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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.


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.


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.


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.



Leave a comment


  1. Lynn

     /  August 19, 2018

    I’m way late to this party, but as a seamstress with 50+ years of experience, I totally agree. Pattern makers have lost their minds! The measurements are worthless and do not match the pattern.

    For example, I just bought a pattern and got the smaller range of sizes (6-14)…I wear a street size 8. Thank God I measured the pattern before I started. The size 14 pattern would have been TOO SMALL, and was not even close to the measurements on the pattern envelope! The size 8 pattern might have fit a 10 year old.

    So I’m with you, no more patterns for me. I’m making a Great Gatsby style dress for a theme wedding and will be doing it all on my own!

  2. Freda Morrissey

     /  February 15, 2019


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