Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Mama's favorite maxi dress" tutorial


Here's the tutorial for the dress I designed to be useful for maternity, postpartum, and nursing -- but it's easily customizable! If, for example, you want a nursing dress but not maternity, just lessen the width of the skirt pieces for less ease. If you want a maternity dress but don't plan to nurse in it, you can make the top however you want. The shirring under the bust helps give your waist some shape if you are postpartum, but easily stretches to accommodate a baby bump, too. And, I really think this dress works year-round -- just throw on leggings and a cardigan in cold weather! I could not ask for a more versatile piece of clothing in my wardrobe for this season of mothering. I hope it's a blessing to some other moms out there.

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with the basics of sewing knits and the extra sewing techniques I outline in this tutorial. I wish I had the time and space to explain everything in detail, but if you have questions about anything, please don't be afraid to ask for clarification or help! Just leave a comment or send me an e-mail (address is in my Blogger profile). Also, although I proofread this tutorial thoroughly, if you come across any mistakes, I would be deeply grateful if you would let me know!

Supplies Needed:
  • sewing machine
  • 3 yards of light- to medium-weight knit fabric (For your reference, I am 5'10" and normally a US size 8 or Medium, and I made this dress out of 3 yards of 66" wide (though badly off-grain) fabric with barely any leftover. If you are much smaller or larger, you'll need to adjust yardage accordingly.)
  • 1/2 to 1 yard of lightweight knit for underlining the bodice front, if your fashion fabric is lightweight
  • matching thread
  • pins
  • sewing scissors
  • chalk or other marking tool
  • tissue paper or pattern-making paper
  • clear elastic (optional)
  • 1/8" wide elastic
  • elastic thread
  • jersey needle
  • twin needle(s) (I used both 2,0 and 4,0 sizes)
  • dress form or someone to help you with fitting
Also, all seam allowances are 1/2", unless otherwise noted.

OK, let's get started!

First, you need to take five measurements. Measure yourself around your underbust (A), measure from underbust to desired hem length (B), measure from the middle of your shoulder seam, passing over the apex of the bust, to the underbust (C), measure from the base of your neck, across your shoulder seam, to approximately where you'd like your cap sleeve to end (D), and measure across your bust front, from apex to apex (E).

Cutting out the skirt

(When I have made this dress, I drafted half the skirt straight onto the fabric using chalk and pins, cut out half, folded the fabric over at the midline, then cut out the other half of the skirt. I then used this first skirt piece as a pattern to cut out the second. If you prefer to make a paper pattern, you can draft onto paper first.)


Take measurement A and divide by 2. Now, multiply that figure by 1.5. Add 1" for seam allowance. We'll call this measurement F. This is how wide your front and back skirt pieces will be at the top (dashed line between the dots).

Lay your fabric out flat. Mark measurement F out on your fabric with pins or chalk, and also mark the center (star). Next, take your measurement B and add around 2" seam allowance (more if you are unsure about how long you want it -- better safe than sorry, and we'll be marking the hem later). From the left side of the top of the skirt, measure down the length of B + 2" in a gentle A-line shape (wider if you want more fullness at the hem, narrower if you want less). Go back to your top F measurement and gently curve from side to center, dropping below the line maybe an inch and a half or so (there's a more scientific way to do this, but I eyeball it and it turns out fine). ;-) From the center, measure down the length of B + 2" in a straight line. Connect the edge and center of the bottom of the skirt with a gentle curve. Cut the half skirt out (solid lines), then fold the fabric over along the center midline (dotted line), and cut the remaining half using the first half as a guide, being sure to match the print if your fabric has one. Using this skirt piece that you just cut as a pattern, cut out one more identical skirt piece. These are your front and back skirt pieces.

Cutting out the bodice


There are four pieces to the bodice: the left and right side of the bodice front, the faux camisole, and the bodice back. To draft the bodice front piece (I do this on tissue paper, since the pattern pieces are smaller), draw a straight line the length of D + 1" seam allowance. At a right angle to the first line, draw another line the length of C + 3" or so (you'll be trimming this later, just make sure it's plenty long to cover your bust and meet in the middle). Along the bottom, draw a line the length of F divided by 2 + 1/2" seam allowance. Then connect the third line back to the first line to form a trapezoid shape.


For the back bodice, draw a rectangle. The long sides will be the length of F. The short sides will be the length of C + 3" (or whatever you added). At the top of the bodice back, mark the center (star) and cut out a slight curve for the back neckline, around four inches across (it will be turned under 1/2" for a total of a 5" wide neck opening -- measure a knit top you already own if you want to double check how wide to make it for you personally).

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial

For the faux camisole, simply copy the neckline curve of a tank top you already own and like. Add a bit of length to the straps and draw straight lines down to the bottom edge (make it about as long as C + 5" -- we'll be trimming and fitting all this later). The width of the faux camisole should be slightly wider (maybe 1" to 1-1/2") than the apexes of the bust (measurement E). This is to minimize the visibility of any lines -- if they ran straight over the fullest part of your bust, where the bodice fabric is pulled tighter, the edges of the faux camisole might be more obvious.

NOTE: The second version of my dress was made of a more lightweight knit and so I decided to underline the bodice front pieces and the faux camisole for modesty's sake. My fear was that the edges of the faux camisole would show through the bodice pieces, and I don't want it to be obvious to everyone that I'm wearing a nursing dress! If your fabric is also on the lightweight side, I would recommend underlining as well.

Sewing the bodice

Bind the neckline of the faux camisole. To finish the long edges of the faux camisole, I used my serger but didn't turn under and stitch or anything -- you want this part to be as unobtrusive as possible. Drape the faux camisole on yourself (or your dressform) where you want it to be positioned (fig. 1), and then carefully place the bodice front pieces over it (fig. 2), lining up the top of the bodice front with approximately where your shoulder seam will go (don't forget to allow for seam allowance) and aligning the bottom edges at the middle of your underbust, forming a deep V with the neckline. Pin the straps of the faux camisole in place, then baste in place and trim excess fabric off the straps as needed.

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial
[Sooooo sorry about the horrible iPhone photos! Hopefully you get the idea!]

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial
[Straps of the faux camisole pinned in place after fitting on myself; ready to baste in place.]

Lay out the bodice back piece right side up. On top of this, lay the bodice front (from now on including the faux camisole which has been basted to the right and left pieces) right side down, matching up the shoulders at the neckline. Trim the bodice back as shown below, to line up with the bodice front (it's trimmed on the right side, not yet trimmed on the left). With right sides together, stitch shoulder seams (I would recommend reinforcing these seams with clear elastic or self-fabric strips). Try this on and make sure everything is laying OK, then pinching under your arm, decide how much of an opening to leave for your armhole (my armholes were a total of 16", or 8" down from the shoulder seam).

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial

Next you need to hem the sleeves, and lucky for you I messed up this part so no photos! Just my hastily drawn diagrams, which are probably clearer anyway. :) Laying the bodice flat with the shoulder seam at the top, measure down the desired length of your armhole opening + 1/2". From there, baste (1/2" away from edge of fabric) the side seams together to the bottom of the bodice. Go back to the top of the basting and make a 1/2" snip to the basting stitches (fig. 3).

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial

Then turn the sleeve holes under 1/2" and stitch with your double needle (I used the 2,0 size for arms and neck; 4,0 for skirt hem). Go back to the bottom of your armhole and stitch from the edge of the hemmed sleeve to the bottom of the bodice, curving in about 1-1/2" under the arm and then angling back out to meet edge at the bottom of the bodice (represented by the red stitching line in fig. 4). Trim excess fabric.

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial

Almost done with the bodice, which is definitely the most complex and time-consuming part of the dress! Just turn under the neckline 1/2" and stitch with a twin needle. (It will be a little tricky to turn under the curved back neckline, but just stretch the fabric as needed when you pin in place. I do recommend reinforcing the back neckline with a self-fabric strip or clear elastic as you're stitching it in place.)

Try on the bodice and align the front bodice pieces to meet in the center of the faux camisole under your bust where you want the underbust seam to be. Pin in place, remove bodice, and then baste front bodice pieces to the faux camisole at the underbust line.

Try on the bodice again and wrap a measuring tape or ribbon under your bust, distributing the fullness of the fabric evenly and making sure the side seams run down straight under your arms. Have a helper pin or mark the underbust line for you. Remove bodice, straighten up the markings, add 1/2" seam allowance, and trim excess fabric, making sure your trimming is symmetrical (do this by laying the bodice out flat and matching the side seams, then cutting through both layers of fabric starting from the middle of the bodice front and ending at the middle of the bodice back).

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" tutorial
[Back to my awesome iPhone photos! You can see here how I matched the side seams, folding the bodice at the center front and center back, and trimmed about 1/2" below the yellow chalk line.]

Attaching bodice to skirt

With right sides together, pin bodice to skirt top, matching side seams and center front and center back. (If the openings don't quite match perfectly, just stretch the knit slightly until they do -- no big deal.) Baste.

Take a length of 1/8" elastic and run it around your underbust, pulling enough to give some stretch but not uncomfortably so. Cut the elastic with no overlap. Mark the middle of the elastic, then mark the middle of each half. Starting at one of the side seams, pin the elastic over the basting stitches that join the bodice and skirt. Stitch over the elastic and basting stitches as you stretch the elastic so that the three marks align with the center front, opposite side seam, and center back of the bodice (see below). Finish up by stretching the end of the elastic back to the side seam where you started.

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial

Finishing details

Soooo close to being done! Next, with your elastic thread in the bobbin, stitch about 2" of shirring below the underbust seam (you can do more or less depending on whether you are high- or low-waisted). I did eight rows of shirring, each 1/4" apart (see below).

"Mama's Favorite Maxi Dress" Tutorial

Try on your dress and have your helper mark the hem for you. Trim as needed, then turn up the hem 1" and stitch with a double needle. ALL DONE!


  1. Well, I can't comment much on the usefulness of the tutorial other than that I'll tucked it away for "someday" Lord willing. I CAN comment to say that I adore your iphone cover! :)

  2. This is great! Thank you so much for taking the time and posting this! I'll let you know how it goes: )