This Will Probably Be Harder Than Pajama Pants
April 18, 2012 11:27 AM   Subscribe

What are good pattern resources for sewing a basic, A-line dress?

So to preface, I have sewn very little before. Basic is key. I have a sewing machine but can do nothing very fancy. I just bought some fabric and want to make myself a pretty, A-line skirted dress. Here are some examples of what I would hope it to look like:

Example One / Example Two / Example Three

How do people make dresses nowadays? Do they still use those thin paper patterns in the sleeve? Can you print out patterns? I would prefer this method even if there's a charge. Am I delusional in thinking that I can jump right into dressmaking after cobbling together pajama pants?

Any dress sewing resources or tips would be seriously appreciated. Thanks!
posted by amicamentis to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (20 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
If this your very first dress, I'd recommend Built By Wendy's Dresses. I have her other book, and it really takes you through the process step-by-step.

As for where to find patterns you can print, Burda Style is very popular. You can search by difficulty. This one is rated "novice", and I think its quite nice.
posted by tinymegalo at 11:39 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hi -

Yes, you can make a dress! It just takes a little more patience than pajama pants. Be prepared to remove some stitches on occasion, and you'll be fine.

Burda makes great patterns - you can print them out on your printer and tape them together. I like this approach because I don't care much for tissue paper patterns.

Search online for sew alongs - you'll find some amazing bloggers walking through a garment step by step.

Pattern Review has a wonderful sewing community - message boards for questions, and pattern reviews so you can learn how others fared with a particular pattern.

You may want to start with a skirt - just for a slightly smaller scale project. You may also want to pick up some cheap fabric (either something inexpensive that you won't mind throwing away, or an old sheet at the thrift shop) to make a test dress first (you'll see the term "muslin" used when you start hitting the sewing blogs). Then you can work out any fit issues before you tackle the fabric you love.

Good luck, have fun, you can so totally do this. :) Oh, one last link - this pattern is free and it looks like the sew along is geared to beginners!
posted by hilaryjade at 11:47 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, people still use those thin paper patterns in the sleeve. Go to any Jo-Ann Fabrics store, and look through the books of patterns. Every brand--Vogue, Burda, Simplicity--will have a section devoted to Very Easy patterns, including dresses. The books are usually on a table near the file cabinets of the patterns themselves.

Software that prints pattern does indeed exist, though I've never used it before (on my list of things to do before I die).
posted by Melismata at 11:48 AM on April 18, 2012

Check out McCall's --they're the same company as Vogue and Butterick (the big patternmakers) and they're all linked at the top right of the page.

They do sell the thin patterns in the sleeves, which are the easiest thing to use if you're a beginner. And all three have "easy" lines. I know Burda and some of the other small patternmakers are a little hipper, but McCalls/Vogue are, in my view, reliable, stylish (especially Vogue) and easy to deal with. Don't even get me started about trying to assemble a downloaded pattern.
posted by supercoollady at 11:50 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hello again! a few on this page may be similar to what you're looking for.
posted by supercoollady at 11:52 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, what Melismata said. And Jo-Ann usually has one of the major brands on sale for 99 cents or $1.99. Cheaper than online and you get to futz with the pattern which is nice.
posted by supercoollady at 11:53 AM on April 18, 2012

People still use the paper patterns, which can be bought at any fabric store or online (mailed to you). Butterick/McCalls'/Vogue is linked above, there's also Simplicity. Burda is the main patterns-for-download company, but there's a lot of smaller designers who do so as well - there's a list here. You print out the many pages, tape them together in the right order, then it's best if you can trace the pieces onto tracing paper or freezer paper - it's really awkward to pin standard office paper to fabric.

You will probably be fine with a dress, but you're going to have to pay more attention to the fit of it than you would with pajama pants. Sew Mama Sew has a good description of what to do with a sewing pattern that includes information about how to measure yourself and the pattern pieces.

Beyond that, there's lots of tutorials out there online for things like inserting zippers, hemming, different kinds of seams, etc.
posted by kyla at 11:54 AM on April 18, 2012

Seconding hilaryjade's muslin suggestion there, especially in the transition from pyjama pants – they are a huge help in avoiding the Tears of Frustration phase of sewing projects, as well as the classic homemade poor fit. I avoided them for years but it's so nice to make something knowing it's actually going to fit and look really nice, even if it takes an extra hour or two.

Thanks for asking this, I love that shape of dress and haven't yet found a good pattern myself.
posted by carbide at 11:55 AM on April 18, 2012

I've seen vintage shops/antique stores have boxes of old patterns if you're looking for that sort of thing. You could ask around and probably find some old school ones to start with. No idea if that's better or worse than what others are suggesting. Just throwing out an observation.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:58 AM on April 18, 2012

Vintage patterns tend to be much more complex than modern ones. Lots of seam finishing, facings, etc. If you're looking to wade into dress-making, rather than jump in the deep end, I'd stick with modern patterns.

The Anda dress from BurdaStyle is not strongly a-line, but can look that way with a belt. And it's the simplest dress pattern you will ever see. Cut out two pieces, sew them together on the sides, and you're done! Here's a belted version.
posted by duien at 12:36 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Colette Patterns has a lot of varied dresses, and they provide skill level guides on the product pages so you can get a better idea of how difficult they are to sew. (Several of them are labeled "beginner.") There are also lots of sewing tips on the Coletterie blog that you might be interested in looking at. I've heard nothing but praise for Colette patterns so I think you might have success trying one of those.

For other pattern ideas, you can check out the Make This Look feature on The Sew Weekly. They feature a lot of ModCloth dresses and post links to similar patterns and fabric so you can create them yourself.
posted by meggan at 1:10 PM on April 18, 2012

Pattern Review is great.

BurdaStyle will let you print online, but Burda's also pretty notorious for having instructions that leave something to be desired. I get pissed off about them and I've been sewing fairly seriously for almost 7 years. Printing them out is also a big enough process most of the time that I have it done for me at a copy shop - and then you spend hours putting the damn thing together. If you have the patience for it, then by all means, but instant gratification isn't underrated when you're trying to reward effort.

Simplicity has a whole line aimed at people like you who are starting to sew - Sew Simple. I've not used those patterns in particular but I find Simplicity often has the best directions. I also like New Look for just being easy and pretty rewarding. Watch the ease in the patterns, but that's a thing you will learn about eventually, one way or the other.

Also, get a good sewing book, so you can look up terms. I like this one.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:25 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just so you know if you're having unsuccessful searches for patterns: "A-line" dresses have no visible pleats or gathers for shaping. You will see retailers call all kinds of dresses "a-line" but pattern companies are more likely to be technical with their terms. Here's an example.

Otherwise, I second BurdaStyle for printable patterns. It takes awhile to tape everything together, but it's nice to pull have a pattern instantly when you've got fabric and notions and just need a project. You can jump right into dressmaking if you start with something pretty basic and not too fitted. What you need to pay attention to as a novice: correct fabric type for the pattern, lining up patterns on the grainline, adding seam allowance to Burda patterns. Look for the pattern rating- the pattern above is probably rated "intermediate" in spite of the straightforward construction because you have to insert a zipper.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:47 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

The links in this list are all supposed to be "easy party dress patterns"--some of them resemble the dresses you linked to.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:59 PM on April 18, 2012

You can absolutely jump into A-line dresses from pyjama pants. Like any cutting craft (sewing, carpentry,) the key is to read the directions more than once, measure twice, and cut once. Dress patterns are likely to require things other than fabric - some might suggest lining fabric around the edges, or stabilizer. Zippers are the one thing you may want to either avoid in your first pattern or buy a bunch of discounted ones and try them out on scrap fabric first.

Re patterns, I'd go with Simplicity and Vogue, Burda with the warning that they have wonky Euro directions sometimes, and pick the 'easy' or 'simple' marked ones. Vogue/McCall/Butterick are all sold together in many places, but the Butterick patterns always do something weird and I have to disrecommend them. I'd suggest going into your local store and flip through the pattern books. Vogue always seemed fancy when I was a teenager and it scared me off but they're not necessarily more complex.

Also, make sure you get your actual measurements and don't go by dress size, as it rarely works. Many (but not all) women find they are at least 1-2 'dress sizes' up in pattern sizes.
posted by cobaltnine at 2:47 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

This blogger has one of the easiest dress tutorials I have seen. You could taper out from the waist to get a more a-line.

Don't forget to check your local library for sewing books. There is probably a local sewing/crafting group that you could check out. Some of the smaller sewing boutiques have regular get-together sewing nights, where you could get help.

Another online printable pattern resource is Pattern spot. Craftsy is carrying printable patterns now too.

I usually check the message boards at pattern review to see who is having a sale on patterns. I hate paying $15 and up for patterns. The easy patterns are usually priced more reasonably.
posted by annsunny at 3:06 PM on April 18, 2012

Oh, and of course you can get patterns at Etsy.
posted by annsunny at 3:11 PM on April 18, 2012

A warning if you print out a pattern: double check all the measurements on the printed pieces - at least on the first one. My printer often prints aobut 5% smaller than it was supposed to (I think it happens when it tries to convert an American "letter" size page to A4), and that's the sort of difference you don't notice until you have cut the fabric out!
posted by lollusc at 4:37 PM on April 18, 2012

The easy patterns are usually on a separate rack and cost about $2 - $3, which I'd gladly pay to avoid taping together sheets of a downloaded printout. After about 4 sheets, they never seem to line up exactly. For a beginning sewer, a bunch of little jags and doglegs could be confusing and annoying.

A big thing to note is that, unlike ready-to-wear clothes, US sewing pattern sizes are standardized, at least across the Big 4 (Simplicity, Vogue, Butterick, McCalls). Many indie designers use the standard dimensions of the Big 4, too. European patterns have their own size standards but they're fairly similar, and I think they're also consistent from one European company to the next.

But sewing pattern sizes are different from ready-to-wear sizes (largely due to vanity sizing over the last few decades). Check the table of body measurements to choose your pattern size; if you don't match a standard size (and nobody does), go with the bust measurement for a dress or top. Don't just grab whatever size you normally take in store-bought clothes!

I kinda hate to be a party pooper, but the fitted dress styles you linked to will be very hard for a new sewer. They're adorable but they have to fit just right, and altering patterns to fit involves a major learning curve for anybody whose body differs from the standard measurements (and we all do). With ready-to-wear clothes, you can keep trying things on until you find something that fits, but when sewing you want to ensure that it will fit before you cut out the fabric, because some alterations can't be done after cutting.

Definitely make a muslin first (old bedsheets are perfect if you avoid the worn-out areas). I'd encourage you to start with less fitted styles since you'll have enough of a learning curve with handling the sewing machine and fabric. The easy pattern racks usually have lots of less fitted garments. When you feel up to the challenge of more fitted garments, you might want to take a class in pattern alteration or pore over some books. I haven't found a single volume that explained everything I needed to know, but these were the most helpful: Fit for Real People and The Perfect Fit.

The good news is that once you've figured out what adjustments you need to make to a pattern, you know what you need to do for future patterns. Hooray for industry standards! Now I can take a new pattern, make the same 3 major changes, and I know I'll be 80% of the way to a perfect fit. I prefer fitted styles like you, and I always make a muslin so I can see what subtle adjustments are still needed. (I'm picky and it's really hard to find ready-made nice clothing for my slightly odd body, and I revel in the pleasure of clothes that actually fit and flatter!) It takes perseverance but if you stick with it you can have a really nice wardrobe eventually. Good luck and welcome to a rewarding new hobby!
posted by Quietgal at 5:20 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

A suggestion: if you do want to do a tighter fitting dress, do the mockup for practice as mentioned, but then find a fabric with some stretch to it. This should give you a bit of of leeway with the fitting, because it is tricky to do that sort of precise fitting work if you're just starting out. (it is very possible to learn, however!)

One very nice, very comfortable fabric for tight fitting dresses is ponte de (di?) roma. If you do look into this--it's the poly/rayon/spandex stuff, not the pure polyester stuff, which is very scratchy and just labeled as "ponte." It's a little pricy though, so I'd first get a little experience in with some cheap low end scrap material.
posted by Estraven at 9:05 PM on April 18, 2012

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