Yes! You Can Sew a Dress!

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If you're just getting started with sewing, you might think that a dress is way out of your league. But that's not necessarily so. A dress is actually a great beginner project, as long as you choose a simple style and easy-to-work-with fabric (more on that in a minute!).

As with any larger project, the key to making it manageable is to break it down into bite-size pieces or, in the case of a dress, components. Each component requires a series of steps to complete. Once you knock off one component, you're ready to move on to the next. And so on ... until, before you know it, you've got yourself a custom-fit, seriously cute new dress!

1. Select Your Pattern and Fabric

For this tutorial, I'm making  a simple shift dress — an awesome choice for beginners. Get a pattern you like online or at your local sewing store.

As for fabric, your pattern will give you a list of suggestions. Stick to it! These fabrics will have properties (like weight, stress and drape) that will work best with the design.

2. Prep Your Pattern

Open your pattern and identify all the pieces you'll be using. For a simple shift dress, that might include the dress front, dress back, front and back neck facings and armhole facings or sleeves.

Give the tissue-paper pattern pieces a quick dry pressing to remove all the wrinkles and make sure they lay flat on your fabric, then neatly set them aside.

3. Prep and Cut Your Fabric

Prep the Fabric

Press your fabric to remove any wrinkles, then lay it out on your work space, following the pattern instructions. Keep in mind, you may need to fold the fabric in half.

Place the Pattern Pieces

Place the pattern pieces on the fabric, per the pattern instructions. Always remember to line up the pieces along the grain line of the fabric.

Don't forget about directionality: If your fabric has a directional print, such as flowers with stems, make sure to lay out the pieces so that all the flowers are facing the same direction.

Pin the pieces to your fabric, then cut!

The 411 on Facing

Your pattern may also include facings. Facing is applied to the garment's inside edge to add strength and give the piece a polished look. A sleeveless dress likely includes facings for the neck and armholes, either all in one piece or separate pieces for the front and back.

Facings typically require interfacing, a material used to give additional strength, support or shape to the garment. It's not intended to be visible in the finished piece but is either sewn or fused to the wrong side of a fabric. Your pattern instructions will indicate which pieces need to be interfaced. You can cut out the interfacing separately, and then fuse or sew it onto the facing pieces, or you can do it before the cutting-out process (know as block fusing)

In the photo above, I used a small piece of the dress fabric, then cut a similar sized piece of interfacing, which I then fused to the wrong side of the fabric. I then folded the now-interfaced dress fabric in half and cut the facing pieces.

Again, always remember to line up the pieces along the grain line, watching for pieces cut on the fold as indicated on the pattern pieces.

4. Mark and Sew Darts

Your pattern will likely have a few darts. Mine only has bust darts to provide some shaping. Transfer the pattern markings to your cut-out fabric. Darts are indicated by dots in a long triangular shape. Then fold and stitch from the fabric edge to the point. Press the fold downward.

5. Sew the Back Zipper

Pro tip: If your dress includes a back zipper, sew it on now, before the front and back of your dress are sewn together. It's easier!

You can put in a zipper in a variety of ways. In the example above, I used a lapped zipper application, which can be done by hand or machine, and discreetly hides it from view under a flap.

6. Sew the Shoulder Seams

Your dress front and back are ready to be sewn together at the shoulder. Check your pattern instructions for the indicated seam allowance (in most cases it's ⅝ inch), then stitch them together and press the seams open.

A note about V-necks: If your pattern has a V-neckline (or if you're working with a loosely woven fabric like linen or double gauze) , it's a good idea to add a row of stitching just inside the edges of the neckline on both the front and back (known as stay stitching). This ensures the neckline will keep its shape and won't stretch out.

7. Prep the Neckline Facing

Time to start on the facings. If you have not already done so, apply the interfacing to the front and back neckline facings.

Stitch the back neck facings to the front neck facing at the shoulder seams. Most likely, you'll have one continuous piece for the front facing and two pieces on the back to accommodate the zipper.

Press the shoulder seams open, then finish the outside edge of the facing by turning it under and stitching or using a serger .

8. Attach the Neck Facings

Pin the neckline facing to the dress neckline, right sides together. Match the shoulder seams of the dress with the shoulder seams on the facing pieces.

Note that at the center back, the facing will stick out past the dress edge. That's because the zipper already used up the ⅝-inch seam allowance, but the facing still has it. Don't trim it off or try to get the center back edges to match! This will get solved later, when the ⅝-inch seam allowance on the facing will be folded to create a clean finish at the top of the zipper. 

Stitch the dress neckline facing in place.

Because this is a curved seam, you'll need to make small snips around the seam allowance so it can easily turn inside the garment. Make these small cuts perpendicular to the stitching, ending close to the stitch line — but not through it!

The neckline shown above is fairly small and curved, so it needs snips every 1 inch to 2 inches. Yours may need more or less.

Fold the facing toward the inside of the dress. If you see any areas that don't want to turn or don't sit well, add another clip to release the fabric in that area.

Trim the seam down to about ¼ inch. This will reduce bulk in the neckline.

If you prefer, you can first trim to ¼ inch and then do the perpendicular clipping. However, I find it difficult to clip such a small seam allowance, so I do the clipping first and trim second.

9. Press and Understitch the Neck Facing

Press the neckline facing up and away from the body of the dress. Make sure that the seam allowance also stays up and doesn't get flipped down toward the body of the dress. 

Once the facing is pressed upward, you'll want to add a row of stitching around the neck edge (called understitching) to help the facing roll slightly inward. This keeps the facing edge smooth and inside the garment.

Once the neck facing is understitched, flip it to the inside of the dress and press around the neckline edge to create a smooth finish. 

10. Sew the Side Seams

Sew the side seams of the dress, matching notches along the seam. Remember to follow the seam allowance your pattern indicates. 

Press the side seams open.

11. Prep the Armhole Facings

The armhole facings are prepped in a similar fashion to the neck facings. My pattern happens to have a two-piece armhole facing, so the front and back pieces must be sewn together.

Note that the back armhole facing has a double notch and the front has a single notch. These pattern markings are common in most patterns, especially on sleeves and armhole facings. They help you distinguish between the front and back pieces.

Stitch the two facing pieces together as shown above, aligning it at the shoulder and underarm seams. Press the seams open and then finish the edges by turning them under and stitching or using the serger.

12. Attach the Armhole Facings

Pin the armhole facings to the armhole, matching front and back notches as well as the shoulder and underarm seams. Stitch the facing to the armhole. Repeat for the second armhole.

As you did with the neck facing, clip and trim both armhole seams to reduce bulk and allow the facings to turn to the inside of the garment. 

Understitch both armhole facings. Unlike the neck facing (which intersects with the zipper), you can understitch completely around the armhole. Press the facing toward the inside of the dress.

13. Finish the Back Neckline

To create a clean finish at the top of the zipper, flip the facing end around the top of the zipper and stitch through all layers, following the line of the previous stitching. Trim the corner diagonally on both sides. Here, I've used a contrasting blue thread to make the stitching more visible. 

Flip the facings back to the inside and push the corner out to make a crisp edge. Press the facing down.

Then stitch a few hand stitches along the edge of the facing where it meets the zipper tape. Since I used a lapped zipper, I tacked the facing edges on either side of the tape.

14. Secure the Facing Edges

If you're not a fan of facings because of their tendency to flip outside the garment, try the "stitch in the ditch" trick: Simply tack those facings down by stitching through the outside of the garment along an existing seam line. The extra stitching will be hidden.

For my dress, I stitched across each shoulder seam and at the side seams to secure both the neck and armhole facings. 

15. Hem the Dress

You're almost done! It's time to hem your dress . You can do this by hand, which creates a hidden hem, or by machine, which is quicker but leaves a visible hem.

For my cotton dress, I went the quicker route, since a machine-stitched hem is hard to detect on a boldly printed fabric like this. 
 
Ta da! You did it! A cute shift dress ready for a warm, sunny day. 

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Yes! You Can Sew a Dress!