The DIY way to become a couture fashion designer is to experiment, experiment, experiment. And because couture fashion is often synonymous with volume, you will need lots of fabric. The cheapest way I know to get lots of fabric is to use second-hand bed sheets, curtains, and drapes purchased from your local thrift store.
In this tutorial I will share some basic design ideas that you can take and modify to your heart's content according to your own tastes and body shape. Using a sateen drape, I will make a two-piece dress with a voluminous top and a pencil skirt. The idea is to make a base that can then be editorialized with your favorite accessories.
What You Will Need:
- One or two drape panels made out of an eye-catching fabric with lining.
- Needle and thread
- A sewing machine
- A pen or pencil
- A 9 to 12 inch zipper
- A straight edge
- Iron and ironing board
- Straight pins
Step 1: Design Stage
Assuming that you want to design a piece of fashion that has never been seen before, you may want to start small just to get a general idea of what your design might look like.
I used a doll and a small scrap of fabric to figure out the dimensions for my billowy top. I wanted to make an extravagant cowl that could be stuffed for maximum effect. Using this small scale allowed me to quickly fashion my idea and calculate up from there.
The steps I took from there were as follows:
- Turn your drape panel and lining inside out
- Find the center of your fabric lengthwise (fold it in half and mark it with a pin)
- Mark a dot 18" from the edge of the fabric on the center line
- Using a string tied to a pen, make a circle with a 16" radius from the dot you marked.
- Measure around your neck and draw a circle with the circumference of your neck about two inches from the edge of the big circle.
- Draw a line from the small circle to the closest edge of the fabric
Step 2: Couture Top With Cowl Neck
If your drape panel does not have a lining, find a lightweight cotton fabric to serve as lining.
Now that you have your lines drawn:
- Pin the fabric and lining together at the small circle and center line (this will be the front open side of the top).
- Stitch around the small neck circle and 1/2 inch on both sides of the center line to the edge of the fabric
- Cut 1/2" inside the neck stitching and between the two parallel lines to the edge of the fabric
- Turn inside out, iron flat and top stitch around all sewn edges
- Finish the two raw long raw edges on the sides of the drape panel (fold inward twice and top stitch)
- Using a regular needle and thread, hand-baste the larger circle twice (half inch apart), leaving a long tail at both ends.
- Gather the cowl until it is a bit larger than the neck circle.
- Cut a strip of fabric from the left-over piece about 20" x 1 1/2". Fold in three and iron flat. Sew this strip around the gathered fabric to stabilize it. Tuck the end points in when sewing it to the gathered fabric.
Step 3: Couture Top Finish
In order to tailor the top to your own measurements, you will have to either use a mannequin with your measurements or have someone else pin the fabric for you while you act as the model.
- Put the top on the model, right side out.
- Overlap the sides about 6" and pin
- Find where the fabric wants to make pleats and pin them at the waste line until the top is fitted with a little breathing room
- Top stitch the sides together
- Top stitch the pleats up to about 4" from the bottom
- With the iron set on steam, flatten the bottom edges of the pleats
- Trim the bottom of the dress top evenly around the bottom edge
- Cut enough of your leftover fabric on the bias to fit around the bottom of the dress top and finish off the bottom edge with this bias "tape"
I have not yet created closures for this dress top, but you can add snaps or buttons or use giant safety pins like I did (for a steampunk look).
Step 4: DIY Pencil Skirt
Using the remaining fabric from your drape panel, cut out the front and back of a pencil skirt.
The length will be determined by how much fabric you have to play with and your own tastes. I had just enough fabric to make a knee-length skirt with a 4-inch waist. Because my top was cropped, I wanted to have a wide band around the waist to complete the two-piece dress look. I did not want any flesh showing between the cropped top and the bottom of the two-piece dress.
Measure the widest part of your bottom (buttocks and/or thighs), and measure your waist.
The custom measurements for your pencil skirt are as follows:
Length: Measure from your waist to the length you want, then add 6 inches (this is for a skirt with a 4" wide waistline).
Front: The waistline will measure half your waist measurement plus three inches. That will give you a 1/2" seam allowance on either side and approximately two 1/2" darts. The bottom of the skirt in front will measure half your widest measurement plus 2 inches.
Back: The waist line will measure half your waist measurement plus five inches. That will give you a 1/2" seam allowance on either side, one inch for the center seam where the zipper will go, and two darts of about 1". The bottom of the skirt will measure half your widest measurement plus 5 inches.
- Cut out and set aside the front of the skirt.
- Cut out the back of the skirt, then cut it down the middle from top to bottom
- With the right sides together, sew the center from top to bottom with a 1/2" seam allowance. Iron the seam flat.
- With the fabric wrong side up, pin a 9" zipper onto the top part of the seam you just sewed. The front of the zipper should be face down.
- Using a zipper foot on your sewing machine, sew the zipper onto the seam as shown.
- Turn the fabric to the right side and rip open the seam where you sewed the zipper.
- Pin the front of the skirt to the back, right sides together.
- Sew both sides together with a 1/2" seam. Iron all seams flat.
- With the skirt wrong side out, do a fitting on yourself or a mannequin. Hold the top of the skirt 5 inches above the waistline (!important). Pin two 1/2" darts on the front waistline and two more darts on the back waistline. These darts will be approximately 1" each. Leave a little bit of breathing room. The shape of the darts will be 5" straight down and then tapered another 5 inches.
- Finish the top of the skirt. Sew a three-inch wide strip of fabric to the right side of the waistline with a 1" seam allowance Turn the strip over to the inside of the skirt and iron. Top stitch the top of the skirt.
- To finish off the bottom, do the same as you did with the top of the skirt.
Step 5: Editing Your Couture Design
Now that your pieces are done, play around with accessories and styling to get different looks.
This is where couture fashion designers really shine. Creating an "editorial" piece means you can dress something up or down or sideways and still look great.
In the three images above, the cowl of the dress top is treated differently. In the first I inserted balloons and package stuffing; in the second I used a crescent-shaped mat board to create a dramatic Victorian look; and in the third I pinned the cowl up to form a bow.
Further editing is done with nylons, shoes, a corset (in my case, a workman's brace), mask, and gloves.
Also, in the first image I used this Victorian steampunk necklace turned upside down for a crown (see the last image).
You can see how I made the red steampunk skirt from a bed sheet here.