This is a toddler’s dress that I found at the Bloor/Lansdowne Value Village in March 2020 for about $7. A lot of nice cotton in a geometric pattern I liked. Originally I thought the dress was barely used, which had me feeling a bit guilty about buying something perfectly serviceable in its current state. (I understand that I can do pretty much whatever I want with a piece of clothing I’ve purchased; the issue is that I’d rather do some real upcycling and divert something that might have gone into the garbage.) Back at home, I discover this wasn’t entirely true. From a line of four teal buttons that were originally on the back, one is missing, and a third has been rubbed so much that it’s losing its colour along one edge. The ties are both badly crumpled to the point that at least one side of each of them is damaged. So this thing has little enough wear that Value Village would still sell it, clearly, but also enough that anyone who found this at the mall might complain. The dress could be repaired a bit, but the person who bought it was me, which means that this will probably get more eventful.
There is not quite enough main fabric for even a short skirt, but I could remix the pieces into a top. I avoid empire-waisted dresses because they have a way of making me look ridiculous and short (I am sometimes ridiculous, but haven’t been short in years). Empire-waisted tunic tops are another matter, however – and this is what’s on my mind as I take the toddler dress apart. The inside hem has yielded two long strips of teal cotton two inches high, and I soon decide I’d like to use one of these as a high waistband. (There are also the two outer hem pieces, with the horizontal lines of colourful embroidery. These, however, go into my textile recycling bag immediately. I stay away from bumpy textures in my clothing because they’re exactly the sort of thing I idly pick at incessantly if given half the chance.)
The existing two short ties of the dress, with tapered ends, each have an teal side and a chartreuse side. I love both of these colours and their slightly psychedelic tropical-island feel. I could, for instance, reuse the neon-yellow sides of the ties along the teal waistband for a kind of ’60s look with pretend buttons (I find this kind of design so irresistible that it makes me overspend on vintage clothing when I see it). I doodle accordingly in my notebook.
I take the ties apart, but find that ironing doesn’t take out the creases. The teal sides are particularly mangled, and also discoloured. I trim the inside seams and try again, but it’s not much better. I may not be able to make use of the teal sides at all, because in both cases they’re apparently only a few molecules away from being perforated. For now, at least I have a sense of the full shape of the pieces.
There’s not much to be done with the original tiny bodice, either. However, the very full skirt and lining give me plenty to work with. Not enough for a backup plan if things go off the rails, though! I decide I’d better make a really good toile this time, especially as this is a tank top from scratch out of woven fabric with no stretch. I’ve been wanting to build a library of customised craft-paper patterns for myself anyway! So I invent a challenge for myself: create a toile version without tracing my clothing.
This takes a while because I don’t have a dress-form (my storage space is very limited and for various reasons I have been moving every 12 months for about five years in a row, so that’s not happening yet). I repeatedly take a bunch of measurements, raid my scrap bin, iron scraps, cut out pieces, hand-baste, try things on, and repeat the previous four steps a whole bunch of times. The process soon reminds me of my (fleeting, but intense) days as an aspiring engineer back in my mid-teens. Iterated prototyping! The front of the bodice alone ends up taking me about five tries, but the last of these is decent.
Around this point, I pause to compare the size of the pieces against the fabric from the toddler’s dress. It’s not quite going to be enough if I also want fabric below the waistband, so I’ll need to use some of the lining fabric in the outer layer as well. I decide to divide the front pieces below the waistband into three as well so that I can have a white central panel both above and below the waistband, thus allowing the outer fabric to go farther everywhere else. It’s a busy print, and I really like tripartite divisions and/or colour-blocking in my clothes, so no problem!
Then I begin adding pieces below the waistband. The toile version eventually combines cotton scraps from three different sources (one curtain and two sheets) – all held together with running stitches done by hand, since they’re easy to remove quickly. Admittedly, the following image shows the WS, but still – is this a hodgepodge or what?
The first attempt at pieces below the waistband isn’t nearly wide enough at the bottom, so I remove the pieces and cut a bunch of new ones, adding about eight inches to the diameter of the hem. It mostly works.
The only issue is that the side seams aren’t well-aligned. To get around that, I draw a new line to use when disassembling the toile before tracing the pieces onto craft paper. (Ignore tripod shadows – one of the few logistical problems with my current space.)
Otherwise, I just remove all the basting.
Time to trace.
That gives me six pattern pieces.
Cutting out pieces on the real fabric! This is one of my favourite steps; I love the challenge of getting the most out of limited but assorted materials. Here, a couple of the pieces are possible to cut out only by rotating 90 degrees to the side, but there is no stretch in either direction and the pattern is neither super-predictable nor rectilinear, so no nap problems ahead.
For the centre panels, the lining fabric – a cotton/polyester mix – is a bit thin, so I double it up.
I rethread the serger with white thread and then run all the cut pieces through it.
Now time to baste together the top 5 pieces, above, and the bottom 5 pieces, below.
And sew all 4 seams on each half.
Temporarily attaching both to the waistband.
One of the pieces below the waistband needs adjustment to line up properly in the front, for some reason, and I overcompensate a bit, which means one of the side seams is a little bit offset below and above the waistband, but at least it’s only a minor problem. (Also, the other one is perfect. I’m not quite sure how the two sides ended up divergent…but then I also don’t part my hair in the middle, so clearly I can deal with a little bit of asymmetry.) I also forget to sew that seam properly before sewing everything to the waistband on the machine, which means I later have to go in and do it carefully later and deal with the last few inches manually, but okay.
My first attempt at sewing the waistband to the bodice is by topstitching into the little indentation left behind, in white for a deliberate contrast. Then I decide to run another row of stitches parallel to it. I do that very carefully and then pull it off the machine and…it looks terrible. The indentation isn’t straight enough or parallel enough to the top of the waistband for this to have been a good idea. Even if it had been, topstitching here just seems so amateurish all of a sudden. I take out all the stitching at the waistband, then decide I’m going in and doing this from underneath. I re-baste and re-sew. Much better. Way way better. Worth the effort.
There is only one problem now, which is that all the back pieces are too narrow. I’m not sure how this happened, but the two pieces below the waistband each need to be about 1.5″ wider, and the two pieces above the waistband also each need to be about 1.5″ wider. If there’s a consolation, it’s that cutting them out more widely might not even have been possible given how limited the amount of fabric was. Still, it means some problem-solving is necessary. Now what?
Odds are that a 3″ wide panel is going in, and it’ll also serve as the edges of the zipper at the back. Okay. I quickly cut a couple of pieces from the scrap bin to test this out and baste them in just to ensure that this is what is needed. Indeed.
There isn’t enough of the main print (the cotton) to do this in one piece, or even two pieces with the waistband in between. I make an attempt at a compound piece of the patterned cotton, but that looks pretty desperate, so no. I turn back to the remaining lining fabric and cut some doubled-up pieces out of that instead and serge them. At least they match the zipper I want to put in.
The bottom ends up too short by an inch, so I fidget with some extra pieces of waistband and end up working my way through a series of minor engineering puzzles until I have two segments of waistband that wrap around the halves of the upper back panel and join each other halfway down to allow room for the bottom of the zipper.
Ideally there wouldn’t be a vertical panel up the back, but I can live with this as a compromise. It echoes the front and is much better than it would be to put in ridiculous compound pieces in the main fabric, especially a lively print. This way, I’ve also serendipitously figured out what to do about the intersection of the zipper and the waistband. Anyway, I turn all this inside out, press the seams, and spend about 90 minutes cleaning up the insides. Happy with that.
I haven’t inserted the zipper yet, but I could use a break from labouring over the back panel, so I consider plans for the shoulder straps. Originally, I was thinking of making them out of the same strips as the waistband, but along the way I changed my mind. And just as well, because I ended up needing a couple of extra pieces of those strips for the back panel and there’s not a lot left. Instead, I’ve been playing around with the chartreuse-coloured ties. I like the waistband in teal alone, so I’m no longer going to be superimposing a chartreuse layer on that. Instead, going to make chartreuse shoulder straps! Except not with the other side of the original ties – the teal – because those are creased and worn and unsalvageable. I’m going to add a backing from the lining fabric instead.
I wonder if I can get away with not even trying to fold the edges of the backing to match these. Instead, I lightly iron out the sides of the straps, but not enough to obscure the original borders. Then, twice in a row, I cut out a lining piece loosely.
For each strap, I hold these two layers together and slowly sew around on three sides, following the original fold line on the chartreuse very very closely.
Then it’s just a matter of trimming the lining fabric to match, clipping the tapered points a bit, and turning each strap inside out. Et voilà: I never had to fold the lining fabric!
Now, just to make the straps more two-dimensional and keep them like that. First, holding them down as desired and basting.
Then sewing at 1/8″ on three sides.
After that, I remove the temporary stitches, trim the ends (opposite the tapered points) and make sure the two straps are the same length (one of the chartreuse pieces was longer than the other, oddly).
After that, I follow up on my earlier idea for the buttons. As noted, only three of the original four remain, and of those three, one is a bit worn. The other two are going onto the tapered tips of the straps.
I really want to play around with fitting the straps! Where did I put my safety pins?
The length of the straps is good, fortunately; there wouldn’t have been much I could have done if they’d been too short. Figuring out the positioning of these in the back takes a bit of trial and error, but nothing too intense.
Home stretch! I pick off the serging from the bottom, trim the hem to be more even, and re-serge it all around. Then I do the same for the top border, which needs a bit of trimming to meet up with the other half across the zipper tidily. I fold the hem under and the edge of the top under, and baste those down, then sew them and remove the basting. After that, I sew down the front of the straps, i.e. at the edges around the buttons, by carefully duplicating the 1/8″ perimeter stitching by hand. Now I just need to deal with the back – the zipper and the other end of the straps.
I undo the safety pins to run both of the inside ends of the straps through the serger, then baste them inside at their full length. So far so good – only one of these needs to be adjusted, and only once.
Zippers are not currently a strength of mine, but I like having them on my clothes. In this case, I turn everything inside out, baste the zipper to the flaps, and then decide to do the rest by hand while I’m at it, especially since the flaps have already been slipped into the waistband pieces like origami and that makes this extra-finicky. Fair enough. I sew it in and fold the top edge down.
The zipper is a bit long and/or the opening is a bit short, but neither of these things is enough of a problem to bother opening up the seam that currently reaches halfway up into the waistband. I suspect I’d have to reinforce that from the outside if I wanted things to stay together, and that wouldn’t be so easy to do unobtrusively.
On each side, I sew a strap down by doubling the line of stitches on the machine, and continue that around to the back centre in order to catch the top of the zipper. It’s slightly uneven but pretty good; I’ll take it! Then I remove all the basting stitches, clean up the loose threads, and turn everything back outwards. Done!
As of the middle of 2020, I live in a 300-square-foot apartment basically shaped like a squared-off figure-eight. Which is all I need, but which has furniture pretty much everywhere. There aren’t many parts of the walls where I can take photos of myself standing against a neutral background. The only exceptions are the doors and the one closet. So. Closet!
Yep, I love this and my plan is to wear it a lot, at least once the weather allows.