then carefully unpicked the large centre stitches to the base of the zip, knotted the unpicked threads and hand sewed the ends out of sight.

Zip wrong side    Zip right side

Collar and Facing

I sewed the outer edges of the upper and lower parts of the collar together, pressed them, trimmed, and clipped the seams, turned them right side out and pressed them again. Trimming and clipping a curved seam takes out extra fabric bulk which will make the seam look lumpy. I top stitched the edges and ironed them again:

Collar pieces

You can see the black tailor tacks here, which mark where the collar should sit on the shoulder seam, and where the collar seam should be at the centre front, to ensure the collar does not look wonky. I pinned the collar onto the dress, with the facing on top of it. This can be hard to work out which side up the fabric should go – the collar sits as it should when finished right-side out, and the facing will fold back inside the dress, with the right-side of the facing towards the body.

Collar and facing

After sewing, I pressed, trimmed and clipped the seam, and pressed the facing to the inside. I pinned the facing to the trimmed seam and top-stitched around the neckline through the facing and the seam edge (not through to the front of the dress) to hold the facing down. I ironed it again.

Finishing facing

Fitting the sleeves

Sleeves can be a bit fiddly, especially in this small size. In this pattern, a short seam using a long stitch is sewed around the top of the sleeve, and gathered to help it fit into the arm hole. The best way to pin this is to have the dress inside out, and the sleeve right-side out. I put the sleeve inside the dress, and matched up the underarm seam, the notches and tailor tacks. It can look like the sleeve will not fit, but as the curved edges of the sleeves and underarms can be stretched slightly to fit together. This is how it should look pinned together:

Pinned in sleeve

As I sewed, I eased the sleeve edge, and stretched the armhole a little to make them fit. I put the pins in across the seam, so I could sew directly over them, which stopped everything sliding about while I was manoeuvring the fabric. It is a lot easier with a bigger armhole opening. The pattern also suggested I did a second reinforcing seam around the underarm; it was then trimmed, clipped and pressed open. This shows the clipped edges well:

Clipped seams

This is what you are not supposed to do – get a pucker in the sleeve:

Pucker

As I say, it’s a bit tricky, and as this is right under the arm and won’t be seen, I’m leaving it as it is.

The dress is completely constructed now – just finishing details left to do. The tailor tacks can now be safely removed from the dress.

Hems

I checked the length needed for the dress and sleeves, and measured and pressed up the hems to the length required.

Turning hem

I folded over about 1 cm around the dress hem to hide the raw edge,  but the sleeves ended on a selvedge edge, so wouldn’t fray, and did not need an extra fold over.

I pinned the dress hem up, matching the seams, and pinning at regular intervals. The dress flares out to the hem, so the hem edge is wider than the pinned level, so I made neat little pleats while hemming to accommodate the extra fabric.

Dress hem

Hemming should be nearly invisible from the right side, so I only picked up 1-2 threads from the back of the fabric as I stitched.

Single thread

Single thread picked up

Invisible hemming

Invisible hemming (right-side)

I used smaller closer stitches and double thread for the sleeve hem, as I did not want little fingers getting caught in the hem as they went through the sleeve:

Sleeve hem

Finishing touches

The pattern said to use French tacks to hold the collar points in place:

French tack

This is a couple of loose threads sewn between the two parts, and blanket stitch over these threads. It’s quite an old-fashioned thing to do, and it reminds me of the quality of the workmanship found in vintage clothes, so I had a go:

My French tack

I oversewed the edges of the facing seams to the shoulder seams, to keep the facing in place. I turned under the sides of the facing at the zip and neatly sewed them down. I then gave the dress a final press, and it’s ready for the Summer, although a little late…

Side facing hem

I then gave the dress a final press, and it’s ready for the Summer, although a little late…

Finished dress

I hope that some of the techniques and tips here are helpful if you are tackling a sewing project. I was very lucky to learn them from my Mum and Grandma.

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