Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Vintage Dress Tutorial - How To Adjust Size, Fix Button Gap, Add Sleeves, and Hem A Vintage Dress

Do you enjoy live theatre?  I do!  It was so much fun playing the role of Edna the Mayor's Wife in the Plaza Theatre Company production of Bye, Bye Birdie during the summer of 2013.  They actually let me stand on the stage and sing, dance, scream, faint,  and make people laugh. FYI, my friends would describe me as slightly extroverted:)  Participating in Bye, Bye Birdie is what led to the creation of this tutorial.

Whether you are sewing a vintage garment for community theater or for your own personal use, you may find this tutorial helpful.  The project is a sweet little vintage cotton A Line dress  assigned to me by the show costumer, Kara.  She said I could wear it if I agreed to make specific alterations she requested. I was quite willing to take on the challenge.

The bodice seams, sleeves, and hem had been ripped out (with a seam ripper).  Only one of the two sleeves ripped out was still with the dress.  The other was missing entirely.

NOTE:  Please forgive my rudimentary drawings.  They are included in this tutorial to allow a more detailed "Before and After" view of the project.


Kara requested that the bodice side seams be replaced and fitted to me. She also requested the hem be replaced to give maximum length to the dress.  She gave me an option of adding sleeves or making it into a sleeveless dress.

IMPORTANT:  For best results, please read the entire tutorial before beginning your alteration project.

Adjust Bodice Size

1. PIN TO FIT -  Put the dress on inside out and have someone else pin the sides together evenly, right sides together. (If the existing side seams are still in place, it is best to rip them out with a seam ripper before beginning this process.)When pinning, remember the seam allowances (the little part between the pin or seam and the edge of the fabric) on the left and right sides of the bodice should be nearly equal to each other in width.

SUGGESTION: SAFETY PINS - Use safety pins instead of straight pins to pin the bodice.  They hold better and eliminate the risk of puncture injury when taking the garment off to sew it.

NOTE: When sewing for community theatre, remember that the costume you are altering will likely be used again.  Avoid trimming bodice seam allowance, hemline area, or any other fabric if possible. When altering other vintage garments, it is a good idea to keep as much as you can of the leftover vintage fabric that was trimmed off. You may need it later for a repair or adjustment.

Dress Progress Photo:  Right bodice side seam

2. ADJUST IF NEEDED - Safety pinning a bodice while wearing it inside out is not an EXACT science.  After pinning, take the dress off. Do not turn it right side out yet. Lay it on the table and look at the location of the pins.

IMPORTANT: Read and answer the following questions before proceeding. If the answer to ALL three  questions is YES, skip this step and proceed to step 3.  If the answer is NO to one or more of the following questions, follow the directions given to correct the problem.  When corrections are made and you can answer YES to EVERY question, proceed to the step 3.

QUESTION A: Will the new bodice seam allowances be nearly equal to each other in width on the left and right sides?

If the answer to the question A above is NO and you see that there is MUCH more seam allowance on one side than than the other, remove the pins, go back to Step 1 and start over.   

QUESTION B: Are all the pins in a nice smooth line you can follow to create bodice side seams?

If the answer to question B above is NO and you see  some pins that are way out of line, move the biggest offenders over a bit so they are more in line with the rest of the pins.
QUESTION C: Will the new sleeve openings at the top of the bodice be nearly equal in size and shape?

If the answer to question C above is NO and you see  the that the sleeve openings are markedly different from each other, adjust pins near the sleeve openings to create more even and equal sleeve openings.

You're done with this entire step when bodice seam pin lines on both sides are nice and smooth, bodice seam allowances on both sides are nearly equal to each other, and both sleeve openings look almost identical to each other in size and shape.

3.  BASTE THEN STITCH - Baste the bodice together on each side.  Try the dress on again.  If you're happy with the fit, machine stitch bodice side seams.

NOTE:  As you can see from the photo below, the bodice of my Birdie costume dress is now almost six inches smaller (nearly three inches per side) in circumference than the skirt.  On your OWN dress, you would continue your pins, basting, and stitching down into the skirt, taking in the skirt a bit to avoid the little pouch that you see in the photo where the bodice side seam meets the skirt.  For a costume piece, this little pouch is no big deal.

Dress Progress Photo:  Left bodice side seam and pouch

NOTE: If you are altering a garment for personal use, please refer to pink arrow and pink detail in the drawing below. This gives you a suggested seam line that flows smoothly and continues from the bodice into the skirt so you don't create a little 'pouch' on each side.  Continue pinning your seam line below the bodice as shown in the drawing on one side.  Then pin the other side to match.

4. PUT ON DRESS AND DETERMINE NEXT STEP - Now that the bodice side seams are complete, put on the dress right side out.  Button it up, and answer the following questions to determine your next step.

QUESTION: Are there unsightly, gaping holes between the buttons that might reveal skin or undergarments?

If your answer is YES, proceed to the Fix Button Gap section of the tutorial.

If your answer is NO, skip the Fix Button Gap section and answer the following question.

QUESTION: Do you have a sleeve on your garment that would like to try and use as a pattern to create two sleeves?  

If the answer is YES, proceed to the Add A Sleeve section of this tutorial.

If the answer is NO, skip the Add A Sleeve section and answer the following question.

QUESTION: Does your garment need a hem?

If your answer is YES, proceed to the Create A Hem section.
If the answer is NO, then you are finished with this tutorial.

Fix Button Gap

When the bodice seams are completed, try the dress on again.  If you have those dreadful openings between the buttons signaling a poor fitting garment known as BUTTON GAP, it is simple to fix in a dress this style.  Create a seam between the button holes and the edge of the button placket to close the gap(s). 

Note: Before you sew the button placket closed, check to make sure the neck opening will be large enough to allow your head to fit through it.

Dress Progress:  Top of button placket seam with 90 degree angle

1. PIN BUTTON PLACKET - Button the buttons and lay the bodice out straight and flat on the table.  Pin the placket.  

2. STITCH BUTTON PLACKET - Machine stitch as shown in photos above and below. The top of the seam should have a bit of reinforcement.  The seam in the photo above has a very short reinforced horizontal seam line running from the edge of the placket to the top of the vertical seam line, then turns at a ninety degree angle and runs vertically downward almost to the skirt, following a parallel line just inside the edge of the placket.  At the bottom of the bodice, the seam makes a gradual angle back toward the edge of the button placket and ends where the bodice meets the skirt.  The gentle angle of the seam can be seen in the photo below.  The bottom end of the seam is also reinforced a bit.

Dress Progress Photo:  Bottom of button placket seam with gradual angle

Now the dress bodice seams are completed and the button placket is sewn shut.  The dress is now officially a 'pullover' garment and the button gap problem is history.

Dress Progress Photo:Bodice side seams complete and button placket sewn shut.

At this point, I was still trying to decide what to do about the gosh darn sleeve.  I don't wear sleeveless tops or dresses.  It was time to try an experiment to see if the one original sleeve that came with this sweet little dress contained enough fabric to create two sleeves.

Add A Sleeve
Sleeve magic - How to create a pattern piece from a single sleeve and use the sleeve fabric to make two matching sleeves.

Dress Decision:  Create sleeves or make it sleeveless?

1. CUT RECTANGLE OF COTTON BROADCLOTH OR MUSLIN LARGE ENOUGH - To repeat this experiment on your own garment, cut a rectangular piece of cotton broadcloth or similar fabric just a bit bigger than the actual vintage sleeve.

2. TRACE SLEEVE ONTO BROADCLOTH - Lay the vintage sleeve over the top of the broadcloth and trace the sleeve all the way around with a fabric marking pencil.

Tracing the sleeve

3. CUT TEST SLEEVE ALONG TRACING LINES - After tracing the sleeve, take the vintage sleeve off the top of the broadcloth.  Cut around your tracing lines to create an identical test sleeve as shown in the photo below.  Lay test sleeve over vintage sleeve and compare size.  Trim test sleeve if needed to fit size of vintage sleeve.

Original sleeve and test sleeve

4. FOLD AND IRON - Fold the test sleeve in half.  The tip top of the shoulder curve will now meet the straight bottom edge of the sleeve.  Iron the fold to create a nice crease.

Ironing test sleeve along center fold

5. DO NOT UNFOLD. CUT LONG CURVED EDGE AND TWO SHORT EDGES. Pin if needed and cut the curved edge all the way around from the top of the fold to the bottom.  Do not open the fold or cut the straight fold line yet.

Cutting test sleeve along shoulder curve

6. OPEN FOLD TO REVEAL CENTER CUTTING LINE - Now open your test sleeve to reveal the nice straight crease.  This is your cutting line.

Test sleeve open with center crease

7. CUT ALONG CREASE - Cut test sleeve in half, using the crease as your cutting line.

Cutting test sleeve along center crease line to form two sleeves

8. FOLD SLEEVE IN HALF - Ignore the short bottom seam for now. This is only an experiment to see if you have fabric to make two working sleeves.  Fold the test sleeve in half with the two narrow edges together.  

9. MARK  CENTER AND PIN TO BODICE - Mark the center of the test sleeve at the top of the shoulder curve.   

10.  BASTE AND STITCH - Machine baste your test sleeve to the bodice of the dress, stopping about an inch shy of the short bottom edge of the mock sleeve.  This is an adequate method for you to be able to determine if the sleeve will fit properly.

Machine basting test sleeve to dress

If you do not have adequate fabric to create two traditional sleeves, you might try creating a tiny cap sleeve or flutter sleeve.

For this dress, I determined from creating the mock sleeve that there was just enough fabric to make my one vintage sleeve into two sleeves.  Hooray!

11. REMOVE TEST SLEEVE FROM DRESS - Pull or cut basting threads to remove the test sleeve from the dress.

12. FOLD AND IRON - Fold the original vintage sleeve in half.  The tip top of the shoulder curve will now meet the straight bottom edge of the sleeve.  Iron the fold to create a crease in the center. 

13.  DO NOT UNFOLD. CUT LONG CURVED EDGE AND TWO SHORT EDGES. Pin if needed and cut the curved edge all the way around from the top of the fold to the bottom.  Do not open the fold or cut the straight fold line yet.

NOTE: This vintage dress had seam allowances trimmed with pinking shears.  Pinked edges help woven cotton fabrics resist unraveling, so pinking shears were used on this project.

Pinking original sleeve

14. OPEN FOLD TO REVEAL CENTER CUTTING LINE - Open sleeve to reveal the straight crease from the iron.

15. CUT ALONG CREASE - Cut vintage sleeve in half, using the crease as your cutting line.  Now you have TWO vintage sleeves.
NOTE: This straight edge was NOT pinked. It was cut with Gingher Dressmaker Shears (see the photo in step 7 above).

13.  PIN AND STITCH SLEEVE BOTTOMS - Right sides together, pin the short sides of the sleeve together at each end of the curve on one of your sleeves. Machine stitch as shown, creating sleeve bottom seam.

Machine sewing original sleeve seam

14. Repeat step 13 above for the matching sleeve.  When finished with this step, you sleeves should look similar to the photo below.

NOTE:  If your garment is a woven fabric like cotton, you may want to pink  the edges of fabric or zig zag stitch inside the seam allowance to resist fraying.

Dress Progress Photo:  Sleeve seams completed

15. FOLD SLEEVES AND MARK CENTERS - Fold sleeve in half with sleeve seam on one side and sleeve curve on the other and lay flat.  Use a pin or fabric marking pencil to mark the center of the sleeve curve at fabric edge. Repeat this step for the other sleeve.

16. ALIGN SLEEVE AND PIN TO BODICE - Right sides together, match the bottom seam of sleeve to new bodice seam and pin, right sides together.  Match center mark of sleeve to top shoulder seam of bodice and pin.

17. CONTINUE PINNING - Now that you have the top and bottom of the sleeve aligned with the bodice, continue pinning all the way around the sleeve as shown in the photo below.  

Look at the sleeve and ask yourself this question.

QUESTION:  Does the sleeve fit perfectly into the bodice?

If the answer is YES, skip step 18 and proceed to step 19.  

If the answer is NO, proceed to step 18.

Left sleeve pinned to dress

18.  MARK EASE STITCH AREA - Take out pins and remove sleeve from bodice. If you used a pin to mark the top center of the sleeve, remove it from the bodice but not the sleeve.  Lay sleeve flat with seam on one side and center on the other side.  Use a pin or fabric marker to mark the center of each side, halfway between the seam and the place where you marked the actual top center of the sleeve. When this is done correctly, your sleeve will be marked like a clock.  The 12:00 position will be the top center mark you created in step 15. The 6:00 position will be the bottom seam created in step 13, and the 3:00 and 9:00 positions will be the marks you created in this during this step.   

19. MACHINE BASTE EASE - Using about a fourth of an inch GREATER seam allowance than you'll use to actually sew the sleeve to the dress, machine baste the curved shoulder area of the sleeve between  the two marks you just created. Repeat this step for the matching sleeve.

NOTE:  If you used pins to create your marks, take care not to sew over the pins.  Remove them as you go along before running a stitch over them.

Repeat steps 16 and 17, but skip the question at the end of step 17.  When you finish step 17, proceed to step 20.

20. GATHER SLEEVE FULLNESS - Now your sleeve is pinned to the bodice sleeve opening, right sides together.  Take your top basting thread on one side and gently gather (pull) in the slack between your pins, gathering it as evenly as possible toward your center mark.  Repeat with top basting thread on the other side, gathering evenly toward your center mark.  This will 'ease' in sleeve fullness so that your sleeve fits properly. If you look closely at the photo above, you see the pink basting thread used to gather fullness on this vintage dress sleeve.

21.  STITCH SLEEVE TO BODICE - Starting at the bottom of the sleeve near where the sleeve seam meets the bodice seam, machine stitch the sleeve to the bodice. If you're concerned about making a mistake here, play it safe.  You can machine baste it into place first, THEN machine stitch the sleeve as shown in the photo below.  Remember to remove pins as you stitch.  NEVER stitch over the pins!

Machine sewing sleeve to dress

We're almost done now.  The bodice seams are just right.  The button placket is sewn shut, vanquishing any hint of button gap.  The sleeves are in place. We saved the best (easiest) part for last.  Woohoo, progress!

Create A Hem

The only thing left to do is to create the new hem.  Trust me, this is the easiest part.  For this project, there was no need to pin and mark a hem line.  Kara's instructions were simple.  Make the dress as long as possible.  In other words,  create as small of a hem as you can create.  Although quite a few of the seam allowances had been cut with pinking shears, the fabric at the hemline was cut straight.  

1. MEASURE, FOLD, AND IRON HEM - With a sewing gauge, fold bottom edge of skirt fabric over 1/2 inch, wrong sides together, and iron all the way around the skirt to create the beginning of the hem.

2. STITCH HEM - With dress inside out, machine stitch right down the center of the hem, halfway between the fold at the bottom of the hem and the raw fabric edge at the top.

NOTE:  Because this garment was for community theatre use and the hemline would undoubted be altered eventually, it was not necessary to pink the bottom edge of the fabric or zig zag stitch near the edge before hemming.  If you are sewing a garment for personal use, you may want to finish the raw edge of the hemline with pinking shears.  Alternatively, you could zig zag stitch near the edge or serge the edge before beginning step 1.

Now the vintage dress alterations are complete and it is ready to wear.

Yep, that is me  wearing the project dress in the photo below.  Stacey Greenawalt King, a fellow cast member in Bye, Bye Birdie, was our show photographer and generously gave me limited use of her photos. Our show family consists of me as EDNA, the Mayor's wife, my show hubby the MAYOR (Kyle), our show son HUGO (Jesse), and our show daughters (Kyle's youngest two daughters). If you look closely you'll catch a glimpse of my own daugher PUMPKIN.  She is the blonde with the purple bow in her hair behind us.  She was part of another show family.

The photo was taken during one of my favorite Bye, Bye Birdie scenes.  We are singing the song, "Hymn For A Sunday Evening". Have you ever seen the movie Bye, Bye Birdie starring Ann-Margret, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Janet Leigh, and Maureen Stapleton? Anybody recognize the song called "Hymn For A Sunday Evening"? I call it the Ed Sullivan Song.  Some of the more familiar words are:

Ed Sullivan!
Ed Sullivan!
We're (they're) gonna be on Ed Sullivan.
Someday we'll recall
The greatest day of all.
Ed Sull - i - van.

Please feel free to email me for answers to tutorial questions by clicking the "Email Me" button in the left column of this page.  

If you love Bye, Bye, Birdie or theatre in general...or you've considered auditioning for a show or helping behind the scenes... and you weren't quite sure IF you could do it or HOW to  for an upcoming post about my own experiences with this show and what a difference supporting the fine arts can make in your life.


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