Dressmaking for beginners: Tips from a Quilter!

There’s something about spring that always makes me think of doing some dressmaking (maybe it’s the change in temperature?!). Although I’ve made a few different things, I still consider myself a confident beginner in dressmaking,

I have definitely approached dressmaking with a quilters mindset: I use a lot of my quilting tools, chain piece sections together…..they’re just slightly different shapes!

Dressmaking Tips by a Quilter including tutorials and patterns for the beginner dressmaker

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I received a lovely email from one of my readers recently asking for some dressmaking tips, so I thought I would share How to Start Dressmaking from a quilter’s point of view, and include lots of tutorials, patterns and links to designers that I hope you’ll find useful.

Must-Have Equipment

As a quilter, you probably already have a majority of the equipment needed to start dressmaking, but just in case, here is a list of the thing I most frequently reach for!

  • Scissors – a pair of dressmaking shears (you can find a great range here) and snips for trimming threads.
  • [optional] Rotary Cutter & Cutting Mat – I find this makes it a lot easier, more accurate and speedier to cut pieces out!
  • Tape Measure – I love this extra long one, especially useful for working with longer lengths of dressmaking fabrics.
  • Pins and wonderclips
  • Tailors Chalk for marking darts/pleats on your fabric
  • Seam Rippers – because, mistakes happen! This is my favourite style to use.
  • Polycotton Thread, matching your fabric (or contrasting, if you want to make it a feature!)
  • Sewing Machine: you don’t need a fancy sewing machine to sew awesome clothes. Honestly! When I started out, I had a fairly basic machine. As long as it does straight-stitch and zig-zag, you can make clothes (you can find a selection of the top sewing machines suitable for beginners here). If you find yourself enjoying dress-making, in time you may want to get an over-locker as it can speed things up and gives a lovely professional finish to your makes, but it’s not necessary at the beginning of your journey.
Dressmaking Tips by a Quilter including tutorials and patterns for the beginner dressmaker

Choosing a Pattern

For your first item of clothing, it’s probably best to keep away from anything too fitted until you have a bit more of an idea on how to alter things to suit you. This will save some stress and frustration!

I started off with Indie patterns, and I think they’re a great starting point: they usually include very clear instructions, a wide variety of dress-sizes and sew-alongs with lots of hints and tips. Often, there are also blog reviews available with more tips, adaptions and fabric requirements.

TIP – I love looking at pattern reviews on blogs to get an idea of how a pattern looks on different body shapes, which fabrics might work best, how it might look and whether it will suit me.

The one thing to bear in mind with Indie sewing patterns is that they are often based on the designers’ style preferences and body shape.

If you have a good idea of your own body shape, it then helps to understand what adjustments you might need to make to patterns to get them to fit you eg. I absolutely love Grainline Studio patterns – the fit is pretty much perfect as I must have a similar body shape to the designer, but I always need to add 2” to the sleeve length (clearly I’m Mrs Tickle!).

Indie Designers to check out;

This is by no means an exhaustive list – these are the designers whose style I like and patterns I have personally used and loved. I will add to this list as I try out others!

  • Colette Patterns – where I first started reading/learning about dressmaking. There are lots of useful, informative posts if you like detail. Fit wise, the patterns are drafted to be for a C-cup and style-wise are a bit more retro. The Laurel is a great basic shift dress and beginners pattern.
  • Grainline Studio – more relaxed fit/lots of wardrobe staples. Great patterns to try out are the Linden Sweatshirt, Driftless Cardigan and when you want to stretch your skills a bit further, there’s the Archer Shirt and Moss Skirt!
  • Sew Liberated – again, a more relaxed fit range (the Arenite pants that I made are a loose fit and as my first attempt at trousers were not at all scary!) and great instructions.
Beginnger dressmaking tips from a quilter - Sewing slimmed down Arenite Pants
  • Helen’s Closet Patterns – more comfy, cosy, easy to wear patterns! The York Pinafore is a fantastic beginners pattern and doesn’t use much fabric – about a metre or so I think? The Blackwood Cardigan also has some great reviews.
  • Wiksten – the Wiksten Tova was one of the first more advanced pieces of clothing that I made: it includes a few techniques that are great if you want to challenge yourself a little, but are totally achievable for beginner dressmakers. It can be made into a shirt or a tunic dress so is very versatile.
  • Marilla Walker – a collection of patterns with a unique style and a little bit different to other available patterns. Marilla often includes free add-on patterns making them very adaptable. The Roberts Collection is a brilliant value pack of patterns and I’ve also started making a muslin of the Isca Shirt Dress.
  • Tilly and the Buttons– lots of brilliant explanations and tutorials on various techniques and easy to follow patterns. Coco and Cleo are great beginner patterns.

Many of these companies provide paper patterns or PDF which you can print out at home to use straightaway. If you print out a PDF pattern at home, you often need to tape them together (this can sometimes be about 30 sheets of paper), or if you have a few you can send the files to a company to print out on A0 paper (if you’re based in the UK, Net Printer are a great option), often at a reasonable price and have them sent to you.

Beginnger dressmaking tips from a quilter - Staple Dress

Free patterns to check out;

There are lots of free dressmaking tutorials available – I’ve got quite a few saved to my Dressmaking Pinterest board, or you can do a website search which will bring up lots of options.

Some other good, basic top patterns to check out by Indie Designers are;

  • Sorbetto by Collette – the very first pattern I ever made, and there are lots of tutorials/adaptions that have been blogged about that you will probably find useful. From memory, I think it only uses about a metre of cotton fabric as well!
  • Hemlock Tee by Grainline Studio – a great first t-shirt pattern using jersey.
  • Mandy Boat Tee by Tessuti – a boxy t-shirt with drop shoulders. Made with jersey and a very multi-functional pattern.

Dressmaking Tips by a Quilter including tutorials and patterns for the beginner dressmaker

Tips to get a great fitting item

Being a bit of a geek, I did lots and lots of reading trying to find the best tips and tricks I could to make lovely clothes. The most useful ones I’ve found so far are;

  • Always use Polycotton thread (not cotton): it is stronger and has a slight stretch to it which means it stretches slightly with the fabric (when it’s being pulled over the head etc) and will help your item last longer.
  • Always pre-wash your fabric: unlike quilting – where you want the fabric to shrink and crinkle – there is nothing more upsetting than making a beautiful, fitted item only to have it shrink in the wash and not be wearable any more! So, pre-wash your fabric as you intend to care for it, as fabric can shrink by up to 5%.
  • If you are making a top, measure the upper bust (under the armpits) and choose the pattern size based on this measurement. This means you will get a good fit around the neck/shoulder, and you can always grade out (merge from one clothes size to the next) under the armpit/waist/hip.
  • Take accurate measurements, and don’t compare shop sizes with pattern sizes. They are often very different!
    • To measure your waist, bend to the side (like in the nursery rhyme, I’m a Little Tea-Pot!) – where it creases is your natural waist.
    • Don’t be afraid to grade (merge) from one pattern size to another if you need to. I’m a pear shape and so often grade up between a bodice and the hips. This is the beauty of making your own clothes!
    • If you are not sure what size to make and have a top that you like which is similar in style and fabric, lay the existing top on the pattern pieces/measure it to help you choose!
  • If the item is a bit more fitted, or more complicated, take the time to make a muslin in a similar but cheaper fabric (especially if it’s with a pattern designer that you’ve not used before) to work out any issues.
  • If you have space and a big enough cutting mat, I find it much easier and more accurate to cut around the pattern pieces with a rotary cutter. This prevents stretching of the fabric from lifting it up and cutting around with scissors. I’m used to using a rotary cutter so it’s quick too! I normally use tins of beans (!) to hold the templates in position, and then snip/mark any marks/darts that I need to.
Beginnger dressmaking tips from a quilter - Sewing slimmed down Arenite Pants
  • When cutting out pieces, always make sure that you line up the pattern pieces with the grain of the fabric. This helps the finished item to hang properly and prevent twisting.
    • Clothes pattern pieces often include a large arrow to indicate the grain of the fabric – line it up so that it is perpendicular to the selvedge
    • If you are folding the fabric in half, take a few minutes to measure from the folded edge to the selvedge in a few places. This again helps to make sure that everything is straight. Pin the layers together if you’re worried about it moving!
  • If you make a top with sleeves, it can feel a bit scary the first time. But remember, if you can sew a curve in quilting, you can easily sew a sleeve!
    • It can often be easier if (for example), you sew the front and back together at the shoulder seams, join the sleeves to the armhole and then sew the sleeves and side seams in one go.
    • A lot of Indie designers tend to sew up their patterns in this way anyway, but many top patterns can be adapted in this way.
  • Jersey actually makes a great fabric to work with as it is stretchy so you don’t have to worry so much about fit! If you use a zig-zag stitch/walking foot if you haven’t got an overlocker, you shouldn’t have a problem. It also doesn’t tend to fray which makes it easier to work with!!!
Beginner Dressmaking Tips by a Quilter

In terms of buying fabric, a lot of dressmaking is all about using the right fabric for the right item. Often this comes down to the type of fabric and how it drapes: there’s no point using a light, soft fabric for something structured like a jacket!

In an ideal world, I would always go to a shop, have a good browse and look at all the fabrics before choosing one. Sadly, this isn’t often the case and I buy quite a lot of my fabrics online.

When looking at what fabrics to get, the pattern often recommends what to use. Checking out what other people have used (back to those blog reviews again!) also helps to identify what works best.

Finally, don’t forget to check the washing instructions and fabric content to give you an idea of how it will wear/if it’s practical for your lifestyle (I have three children and am not a fan of ironing so want washable fabrics and avoid 100% cotton/linen fabrics where I can!!!). If you’re based in the UK, I find that Minerva Crafts has a great range of products.

Beginnger dressmaking tips from a quilt - Wiksten Tova

I hope you find this useful – don’t forget to pin it, as I will be adding to this list as I continue my dress-making adventures!


Today’s sky::: a bit overcast and very windy!

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