It took me a while to work up the courage to start sewing for myself. But once I did, I was addicted. Through trial and error, I ascertained that I like clean, streamlined designs. No frills, frou-frou, or blinding bling for me. And when it comes to clothes, I’m all about comfort. I’ve tried a lot of different patterns since
I started sewing, but the ones I wear over and over are the ones made out of knit with little fanfare. That’s exactly what I’ve created here—a low-key dress made out of knit jersey. I’ve had to go through a myriad of iterations to figure out what style works best for my unique body type, and I’m not sure if I’ve completely nailed it yet, but I keep trying. The best part is in the practice and learning, and I hope you’ll feel encouraged to do the same.
This is one of those workhorse garments that you’ll reach for time and time again. With a little nip and tuck and snip and extension here and there, the possibilities are really endless for this beginner-friendly, versatile knit dress. Now, I know that there ’s a visceral fear of knits out there, but take heart: the stretchy stuff is incredibly forgiving.
I’ve created a couple versions of this dress using different skirt lengths, which is an easy way to alter the entire look of the dress. All you need is a tank top that you already own to get started on the drafting process. Make sure that the stretchiness of the tank top is comparable to the fabric you’re using to get similar fit. For example, if your tank top is super stretchy but your fabric is not (some knits like interlock don’t stretch a lot), the bodice of your dress will be too tight. And vice versa. It’s always a good idea to first test this out on inexpensive knit jersey before cutting into the nice stuff, just in case. Drafting a dress may seem daunting, and it’s quite possible that your first attempt won’t look exactly the way you’d hoped. If that happens, I urge you to soldier on and try it again with tweaks because oftentimes repetition is the greatest teacher. I’ve done my best to include detailed instructions, and I know that with some practice, your result will be a keeper.
Knit jersey is the required fabric for this project, but keep in mind not all knit jerseys are created equal. Try to find stretchy fabric that isn’t too thin (you’ll thank me) or prone to curling at the edges. A touch of spandex or lycra—just a touch: you’re not auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance—will make the sewing experience much nicer. Organic bamboo or hemp cotton knit is absolutely lovely, but quite pricey, or you can actually find some beautiful drapey polyester-blend knits if you don’t mind polyester. Make sure to prep the fabric by washing, drying, and pressing.
Modifiable to your size and desired length
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Did you find a favorite tank top or sleeveless knit dress? This will form the basis of your pattern piece. Put it on, and with a pin or a marking tool that won’t leave a permanent mark, decide where you would like your waist to be at the side. Mark or pin that spot. From that waist point, measure how far down you’d like the skirt portion of the dress to fall. Make a note of that dimension.
On a flat surface, lay a large piece of pattern paper. Fold your tank top or dress in half so that your mark/pin is visible. Lay the folded garment on top of the paper. With weights or soup cans or whatever you have on hand, hold down the garment and trace the bodice up to the point of the mark/pin. Remove the garment and clean up your traced lines where they may look uneven or crooked.
Make sure that you have right angles at the following sections: neckline at center fold, neckline corner where shoulder begins, corner under the arms, the corner at the waist, the waistline that meets at the center. Cut out your front bodice pattern piece and label it “Versatile knit Dress—FRONT—cut 1 on fold.”
Drape this bodice pattern piece against your body to see if it’s hitting mostly in the places that look good to you, but keep in mind that knit jersey stretches so this doesn’t require meticulous precision. I usually don’t need to add a seam allowance because the knit jerseys I buy at fabric stores seem to always have way more stretch than retail-wear knits. However, the fit really depends on the type of fabric you use, so you might need to tweak this bodice pattern piece a bit before you get just the right fit.
Lay the front bodice piece onto the pattern paper and trace. You’re going to raise the neckline a little for the back, and my highly technical method of doing this is eyeballing what looks good, and then drawing the new neckline. You could also determine an exact measurement and use a curved ruler to make this neckline. Either works. The only thing to keep in mind is that just like the front neckline, the line that meets at the center fold should be perpendicular (or a right angle) or you will end up with either a peak or divot in the center back. Cut out and label this piece “Versatile knit Dress—baCk— Cut 1 on fold.”
The skirt is a simple rectangle. Using the measurement you calculated in step 1, add 11⁄2 total inches for the hem and waist seam allowances. This is your skirt pattern height. Make a note of this number.
For the width, take your pattern piece bodice waist measurement, double it (remember, the pattern piece is for only half the body) and add 4 inches. Keep in mind that the skirt will be gathered at the waist and you might need to adjust after making your muslin version, which is always a good idea. Make a note of this width.
I like to measure the skirt dimensions directly on the fabric, but if you prefer to have a pattern piece, first draw out the rectangle on your pattern paper. If you choose to create a pattern piece, label with “Versatile Knit Dress—Skirt—Cut 2.”
Time for some cutting action. Wrangle your knit fabric onto your cutting surface. Unless it’s become horribly wrinkled in the prepping process, you shouldn’t need to iron it. For the bodice pieces, I like to find the center point of the fabric, and then fold the two edges inward toward the middle (like double doors) with the RIGHT sides facing.
Pin or use weights to hold the pattern pieces in place. Trace with a marking tool, and cut out.
A note about using striped fabric, which is often my go-to for knits. If you don’t want terribly mismatched stripes, try this method. The easiest way I’ve found to match up stripes is cutting the pieces as a single layer (instead of on the fold), aligning the stripes at underarm sections, corners, bottom edges, etc. so I trace the one half pattern piece, and then flip it around to trace the other half, keeping my eye on stripes placement. This will add a little extra time, but the professional finish, in my opinion, is worth it. This method is applicable to all prints you want to make appear seamless.
Once you’ve cut out the bodices, fold the remaining fabric in half, and measure out the skirt dimensions. You should have two skirt pieces. If you’re using stripes or a print that you want to match up, cut out the skirt pieces from a single layer.
You can place all the pattern pieces and measure out the skirt at the same time as the bodice pieces, but I don’t have a large enough surface to do so. I always try to maximize the fabric whenever possible by cutting pieces close together.
To make the neckband and armhole band bindings, I use yet another highly technical method. . I simply cut across the length of the fabric (which is usually about 60 inches) at a 11/2-inch height. A rotary cutter and large quilter’s ruler is extremely handy for this. One 60-inch length is sufficient for both neckline and armhole bindings for me, but if it doesn’t look like enough, cut two. Extra binding is always great to have. Note: unlike wovens, knit fabrics are sufficiently stretchy from selvage to selvage, so you don’t need to cut binding on the bias (for wovens, the fabric stretches more on the bias).
VERY IMPORTANT: Change your sewing machine needle to a ballpoint or stretch needle. You will be happier for it since these needles are specifically designed for knit fabrics. Some people recommend a walking foot, but I’ve never used one and have sewn dozens and dozens of knit projects successfully. There are several stitch style options for knit fabrics (see sewing knits, page 105). A regular straight stitch isn’t ideal because it doesn’t have enough elasticity or stretch, and will break easily.
Pin the front and back bodices to each other at the shoulders with the RIGHT sides facing. I use extra fine pins (won- der clips are fantastic for knits too) since regular pins may leave holes in the fabric. Using your choice of one of the knit-friendly stitches, sew 3⁄8 inch from the edge.
Feel free to leave the raw edges as is since knit fabrics don’t fray. I usually use an overlocking stitch to finish the raw edges, but this is purely out of habit. Press the seams open, or if you over- locked the edges, press overlocked edges toward the back.
Pin or the clip sides together with the RIGHT sides facing. If your fabric has stripes or a print that needs to match up, pay attention to aligning these elements as you pin/clip. Sew 3⁄8 inch from the edges. Finish (or not) the raw edges. Press the seams in the same way you did for the shoulders.
Finish the raw edge (or not) and press it toward the bodice. This next step is something that I wouldn’t normally recommend, but I’ve done this on countless necklines and have never had a problem. Change to a straight stitch with a length of about 31⁄2. Working from the center back on the RIGHT side of the bodice, stitch 1⁄4 inch from the edge where the neckband meets the bodice. This holds the seam allowance in place, and gives the neckline a more finished appearance.
To gather the skirt, change your stitch style to a straight stitch, and increase your machine stitch length to the maximum. Without backstitching at the beginning or the end, sew one row about 1⁄4 inch from the top edge, leaving a tail of about 3 inches at the beginning and the end of the row. Then sew a second row (again without backstitching) about 5⁄8 inch from the top row (again leaving 3-inch tails on either end). Now pull on the two threads that are on the same side. Leave the threads on the other side alone for now. Pull on the threads to gather the fabric, alternating between the left and right sides to get the gathers going.
With the WRONG side of the skirt facing out and the gathers at the top, insert the bodice RIGHT side out and upside down. Pin or clip at the side seams and adjust so the gathers are spaced evenly. Change your stitch back to a knit-appropriate one and sew 3⁄8 inch from edge. Tip: sew with the gathered side up and use a pin to gently adjust the gathers as you sew.
Hem the skirt. My preferred method is to overlock/serge the hem, then fold up 1⁄2 inch, press, and zigzag stitch close to the edge. However, there are a number of other methods:
-Skip the overlocking step, fold up 1⁄2 inch, press, and edgestitch.
-Fold once by 1⁄2 inch and fold again by 1⁄2 inch, press, and edgestitch (this will shorten the hem by 1 inch).
-Single fold by 1⁄2 inch and use a double-needle to mimic a professional finish.
Whatever method you choose, once you’ve sewn the hem, you’re all done! Enjoy your new lovely dress!