With these five key stages in making a dress from scratch, you'll be well on your way to sewing ready-to-wear looks.
Step one for any project is choosing what pattern you want to make. In choosing a dress, there are a few things to consider. First, what is your body type? It doesn't benefit anyone to lie about their body type or measurements, so the first rule in sewing for your body is to be honest about what your body really is, in order to achieve a custom fit. Are you pear shaped? Are you bottom heavy? Or are you top heavy? These are some of many questions to ask yourself. If you're curvy in the hips, perhaps a straight cut skirt on a dress isn't the best choice. So be honest with yourself and take real measurements.
To measure yourself properly, it's best to put on your "real" undergarments (not a sports bra, for example) and have a friend help you. You want to take your bust, your natural waist (which is where you crease when bending to the side), and your hip (or the widest part of your body below the waist), which is usually about 9" below your natural waist. There are many other measurements that will come into play, but to pick your size, this is your starting point.
The second thing to think about when choosing a pattern is fit. Do you like your garments fitted? Or are you fonder of loose dresses? What kind of ease are you comfortable with in your clothing? Ease is the distance between your body and the garment, and everyone's preferred ease is different. Think about your body and how it might change from day to day. Some people like very little ease so the garment is quite fitted and others like things with some breathing room. Once you've decided, you'll want to look at the finished garment measurements on the pattern to see what kind of ease is built into the pattern to choose the correct size.
Lastly, you will want to consider style. Take a tour of your own personal closet and listen to what it's telling you. Notice any trends? See any holes in your wardrobe? Think about what you like to wear and how a new garment will work within that. Is there something that you really love and want to make more of? Or maybe it's time to try something new! There are patterns for thousands of dresses out there, everything from the big four brands, to indie pattern companies, to vintage couture sewing patterns, so the world is your oyster.
Once you've picked your pattern and dress style, you need to pick a fabric. It's critical to match the pattern style with the proper fabric. If the garment is structured, it could be a disaster to make it with voile, and likewise, picking a stiff fabric for something that should flow, won't work either. On the back of every pattern is a list of suggested fabrics. Not sure what they are? Educate yourself on the differences of each type of fabric that's out there.
Much like you did for the pattern style, check out your closet for inspiration. Do you like wearing natural fibers? Does the garment need to breathe, or is a man-made fabric okay? Personally, I'm a natural fibers kind of girl. I've learned that if my fabric doesn't breathe when the heat turns up, I get uncomfortable. So this is something to figure out for yourself as well. Look at your favorite dress and see what it's made from. Get clues from what you already own and wear!
Print and color of the fabric will largely depend on the style of the dress and the occasion that you plan to wear it. Looking for something for a spring afternoon? That could be perfect for cotton floral. Or if it's for an evening wedding, perhaps a black silk is right. Add up your personal preferences with the circumstances at hand, and you're bound to choose something great.
In order to cut your pattern you need to pin the pattern down, or alternatively, you can weigh it down with pattern weights. If you're doing more fine sewing and plan to use something like silk that isn't self-repairing when you remove the pins, I would suggest using weights or being careful to only use your pins inside the seam allowances when pinning your pattern down. Also, invest in some pins appropriate to your fabric. There are ballpoint pins for jersey and stretch fabrics, fine pins for silks, and everything in between.
Once you've chosen your size and cut out the pattern pieces, it's time to mark your fabric so that it can take shape. You've spent all this time selecting your pattern, picking the right fabric, cutting everything out, so don't do the tragic move and use a marking device that won't wash out of your fabric! I almost always use water-soluble pencils and though I'm careful to only mark on the inside of my fabric or in my seam allowance, I still make all my marks very conservatively because there's no need to use a heavy hand. Alternatively, you can use tailors tacks and other couture sewing techniques to mark your fabrics, especially if you are using finer fabrics that you don't want to make any marks on, even on the inside.
Fabric is flat; you are not! All those marks you've made are now going to fold and bend and gather up to accommodate the curves of your body. Common shape forming that you will see on patterns are darts, pleats, and gathers. Darts are folds in the fabric that look like long triangles. You will find darts at the bust, the waist, and sometimes in the back for shaping. Pleats and gathers build volume and will most often be seen at the waist, under the bust, or at the sleeve cap.
After following the pattern's instructions for making darts and other shaping, consider how you want to assemble the pieces together. Your pattern will likely instruct you through the most basic steps, but this is your handmade garment, and taking the time to employ couture techniques can be especially rewarding. French seams, blind hems, and other fine sewing finishing will elevate your dress to a higher level.
While the couture techniques you used for the inside of your dress will satisfy you, all the finishing elements you use will not only be visible for you, but they will inform those around you of how professionally you've constructed your dress. It's these details that will elevate a handmade garment to a much nicer, custom-made garment. Much like you did for the inside, consider using fine sewing techniques on the outside, despite what the instructions state.
For the hem, a blind or hand-sewn hem is lovely, as you won't see your stitches on the outside of your skirt. Another nice touch is to use a trim on the inside of your hem for a little surprise of color or lace when the inside of the hem is seen. Does your garment require buttons? The color, texture, and shine of the buttons can completely change the way the final outfit looks. Think about what you might accessorize the dress with and perhaps pull another color into the mix. Or, use a contrasting thread to attach the buttons for a little pop of color.
All these decisions that seem like small choices can really add up to a well thought out custom made dress that will be enjoyed in your wardrobe for many years to come.