Hello friends! I’m Lorene, intermittent co-conspirator here at Housewife Eclectic. I love creative projects (especially if they’re geeky, too) but don’t often stop long enough to take pictures, so when I do remember, I love to share! You can see the other tutorials I’ve shared here, and today I’ll be showing you how to make a super easy girls play dress from a men’s shirt.
This is one of my proudest creations because it’s SO easy and SO affordable. The cost of the shirt plus a bit of elastic and any embellishments, so you’re looking at well under $10, and under $5 if you can get things on sale. That’s my kind of project! You start with a boxy adult t-shirt like this:
and in an hour (or less) of your time, you can turn it into a cute girls knit dress like this:
Making a girls peasant-style knit dress from a men’s t-shirt is SO easy and it makes for a cute and comfortable play dress for girls like mine who love skirts and dresses as much as they love running and jumping and climbing. And since the waist and sleeves are comfy shirring (gathered elastic thread), you can make the dress long enough to wear as a dress and then (if your daughter grows straight up instead of out like mine) as she grows, the dress becomes a tunic-length top.
This faux peasant dress is also a great project for impatient and imperfect seamstresses like me — the shirring and elastic are as forgiving for the creator as they are comfortable for the wearer, and the whole dress comes together in under an hour, depending on the embellishments you add. Peasant dresses are pretty easy, but this dress gives you the same gathered neckline style, with only one cut, one sewn casing and NO hemming required.
These play dresses are fun and easy to customize with ribbon, ric-rac, pockets, or other trim and embellishments. The only limits are your imagination! Well… and available tshirt colors. But if you really need a specific color, it’s easy to dye t-shirts, too, so really… you can make this in pretty much any color you want! These 3 dresses are the ones my daughter custom-painted, but obviously you can skip that step if you’d like.
This dress design came to fruition when my oldest artistic daughter was turning 4 and I wanted to do a fun birthday outfit for her and have her help with it. After helping Debra put together this dress from a tshirt, I wanted to do something similar, but with even LESS sewing and a more finished neck and sleeves.
So for the first version of this dress, my daughter painted the shirt before I did anything to it, just with regular old acrylic craft paint, and then once it had dried thoroughly, I followed the same steps to turn it into a dress. She loved it and we’ve done it for each birthday since then as well and I love that we have a wearable memoir of her art, and how her painting changes as she grows!
As an added bonus, these painted play dresses make great craft shirts or smocks because there’s already paint all over it, so what will a bit more hurt!
Last year she painted an extra shirt which I then turned into a matching birthday dress for her American Girl doll.
I cut up the dress and used a doll sewing pattern, but next I’m going to try it with a toddler sized t-shirt and follow these same steps to gather it!
These tshirt play dresses also make great swim coverups for easy on-and-off at the pool or the beach. They wash so easily (just like a regular t-shirt) and only cost around $5 and an hour to make, so it’s easy to let your daughter wear a dress like she loves while still playing like a kid and getting dirty! Perfect for dancing and twirling…
Okay, enough chit-chat from me… let’s get to the dress! If you have any questions, leave me a comment.
How to Sew an Easy Girls Dress from a Men’s T-Shirt
Here’s the basic idea, and read below for the full details about each step. I have combined photos from several different times I’ve made the dress, so don’t be worried when the dress color changes.
Plus, we have more fun variations coming, especially if you have Disney Princess fans in your house!
You will need:
- 1 adult or youth unisex t-shirt (size details below)
- 3/8-inch elastic, between 16 and 26 inches depending on what size dress you are making
- elastic thread (one 3T shirt-dress will take approximately 11 yards of elastic thread, we discovered, but have some extra on hand just in case)
- regular thread the same color as your shirt
- fabric marking pen
- 24″ acrylic ruler (optional but helpful)
- fabric scissors
- sewing machine
Step 1: Choose your shirt
The adult size t-shirt you start with will depend on the height of your child, the length you want the faux peasant dress (or tunic), and the brand of shirt you have. Generally I’ve used an adult medium for a 3T/4T, and large for a girls 5/6, and so on. If you’re sewing a dress for an infant (6 months and up, approximately), use a youth sized shirt instead. Often the youth shirts are the same length as an adult shirt but narrower through the chest, which works well for these dresses.
Step 2: Cut off the collar
Measure the distance from the armpit to the sleeve cuff of the shirt. Measure the same distance along the top edge of the sleeve, and add at least 2x the width of your elastic, then mark that spot along each sleeve. For 3/8 inch elastic, add about 3/4 inch (to account for the neck casing you’ll sew). This is forgiving, so don’t stress about getting it perfect.
Once you’ve marked both spots, draw a slight curve from one mark, below the collar, to the other mark. It’s actually easier to get it symmetrical by folding the shirt in half and drawing the curve from one mark to the center line, but it works the same either way. Perfection not required!
Cut along the curve you drew — you’re cutting off the entire collar and, usually, the very top part of the sleeve seam (depending on the dimensions of your specific shirt). Again, this is forgiving! Don’t stress!
Step 3: Sew the elastic casing in the neck
Turn the shirt inside out and turn under and pin about 1.5x the width of your elastic, all along the neckline. Because of the shape of the neckline, it will feel a little bit dicey along the tops of the sleeves, but you can stretch the fabric there as needed to make it work. This will all be gathered in a minute, so don’t stress about it being perfect. I prefer to start turning it under at the tops of each sleeve, and then turn it under in the center of the front and the back to help me keep it even. I don’t measure every last bit; I just eyeball it and start pinning. Did I mention I’m a lazy and impatient seamstress? 🙂
Sew the neck casing using a long but narrow zigzag stitch, with regular thread, to allow the shirt material to stretch without breaking the thread. Be sure to leave a 1-2″ opening to insert your elastic later. I prefer to start at the side I choose to be the back of the dress, around the shoulder area, so that the stitches to close the casing later are more hidden, but it really doesn’t matter where you start. I also like to sew in a loop of ribbon (see photo above) so my girls know which side is the back, but again — it doesn’t really matter, and half of the time they knowingly choose to get dressed backwards anyway!
Around the tops of the sleeves, there is more fabric along the sleeve part than along the neckline, and I’ve found the easiest way to make that sew easily and look the best is to keep the sleeve fabric kind of gathered at the top of the sleeve, so any tucks are there and are hidden when you add the elastic. But again — it doesn’t have to be perfect, so no stress!
If you want to add trim or embellishments, this is the time! You can add them later, too, but it’s easiest to add them now while the shirt is still flat. I’ve used ric-rac and ribbon around the hem (covering up the existing shirt hem stitching) and it makes the dress so adorable! You could also use the piece you cut off earlier to make pockets, or use contrasting fabric for pockets. If you won’t be shirring the waist, you can also add a painted freezer paper stencil or some heat transfer vinyl.
I’ll show you in another post how to add a contrast waistband like we did for my sweetie’s TARDIS dress, since it’s a couple extra steps.
Step 4: Shirr and add elastic
Now it’s time to finish it up! Shirring is just a fancy and funny-sounding word meaning sewing with elastic thread on the bobbin, so it gathers the fabric. (It’s also sometimes called smocking, which also sounds made-up.) If you’ve never used elastic thread before, don’t be intimidated! All you need to do is hand-wind your bobbin with the elastic thread, leaving it loose on the bobbin — not so loose it will fall off or get tangled, but not tight because the machine needs to be able to stretch it as you sew with it — this can vary by machine, so read your manual for info about using elastic thread, and if you want more details, I highly recommend this post by Ashley over at Make It and Love It.
To shirr, load the elastic thread bobbin in your machine, with the thread that matches your shirt as the top thread. Then you’ll sew several rows around the sleeve or bodice of the dress, sewing from the right side of the dress. The elastic thread should be inside the dress, with the matching thread visible on the outside. Backstitch at the beginning and end of each row, but you don’t need to trim the thread between rows until you’ve finished all your rounds of shirring.
And, in case you’re wondering, I was worried that the shirring might be uncomfortable or itchy, but my girls haven’t even mentioned it once in the 3+ years that I’ve sewn them half a dozen or more of these dresses. And they are not the type to let minor irritations go unmentioned 😉
If you like the flutter sleeve look, you can leave the sleeves alone, but I prefer the puffed sleeves (something about my Anne of Green Gables fangirl years) so I like to gather the sleeves along with the waistband. You can also opt to leave the waist ungathered for a look more like this jack-o-lantern dress I made a few years ago. It worked for the costume but it wasn’t my favorite (and yes, my store was out of just regular orange shirts, so the jack-o-lantern that year was deer hunter/construction worker orange!) If you don’t plan to shirr the waist, I would size down the shirt so the extra fabric at the waist doesn’t seem to drown your little one.
For the sleeves, I usually sew 3 rows of shirring — one along each line of stitching of the existing hem, and one equally spaced higher up the sleeve to gather it in even more.
To shirr the waist, draw a line across the shirt (front and back, lining it up at the side seams) where you’d like the shirring to start. For my girls, it fits just right to start about half an inch below the armpit seam, but if your child has a lower waist or prefers a different fit, you can draw the line farther down the shirt.
Then, stitch your first row of shirring stitches along that line, continuing all the way around the dress. Backstitch at the beginning and end of each round, but move the presser foot and needle down without cutting the thread. I prefer spacing the rows between 1/4 and 3/8 inch apart, and I keep them evenly spaced by setting my needle position to the left and then lining up the right edge of my presser foot with the previous line of stitching. (Remember, lazy seamstress, so the less I have to measure and mark, the better!) Depending on the look and the finished size of the dress, you can do just a couple rows of shirring (which won’t gather the waistline as tightly) or you can do more (which will gather the bodice in more). Most of my dresses have looked best with 5-6 rows of shirring.
Next, feed your elastic into the neck casing. My most recent dress, for my slim 6 year old, used about 20 inches of elastic in the neckline, but you can adjust as needed for your daughter’s size. Slide it into the casing using a safety pin to guide it through, being careful not to twist the elastic. Sew the elastic ends firmly together (with regular thread) — I use a wide short zigzag stitch. Stretch it to pull the elastic into the casing, and then carefully stitch the casing the rest of the way closed.
The last step is to set your shirring. I’m not sure that’s the correct term, but that’s what I call it. The elastic thread will have gathered in the waist and sleeves pretty well, but the thread is designed to gather up even more after being hit with a blast of steam from your iron (or steamer, if you’re fancy like that). So, steam each of the shirred areas and watch it shrink up! My dresses always look better after a trip through the laundry, too, so don’t give up on it if the shirring doesn’t look perfect as soon as you finish.
And, there you have it — an easy girls dress made from a man’s t-shirt, with minimal sewing and pattern cutting. My girls love to run and jump and play in these dresses, paired with leggings in the winter and cartwheel or bike shorts in the summer.
If you make a dress following this tutorial, I’d love to see pictures!