Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tee-shirt dress tutorial.

The project for my sewing class last weekend was a tee-shirt dress. These are very simple and inexpensive to make, and sew up quickly once you get the hang of it.
Warning - this post will seem LONG - but it's mostly because of all the pictures.
All you need is a t-shirt, coordinating fabric, and matching thread.
I made three dresses so I could have them in different stages for the class. I snapped pics as I remembered, so you'll see parts of all of them.
To start, have the person you're making it for try on the shirt, using a pin to mark a point slightly higher than the person's natural waist.
Then use a sewing gauge to mark a line on the shirt, slightly lower than your pin to allow for the seam.
I think this one was 5/8", but anywhere from 1/2"-3/4" will do fine.
Draw the line all the way across and cut the excess off the bottom.
For older girls or women you can't cut the shirt straight across the front; you must make allowances for the bust. You'll need to draw a line that drops as it goes toward the middle of the front of the dress, similar to the way the front of the bodice in this pattern dips down as it goes toward the center. How much you need to go down depends on the size of the bust. While having the person wear the shirt, mark a point near, but slightly to one side of the front and then again at a point on the side that is visually along a straight line. Once the shirt is taken off you should be able to see how much you'll have to adjust for the bust. If this isn't done, the dress will ride up in the front.
Once the shirt is cut, you need to make little darts in the sides of the shirt.
Since tees are stretchy, they tend to flare out a bit once the skirt is sewn on, making the waist appear baggy. The darts in the side will help keep this to a minimun.
Put your shirt on the machine with the cut edges first, sewing toward and ending your dart in the seam. If you start in the seam you're apt to end up with one side slightly longer than the other.
The finished dart should look like this.
Clicking on any picture should enlarge it if necessary.

Now the shirt is done and we'll move on to the skirt.
To decide how much fabric you'll need, you will have to measure the person from where you put the pin in the shirt to however long the person wants the dress to be, and then add at least a couple of inches for seam and hem allowances. Two yards is a good rule of thumb for most people if you're using a 44" fabric. Very small girls can get away with one yard.
You'll cut two panels, one front and one back, making sure they are both going the same direction if you have a one-way print. Both panels can be the same size. For very small girls you can cut one panel. You can also do this for extra wide (60") fabric, at least up to about size 10/12 (child's).
After you've cut the panel(s) the proper length, you need to cut off the selvage edge. How much you cut off depends on the person. For older girls or women, or if you're only making one panel for a very young/small girl, you can just cut off the selvage. For other girls you can cut off a few inches in addition to the selvage to keep from having too much excess in the skirt. I cut about 3"-4" off the sides for T.Lynn's skirt panels. She's about a size 10 (but that's really just for height/length).
Next, put the skirt panels right sides together and sew down the side seams.
For one panel, fold in half with the right sides together, and sew the side seam.
I used a 1/2" seam allowance.
Finish the edge - you can do this by zig-zaging over the edge (basically an overcast stitch), or for cottons, you can use pinking shears to trim the seam allowance. Of course, if you used pinking shears to cut them out, you wouldn't have to do anything else. If you used a lightweight denim, you must use an overcast stitch on the edge to finish it or it will fray, no matter what you used to cut it.
Press open your seam (if it was pinked), or press it to one side if you stitched over the edge.
Now we need to run a gathering stitch across the top of the front and back panels.
To do this you just pull your top thread out to a length that is equal to the width of the panel, plus a few inches. Starting at one side seam, line the edge of your fabric up with the side of your presser foot and center the top thread under the presser foot, pulling it toward you. Set your machine on a wide zig-zag stitch. Make a couple of stitches and then back stitch over those to lock the stitches in place. Proceed to stitch forward, keeping your top thread in the middle of the zig-zag stitch. Do not catch your top thread with the needle or you will not be able to pull it to form the gathers. When you get to the end (the other side seam), back stitch a couple of stitches to lock that side in place. You will want to run gathers for the front and back separately.
Lightweight fabric may tunnel when you use the zig-zag stitch, but this won't prevent it from gathering. If you have a lot of problems with it, starching the top edge may help keep it from tunneling quite so much.
This is what is should look like once you're finished, with the top thread under the top zig-zag.
Time to attach the skirt to the shirt.
You'll place the shirt in the skirt, right sides together.
The skirt is inside out and the shirt is right side out. Pin at the sides and the centers, making sure to pin the dart to one side.
Then you'll pull the gathering thread to form the gathers, pinning the gathers to the shirt.
You see how, ahem, "smart" I was to take a picture of light colored thread with a white sewing machine behind it? Thank you Ri for editing the pic so you can see where the thread should be.
After your gathers are all pinned in place around the shirt, sew the two together. I used a 1/2" seam, but 5/8" or even 3/4" may be a better choice. You'll see why in a minute.
While you're sewing, be sure to pick up the dress from time to time to make certain the shirt is not folding up under the presser foot. The t-shirt material tends to do that quite often, so keep an eye on it.
If not, this is what happens. And no, I did not do it just for the effect. I wasn't watching closely enough.
If this does happen, just pick out the few stitches that got caught and sew that spot back together properly. I saw this happen while it was on the machine, but it's much easier to just push the fabric back out of the way, keep on sewing and go back and fix it later than to try and take it off in the middle and then put it back on the machine. You're much more likely to get stabbed by a needle if you try to stop in the middle.
Once you've sewn the shirt and skirt together, set your machine to a wide zig-zag and overcast the edge.
Remember to watch for folds in your shirt while you do this too.
You can see the overcast stitches right above the zig-zag that formed the gathers. The seam stitching is just below the gathering stitches.
Next, press your seam allowance toward the bodice of the dress.
This is a good time to make double sure the dart was sewn into the seam.
Pin the seam allowance in place and top stitch on the right side of the shirt. It's easiest to just line up the edge of the shirt with the side of the presser foot. This will hold the seam allowance in place and keep it from doing that hulla-hoop thing (as I heard it referred to this weekend). In other words, the seam allowance tends to pull down and poke out if not sewn in place.
You're almost done!
Fold the bottom edge of the skirt up twice and iron it in place to form the bottom hem.
It's a good idea to have the wearer try it on before you hem it. That way you know just how much you want to take it up.
Stitch in place, as close as possible to the top edge of the fold.
This will keep little toes from getting caught in, and ripping out the hem.
No, I do not blind hem stitch any hem on children's clothing (and very seldom on adult clothing).
It's a total waste of time, unless you just like to mend hems.

Every great once in awhile you'll run across a t-shirt that will just give you a fit. Usually this is because they stretch out more than most other tees. If that happens your dress will bag at the waist even if you put the darts in. There is a fix to that problem, and it lies with adding elastic to the waist of the dress.
The white tee I bought for T.Lynn was like this. Here is my fix:
While I was sewing the shirt to the skirt I noticed the shirt's tendancy to stretch way out of place - it's part of why a fold was caught in the waist seam. It just stretched and folded way more than most shirts will. As a result of noticing this shirt's propensity for distortion, I actually sewed the top stitch just a bit further away from the bottom edge of the shirt. Remember me telling you a wider seam allowance may be better? Yeah, this is why - if I had used a wider seam allowance, I could have made this top stitch even further from the bottom of the shirt, giving me an even easier way to put the elastic in. But alas, it was not to be. You could do it much better though if you do as I say, and not as I do.
At any rate, sew your top seam almost all the way around the shirt.
You want to leave and inch or so unsewn, because by top stitching the seam allowance in place, you've basically formed a casing through which you can insert some elastic.
I would suggest leaving one of the sides open, right over one of the darts and then run the elastic through so that it will be running in the same direction as the other dart. That way the pin won't get caught on the opposite dart and you can see to get it over the one you've left open. 
I used 1/4" elastic because I didn't really have much room to work with, unless I wanted to take apart the dress and redo the whole waist - I didn't.
Once you've run the elastic around, stitch the ends together and tuck it into the casing. Turn the dress back over to the right side and finish top stitching that last little section.
All done. She wanted it extra long because she said the print on the skirt looked like an old fashioned dress.
This dress gave me a fit. In addition to the extra stretchy top (which, admittedly wouldn't have been as much of a problem if I had made a larger seam allowance to begin with), I managed to pop the safety pin open while it was in the casing and I twisted the elastic when I went to sew the ends together. At least I caught that mistake before I finished the top stitching. :D
Some days you just gotta roll with the punches.
"Hey Mom - the flash is blinding me!!"
Feel free to personalize them any way you want.
I added an applique* (made from the skirt material) and some embroidery* to this tee to mimic part of the pattern in the skirt. You could add some ribbon, or sew on a few buttons to dress up a plain tee, but they look just fine plain too.
*You must use a couple of layers of tear/wash away stabilizer in order to applique or embroider on knit.
The embroidery on this lightweight denim matches the colors in the shirt. I couldn't resist it when Ri spotted it in the fabric store. I would only suggest using denim if the denim is very lightweight and the tee shirt is a fairly thick knit.
Can you tell she just likes her dresses long in general?
The extra fabric from the bottom of the tees, or from the skirt material make up cute little scrunchies.

With tees bought at consignment stores, Goodwill, or the clearance rack of a department store, and fabric purchased while it is on sale, it's very easy to make these dresses inexpensively.
post signature


  1. I'm not a sewer but I love the end product of your class. Great little dresses.

  2. So cute, I will have yo give it a try. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!