How to Make a Dress Pattern: A Guide For Every Skill Level

How to Make a Dress PatternIf you’ve ever had a fantastic idea for a dress or costume, you know that it can be tough to find something off the rack that matches the picture in your head. Or, maybe you’ve found the perfect little black dress for a party or event, but shudder at the price tag. In either situation, you may find yourself thinking about how much easier it could be to just make the thing you’re dreaming of. That, of course, raises a new set of challenges.

Dress making patterns that you can find at a craft or fabric store are plentiful, but so many of them miss the mark. Maybe you just don’t easily fit into the rigid sizing conventions of one of those one-size-fits-all patterns, or maybe you were envisioning something less dowdy, or more embellished. So where does that leave you? Well, now you’re on the square that’s right in front of square one, wondering how to make a dress pattern. The flat pattern making that professional fashion designers and seamstresses whip up themselves are one part art, one part science. There is some real math know-how that goes into making a proper, by-the-book flat pattern that you can then use to create the dress you’ve been lusting after, that can take years to master. Before you consider kicking yourself for not getting a degree in fashion design, though, consider this: there are some quick and dirty “How-tos” that you can peruse to make your own dress pattern, and because we like you so much, we’re going to help you get started! 

The Silhouette:

There are a bunch of ways to fudge patternmaking, from the sophisticated (get a dress form) to the all-out cheat (cut up a t-shirt), but before you take a pair or scissors to your old Warped Tour tee, you’ve got to decide which silhouette you need because that will determine the method of how to make a dress pattern that fits your vision. It helps to sketch out what you want your dress to look like, not just for reference, but because it will make you feel like an actual fashion designer, especially if you know your way around fashion illustration fundamentals.

Here are a couple of fashion terms to know that you would likely encounter on a ready made pattern anyway:

  • Princess: Take your index finger, and place it halfway between the base of your neck and the outside of your shoulder. Draw a line all the way down your body. These are the princess seams, and you need to know them, because you will use them in one way or another when you make your pattern.
  • A-Line: An A-line skirt looks like, well, an “A”. It’s fitted up top, flared at the bottom.
  • Full: A full skirt makes for the best twirls. They run the range from circular to poof.
  • Shift: A shift is loose and not fitted, and any shape you get from a shift dress usually comes from cinching it with a belt.
  • Sheathe: Sleeveless or cap-sleeved with a fitted skirt. Usually sewn along the princess seams.
  • Empire: waist line that starts right under the breast, usually with a full or a-line skirt.
  • Bodice: the top part of a dress.
  • Skirt: Well, the skirt.
  • Darts: A sewn fold in the fabric that created dimension, usually along the princess seams.

Okay, consider yourself educated. Shall we get started?

Method One: Tee Shirt Cheat

Experience Level: Super Novice

Silhouette: Princess or Sheath

Materials:

  • A big, huge tee shirt, that, when worn, falls to the length you would like your dress to be, and that you don’t mind destroying
  • Duct Tape. Lots of it.
  • Sharp scissors
  • A permanent marker
  • Patternmaking paper or brown craft paper
  • Measuring tape
  • A friend that you trust to wield sharp scissors

This is the cheapest, easiest way that you’ll find regarding how to make a dress pattern, but it is a little time consuming, so be prepared!

Method:

  1. Don the tee shirt and summon your friend.
  1. Have your friend wrap you in the duct tape, straight over the tee shirt, keeping it snug but breathable.
  1. Using the permanent marker, draw a line that bisects you on the front and back, and mark any major seam lines as tidily as possible: neckline, armholes, waistline, hem, sideseams, princess, etc., and demarcate your left front, left back, right front, and right back sides.
  1. Make a dotted line around your natural waist–where you bend–if it is different from your dress’s waistline.
  1. Very carefully, cut the through the tape and tee shirt along the front center line to get the whole thing off.
  1. Thank your friend, they were very helpful!
  1. Cut along the major seam lines to make your patterns nice and tidy.
  1. Lay them on the paper. If you are using princess seams, leave them as they are (you should have four bodice and four skirt pieces). To get the patterns to lie flat, cut in where you want to sew darts, usually around the bust (under the arm) and at the waist. Make sure you measure them to ensure they are identical on all pieces.
  1. Trace all of the pattern pieces onto the craft paper, transferring your directional marks, and adding seam allowance (about an inch, for novices) onto the seams
  1. Jump up and down, because you just made your first pattern!

Now, obviously this isn’t an exact science, but what you’ve essentially done is made a base pattern that you can use to either make a simple sheath or modify as you become more comfortable sewing. Hooray you!

Method Two: Shop Your Closet

Experience Level: Hey, This Sewing Thing Isn’t So Hard After All

Silhouette: Whatever you own

If you have items in your closet that you really love and want to replicate, or that could be combined to make the dress you’ve been dreaming of, this is the method for you–and with this one, you’ll learn how to make a dress pattern without cutting up any of your stuff. Bonus!

Materials:

  • The item or items you want to copy
  • A Corkboard
  • Patternmaking or craft paper
  • Transfer paper (you can get it at a fabric store)
  • Pattern wheel
  • Pins
  • Pencil
  • Iron
  • Flat edge
  • French Curve
  • Scissors

Method:

  1. Iron your pieces of clothing. The flatter, the better! If they are buttoned or zipped close, open them up. Do the same for collars and cuffs.
  1. Make a patternmaking sandwich: lay the craft paper on top of the cork board, the transfer paper on top of that so that the transfer side is touching the craft paper, and then your clothing item on top of all of it.
  1. Pin it all down securely, making sure not to stretch any of your fabric taut. This could warp the pattern.
  1. Using your flat edge and french curve, use the pencil to trace the outer edge of the garment onto the craft paper.
  1. Using your pattern wheel and the edge or curve if you need extra stability, trace out any seams in the garment. Ditto buttons, button holes, and zippers, and darts. The transfer paper will mark the craft paper for you.
  1. Carefully unpin everything.
  1. Retrace any faint lines if necessary.
  1. Cut the traced garment apart at the seams, and retrace each individual piece onto more craft paper, adding seam allowance as you go. Cut those out.
  1. Learn some sweet dance moves, because this deserves a celebratory 2-step. 

Method Four: Drape

Experience Level: Patternmaking Protégé

Silhouette: Whatever you can dream up

Here’s a quick warning: If you want to know how to make a dress pattern using draping, just know that you’re in for a bit of a challenge. Draping will give you the freedom you need to make whatever you want, there’s just a slight learning curve. We’re sure you’re up for it, so read on!

Materials:

  • Dressform in your size
  • Drape tape (available at fabric stores)
  • Muslin (a cheap fabric used for dressmaking, but any cheap, light fabric will do)
  • Scissors
  • Dressmaking pins
  • Pencil
  • Sewing machine
  • Craft paper
  • Seam ripper

Method:

  1. Using the drape tape (sometimes called bias tape) mark out the silhouette of your dress on the dressform. It’s flexible, so you can use it to mark a neckline and any other details you need, like cutouts, criss-crosses, and key holes. Pin in place.
  1. Get a big piece of muslin, and pin it to the dress form on the grain and down the middle, making sure it’s nice and straight. It looks shapeless now. That’s ok.
  1. Do the armholes: pin the muslin so it’s flush against the form and identical on both sides.
  1. Shape the bodice: fold, slash, or manipulate the muslin until it too lies against the form and looks like you want it to.
  1. Make sure you bring the muslin up to the drape tape you already placed. Pin, pin, pin.
  1. Cut the excess from the bodice. Now you’re dress is starting to take shape.
  1. Drape the skirt: If you are making a sheath, you press the muslin against the form. Anything fuller, and you’ll need to drape it until it looks right. Pin when it does.
  1. Using your pencil, connect the dots. That is, the pins. You can use the natural seams in the dress form and the tape as a guiding edge. If you have any darts, make slash marks across them, so you can fold “A” to “B” later.
  1. Take the muslin off, and cut around the pencil lines. Transfer any darts.
  1. Sew the pattern pieces together with a very loose basting stitch on your machine, keeping the bodice and skirt separate for now, and keeping the back open, hospital gown style. Put them on, and take note of any adjustments you need to make.
  1. Take the pieces off, and using the seam ripper, gently pull the pieces apart. You can put them back on the dress form to re-drape any areas that need adjustment. If not, transfer them to the craft paper with their adjustments and seam allowance.
  1. Relax. You deserve it.

Obviously, this is a very basic explanation of the draping process, but with more and more practice, you’ll become an old hand at it faster than you may think.

All of these methods have shown you how to make a dress pattern that you can preserve and use over and over again to make your own custom clothing. How awesome is that? Besides basically having the golden ticket to looking awesome all the time, you’ll emerge with some new found skills that you can profit off of. You could learn, for instance, what it takes to be a professional stylist, or start thinking about making your own clothing line for kids. Whatever you do, one thing’s for sure; you’re going to be sporting a one-of-a-kind look while you do it!