The shirred sundress is a wardrobe standard for summer. But S4H is never one to settle for standard! We spun the traditional one-seam-up-the-side design, taking it from ordinary to trendy by adding a flirty eyelet underskirt and a precious sash with its own flower pin. Both of our classic fabrics have a sweet, old-fashioned goodness. And, the shirring accent across the bodice is a wonderful way to add both structure and texture. And, yes… of course, we have a step-by-step tutorial on shirring.
In between the simplicity of gathering and the intricacy of hand-smocking, lives one of our favorite texturing techniques: elastic shirring. Check out our step-by-step tutorial.
And, just to make sure you can impress your friends the next time you’re out shopping, here are the difference between shirring and its big sister, smocking. To qualify as shirring, you need two or more parallel rows of elasticized stitching. Smocking is a completely different and much older sewing technique, dating back to the Middle Ages. With smocking, stitching (usually hand stitching) is used to gather fabric into a series of teeny tiny pleats. Hand embroidery is commonly added over the top of the pleating. No elastic is used. The intricacy of the pleats themselves is what allows for the fitting flexibility, expanding and contracting to follow a pattern’s form. There you go… your smarty-pants tip for the day.
Notes on sizing
Our sample dress was made for a petite nine-year-old. We started with a 25″ chest measurement and a 30″ height measurement from the top of the bust to mid-calf. Our double-skirt design has a 4″ reveal for the underskirt.
Our fabric was 45″ wide, a standard cotton width. The rule of thumb in shirring is to start with about two times the chest measurement. However, we wanted only ONE seam, so we chose to work with the standard 45″ width of the fabric even though that was a bit shy of two times our 25″ chest measurement. If you are working with a smaller chest measurement, the width of fabric is great; you can simply trim away the excess. If you are working with a larger chest measurement, the width of the fabric should be okay until about 28-30″; after that, consider adapting our instructions to create two panels, and assemble the dress with two side seams rather than one back seam. Check out our R&R Shirred Sundress for Adults tutorial for a good starting point to double panel sizing.
The length of the main dress is figured by starting with your height measurement (30″ in our sample), subtracting 4″ for the underskirt reveal, then adding back 1½” for top and bottom hems. In our sample, the equation was: 30″ – 4″ = 26″ + 1½” = 27½”.
Next, measure the chest depth from the top of the bust to just above the natural waist. This was about 8″ on our model.
The length of the underskirt is figured by taking the total finished length (30″ in our sample) and subtracting the bust depth (8″ in our sample) then adding 1″ for the underskirt’s top hem/casing. The bottom of the eyelet is pre-finished, so it does not require a hem. If you use another fabric with a raw edge, add an additional inch for a hem. In our sample, the equation was: 30″ – 8″ = 22″ + 1″ = 23″.
The final width dimension of the underskirt will be determined by the finished dress, but you want to start with at least the equivalent amount of width you are using for the main dress (the 45″ WOF in our sample). Our eyelet fabric was just 40″ wide, but had a finished scalloped edge along both sides. We didn’t have enough width to measure across, so this meant we needed it in length. Therefore we started with 1¼ yards of our underskirt fabric (36″ + 9″ = 45″).
We often are asked for specific re-sizing on our projects, which unfortunately is something we are unable to do. It’s a challenge to change dimensions long-distance, especially without access to the item and/or person for whom the project is being adjusted. We would feel awful if we gave you inaccurate advice that caused your finished project to turn out less than successful. Our standard recommendation is to measure your item and/or person and compare those measurements to our original dimensions and/or equations. We also try to be as detailed and specific as possible with both. Do the math to make adjustments and scale the original dimensions up or down. Then use these new measurements to make a prototype out of a muslin or another inexpensive fabric you have on hand. This is often exactly how we determine our own patterns and instructions. This technique is not only a good way to re-engineer a project, making a prototype is also a great practice run-through of the construction steps.
Okay – math and disclaimers done… on to shirring and sewing!
Sewing Tools You Need
- Sewing Machine and standard presser foot
Fabric and Other Supplies
NOTE: Your main fabric can be any pretty quilting weight cotton that catches your eye. For a vintage look, go with a small motif; a petite floral would be particularly pretty. The underskirt is a lightweight all-over eyelet cotton. We used a version with a scalloped border, which gave us a ready-made hem, but that is optional. Any all-over eyelet fabric could be finished with a simple hem.
- 1 yard of 45″ wide lightweight cotton fabric for the main dress and straps
NOTE: Check our notes above on sizing to make sure this yardage will be enough/too much for your particular panels, then adjust as needed.
- 1¼ yards of 40″ wide eyelet or similar for the underskirt
- 1 yard of ¼” elastic
- 1 spool of elastic thread to best match your fabric; we used black
- All purpose thread to match fabric
- 1½ yards of 1½” wide satin ribbon
- Seam sealant to finish the ends optional
- Scraps of coordinating fabric and beads to create the sash flower pin plus a small safety pin to attach the pin to the sash; optional
NOTE: Ours is made following our Spring Flower Pins tutorial
- See-through ruler
- Fabric pen or pencil
- Iron and ironing board
- Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
- Seam gauge
- Seam ripper
- Straight pins
- Large safety pin
See the introduction above for notes on how we determined our cuts.
- From the main dress fabric, cut the following:
ONE 27½” x width of fabric (WOF) rectangle
FOUR 1¼” x 15″ strips for the strap ties
- From the underskirt fabric, cut the 1¼ yard x 40″ piece down to 1¼ yard x 23″, measuring from one finished scalloped edge 23″ across and trimming off the opposite scalloped edge at this measurement. Save this cute little strip of fabric in your scrap bag.
- Measure the waist of your dress recipient and trim the length of ¼” elastic to fit. We trimmed ours to 26″.
At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board
- Along the top raw edge of your 27½” x WOF rectangle (what will become the top of the dress — one WOF edge), create a simple ¼” double turn hem. Fold back the edge ¼” and press. Fold back an additional ¼” and press again. To start, simply PRESS the hem into position to form creases. You won’t stitch the hem in place until later. If you are new to hemming, see our introductory tutorial.
NOTE: When doing a narrow hem on such a long edge, it is sometimes easier to first fold the edge back ½”, then tuck the raw edge under to meet the crease, as shown in the photo above.
- With the hem pressed well, unfold it so the crease lines are visible.
- Place the fabric right side up and flat on your work surface.
- Starting ½” in from the innermost crease line, use a clear ruler and a fabric pencil or pen to mark the lines for shirring. Remember, you are marking on the right side of the fabric; make sure your tool is one that will easily wipe or wash away or vanish with exposure to the air or the heat of an iron.
- The amount of shirring you do is totally your choice. We marked 15 parallel shirring guide lines ½” apart. Our ruler wasn’t long enough to do this in one pass, so we marked one side, then flipped the ruler and continued the lines to the opposite side.
- Thread the top of the machine with regular thread to best match your fabric.
- Wind a bobbin with elastic thread, insert the bobbin, and stitch along the guide lines to shirr the bodice.
- If you are new to this technique, see our step-by-step tutorial.
- When your shirring is complete, take the fabric to your ironing board. Mist the entire shirred area and then run your iron over the stitching. This will shrink up the shirring a bit more.
- With the fabric facing right side up, along the left raw edge, stitch across the ends of the shirring rows at a 90˚ angle. In other words, run a vertical seam from the top down through the shirred rows. You should be about ½” from the fabric’s raw edge.
- Lay the fabric flat on your work surface.
- Measure from the left edge (the edge you just locked in place with the vertical seam) across the fabric the chest measurement you are working with – without stretching. In our sample, we measured from the raw edge 25″ across. Measure at several points, then connect the dots to create a vertical line from the very top to the very bottom (all the way to the bottom of the fabric – not just the bottom of the shirring).
- Stitch along this right vertical line through the shirring to lock the shirring in place.
- Staying just to the right (about ¼”) of this second vertical line, cut away the excess fabric.
NOTE: You can use your scissors to cut from top to bottom. Or, cut through the shirred portion, then make a small clip into the main skirt fabric and tear the rest of the way. Lightweight woven fabric tears in a nice straight line; you may have seen cutters do this in the fabric store.
- Place the two raw edges of the fabric right sides together and pin in place from top to bottom to create a tube.
- Stitch with a ½” seam allowance.
- Press the seam allowance to one side and finish the raw edges. We used a zig zag stitch to finish. You could also use an overcast stitch or your serger or the machine finish of your choice.
- Along the bottom edge, make a simple ½” double turn hem. To do this, fold back the raw edge ½” and press. Fold back an additional ½” and press again. Stitch in place, all the way around, staying close to the inside folded edge.
Making the straps
- Find the four 1¼” x 15 strips.
- On one strip, fold back one end ½” and press.
- Fold the strip in half, wrong sides together and press well to form a crease.
- Open up the strip so the middle crease line is visible. Fold each long raw edge in to meet the middle crease, keeping that one end folded in place as well.
- Fold the strip back along the original crease line, encasing the raw edges and aligning the folded edges. Pin in place.
- Edgestitch across the folded end, pivot, and continue stitching along the side edges to secure. The opposite end remains raw.
- Repeat with the remaining three strips.
Attaching the straps
- Using your original crease lines, fold the top hem back into position (a ¼” double turn hem). Pin lightly to hold in place.
- From the center back seam measure 2″ to the left of the seam and mark with a pin. Then measure 2″ from the right of the seam and mark with a pin.
- From each of these pins, measure 6″ (you are working around now to the front of the dress) and mark with a pin.
- You should now have four pins in place. These are four points where the raw ends of the straps will be inserted.
- Take one strap at a time and insert the raw end under the folded hem.
- Then bring the strap up so it crosses over the hem. Pin the strap in this “up” position. Repeat to insert and fold up a strap at each pin point.
- Edgestitch the top hem in place all the way around, securing not only the hem, but all the straps as well.
- Pull lightly on the fabric as you stitch to flatten it as you sew.
- Set the dress aside.
- Measure the finished width of the main dress along its bottom hem. Ours measured 41″ around.
- The underskirt should be trimmed down to this width plus 1″ for a seam allowance. This meant we trimmed our 23″ x 45″ piece down to 23″ x 42″.
NOTE: This width can’t be figured until this point because it will vary based on how much of the width of the exterior dress ends up being “eaten up” by the shirring. This will vary based on the number of rows of shirring you choose to do and the weight of your fabric. So many variables! But… just thought you’d like to know WHY we had to wait until now to cut the final width of the underskirt.
- Place the 23″ raw edges right sides together, forming a tube. Pin in place.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch together.
- Finish the seam allowance. We opted to use a flat felled seam to make our seam extra pretty. If you are new to this technique, see our flat felled seams tutorial.
- As mentioned above, our eyelet had a finished scalloped edge so there was no need for a bottom hem. If your fabric does not have this feature, make a narrow, double fold hem along what will be your bottom edge.
- Along the top raw edge of the underskirt tube, make a ½” double turn hem for as the casing. However, we want this hem to fold to the right side as a casing rather than to the wrong side as a hem.
- To do this, fold down the raw edge ½” and press. Fold down an additional ½” and press again. Stitch in place, all the way around, staying close to the folded edge.
- Leave a small opening across the seam. This is where the elastic will be inserted. Remember to lock your seam on either side of the opening.
- Find the finished main dress. Turn it wrong side out.
- Turn the underskirt wrong side out.
- Slip the underskirt over the dress so the right side of the underskirt is against the wrong side of the dress.
- Align the top edge of the underskirt’s casing with the last row of shirring. Match up the seam of the dress and the seam of the underskirt. Pin lightly at this seam-to-seam point to secure.
- Flip up the bottom edge of both layers and double check that the underskirt is dropping below the hem of the dress by about 4″.
- With the top fold of the casing aligned with the last row of shirring, stitch all the way around the dress. You can really only pin the layers together at the seams, because as you sew, you need to stretch the shirring so the eyelet fits against it. Go slowly, stopping as often as you need to stretch and readjust. Always stop with your needle in the down position.
- Find your length of elastic. Attach a safety pin to one end of the elastic.
- Insert the safety pin into the hole you left open in the casing over the seam.
- Thread the elastic through the casing, using the safety pin to pull it along. Hold on to the other end of the elastic with your hand or pin it in place; you don’t want it to accidentally disappear inside the casing.
- When the safety pin comes out the other end, unhook the safety pin and pull out both raw ends of elastic. Stitch the ends of elastic together, running back and forth across several times to create a strong seam.
- Trim away the excess elastic. Push the sewn elastic back inside the casing and stitch the casing closed along the bottom folded edge.
Optional sash and flower pin
- Cut the satin ribbon to a length to best fit your recipient and tie into a generous bow at the back. Our sash was 52″ in length.
- If you use a high quality satin, you can simply cut the ribbon tails at a diagonal and apply a thin line of seam sealant to finish. If you’d like to be super fancy, you could take a tiny double turn hem along each tail.
- Following our Spring Flower Pins tutorial, make a mini flower to fit on the sash. We pinned ours in place on the sash, using a small safety pin, off to one side.
Project Design: Alicia Thommas and Liz Johnson
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Debbie Guild