Little girl’s shirred sundress tutorial

JUL 23, 2012 updated May 30, 2016
Phoebe-dress
I’m the mother of three daughters who, to varying degrees, are still interested in having their mama make them clothes. Actually, it’s almost a competitive sport around here where handmade clothing equals love points. If one girl gets something made for her, someone else is bound to be pretty cranky about it and demand that she also get a new dress, skirt, or what have you to even up the spread of love.

This means that it’s very useful to be able to make things up quickly sometimes. I do have quite a few lovely, more complicated children’s clothing patterns that I make when I know that I have the stamina for all that tracing and fitting together of many pattern pieces–and most likely, for doing it at least twice for my two youngest daughters. But more often than not, I wing it with simple clothing for them that I can make quickly, more than one time, and without much more work than taking accurate measurements of impatient little people.

This simple shirred sundress that I made for my youngest daughter, Phoebe, is just such a simple project, taking more time to type about than it did to actually make it up. I used a single yard of Spoonflower organic cotton sateen printed with Sally Harmon's — aka, Boris Thumbkin’s — dear Train design, and I had a bit of fabric left over to use in patchwork projects down the road. Here’s how to make up a sweet and easy shirred sundress for a little girl in your life.

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First, start with washing, drying, and pressing your yard of fabric. Trim off the unprinted selvage edges of your yard.


Measure your child:

1. You'll be taking three measurements. First, measure the circumference of your child’s chest about at the point where you want the top of the sundress to fit her. My 4-1/2 year old is of about average, sturdy weight and her chest circumference was 21 inches.  

2. Next, measure from that point down her torso to the point where you want the finished hem edge to hit her. My daughter is tall and likes her dresses to be very long — I actually had to talk her out of a “down to my toes” length for reasons of practicality — so we’re making one that will come down a couple of inches past her knees. The finished length of her dress will be 23 inches.  

3. Finally, measure your child for straps. I wanted straps that crossed in the back so that they wouldn't slip off her shoulders while she’s playing. Annoying clothing means she won’t wear it much, and who wants to go to the trouble of making a garment that your child thinks is too annoying to wear? So this last measurement was done with the measuring tape pulled over one shoulder in front to the opposite shoulder blade in back. I started my measurement from the point on her front where the top of the sundress would hit and ended it at about the middle of her opposite shoulder blade in back. On Phoebe, that’s 12 inches. Write all those down so you don’t forget them, and let’s start cutting some fabric!

Cutting the fabric:

1. To determine the fabric width for the main dress piece, take the chest measurement of your child, double it, and add one inch for seam allowances. For my child with her 21-inch chest, I’ll be doubling to 42 inches, then adding one inch for a total of 43 inches of width.  

2. To determine the fabric length, add two inches for seam allowances and hem to the length measurement you took above, and then another inch to compensate for the scrunchiness that’s going to happen when you shirr the bodice. For my child, 23 inches of finished dress length + 2 + 1 equals 26 inches. So I need a piece of fabric measuring 43 X 26 inches for the body of the dress. Be careful if you have a directional print to cut this piece so that the print runs the way you want it to on the finished dress.

3. You'll cut two strips for the shoulder straps. To determine their length, multiply the shoulder measurement by 1.5. I multiplied Phoebe’s shoulder measurement of 12 inches by 1.5 and got 18 inches, so her shoulder straps will measure 18 inches long. The width should be 3-1/2 inches wide if you like a healthy ruffle like the one shown above on Phoebe's dress, but you can cut them skinnier or wider if you prefer a different look. Note also the orientation of the pattern on your straps. The design I chose is basically a stripe and I wanted the stripes to run across the straps rather than down their length, so this is how I cut them. 

Sewing the body of the dress:

Hemming the top edge1. With the wrong side (WS) of the fabric facing up, fold over the top long edge of the fabric (WS together) a scant ¼ inch and press. Fold again another ¼ inch to enclose the raw edge, and press again.  Sew along the folded edge of the fabric to create a small hem. Press.

2. Switch out the bobbin of regular sewing thread in your machine for a bobbin loaded with elastic thread. If you’ve never sewn with elastic thread before, don’t worry! It’s not terribly different from using regular sewing thread. The first thing to know is that elastic thread is only used in the bobbin, never as the top sewing thread that goes through the needle. And secondly, you’ll need to wind your bobbin with elastic thread by hand. You should stretch the thread only slightly as you’re hand-winding, and not to the full extent that the thread will stretch. Take your time, stretch out your hand as needed, and load the bobbin into your machine up once it's full.

3. If this is your first attempt sewing with elastic thread, it’s not a bad idea to test your machine tension to be sure all will go smoothly before sewing your dress. My machine is a very basic model Kenmore, usually tension trouble-free, and I set the tension at 3 with a stitch length of 3 which seems to work well. Be careful when cutting the threads at the end of a row not to let the elastic thread go boinging back into your machine.

4. With the right side (RS) of the fabric facing up, lower the needle down at the top corner of the fabric, ¼ inch from the top finished edge you sewed earlier and just a smidge below the first row of regular thread stitches you sewed. Begin stitching the first row of shirring. Anchor your stitches at the beginning and end of the row with a couple of backstitches. Sewing the first row of shirring stitches
Stretch the fabric slightly as you shirr5. Sew the second row of shirring stitches ¼ inch away from the first row, again anchoring your stitches at the beginning and end. You’ll notice after you’ve stitched these two rows that your fabric is beginning to draw up. Just stretch it slightly as you’re sewing to smooth the way a bit.

Continue on with subsequent rows spaced ¼ inch apart from each other and anchoring your stitches at beginning and end.  Have I emphasized anchoring your stitches enough? Elastic thread is stretchy, and lines of stitches can pull themselves loose later as the dress is worn and washed if the stitches aren’t properly anchored. Don’t skip this bit of sewing hygiene when sewing with elastic thread!

6. Sew as many rows of shirring stitches as you’d like to make the shirred portion of the bodice as long as you like. I prefer for the shirring to look like a wide band at the top of the dress rather than a full torso length. To achieve this effect, I sewed 10 rows of shirring lines. I had JUST enough elastic thread in my bobbin to finish those 10 rows–phew! Elastic thread is thicker than regular thread so a bobbin-full doesn’t last nearly long as you’re probably used to. Be careful that you don’t get stranded in the middle of a row! Ten rows of shirring
7. Once you’ve sewn as many rows as you’d like, bring the fabric to your ironing board and steam the shirred rows with a hot, steamy iron held just above the fabric to make the rows draw up even more. You should see the fabric magically shrinking and crinkling up right before your eyes!

8. Now it’s time to sew up the side seam of the dress. Don’t forget to load a bobbin of regular sewing thread back into your machine now and to reset your machine tension and stitch length settings if necessary. I like to use French seams in my garment projects and especially when I've used elastic thread. French seams give a bit of extra seurity, I think, in keeping the shirred rows from pulling out later. With WS together and using a scant ¼ inch seam allowance, stitch the side seam from top to bottom. Stitch again in this shirred area just inside the seam line and in the seam allowance to further secure the elastic shirring lines. Press this seam to one side and turn the dress tube inside out so that RS are now together. Stitch again with a ⅜ inch seam this time, enclosing the raw edges. Press this seam to one side.

9. Press up a quarter-inch edge at the bottom hem, WS together. Then press up a two-inch hem, enclosing the raw edge. Stitch along the top folded edge of the hem. Press.

Sewing the straps:

Pressed hems on long edges of straps1. On one long edge of a strap, fold down a very narrow edge, WS together, and press. Fold again a scant ¼ inch to enclose the raw edge within this fold, then stitch down this long edge. Repeat for the remaining long side of this strap, then for both long sides of the other strap.

2. If you’ve used a directional print, take note of which way the print is running on the straps now. It’s time to shirr one side of each strap, and the print needs to be running the correct way before you begin. Lay the straps out in front of you with the print running in the direction you want it to. The strap on the left will be shirred on its right side, which is the side closest to the neck. The strap on the right will be shirred on its left–again, the side closest to my child’s neck.   Determining orientation of print on straps
3. Once again, swap the regular thread bobbin out of your machine for a bobbin filled with elastic thread. Beginning with the left strap, sew the first shirring line down the right side, to the right of the line of hemming stitches you sewed earlier, and about ⅛ inch from the finished edge of the strap. Don’t forget to anchor your stitches at the beginning and end of the line with a few backstitches.

4. Sew the second line of shirring stitches right on top of the line of hemming stitches you sewed earlier, anchoring your stitches. Sewing the second row of strap shirring
Then sew the third line of shirring stitches about an ⅛ inch to the left of the middle row. The shirred straps should look like this: Three rows of strap shirring
Now sew three lines of shirring stitches in the same manner with the right strap. Your straps won’t look very ruffly yet so here’s where we do that magic steaming trick again with a hot, steamy iron hovering over the elastic thread stitches to help draw up the shirring stitches. I forgot to show you a photo of this earlier with the bodice shirring, but here’s one to illustrate the difference between unsteamed shirring and steamed shirring stitches. The strap on the left hasn’t yet been steamed and the strap on the right has been steamed and is looking nicely ruffly.

Unsteamed vs. steamed shirring6. Steam the elastic stitching on both straps to draw them up as much as possible.  Now, you’ll fold up a narrow hem on a short side of one of your straps, then fold it up again to enclose the raw edge.  Stitch down this hem both to make everything tidy and to further secure the shirring stitches.  Repeat for all the remaining short sides of the straps.  

7. Try the dress on your child again to determine placement of the straps. Phoebe’s straps cross in the back just a little above her center back point. Carefully pin the straps in place and help your child get out of the dress without getting poked or scratched.

Back view

8. Leaving the top hem of the dress free so that it remains ruffly, stitch the straps down from the top edge “in the ditch” of the existing stitching lines. I stitched along the first line of bodice stitching and then again in the second row so that the free end of the strap wouldn’t curl up over time.

You're done!  I hope your child is as pleased with her new dress as Phoebe is with hers. Now on to make that second dress for her anxious sister….

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  • I need some clarification for sewing on the straps, please.
    What does the phrase “in the ditch of” mean?
    Do you use elastic or regular thread in the bobbin for sewing the straps to the bodice?

    • Meredith

      Hi Pam,
      Stitching in the ditch is when your stitches are sewn directly in the seam. For the straps, you’ll want to swap the regular thread bobbin out of your machine for a bobbin filled with elastic thread.

  • Thankyou for the tutorial just ordered some shirring elastic online.Have never been game to try but love the look so thanks to you I will give it a go

  • Shirring does best with lightweight fabrics, the best being voiles. But a lightweight calico type works too. Just make sure you’ve got the tension right beforehand for your machine (experiment first).

  • Charity? Or friends kids? I do i all the time cos I don’t have any daughters, either. 😉

  • Heart&SweetMom

    Hi,
    I was wondering what type of fabric (basic combed vs. kona vs. poplin) you used for this project.
    Thanks!

  • Thank you for sharing the tutorial. I remember having 2 sundresses in this style when I was about 5. One had big purple roses and the other had the same print in blue. I absolutely loved the feel of the crisp cotton pique. I wish I had a little girl to make one for.