Friday, 8 June 2012

TUTORIAL - Old Vest to Tiered Maxi Dress

I come across problem after problem when looking for the perfect maxi dress. Infact, I came across SO many problems in the shops this year I decided it would probably be for the best if I just made my own. After browsing online for a tutorial of some sort to help me out a little I couldn't find what I was looking for so I decided to shoot a step-by-step for anyone else wanting to take this on and I hope this helps others looking for the same or a similar kind of thing!

In this tutorial I'm going to show you how to make a super simple tiered maxi dress with minimal effort and potentially zero spend-out! If you use my tutorial I would LOVE to see your results and will be happy to post links to your blog if you're flaunting it!

  • Vest top or other for your bodice
  • Fabric for the skirt - Don't forget to wash new fabrics to allow for shrinkage BEFORE sewing!
  • Thread
  • Scissors
  • Sewing Machine
  • Tape measure
  • Patience

1 - Find your perfect bodice and skirt fabric combo.
For the bodice I'm using an old non-stretch cotton vest top that I picked up for £4 from a local charity shop. I love that it has adjustable straps and a cute mixture of prints. If you can't find anything suitable, have a rake through your wardrobe for an old top or dress that you can use. You want something that fits comfortably and isn't too tight. A little too big is fine, if it's too small you can always add panels from your skirt off-cuts to open it out a bit.
For the skirt I'm using shop bought fabrics for the sake of this tutorial but old bed sheets will work even better and I plan on making more of these maxi's using my ever-growing stash of old linen sheets and the like. This could also be an amazing way to use up remnants you have squirrelled away by patchworking them together into your tiers.

2 - Decide where your skirt will start.
Put your top on and find where you want your skirt to start, I want my bodice to come to somewhere between the under bust and waist, this is roughly 6 inches down from the top centerfront point so I take it off and mark with a pin. At this point it's useful to take into consideration how you will get your dress on and off. I'm making mine so I can slip in to it so as long as I can get the top on when it's all buttoned up to the point where the skirt starts (this will be the narrowest part of the dress), it's all good (scribbling notes and illustrations down on paper as you go REALLY helps for this project).
Lay your bodice down flat and measure horizontally at the point where your skirt will start. Mine is 16 inches. Make a note of this measurement, we'll call it "Waist". cut 0.5 inches lower from this point, this will be your seam allowance.

3 - Measure for your skirt length.
Next we want to see how long our skirt needs to be. Measure from the "Waist" measurement (whilst wearing your top to be extra-accurate!) right down to the floor and make a note of this. Mine was around 40 inches. We'll call this measurement "Skirt Length".

4 - Divide up your skirt.
If you haven't already, you need to decide how many tiers you want in your skirt. I'm going for three. Bare in mind that the more tiers you have, the more fabric will be needed and the opening at the bottom will be REALLY wide if you have lots of tiers. I've divided my "Skirt Length" into three different measurements. There's no particular science to this but I wanted the tiers to get longer as they go down. These sections will be numbered from top to bottom "Tier 1", "Tier 2" and "Tier 3".
"Tier 1" will be 12 inches long, "Tier 2" will be 13 inches long and "Tier 3" will be 15 inches long.
Now's a good time to choose which order to put your fabrics!

5 -  Measure for your gathers!
First of all to clear up any confusion, I will be working on the front and back of my skirt separately and then sewing the sides up before attaching the whole thing to the bodice. You can work in tubes of fabric if you like but the thought of gathering THAT MUCH fabric in one go with one line of thread scared me so I'm working each tier in halves (front half, back half).
OK here's where it gets a bit tricky for those not too good at mathematics and such like me - hopefully I've done the hard work for you.

Each tier will be 1.5x wider than the tier above, then gathered down to the measurement of the tier above and then sewn to one another.
Remember that "Waist" measurement we noted down? Mine was 16 inches. "Tier 1" needs to be 1.5x wider than this: 16X1.5=24. "Tier 2" will be 1.5x wider than "Tier 1": 24X1.5=36. "Tier 3" needs to be 1.5x wider that "Tier 2": 36X1.5=54.

Taking the measurements above and the ones in section 4 into account, I've added 0.5 inch around each tier for seam allowance and 1.5 inches onto the bottom of "Tier 3" for the hem, I've calculated the tiers as follows (including seam allowance):
Tier 1 = 25X13
Tier 2 = 37X14
Tier 3 = 55X17

Cut two of each tier giving you 6 pieces in total. This will be your skirt and the hard part done! WELL DONE FOR GETTING THIS FAR! Here's reference for what your tiers should look like!

6 - Gather those gathers!
Time to gather up all that pretty fabric! I'm not sure about you, but ruffles and gathers are the BANE OF MY LIFE. I can never get them right and when I do they come loose before I've had a chance to sew it all down!
I began this monster task using my gathering foot, which only ever seems to work when I'm practicing as you'll see from the image below (ALWAYS PRACTICE ON A SCRAP FIRST!).

After gathering a couple of tiers I soon reverted back to my standard foot and did it the easy way instead. If you don't have a gathering foot or you do but it's rubbish like mine don't panic, just use your standard machine foot and lower your thread tension to around 2, sew a line of long stitches and once you're done, pull on your bobbin thread to gather as much as you need.

We're starting with "Tier 3" which is the bottom tier. sew a line of gather stitches along the long top close to the edge and remove from your machine (see how my gather foot didn't want to gather? Typical!).

Pull the bobbin thread and adjust your gathers until your 55 inches of fabric is down to 37 inches, matching the ungathered width of "Tier 2". 

Press the gathers down. At this point I overlocked to keep my gathers extra-secure but it's not necessary so don't worry if you don't have an overlocker.

With right sides together, pin and sew the top gathered edge of "Tier 3" to the bottom edge of "Tier 2" with a 0.5 inch seam allowance.

Next, gather the top of "Tier 2" in the same way you've just done, but this time you want to gather down to 25 inches so it matches up with the bottom of "Tier 1". Press. Again, with right sides together, pin and sew the top gathered edge of "Tier 2" to the bottom of "Tier 1".

Lastly, gather the top of "Tier 1" down to 17 inches. Press. Repeat all the steps in section 6 to complete the other half of your skirt.

7 - Complete your skirt.
Next we're going to sew the skirt together! I overlocked each seam again because I'm fussy like that and it looks nice and tidy.

Press all your seams up. Grab your front and back sections, place right sides together, line them up and pin each side. Sew both sides from top to bottom or bottom to top with a 0.5 inch seam allowance. I overlocked the edges afterwards but again it doesn't matter if you don't have one. If you're worried about your seams you could always zigzag over them.

8 - Attaching your skirt to the bodice.
So very close to finishing, now to attach the skirt to the bodice! With your skirt still inside-out, slip your top into the skirt, right sides together, with the bottom of the bodice lined up with the waist hole of the skirt. The two parts of the dress should fit nicely together. line your seams up, pin and sew all the way around with a 0.5 seam allowance. (I've overlocked again!)

9 - Hemming
Last thing left to do! If your initial measurements were correct you should be able to turn up 0.5 inch, press and then turn up an additional inch, press and pin. Try it on. All good? If so go ahead and sew that hem down! If not, grab an assistant and have them help adjust the hem for you whilst you're wearing it. Once sorted, stitch that hem down and you're DONE!

And there you have it - your very own beautiful new maxi dress! Perfect for the summer, and can potentially cost absolutely nothing but supplies you already own to make (in my opinion, these are always the best projects)!

In hindsight, I do now wish I'd have used a darker colour for my middle tier, and a pink for the top tier, and maybe given it a bit more of an empire waist, but hell.. it was SO easy to make I can just knock up another! I'll be taking my lovely new maxi to the South of France in two weeks time just as long as the weather is better than here in the UK right now!

 Bye for now - Enjoy ♥


  1. Love your tutorial and that beautiful dress, showed off so beautifully, too! Thanks for visiting my blog and for leading me to yours :-)

  2. Hi, Louise..,thought I'll give you a heads up. I've posted the tute on the Kimono. Good luck!

  3. FANTASTIC! I simply cannot wait to have a go at making it now! If I do get around to it I'll be sure to post my version on here along with a link to yours and your tutorial :)

  4. Oh, Louise, this dress is just stunning! The bohemian prairie feel those cottons exude is right up my alley. Thank you, thank you also for sharing how to make a tiered dress. I have a knit tiered maxi dress from H&M that I wear *all the time that I've been wanting to replicate. However, I wasn't sure how to tackle the issue of gathering the tiers. I'm much obliged to you for doing all the math for me. :) Hope you had a lovely trip to France!


  5. What a beautiful dress you have designed! Thanks so much for your excellent tutorial! I love the idea of using second hand clothing and making something new! The colors you chose are beautiful. I hope to try this...if I can find a pretty bodice top!
    Thanks again!

  6. Absolutely lovely!!! I'm featuring this tomorrow on my weekly round up!!! Hope you have a wonderful week!

    Cami @
    Sunday Bewitch Me & Titi {Link Party}

  7. Wow, this looks just as awesome as those super expensive vintage Gunne Sax dresses that people list on Etsy all the time! Amazing!


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