Replicating a favourite shirred sundress for a client

I had a client recently who I did a few alterations for initially but then she asked me if it was possible to replicate a favourite dress she had. It was a tiered sundress in plain cotton with a shirred back panel.

Of course, said I.

It was very straightforward to measure the skirt panels, there were three tiers of almost identical length, each layer was more full than the last, plus a small ruffle on the hem. Next I took accurate measurements of the bodice front and drew a ‘plan’ plus the shirred back. I haven’t made anything using shirring in years and it was going to be guesswork a bit but I found a really helpful tutorial by Seamwork magazine on You Tube which gave a few good tips.

Once I’d got all my notes and diagrams I could calculate how much fabric my client would need, I also gave her advice on what sort of fabric to choose. She was going on holiday in less than six weeks so a speedy decision was needed. I saw three fabrics in our local John Lewis branch which I felt met our requirements so she hot-footed it into there and bought all that was left of a 100% cotton poplin in navy.

As the skirt is a series of rectangles I made that up first. I used the longest straight stitch for the gathering which I divided into manageable length sections-don’t be tempted to sew the whole of a very long strip of fabric in one go, break it down into manageable sections because if one of your threads snaps you’re back to square one.

I decided to toile the bodice front so that I could be certain it was correct as I knew there was no option to buy more fabric if I got it wrong…and I’d got it a bit wrong! The cups were much too shallow and didn’t come far enough up my client’s bust and a lot of her bra [which she wanted to be able to wear underneath] was showing. Back to the drawing board. The shirring element however was fine. I didn’t know exactly how much I might need so I used the full width of the fabric and sewed lots of rows of shirring until my reel of elastic ran out! [If you’re using an actual pattern then it will hopefully give you more guidance than this!]

Wind the shirring elastic carefully BY HAND onto a bobbin, use regular thread on the top. You could draw on your parallel lines first if you wish or you could trust your own skills and use the edge of the presser foot to guide each new row. The shirring doesn’t look like it’s gathered up enough but a good going over it with plenty of steam causes it to shrink up beautifully.

Because the first bodice didn’t give enough coverage I redrafted it but that was worse (I didn’t even try it on my client as I could see it was all wrong) On to Plan C…I decided I would try modelling the pattern on my mannequin so I pinned some very narrow black ribbon to the mannequin using the style lines I required. You only need to do this on one half if it’s going to be symmetrical, make sure you start at the centre front working round to wherever the pieces finish, in my case this was just to the side seams.

These were the important lines for the fitted section of the bodice.
Make sure your piece of calico is perfectly on grain and quite a bit bigger than the section you’re working on. Start by pinning the grainline of the fabric to the CF line and then gradually smooth the fabric over the mannequin. push any creases and wrinkles away to the edges. Push pins through in various places to keep it like this, when you’re happy with it then you can draw the style lines (which should be visible through the fabric) onto the calico. Cut away some but not all of the excess fabric, you need this to be able to draw on seam allowances. I left this piece in position and started on the gathered under-bust piece. I smoothed the fabric across from the CF in a similar way but this time I added quite a bit of fullness under the bust before smoothing the rest of the fabric to the side seam. Again I drew on the lines and cut away some of the excess fabric. Draw on balance marks and notches as required before you remove the pieces from the mannequin-make certain you have the CF marked-from these pieces of fabric you will create paper patterns.
After I had made paper templates from the ‘modelled’ fabric I was able to sew this bodice together in fresh calico. The under-bust strip was the original which was OK.

I joined this new bodice to the skirt and the shirred back and carried out another fitting on my client. Fortunately this time it was fine and I set to to finish the dress just in time for her to take it on holiday!

The finished dress modelled by Indoor Doris, she’s not quite as voluptuous as Outdoor Doris!
The original dress featured beaded embellishment over the bust which there wasn’t time for me to replicate but my client might add this herself in the future.

I made the straps wider than the originals and they are stitched to the correct length on each shoulder for my client-we all have one shoulder higher or lower than the other so don’t automatically make them identical lengths, pin and check before sewing them in position. If one strap always falls off your shoulder this will be the reason why!

This was a rather convoluted way to make a shirred sundress because my client wanted a replica of a favourite but if you like the idea of it the why not take a look at Cocowawa’s Raspberry dress pattern which has a fully-elasticated bodice instead?

My client wanted fabric as similar as possible to her original but you could easily use cotton lawn, seersucker, chambray, soft linen, lightweight jersey, voile, muslin….the list goes on, just keep it soft and not too thick or it could get very bulky. You could also make it just as a skirt and leave the bodice section off if you wanted, that’s definitely a 70s hippie vibe going on right there, add ribbons, ric-rac, bobble trim, sequins etc etc…

Until next time, happy sewing,

Sue

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