Introduction: Turn 3 Silk Scarves and 3 Seams Into a 1920s Style Handkerchief Dress

About: Sculptor and maker-of-things. See my work at and new updates more frequently on instagram @jdalva ( also my Etsy shop:

Need a last-minute costume? All you need is three square scarves and basic sewing skills and you can have yourself a lovely (and fairly historically accurate) 1920s style dress in an easy afternoon! Add some gloves, a long strand of pearls and a feather or two for your hair, and it's flapper time!

This design was inspired by Madeleine Vionnet, a French fashion designer who introduced the concept of the bias cut (cutting fabric diagonally across the weave rather than straight horizontally or vertically) in the 1920s. Her loose, flowing, Grecian-inspired dresses took a lot of their beauty from the natural drape of the fabric, which you can mimic here starting with a very simple pattern. She introduced a simple, handkerchief design that was sold as a pattern by McCalls in the 20s.

I used three 35" square Crepe de Chine silk scarves from Dharma Trading Company, which you can buy here:

They have a wide variety of options- silks, cottons, even cut velvet scarves, and they are all easy to dye, high quality fabrics. These scarves are great because they already have finished edges, so your work is only to connect them.

Another option is to find 3 printed scarves, vintage or new, and make a patterned dress. Just be sure that all three scarves are the same dimensions and square. This dress design can be customized for many different body types, and another scarf can be added in order to increase the size or add additional fullness to the bottom of the dress. I chose to use 3 scarves partially to cut down on cost, but also because I preferred the more racer-back style rather than four even straps over the shoulders. You could also get small scarves to make an adorable dress for a child or doll!

Step 1: Materials Needed

You will need:

  • 3 or 4 silk or lightweight fabric scarves, square. I used 35" square Crepe de Chine scarves from Dharma Trading Co.
  • matching thread (if you are going to be dyeing your dress after you sew it together, make sure it's dye-able as well- I did not double check, and now have a dark blue dress with white thread. Oops!)
  • sewing machine
  • pins
  • needle for hand-sewing
  • ruler or straight edge
  • pencil or dressmaker's chalk
  • scissors
  • straps, ribbon, or cord
  • iron

Optional, but helpful:

  • dress form
  • fabric measuring tape
  • fabric dye
  • steamer

Step one is to take your scarves out of any packaging they are in, and steam or iron them using the proper silk settings, making sure to get out all creases and wrinkles to prevent irregularities in the seams.

Step 2: Determining the Neckline

This is where having (or borrowing, in my case) a dress form is very handy. You want to figure out where you'd like your dress's neckline to be. Take the corner of one scarf (scarf A), pin at the neck or shoulder (corner #1), and then pin at the center of the chest. Take the second scarf(scarf B), in the same way, and pin to the other side, connecting the two in the center.

  • These crepe de chine scarves have a glossy side and a matte side, and I chose to have the matte side out for the majority of the dress. There is going to be sections (the corners of the squares) of the dress that can either be turned to the inside and cut off, to make a simpler, smoother silhouette, or left to the outside to create extra movement and draping options. I will show examples of both options.

Step 3: Seam #1

Now to sew!

Take Scarf A and Scarf B and lay them on your work table or floor.

You will have either pinned your scarf in the center where they met in step 1, or you can measure the distance from the top corner of the scarves to where you'd like them to join in the center. Starting at that pin, take your ruler and lay it across the scarves, making a triangle to a pin at about 9" from corner #2. This will be your center seam down the front of your dress. Draw a line along your ruler with your pencil or dressmaker's chalk, then pin the two scarves, same sides together, carefully along that line.

Sew a seam down the pencil mark, using a straight stitch. Be sure to backstitch at the start and end of your seam to anchor your threads. Now you have the center seam of your dress, which will be at the front!

Step 4: Seam #2 - Side Seam

Now you will sew the first side seam, basically doing the same thing you did before, adding Scarf C to your first two scarves. You want to measure how low you want the arm hole to be (mine was about 9" or 10") and mark that distance from Corner #1 of Scarf C with your pencil. Then, the same way as before, lay Scarf A and Scarf C together, same sides facing each other. Draw a line to make a triangle that connects the mark you just made to another mark, again, about 9" from corner #2 of the scarves. Pin along this line, then sew, as before. Now you have three scarves, joined by two seams, and you will begin to see the shape your dress is taking- it will become a tube with three sides, with all three Corner #1's point up.

Step 5: Seam #3 - Second Side Seam

Now you are ready to sew Scarf C to Scarf B and complete the tube. You can also add a fourth scarf here, repeating the same method as before- the next seam if you are adding a fourth scarf will lay down the center back of the dress. Then you will need to sew one more seam to connect Scarf D to Scarf B. Measure from the tip of Corner #1 down to where you want the arm hole to end, and then connect to about 9" from Corner #2. Now all the scarves are sewn together, and you will have a tube with all of the Corner #1's pointed towards the top of the dress. The dress will have a loose handkerchief hem and cascading triangles of fabric on each seam.

Step 6: Adding Straps

Now you can try your dress on and see if you prefer it with seams exposed or triangles/Corner #2's out. This time, I decided to leave the corners exposed. Now I added straps - this is just a plain piece of cording, sewn to the tips of the three Corner #1's. If you use four scarves, you can attach the Corner #1's directly to each other, which would leave you with a more modest top.

You could use any number of things for straps- ribbon, chain, lace, etc.

(I ended up changing the straps because I thought they would take dye but ended up staying white, so I swapped them out for black straps.)

Step 7: Altering the Shape and Style

This is where this simple design can get really fun- because it's such a simple shape to start with, you can play around with pleats, pin tucks, belts, gathering, and connecting different corners of the scarves to create new shapes. I spent awhile pinning the dress in different ways, then finally decided to attach the triangles of Corner #2's to each other about 7" from the corner. This opened the glossy center of the seams. In the back, I sewed the seams together to create an interesting shape of drapery, attaching it to the center of the back of the dress. I also cut the corners that hung down the farthest to a closer length as the other points, as I was sort of drowning in the dress's length before.

I then dyed the whole dress a deep greyish teal, using Dharma Trading Co. Acid Dyes, found here:

I like to mix my own custom colors using their dye powders, but this sometimes results in a slightly uneven color. I might re-dye this dress (you can, of course, only go darker) to try to even it out. You could, also, dye your scarves before you sew the dress. In fact, for consistency of color, I would definitely recommend that. Also I recommend steaming your dress to get a nice, loose drape to the silk.

So, there you go! Play around with your design, trim any stray threads, get all dolled up and do the Charleston till the cows come home :)