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dressmaking without a pattern (cheat to win)

I have a problem with patterns. Clothing patterns specifically. And I blame the people who make said patterns for this. Because when all is said and done and I’m sitting on the floor, hunched over, fingers sore from ripping out thousands of stitches, with a dress that is somehow two sizes too large despite having measured myself, the pattern, and (just for practice) half the household furniture three times, my world is already unraveling, and blaming myself for this entire debacle would simply add to the devastation. So I direct my anger outward at those faceless pattern creators who have crushed my fashionable hopes and dreams.

My mom has told me that clothing patterns nearly always fit at least two sizes to large, but even when I size them down they remain too big. Which is outrageous considering that these are not abstract small, medium, large sizes, they’re sizes that come with specific measurements! Even I could do better at sizing! I, who failed 11th grade math! Honestly, I’m pretty sure a demented iguana could make more sensible patterns.

The other trouble is that I’m often not sure just where things got messed up. Because all the steps are in a strange sewing gobbledygook that I just barely managed to slog through in the first place, I’m often not certain what any particular step was meant to accomplish. On the flip side, when one simply makes it up as one goes, it’s a lot easier to figure out where one went wrong. At least you know what you meant to accomplish by sewing those two pieces together, and if it didn’t work you know you’ll have to take them apart and try something different. I’m okay with blaming myself for failure if I at least feel some semblance of control in the first place.

I could have persevered and learned how to deal with patterns. Instead, I chose to stubbornly go on not understanding them. And guess what I’ve discovered? To make a cute dress, you DO NOT need a pattern. So there! Take that, Butterick and McCall’s and Vogue! All you really need is creativity, a bit of daring and a good looooooong look at some of the clothes in your closet and how they fit together. Plus a general mad scientist stitch-this-bit-to-that-bit-till-it-fits attitude.

I’ve talked before about t-shirt dresses and modifications, and this week I’m going to give you the most simple possible way to cheat at dressmaking. Start here, then add other details as you go along.

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What you’ll need:

  • a dress you already own that fits you well (or a skirt, or a top, depending on what you want to make)
  • a large t-shirt or just a big plain piece of fabric - I’d use jersey cotton or something else with stretch, because it will adjust to fit you better with fewer tucks and alterations, and you can often avoid having to put things like zippers or buttons in.
  • thread to match the shirt/fabric
  • fabric scissors
  • straight pins
  • sewing machine
  • pen or pencil or (especially if your fabric is a dark colour) a white crayon
  • seam ripper - really, you should always have this handy for any sewing project. You will almost always need it at some point, even if you’re a fairly accomplished sewer.

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Putting it all together:

1) Select a simple dress or shirt or skirt that fits you well. This will be your only pattern. Ideally, you want something sleeveless. Even if you want sleeves on the dress you’re making, you’ll need to start sleeveless and add sleeves on once the rest of the dress is sewn. For the moment, we’ll be looking at sleeveless dresses. I’ll explain refitting and reattaching sleeves (not actually particularly complicated, I promise) in a future tutorial.

2) Turn the t-shirt you want to make into a dress inside out. Then fold it in half. (Note that I did not turn the shirt in the photo below inside out first. Ignore the picture. Turn the shirt inside out. Sometimes I’m a bad example.)

OR, if you are using unsewn fabric:

Double up the fabric so there are two layers lying flat, one on top of the other, with right sides together. Then fold the double-layered fabric in half.

3) Fold the already-made, fits-you-well garment in half, and lay it on top of the folded t-shirt, making sure that they match up along their folded edges. If you are using a t-shirt, not raw fabric, you may also want to make sure the top of the two garments match up at the shoulders.

4) Cut around the pre-made garment, leaving about 1/2 an inch of extra fabric around the edges. (for seam allowance). You can cut the neckline out now, or ignore it – we’ll deal with it later. If you cut it out now, you’ll most likely have to come back to it later anyway, since at the moment you’ll only be able to cut around the higher line at the back of the dress.

[Note: If you still want the safety of a pattern (it’s a bit easier to cut the fabric neatly with a pattern pinned right on top of it, you’d get the chance to look at the pattern before cutting up your fabric, to make sure all the pattern lines looked right and even and so on), you can still use this method of tracing an existing garment. Just trace it onto folded-over paper first. Cut that out, and you have a pattern that took you almost no time or thought (and certainly no obnoxious measuring or mathing) to make, and you can use that to construct a new garment.]

If you’re starting with a large t-shirt and making that into a dress, you’ll use its bottom hem as the bottom hem of your dress.

Other things:

  1. If you want to make a dress with separate bodice and skirt pieces, when you get to the bottom of the bodice on the already-made dress, simply fold that dress down out of the way and cut straight across the fabric beneath. Then unfold the already-made dress again, inch it down a little to give yourself some extra fabric for seam allowance between bodice and skirt, and finish cutting along the dress’ edge to get your skirt piece.

  2. To make a dress with a waistband, do the same thing as above, then cut yourself a separate strip of fabric for the waistband. You’ll attach the bodice to one edge of the waistband, and the skirt to the other.
  3. To make a gathered skirt, do the same as in step 1. above for the bodice. For the skirt, start cutting the top edge of the skirt a ways out from your already-made dress, making that top edge much wider than it needs to be, and the slant from skirt top to skirt bottom much steeper. Then, when you attach the skirt to the bodice, you’ll make some folds when you pin the two pieces together, and sewing over those folds will give your skirt nice little gathers.

5) Remove the already-made dress and put it away. Unfold the fabric beneath and pin the two pieces together along the sides and at the shoulders (if the shoulders are not already attached, which they will be if you used a t-shirt and matched the shoulders up with the shoulders of the already-made dress you used as a pattern).
6) Stitch the sides and shoulders (if needed) of the dress together. If you’re doing a bodice plus skirt dress, you’ll sew the sides (and possibly shoulders) of the bodice together, sew the sides of the skirt together, and then attach the two as follows in step 6.5:
6.5) For a bodice plus skirt dress, once both pieces are attached front and back, keep the skirt inside out and turn the bodice right side out. Now turn the bodice upside down and push it inside the skirt, so that the raw edge at the bottom of the bodice matches up with the raw edge at the top of the skirt. Pin those two raw edges together all the way around, matching them up at the sideseams. Then sew them together. If your machine gives you the option, you’ll want to use a stretch stitch so that the dress has some give to help with getting it on and off.
7) Now, assuming that you don’t want to keep that t-shirt neckline or whatever else is there, you’ll need to cut a new one. Start by laying your dress out flat, right side out. Notice how the cloth of the dress is, essentially, folded in half right now. The back and front of the dress make a double layer of fabric lying on the table.
Fold the dress “in half” in this same manner, but so that the folds run down the middle of the front and the middle of the back. The sleeves should be in about the middle of either side of the shirt. (Yours will of course be a dress by this point, and will not have sleeves as in the photo below.)
Pin both sides of the shirt together at the shoulder, in two or three places along the shirt’s collar, under the arm and in two or three places along the fold on the shirt’s front (where you see white circles in the photo above). Draw a curving line from the front fold of the shirt to the shoulder, and from there to the back fold of the shirt. Keep in mind that you’ll end up with a much lower, much wider opening than you’d think, looking at it this way, and don’t make the line too far down. You can always cut more off if you need to.
Cut along the line.
You can use this method to cut any shape of neckline you like. The one in these photos is a bit squared, you can do one that’s nice and round, one that scoops down further in the back or front, one that goes out more towards the shoulders, etc.
8) You now have a basic dress. If you don’t have an existing hem at the bottom from using a t-shirt, you’ll want to fold up the raw edge and stitch it in place to hem the dress. You can also add darts under the bust, under the arms or in the back to make things a bit more fitted.
You’ll also want to finish off the neckline and arm openings. You can do this by folding the fabric under all the way around the opening, pinning it, and stitching it in place. For a neater finish, follow steps 9-14 of this tutorial to use bias binding to put a nice edge around the openings.

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Notes and Tips:
    1. If you’re using a t-shirt, and you need to shorten it, you’ll simply fold the bottom up and stitch it in place, or you’ll cut a the desired amount of fabric off, then fold the bottom up and stitch it in place to create a new hem.

 

  • To lengthen a t-shirt dress, one trick is to cut two long rectangles of fabric that are much wider than the bottom of your dress. Stitch their short ends together. Hem one edge of the resulting piece, and attach the other to the bottom of the dress, making little pleats as you go to make it fit with the width of the dress. That’s how I lengthened the Tardis dress below.
  • To make a fully lined dress, you’ll simply need another t-shirt or fabric piece of equal size. Trace the outer dress, cutting an exact copy of it from the second shirt or fabric piece. Then follow steps 7-14 of this tutorial.

 

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37 Comments

  1. You may have failed at grade 11 math, but you win at intelligence (and cute dresses)! Thanks for the post :)

    Reply
  2. King Kool

     /  September 23, 2011

    I see you were still able to use that Tucson shirt. Nice.

    Funnily enough, one of the first elaborate sewing projects I ever did was making a vest for a Halloween costume by tracing a different vest over it. At the time, I couldn’t believe it worked.

    Reply
  3. Sapphire Ocean

     /  September 24, 2011

    I’m going to try to make a TARDIS dress for my friend’s birthday. Thank you for the instructions! :)

    Reply
  4. Krystle

     /  October 10, 2011

    I love this! I can not read patterns at all and I end up with things that are too small… I’m going to use my own fitting clothes for patterns for now on. Plus patterns are really expensive so this is a great money saver :)

    Reply
  5. Charlene

     /  May 16, 2012

    i love this idea

    Reply
  6. Isla

     /  June 18, 2012

    Please help, ive kinda made the dress but my edges keep curling and are horrendous, i dont know what to do to stop that, should i just make a bigger seam? watched loads of tutorials on bias binding too and its just not cliicking. my edges are a disaster!

    Reply
    • Tally

       /  June 20, 2012

      Edges are usually the trickiest thing with t-shirting and jersey fabric, since they curl up like you’re describing. Making the hems bigger may help – it’s easier to control a wider piece of seam than a very narrow one. You also might have some luck with the hemming method I used in my skirt-shortening tutorial: http://tallystreasury.com/2012/05/shortening-skirts-re-hemming-skirts-salvaging-screw-ups/ (Skip to the bottom third of the post, where you see the heading “Putting a new hem on a shortened skirt.”) It involves sewing ribbon along the raw edges of your material, which stabilizes and makes it much easier to fold up and sew into a neat hem. You can do this on bottom hems, or for neck and arm hole hems. It’s a little bit like using bias binding, but less finicky. I’ve had some troubles with bias binding myself.

      I hope this is helpful!

      Reply
  7. Lisa

     /  June 22, 2012

    Excellent article. Thank you!!!

    Reply
  8. Love your writing and attitude. The pieces look fab, thanks for sharing the full tutorial. I usually buy thrift store knits to upcycle for my kids, but reading your post reminded me that I can turn them into stuff for me, too. ;)
    I saw the other reader having trouble with the hem and wanted to throw in my 2 cents: I used to have tons of trouble stitching visible seams in knit fabric…it NEVER looked good: stretched out, wavy, sometimes chewed by the machine. Until I got a walking foot for my machine. It works wonders, paired that with a double needle and I’m not ashamed of my hems anymore.
    Best,
    Elisana

    Reply
    • Tally

       /  August 5, 2012

      Thanks for the tip! I haven’t tried using a walking foot myself, but it sounds super handy. I’ll have to give that a shot too!

      Reply
  9. ARISHMA GOSAI

     /  October 12, 2012

    I LIKE THE IDEA.IAM GOIN TO TRY IT FOR MY SELF.ALSO SECOND HAND LARGE T-SHIRTS CAN BE MODIFIED.

    Reply
  10. LornaCari

     /  October 23, 2012

    Thankyou so much for this;D i’m making a prom dress for my sister, and i was stuck with the patterns, so i’ll try this for practices and hope for the best:’) thanks,<3

    Reply
    • Tally

       /  October 27, 2012

      You’re welcome Lorna! I hope it helps with the prom dress. Good luck!! :)

      Reply
  11. marie

     /  January 12, 2013

    Could you send me ,how i make a dress with my email? thanks !

    Reply
  12. Thank you so much! I can crochet and knit. I can make rag rugs. I have a gorgeous Janome and I can quilt and do blankets. But I have never EVER been able to follow a pattern or make clothes. I am dying to make a flannel jumper or a nightgown or a simple sleeveless sundress. I have now found a way to do that. These directions will help me complete my bucket list ! I have never taken a class, and havent worked with buttons, zippers or snaps nor made “to wear” items because patterns just turn me off…just as you said in the article. I have tried!! And always failed. I have printed these instruction out. You are a godsend. Cant wait to get started. Have been trying to make a dress from one of my old ones but have been unable to do that right too so this will work great!

    Reply
  13. Jennifer

     /  March 9, 2013

    Awesome!! I cannot read a pattern to save my life but the urge to create something with fabric has driven me to now have a pile of lovely material I know not what to do with…I am excited to try this method!

    Reply
  14. Oh my! So glad I stumbled upon this!! Sooo cute! You are super talented these dresses look FAB! I do the same when making pants, dresses etc for my daughter… find it easier than a pattern! :)

    Reply
  15. Bloody brilliant. Made me chuckle. What a great read and some perfect dresses, minus the pattern!
    Thank you for this post, you have inspired me to continue and ignore all patterns…

    Reply
  16. Pam

     /  April 13, 2013

    Can you please tell me how to cut a skirt with a circle from the knee to ankle. I want this to slant as I am making it with lycra. I know how to cut a straight circle to edge the skirt but this one I want it slanted at the knee and straight cut at the hem but it must give a circle effect from the knee downwards toward the ankle. I hope u understand.

    Reply
  17. Natalie Geraci

     /  July 10, 2013

    What kinds of fabric do you suggest to use to lengthen the t-shirt dresses? My huband has a box of old 3x shirts and I found 2 or 3 I liked to use this tutorial on. However, they are shorter than I’d prefer. Normally, I wear maxi dresses but am trying for more of the above the knee type, like the ones you’ve shown here (specifically the pleated one). I have never done pleats. In honest, the last time I attempted a garment was over 10 years ago and hubby bought me a sewing maching to play with so I want to naturally.

    Reply
    • Tally

       /  July 15, 2013

      For a lengthening few inches of ruffly or otherwise decorative hem on the bottom, you’re pretty safe using whatever you have around that’s the right colour/pattern/etc. If you’re putting a panel in at the waist or somewhere like that, you’ll definitely want to use a stretch cotton similar to the t-shirt fabric. But at the bottom of the dress, you could totally add a few inches on in some other fabric.

      Best of luck with your sewing experiments! :)

      Reply
  18. I ran into your blog by accident, and I’m so glad that I did! You have so many great sewing ideas! I love the way that you write and I want to try one of these. I like longer dresses, but that is easily customizable. Yay! :)

    Reply
    • Tally

       /  September 12, 2013

      Hooray! Thanks for stopping by! I’m super stoked to hear that you like the blog. :)

      Reply
  19. i love love love it…!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  20. I really enjoyed your posts and liked the model photos too! I would like to see more sewing with non stretch fabrics if you do any projects like this – thank you :-)

    Reply
  21. whoah this blog is wonderful i love reading your posts. Keep
    up the great work! You know, a lot of people
    are searching around for this info, you can help them greatly.

    Reply
  22. This paragraph offers clear idea in support of the new visitors of
    blogging, that actually how to do running a blog.

    Reply
  23. I like to take a picture of a old dress to make a new one. I like this dress to much.

    Reply
  24. One trick I like to use so that I get a professional looking hem without spending the time to do it myself is to cut the bottom of a t-shirt or other knit 1/2 and inch above the stitching along the hem, then sew that to the bottom of my new dress. If you make the new seam just above the old hem’s stitching it won’t be noticeable at all.

    Reply
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