For awhile I've been eyeing the French Connection Penny's Party Dress series (see second picture), but even secondhand it is way out of my budget. Using some discount purple cotton fabric and my limited sewing intuition, I figured now was as good a time as any to challenge my garment contruction skills. I had a few stumbles along the way, but I liked the end product so much I've already worn it twice (and it's less than a week old).
Hope you like it too!
Step 1: Gather the Materials
3 yards (or more) of any cotton woven fabric (any old bedsheets would work too)
Your best-fitting cotton woven top
Your best-fitting cotton woven A-line skirt
Paper to make a pattern
Basic sewing supplies
--Fabric scissors (rotary cutter is preferable)
--Chalk or fabric marker
Step 2: Create Your Shift Dress Pattern
Create the Front Pattern Piece
Fold your best-fitting shirt in half and place over the pattern paper, matching up the fold edges. Using a marker, trace around the outer edge of your shirt, leaving a half inch for seam allowance and stopping at the bust dart (if any).
If you have a bust dart, transfer the dimensions of the dart onto the fabric paper. First, mark where the dart ends (usually around the location of the nipple). Next, measure the length of the dart fold at the seam of the shirt. Pinch the same amount of that fold on the pattern paper and pin in place. (You're essentially duplicating the shirt dart on the pattern paper. It'll take some trial and error to get the pattern dart to look like the shirt dart.) On the shirt pattern, mark the paper beneath the fold and right on the fold.
Keep the bust pattern pinned (something I should have done!), and continue tracing along the edge of the shirt to the waist line. Fold your best-fitting A-line skirt in half and place over the pattern paper, matching up the fold edges. Trace around the outer edge and lower hemline of your skirt.
Unpin the bust dart on the paper. Draw a line from the top dot to the end dart point (the one near the nipple area), and draw another line from bottom dart to the end dart point.
Cut out the front dress piece along the traced line.
Create the Back Pattern Piece
Repeat the steps in the Front Pattern Piece, skipping over the bust dart steps (woohoo!).
You now have a pattern for a shift dress directly suited to your body. I know doing all this stuff is a bit of a headache, but having this pattern will come in handy for other sewing projects.
Step 3: Cut the Fabric
IMPORTANT: Cut everything on the bias grain. I do this for two reason: (1) Woven cotton is at its most stretchable when pulled along the bias. This is a slip-over dress with no closures, so stretch is important. (2) Woven cotton cut along the bias tends not to fray or unravel very much (in my experience, it doesn't fray or unravel at all, even after washing!), which mean I didn't have to spend extra hours hemming every piece.
Cut Out Dress Pieces
Fold fabric along the bias grain. Lay down front pattern piece along the fold, mark around the edge of the pattern, mark the bust dart points, and cut out fabric.
Do the same for the back pattern piece.
Cut Out Pleat/Ruffle Pieces
Fold fabric along the bias grain. Using the front and back pattern pieces, trace along the shoulder traps, stopping only 1.5 inches below the end of the armpit hole. Draw a line from the end point beneath the armpit hole perpindicular to the fold of the fabric. Cut out fabric. These pieces will be your first layer of pleat/ruffle on the front and back.
For the remainder of the pleats/ruffles, using a ruler and the pattern paper, trace out two rectangle shapes. One should be the length of the bottem hem of your dress + 1.5 inches, and the width should be 5 inches. (In my case, my first rectangle was 25 X 5 inches.) The second rectangle should be the length of your bottom hem (e.g. 25) and the width should be 3 inches.
Using these paper triangles, cut out as many pieces as you can using the remainder of your fabric. (Remember to cut along the bias!) You'll be using more of the smaller rectangle strips, so make sure you favor those when getting down to the last bits of fabric.
Step 4: Sew
Sew the darts in the front dress piece. If you've never sewn darts before, there are a plethora of helpful YouToube videos on the subject. Once you get the hang of it, you'll realize sewing darts is not nearly as intimidating as it seems.
Arrange your rectangle fabric pieces along the front and back dress pieces. I used the following pattern: 1 big rectangle piece followed by 2 small rectangle pieces. (I wanted to copy the French Connection dress as closely as possible.)
Once you're happy with arrangement, pin the pieces in place along the top of the rectangle. You rectangle pieces should overlap and cascade downward. The stitches holding the pleats/ruffles in place will never been seen.
Sew along the top of each rectangle pleat/ruffle piece. IMPORTANT: The special top ruffle pieces (the ones will the shoulder straps) need to be sewn on last. (Learn from my mistake.).
For the last special ruffle piece, pin along the straps, neckline, and armholes WRONG sides together and sew in place. Turn inside out when done. Iron all the ruffle pieces so they are flat.
Trim any pleat/ruffle excess from the dress pieces when done.
The last step is to sew the front and back dress pieces together. Make sure the pleats/ruffles are completely flat when you pin and sew them in place.
Try on and enjoy!!!!