The subheading for this tutorial should be how to sew a dress because really this is all there is to it! Once you learn how to gather a skirt and attach it to a bodice, then you can hack pretty much any top pattern into a dress!
In this tutorial I will go through the process of figuring out the skirt panel dimensions, gathering the skirt and then sewing the skirt to the bodice. I briefly mention adding pockets but I have a more detailed tutorial for How to Add Inseam Pockets.
I’ve used this method to hack several top patterns, including the Agustina Top by Fabrics Store, the Nepheline Blouse by Vivian Shao Chen, the Saguaro Set by Friday Pattern Company and my square neck tank dress. I love getting the most out of a top pattern by turning it into a dress!
What you’ll need
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- Fabric scissors
- Pin holder – this is the same one I’ve used for years
- Washable fabric marker
- Coordinating thread
Bodice / Top
A favorite top or shirt pattern, shortened to the length that you want, becomes your dress bodice.
For my example I’m using the Laurence Top by Vivian Shao Chen which is one of my most worn tops! I’ve hacked this top into a dress before and recently I figured out how to add a button placket to the bodice for another option.
This all depends on your body measurement, how long you want to make the dress, if you’re adding inseam pockets, sleeves or even adding a second skirt tier. The bodice won’t take up a lot of fabric, but you can always do some quick measurements to figure out about how much you’ll need for the skirt.
To figure out your skirt panel width, first measure the width of the bottom of the bodice (I like to do this after I’ve cut out the bodice to make it a little easier). As long as your skirt panel is wider than your bodice, then there will be some gathering. Essentially the amount of gathering is up to you – a wider skirt panel will have more gathers and volume, and a narrower skirt skirt panel will have less gather and a slimmer look.
A good rule of thumb is to cut your panel 1.5x the width of the bodice. My bodice width is 19″ so I would multiply 19″ x 1.5″ and get 28.5″ for my skirt panel width. I would say that this is a good minimum – but I actually like to add a little more volume to my dress skirts. For my Laurence Top dress hacks, I use the Orchards Dress by Vivian Shao Chen skirt panel (from view A) just to make things easier when cutting. I figured out that the skirt is about 1.75x the width of the bodice.
On both my Saguaro Set dress hack and my square neck tank dress (pictured above) I only made the skirt 1.5x the width of the bodice and you can tell that they have a different look than my Laurence Top dress hack. Also, the width of your bodice can make a difference in the skirt volume too. The Agustina Top is a boxy top so the skirt on that dress hack is very full.
Don’t forget to add seam allowance! For example, If you decided to use 1/2″ seam allowance on the side seams, then add 1″ to your overall skirt panel width (1/2″ on each side).
You will need two skirt panels the same width, and cut them whatever length you want. Remember to account for seam allowance at the waist and hem and add that to the overall length.
Adding a second skirt tier
If you want to make a tiered skirt, then the same thing applies – make your tier 1.5x (or more) the width of the bottom of the top skirt. I usually do the same amount that I did for the top skirt. So if I made my top skirt 1.75x the width of my bodice, then I make the second tier 1.75x the width of the top tier. (If you’re curious to check it out, I wrote a tutorial for How to Sew a Skirt With Elastic Waistband where I walk through how to make a two tiered skirt using the same gathering techniques.)
Ultimately, it’s up to you! If you want a little less gathering on the second tier, then go for it. No one’s going to know the math behind it except for you 🙂
One of my favorite things about sewing dresses is to be able to add pockets – if you want! I’ll briefly mention adding inseam pockets, but my article How to Add Inseam Pockets goes into more detail.
time to sew!
Once you have your bodice assembled and your skirt dimensions figure out, then the pockets come next. After the pockets are in and the side seams sewn, then press the pockets and seams towards the front. If you’ve never sewn inseam pockets before, then head over to my tutorial How to Add Inseam Pockets to learn how!
If you’re skipping pockets then sew the side seams, right sides together, at your chosen seam allowance. Finish seams and press them towards the back.
Sew gathering stitches
There are several other methods of gathering a skirt, but I’ll be showing the most basic one. You can use contrasting thread if you want since it can easily be removed later. Make sure you have enough thread though because if you run out half way through then you won’t be able to gather your skirt fully. (You can tell from my pictures that I ran out of matching thread so that’s why I have one line of white, ha).
I usually have the right side of the fabric facing up, that way I can easily remember which side has the bobbin stitches on it (you’ll need those later). Start at one of the side seams, sew 1/4″ away from the raw edge with your machine’s longest stitch length. Sew until you reach the other side seam but do not backstitch and leave a long tail of thread. Sew another line of stitching 1/2″ from the raw edge (or 1/4″ from your last line of stitching) from side seam to side seam.
Repeat these steps for the other side.
mark the center front and back
Line up the side seams of the skirt together and mark the center front and center back with pins or a washable fabric marker.
Mark the center front and center back on the bodice as well – this is going to help make evenly spaced gathers in the skirt.
Gather the skirt
With the bodice inside out, place the skirt inside the bodice – the right sides of the fabric should be together – and line up the raw edges. If your skirt has pockets, make sure they are at the top of the skirt and not at the bottom (I’ve totally done this before!)
It’s can be kind of finicky getting this all set up, but take your time and it’ll work out! Place a pin at the center front and center back where you marked them.
Starting at one side seam of the skirt, find the ends of the two bobbin threads (they should be facing up) and gently pull on the threads with one hand while moving the fabric with your other hand to start forming the gathers (the bobbin threads are a lot easier to pull than the top ones!) Gather until you reach the pin at the middle and that portion of the skirt is the same length as the bodice.
At this point I usually place a pin at the side seam and wrap the threads you just pulled around the pin in a figure 8 to secure it. You can make a knot, but you won’t be able to undo it if you need to adjust the gathers for any reason. I like to have one side knotted and the other wrapped around a pin until I’m ready to sew.
Next, pull on the bobbin stitches at the other side seam and gather the fabric on the other side of the pin. Adjust the gathers until they look evenly spaced between the side seams. Pin the skirt in place as you go to hold everything in place.
Repeat these steps for the back (or front).
sew the skirt and bodice together
Bring your (almost) dress over to your machine and position it so the gathers are facing up. This way you can make sure they are laying flat and not getting caught in a weird way. Make sure your stitch length is back to normal length (around 2.5-3) sew at your desired seam allowance – I’m sewing with a 1/2″ seam allowance.
While you sew, stop to adjust the gathers at you go and lay them flat so they feed smoothly. I will also “scratch” at the gathers to spread them out if there’s a section that’s smushed together.
My favorite part – turn everything right side out! Make sure there aren’t any funny gathered parts or any of the bodice caught in the seam. You don’t have to unpick the entire skirt if you notice something, just unpick that section to fix it.
Try on your dress to check the fit. Finish the seams with a serger or zigzag stitch if everything looks good! (It’s kind of a pain to undo finished seams, so I just like to make sure it all looks good before finishing.)
press and hem
Press the seams up towards the bodice. Hem at your desired length. And you’re done!
Now go make more! 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions about any of the steps. Thanks for reading, and happy sewing!