Learning to sew: a 1960s sleeveless dress

A couple of years ago, my in-laws gave me a sewing machine as a birthday gift. But apart from one cushion I made as a Christmas gift last year, I’ve hardly used it. Seeing it languish under my bureau been making me feel quite guilty, though, and of course I was initially given it because I’ve been wanting to learn to sew for years. Lack of time has been a convenient (and realistic!) excuse previously. However, I recently got a new job, which has freed up loads of time. No excuses anymore!

For my first project I chose this classic sleeveless dress (I’m making the version in the middle, with the full skirt). The pattern was 50p in a charity shop. It’s not dated, but I think it’s from the early-mid 1960s. I also found this 1965 Certificate Needlework book  in a charity shop for 80p.  The fabric I’m using is also a charity shop find and was about £2. (Can you tell charity shops are one of my favourite things? I spend far too much time in them.) All the sewing books recommend starting out with cotton fabric, but as this material was so inexpensive & I really liked it I decided to use it in spite of its slipperiness. Besides, it was such a bargain that it hardly matters if the dress doesn’t turn out perfectly. Plus, the cushion mentioned above made with a relatively stiff linen fabric, so I’m ready to embrace a new challenge.



I am still quite nervous about the project, so for once I’m doing everything by the book, starting with the bodice. Those bits of string in the middle of each piece are tailor’s tacks. According to Certificate Needlework and many modern sewing books I’ve looked at, tailor’s tacks are the most professional way of transferring marks from a pattern to fabric. I practiced on a scrap piece of fabric before attempting it on the actual garment, but I was surprised by how easy the tacking actually was.


The tacks are there to mark darts, which provide shaping for the bust and waist. While my bust is the same size as the pattern, my waist is actually about 1-1 .5 inches larger than the pattern sizing recommends. This is definitely the biggest challenge of the project. I will need to reduce the size of the waist darts to increase the overall width of the fabric at the waist. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that I may end up taking the front waist darts out completely.

Bust darts - basted


The only way to know for sure, though, is do to a test run. Today I started basting, which is basically making a mock dart with a large(ish) running stitch before using a machine to put in the final darts. This is what the front bodice looks like with the basted darts:


The really hard part is figuring out if they’re actually accurate! I’m going to baste the back waist darts next. Anyone have any idea what I should do next? The pattern just seems to assume the darts will fit perfectly. I think I will baste the side seams together and pin the top seams to get an idea of whether it fits properly. I have a feeling I will need to rope in my husband to help with this part.

Because I have to concentrate a lot to learn something new, this dress will probably be mainly a weekend project. Come back soon to see how it’s coming along! And if you have any sewing advice, please do share.

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