Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Making a Shirred Sundress

Using elastic thread to shirr the bodice of a sundress makes a pretty dress out of the fabric of your choice in a record amount of time.  It's fun!  It's fast! It's the amazing .... well, never mind.  Here's a quick tutorial for using elastic thread to make a quick sundress for dolls, girls, and grownups, too.

  1. 1-3 yards fabric (depending on size)
  2. elastic thread
  3. sewing machine
  4. thread

First, do some quick measurements. You only need two: The chest measurement and the length measurement.  To get the chest measurement, wrap the tape around the fullest part of your bust, or for girls and dolls, around the chest just under the arms.  The get the length measurement, hold the measuring tape under your arm and let the free end dangle...lower the end of the tape until it reaches the length you want the dress to be.

Next, choose a fabric you like.  Quilting cottons have such a vast array of patterns and prints, it's hard to imagine not finding one you like.  You can use other wovens if you like, linen or rayon or silk or whatever.  Theoretically, I guess you could use a knit as well, but as I've never done this I don't really know how well it would work out.
You will need enough fabric to fit around you (or the girl or the doll) twice at the length you want with a little extra for straps and hems and seam allowances.

Step 1:
Cut your fabric the correct width and length.  For girls' dresses I tend to use the entire width of quilting cotton (44-45 inches), so all I have to worry about is the length.  These dresses are pretty forgiving, so if the chest measurement is 23 or 24 inches, you can still use the 44 inch width and it will fit just fine.  It won't have as full a skirt, though.  A dress this size is made with a single seam allowance at center back.  Cut the fabric the length you want plus hem allowances--because I use a 4mm and a 6mm rolled hem, I add just 1 inch for hems.
For an adult, you'll need 2 pieces of fabric.  Cut each piece your full bust measure wide plus seam allowances and your chosen length measure long plus hem allowances.  A dress this size will have two side seams instead of a center back seam.

Step 2:
If you're making an adult dress, sew and finish ONE side seam.

Step 3:
Hem the top and bottom edges--these will be the longer sides of your rectangle pieces of fabric.  I think a tiny rolled hem or a serged rolled hem look best.  I generally use my 4mm hemmer foot for the top and my 6mm hemmer foot for the bottom.  Obviously, you can use whatever method you think looks best.

Step 4:
Now fill a bobbin with elastic thread.  Some people find it necessary to wind it completely by hand, but I've found that if I run my bobbin winder slowly, I can simply run the thread through my fingers (loosely) and guide it evenly onto the bobbin.  Take your time with this step.  If the thread is wound onto the bobbin in its stretched state, it will not work the way it's supposed to.

Step 5:
Now with a straight stitch, sew one row of stitches about 1 inch from the top hem.  Don't forget to backstitch at the beginning and end of the row--this will help keep the elastic thread from coming loose when it gets stretched.

The first row won't look like much--just sort of a waviness--don't worry, it'll increase with each row you stitch.

Now sew a whole bunch of rows parallel to the first one.  I do mine about 3/8" apart.  For a girls dress (about size 6 RTW) I use 22 rows.  You'll have to use your own judgement for how many rows you'd like to use.  You can make this dress more like an empire line if you use less rows, or you can even do just a few rows in a thin fabric and it makes a pretty nightgown.  Who was that who said, "Take chances!  Make mistakes!"  Oh, right. That was Ms. Frizzle.  I wish I'd had a teacher like her.

It still isn't going to look very gathered.  We'll get to that in a  minute.

Step 6:
For the girl's dress place the center back edges together wrong sides together.  If you're making an adult's dress, do the same for the side seam you left unsewn.  Stitch this seam with slightly less than a 1/4" seam allowance.  Press the seam to one side--but don't press the area where the elastic thread is stitched.  Heat will make the thread contract and make it harder to sew the second seam.

Step 7:
Turn the dress wrong side out and stitch the seam again at slightly more than 1/4" seam allowance.  This French-type seam will help to make sure that the elastic thread doesn't come undone while the dress is being worn.

Step 8:
Now hold your steam iron over the dress and give it a little blast of steam.  You see the dress shrink before your very eyes!  It's like magic!  Actually, it's just the steam and heat making the elastic thread shrink back to its unstretched length.

I shrunk mine before sewing the center back seam, but I  don't recommend this. It's much easier to sew the side seam before you shrink.

 Step 9:
Now it's time to put on the straps.  It's up to you whether you want to make the dress a halter style and just use two straps or put four straps on to tie over the shoulders.  Four straps is much more versatile.  If you want to wear it halter style, you just tuck the back straps inside the dress and tie the two front straps around your neck.  You can make straps by sewing and turning or you can make self-fabric binding straps.

I usually use self binding whose finished width is about 1/2" and make them long enough to tie either over the shoulders or around the neck, but for this dress I actually cut pieces 3" X 12", stitched the long edge together, turned and pressed.  Then I sewed them on both front and back to make non-adjustable straps.  Just something a little different this time.  Use a zigzag bar tack and sew them on right above the first line of elastic stitching.  Remember to turn under the raw edge.

Girl's Dress
Doll's dress

And you're finished!  A cute dress and it probably didn't take more than a couple of hours.  Congratulations!  You're Awesome!


  1. I have been meaning to do a dress like this for ages. thanks for the tutorial.

  2. You're welcome :-) I love these dresses and I think they look so cute...they don't take much time at all and it doesn't take very much fabric either.