Using the Patterns in Your Closet: Copying a Dress

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Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could make a copy of your favorite dress, t-shirt, or pair of jeans?  I know there are people who can, and it’s a skill I’ve always wanted to learn.  Awhile ago, I posted about Cal Patch’s book, Design-It-Yourself Clothes.

Design-It-Yourself Clothes, Patternmaking Simplified by Cal Patch via Pattern and Branch

Since I never went to any sort of fashion design school, this has been a great beginner book for me as I’ve begun to explore pattern drafting.  Toward the back of the book, she has a little section on copying existing clothing.  She doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but gives you enough information to try it out.

A few years ago, I bought this strange but cool dress (or shirt or kimono-esque beach cover-up or…????) at an antiques flea market.  The tag says Sun Island, but I couldn’t find out much about the dress or the company via the all-powerful interweb…just a few similar items on eBay.

One of the great things about this dress is that it is made of two nearly identical pieces (front and back), plus some facings inside the collar.  There are no darts, nothing tricky.

Sun Island vintage dress via Pattern and Branch

Well, this seemed like the perfect piece of clothing to try to copy.  Over the summer, I followed the instructions and tried to make a pattern of the back, and then one of the front and the facings.  I found a sheet I liked at the thrift store to be my muslin fabric, and *cleverly* timed my construction attempt for when I would be visiting my parents, since I figured being able to ask my Mom questions in person about any problems might save me some time.

In the end, I got it constructed, and she suggested ditching the facings for bias tape, which was much easier to use and turned out nicer than my first attempt, if a little different from the original garment.

Copying an existing garment via Pattern and Branch

This has a fit similar to the original and turned out well.

For the final garment, I had some fabric that I think is silk, although I’m not sure.  I don’t have much experience with silk, so I was all set to go until I read that silk is hard to cut….then I chickened out and started dragging my feet on getting it done.  Then, again while reading, I came across the very wise thought that something isn’t necessarily hard until we hear that it is.  Does that make sense?  Cutting silk wasn’t hard in my perception until I  read that it was.  So, I finally got over it and just cut it out.  It was fine.  (Who knows?  Maybe this isn’t even silk, but that’s sort of beside the point.  We’re learning life lessons here! ;) )

Here is my final version:

Copying an existing garment via Pattern and Branch

The amazing thing was, the fabric was exactly the width of the pattern, so I didn’t finish the sleeves in the end.  The selvages looked perfectly finished for my taste.  It made me wonder, was it silk and was it the width for a kimono?  Has anyone made one that can shed light on that?  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.  I’d also love to hear from anyone else who has tried copying an existing piece of clothing.  I know there is a lot more to learn, but I’m happy with my first attempt.  Now I just have to figure out how to style it…especially for winter.  Maybe the new pink suede shoes I got at the thrift store would work…    ;)

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7 responses »

  1. A couple summers ago I bought a cute and simple skirt from LLBean. It was basically an A-line skirt, printed cotton with a white lining and pockets at the hips. I used the skirt as a pattern. The front was same as the back, left out the pockets, the waist band was almost non-existent and it had a side zipper. Very easy, used a cotton fabric I had bought to make Stuart an out fit when he was a toddler (20 yrs. ago!) and it came out great.

  2. Hi Lisa. I actually just delved into making my own clothes last year. Made three skirts and a dress so far, and my very favorite is the third skirt, which I copied from an Anthropologie sale item. It turned out to have only three pieces (beside the waistband), which are repeated several times. The original was my old favorite, and very comfortable. I lined it with a simple two piece slip in muslin, which is attached at the waistband only and trimmed with a thin strip of cotton lace. I did these projects while taking lessons at a local store, finishing most things on my own, but getting help as needed. I broke the rules and made all three skirts with quilting cotton, but no one seems to notice.

    Then a friend who sews for Saks came over and walked me through copying my mother’s favorite dress for her. It’s basically a linen shift with no lining. She also came back and finished the hard part for me – unexpectedly complicated pockets. :) Mom loves it and wears it often, but I can’t take much credit for that one.

    My advice would be to choose simple garments the first few times and to pay close attention to how the originals are constructed. Take notes and write important construction details right on your pattern pieces as well as in your notebook. Number or letter the pattern pieces, which side is “up”, and where they connect to the other pieces. Also note everything about the seam allowances – sometimes you have to cut these differently based on how the pieces connect, so write it all down. Consult a book such as the one you mention regarding the order of steps in putting that type of garment together and follow that general order, but be open and consider that particular one may have been done differently, so make a note of that, too. Try to end up with a final list of steps in order to make that specific piece. For Mom’s dress pattern, we cut paper shopping bags to flatten them and taped them together, and the pieces are much sturdier than the tissue in a commercial pattern. For the favorite skirt, I drew the pieces on a thin interfacing recommended by the sewing teacher. For a pattern you will be making again, this is another good idea.

    Make a muslin, but in a similar fabric to what your finished garment will be so you end up with a wearable piece after all that work. Thrift stores and internet fabric sales can net you good deals. Slippery fabrics are more frustrating, so maybe work with them as linings first. Once you work out how to make a pattern you like, you’ll want to make more anyway in other fabrics. It will be one of your wardrobe basics and no one will notice if the color is different.

    Skirts are the easiest to start with, and a simple two-piece dress like yours is great in the beginning, too. Starting with a favorite garment is a good idea because if you go from a commercial pattern you may get it all done and discover after all that work that you don’t actually like that pattern after all. Plus you’ll be more excited to wear it in the end. All my projects fit, but I reach for that skirt the most. In fact, I generally go for the garments I made before the other options in my closet. Making your own clothes is really rewarding. Have fun!

    (p.s. if an earlier comment shows up, that’s because I started this one on my phone and had to re-do it on the computer – sorry! – this is the “real” one.)

    • Thanks, stonepylon. These are really good tips. I do tend to like copious and detailed directions, so I like your ideas for documenting the process. I’ve started to do some of that, but I realized that I didn’t do it very well with this project. I’ll have to try more in the future. I’ve got a few other projects in the works at present, though. Hopefully I’ll actually finish them and be able to show you all soon.

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