Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Tuesday Tutorial: dress to skirt alteration

This marks the first of what will hopefully be a regular series: Tuesday Tutorial. Not all posts will be as huge and in-depth as this one, and it probably won't be every Tuesday because a lot of what I make takes a bit longer to make, but I'd like to start posting regular tutorials showcasing various sewing techniques for a variety of skills. AND doing a regular tutorial encourages me to actually keep sewing regularly, which is always a bonus.

Over the weekend I pulled out this Innocent World dress which I'd begun altering last year before moving house. I've started preferring skirts to dresses, since they're a bit more versatile and easier to dress up for work, so since I love the print of this dress, I'd decided to turn it into a skirt with a wide waistband for a bit of a high-waist effect. I probably could have sold the dress and bought the IW skirt instead, but given that it's not super rare, I like the cream colourway and I had the dress in my seam-ripper-happy hands, there was no reason for me not to alter it. Plus I've taken photos so y'all get to see shot-by-shot details of how to do something similar! 

This tutorial is aimed at those who have around an intermediate sewing level. You don't have to be super-amazing, but you should be pretty confident with making gathered-waist skirts on flat waistbands, using a seam ripper, and with using limited fabric supplies to construct things like a new waistband. If you're not hugely confident with these skills, I've tried to make instructions as clear as possible, but you might find things a little tougher. Protip: you can also use this tutorial to resize a skirt, although I intend to post another photo tutorial with details on resizing a waistband using waist ties or a new piece of fabric.

As always, click the pictures for a larger view!

What you will need! On the top is iron-on interfacing, pins, matching thread, buttons (or hook and slide-bar fastenings), a seam ripper, large and small sewing scissors (you can just have a large pair but I keep a small pair next to my machine for snipping threads), a tape measure, and a dress to alter. Plus a bonus cat tail, but this is actually neither necessary nor useful, my cat just likes to be included. Below is an ironing board and iron; this is SUPER necessary as you'll need to press your unpicked pieces and iron on the interfacing, and pressing as you go is one of my most recommended ways to keep your sewing looking good. Plus a bonus background of my teeny fabric/patterns storage and inspiration board. I recently moved house into a much smaller bedroom (honestly about half the size) and while setting up my sewing area was tricky, I'm quite pleased with the amount of usable room I've wound up with.

The first step: unpick the skirt from the bodice along the waist seam. This might take a wee while depending on how the dress is constructed and how many seams there are, but generally take care with what you're doing and avoid ripping the raw edge of the skirt, as unless you specifically want to shorten the skirt, the top edge needs to be kept nice and tidy for re-gathering onto the waistband later. When you reach the zip, use your scissors to snip it across even with the top of the skirt raw edge, and put a pin in to stop yourself pulling the zipper up and off the tape (I have done this before, and it is fucking irritating as getting the thing back on is basically impossible and part of the joy of this alteration is not having to put in your own zip).

Press the top of the skirt flat to get rid of the old gather creases. Using a basting stitch, sew a seam inside the seam allowance (I usually line up the edge of the fabric with the edge of my foot), sewing the lining to the skirt outer if the skirt is lined. Stop sewing, pull out a good end of thread and snip when you reach the side seam, then sew the same again. This basting stitch will act as your gathering thread, and I find it's easier to gather the front and back of the skirt separately so I leave a long thread in the middle ready to pull.

You should now have a wide, flat tube of skirt, plus a bodice unpicked at the waist. Set aside the skirt for now, because we're going to unpick the bodice and that's a bit of a bitch.

Now we have a pile of bodice pieces, plus some trim. I'm a bit of a hoarder when it comes to nice things, so I unpicked all of the trims really carefully and put them aside to use as I could.

Cut out pieces to put together the waistband, and don't forget that you need about an inch extra at one end to provide the overlap for a button or hook/slide fastening. In constructing the waistband, it gets a bit tricky because how you construct it really does depend on the shape of the pieces of your specific bodice. If you've got a lot of long, narrow bits you might have to play around a bit with Frankensteining them together. I was super lucky because the bows on the front of the dress unfolded into really nice large rectangles of fabric, which combined with the large (originally shirred) back panel of the dress was enough to do a wide waistband which folded over to provide the backing, rather than needing a seam at the top. 

If you have waist ties that you don't mind using, they will be SUPER EXCELLENT as they're a long, wide piece of fabric from which it should be fairly easy to cut out a waistband; I'm usually a bit 'meh' over waist ties and don't mind using them at all, but the ones that come with this dress are gorgeous and have a lovely scalloped edge, so I couldn't bring myself to cut them up (though halfway through unpicking the bodice, which was patterned and put together incredibly well, thanks IW, but golly it was a pain to unpick... I did wind up looking wistfully at the long expanse of waist tie and calculating whether I could use them and still save the scallops). If you're using waist ties, I'd probably recommend ignoring unpicking the bodice unless you want to nick the trim for later use or you want extra fabric for accessories like hairbows.

Trim your waistband strip evenly along all edges, then add iron-on interfacing to the reverse side. If you want a particularly stiff waistband (good if you're making a high-waisted style) and your fabric's a bit floppy/lightweight, you might want to use a heavier-weight interfacing. This fabric is naturally quite stiff (hurr hurr) which I was pleased by as it holds up well to a wide waistband without creasing.

Using pins, mark the centre front, side and centre back of your waistband. In this picture you can also see how I've Frankensteined my panels of fabric together for a waistband. In general, if you're working with panels of fabric that need sewing together to make a whole strip, try as much as possible to place your seams symmetrically and in places that won't look too odd, and if you have trim, try using it in the seams to make them look a bit more intentional. This scalloped lace was taken from the top neckline, and this is the entire piece I had - it looks odd at the moment because it finishes halfway up, but once the waistband is folded over it all works out.

GATHERING TIME. Check out those goddamn gathers. This is something I also can't really teach via tutorial - learning how to gather fabric quickly and evenly is something that you'll pick up with experience. But try to line up the edge of the gathers with the edge of the waistband, and use as many pins as you need to keep the gathers wrangled in place. Then when you're sewing, go slowly and carefully and FINGERS CROSSED avoid stabbing yourself with pins. Sewing in gathers is always when I seem to do it and it fucking hurts. Plus then you run the risk of bleeding all over your fabric, and that's generally unpleasant and irritating. So yes. Slow and careful is the motto.

Look, it's beginning to look like a skirt! This is post-gathering but pre-folding-down-the-waistband. Press your waistband up and the gathering seam up towards the waistband too, so that when you fold down the back, you can enclose the raw edge inside the band. Here you can see my front lace detailing a bit more, plus just how wide the unfolded waistband really is (around 6" unfolded).

Fold in the seam allowance along the remaining raw edge of the waistband, then fold the whole thing down and pin/sew the inside in place along the gathered edge (just like you would when constructing a skirt normally). I forgot to take a photo of it pinned in place, but this is post-sewing. You can either stitch 'in the ditch' between the waistband and the gathered skirt, or top-stitch along the edge of the waistband. I prefer to top-stitch both along the bottom edge and the top fold, since it gives the top edge some extra structure and also makes it look a bit more professional. I've also added a line of rose galloon lace along the bottom edge of the waistband for some extra detail and interest, and because I'm a bit of a perfectionist I sewed back in the Innocent World tag before sewing down the waistband.

Add your fastenings - I've used two cream buttons since I had them, but if you prefer you can sew in a hook and slide or two. If you're going to keep using your waist ties, sew back on the buttons on each side of the waistband (I am actually SUPER LAZY and haven't done this yet; I probably won't until I actually want a bow which might be some time away). Tie and trim off any loose threads, and you're FINISHED. WOO HOO.



  1. The skirt turned out really lovely!! Good job!

  2. This turned out gorgeous! I am amazed at all the effort that went into it, but it really paid off in the end! The skirt looks great.

    As a side note, I always think this print is a MILK or ETC print!

  3. This is so cute! I am jealous of your patience, I would have been so irritated at the half-way point unpicking the skirt. D:

  4. Caro - I can see why you'd think that, it's very ETC-ish isn't it! It was a fair bit of effort, but I was working on Sunday with my flatmate and another friend so we all sat around sewing (and cursing when things didn't go right) which helped make it less tedious :)

    Sophisteacated - I have to confess, I started unpicking the skirt on Friday and then gave up in disgust at the halfway point and came back to it later. Especially because the lining was sewn to the bodice separately from the main skirt, so there were two rows of unpicking to do!

  5. Wow, this looks lovely! I'm so awful at putting on waistbands like this. I always mess it up somehow and the fabric gets all wiggly and misshapen when I try to attach the waistband to the skirt. Interfacing my help, though, I'll have to try that!