Working with knit is the best. You don’t have to stress too much about fit, it comes together really quickly (especially if you own a serger!) and the end results are satisfying and comfy, just like in this t shirt dress I am going to teach you!
If making a dress sounds intimidating, then this tutorial is for you. It’s what I start my private students with when they want to learn basic knit techniques, and delve in the world of dress design. All you need is a comfortable (but old) t shirt and knit fabric (and of course your precious sewing machine and sewing gear).
T Shirt Dress
Skill level: beginner-intermediate. Must know how to use a sewing machine comfortably.
- When you are working with knit, you want to prevent skipped stitches (this happens when you aren’t using the correct needle). Knit material will need to be stitched with either a ballpoint, stretch or jersey machine needle. Use scrap pieces of your knit to test needles and also play around with your machine’s tension. (Lots of students tend to skip these steps because they “don’t have time”, but you’ll end up spending more time fixing those skipped stitches, or you’ll have a swayed seam. Swayed seam + skipped stitches = haply homemade clothes. Yuck!)
- If your fabric has a pattern, make sure you keep this in mind as you are cutting out your pieces. You don’t want backwards flowers on your finished dress! I made my dress using wool knit, and it had various stripes on it. I wanted my stripes on the front to match up at the side seams with the stripes at the back. (Note pictured) even though there were lots of different stripes I had to match up, it was worth taking the time to do this, because you end up with a very sharp and professionally made dress.
- Fitting knit: you only have to add 1/4″ – 1/2″ extra seam allowance to your exact size pattern when you are working with knit. (Psssssst! Sometimes I won’t even add any seam allowance and the fit is perfect! The stretch in knit is wonderful.)
- A simple way to avoid popped seams (this has happened to me before and talk about humiliating!): set your machine to stitch length 3, and a slight zig zag at only 1/2. I have a picture of my machine set to this, however yours will look different if you don’t have a touch screen. Look to your sewing machine manual if you don’t know how to change stitch lengths.
- 2-3 yards of knit fabric. If you’re tall, big boned or you want to make this dress maxi length- get more fabric.
- A t shirt that fits you well, but one you don’t mind cutting up.
- Basic sewing gear
- Get a t shirt that fits you well, and 2-3 yards of beautiful knit fabric. (If you fall in love with fabric that is a bit thin, be prepared to either add a lining to your dress or buy a slip for wearing it underneath!)
- Put your t shirt on yourself (or a dress maker’s form if you have one), and measure from the center of the neck band to how long you would like your finished dress to be. Add 2 inches to this number for hemming.
- Lay exactly half of your t shirt on the fold of your fabric. Make sure the grain line is going up and down the length of the t shirt. This will allow the stretchiest part of the fabric to be laying horizontal of the t shirt. (Aka your dress will fit well because the stretch will be across the width of your bod and not the length!)
- Fold the sleeves of your t shirt to lay inside the shirt, and pin down the edges. This will give you a more accurate pattern to cut your sleeve openings with.
- From the t shirt neckline, mark the hem length.(don’t forget to add those 2″!)
- Cut out the fabric on the fold (DO NOT cut the actual folded fabric edge). You’ll be cutting directly around your t shirt, but the skirt of the dress will be up to you and your artistic eye. I wanted my t shirt dress fairly straight, so I cut my skirt out at about the same length that my t shirt’s bottom edge stuck out. (If you need help, follow this tutorial and use the pattern you draft to cut out the dress skirt.)
- Your finished piece should look something like this when it’s unfolded.
- Cut another piece using this piece as your pattern.
- Place the two pieces right sides together, and pin the side edges and shoulder seams. Sew or serge, using a 1/2″ seam allowance.
Make the Neckband
- Determine how low you want your neckline to be. Mark that spot right in the center of your dress’s neck line, and cut out an even scoop. I typically cut mine 7 1/2″ from the beginning from the very top of my neck down. Keep in mind that you’ll be losing 1/2″ when you sew it.
- Fold your dress width wise, matching the wrong sides together. Pin the shoulder seams (this will help for accuracy!).
- Lay the folded neck on a flat surface.
- Measure across the neck. (If you place your measuring tape upright, you’ll get a much more accurate reading!)
- My neckline was 13″. I doubled this (remember, the neck was folded width wise): 26″ is the total length of my neck edge.
- Time to make the band! On contrasting knit (or the same fabric if desired), cut a strip 1″ wide, and 3″ less than your total length. This allows the stretch in the knit to fit properly. You don’t want a gaping neckline! (I cut mine 1″ x 23″)
- Serge or sew the strip right sides together across the width, forming a loop.
- Press the width of the neckband right sides together. (Finger press or iron depending on your fabric! Some knits won’t take to ironing well. Test first on a scrap piece.)
- Mark 4 places with pins or a fabric marker on your band: On the seam, then directing opposite of the seam and exactly halfway between the two seams.
- Mark 4 places with pins on your dress neck edge: the two shoulder seams, the center of the back neck edge and the center of the front neck edge.
- Place the marked band on the neck edge, matching marked pins. Place the seam of the band on the center back neck edge. This looks a lot more professional!
- Pin and stitch with a scant 1/4″ seam allowance.
- Press the band up on the outside, and the seam down on the inside. Pin.
- Stitch in the ditch (right inside that sewn line!).
- Try on the dress and make sure your band is laying comfortably.
Make the Sleeves
- Check and see if the armholes on your t shirt sleeves are the same size as your dresses. Note down the inch different between the armhole of your t shirt sleeve and your dress’s armhole.
- I pinned my shirt down on the seams to get a more accurate reading.
- Cut the sleeve out of the shirt along the seam. If needed, add or subtract any inches at the very ends of the sleeve. (Those two ends that have tapered in very narrowly).
- Fold the sleeve in half.
- Measure the armhole of your dress, keeping your measuring tape upright for accuracy.
- Measure sleeve from the cap to seam. You want the sleeve to be an inch larger than your dress’s armhole.
- Lay the folded sleeve on the fold of your fabric. I wanted my sleeves a little longer, so I added length to the end of the sleeve pattern.
- Cut out the sleeve on the fold.
- Repeat for the other sleeve.
- Sew or serge the sleeve across the bottom seam, right sides together.
- With pins, mark 4 places on your dress’s armhole: the top , bottom seam, and exactly halfway at each side.
- With pins, Mark your sleeve’s opening at 4 places: the top, bottom seam, and exactly halfway at each side.
- Place your sleeve inside the dress, right sides together, following the photo on step 13.
- Match the marked pins, and pin around the entire sleeve.
- Make sure the sleeve isn’t wrinkled or overlapping at all, and seams are matching.
- Sew around the sleeve using a 1/2″ seam allowance.
- Repeat with the other sleeve.
- Hem the edges of the sleeve by folding up the raw edge 1/2″, pressing, pinning, and topstitching nearly all around. (I used a zig zag stitch just for fun and because it does a good job of preventing knit’s from popping seams!)
Try on your dress. If the skirt is too flouncy or not right, follow the steps below to adjust it. The upper part of your dress should fit perfectly if you followed this tutorial, and used a t shirt that fit you well.
- It helps to grab a friend for this: put your dress on wrong side out. On the sides, take in the seams about how much you want to, and get your friend to pin in place so you can see what the finished dress will look like. If you don’t have a friend on hand, measure about how much you’d like to take your dress in. Take off your dress and lay it with seams matching on a flat surface.
- Take a ruler, and measure in from the side seam the amount of inches you want to take from the dress. Gradually taper off into the upper side seam. (I took in my dress about 2 inches, and gradually tapered off near the waistline). Mark with chalk or a fabric marker. Repeat with the other side. Sew directly on this line. Try on the dress and adjust as needed. When it’s perfect, trim the excess seam on the inside, finish the raw edges with a serger or zig zag stitch, and you’re ready to roll!
- This is the best way to hem when you don’t have a dress form or a friend to help you! First, try on your dress and measure from your natural waist line to how long you want your dress to be. Then, lay your dress flat, with seams all matching well, on the floor. Grab your pins and a measuring tape.
- Pin where your natural waist line is.
- Measure from your waist down, and mark with pins or a fabric marker to exactly an inch longer than the exact length you wanted your dress. (I measured to 22.5″, and I wanted my finished length to be 21.5″)
- Continue marking across the entire width of the dress. If your dress’s skirt is wider than your waistline, that’s ok. Still start the measurement from your waistline and slant the ruler towards the skirt edge if needed. This will allow the hem to curve up slightly at the ends, and lay very naturally. Cut directly on the marked line, continuing to make sure your dress is laying with the front and back completely together.
- Fold the hem up one inch to the inside; press and stitch. If you want, you could fold up the hem 1/2″, press and baste stitch. Then fold up the hem 1/2″ once more, press and regularly stitch neatly along the edge. This works well if you don’t own a serger!
Yay! This dress can see you through a Sunday Service, blind date, fun shopping trip as well as stay at home days and easy Saturday mornings. It’s that versatile!
(Also, I spied a plain old skirt in this exact fabric at a clothing store for like $50! You could make your own skirt AND dress for less than half that price.)