Project: Sew a simple halter dress
Here is a recent project I sewed that I started calling my Key Largo dress, and I made it without a pattern or spending any money on new fabric. I’ll show you how I made this simple halter sundress in one hour in case you want your own Key Largo dress.
It started when I saw a dress at Macy’s that I practically drooled over but decided not to spend $100 on a dress for no occasion.
However, the vision of that dress stayed in my mind and wouldn’t go away. It looked something like these:
So I did something really crazy and decided to made a dress similar to it, for free.
Isn’t this a nice, casual style? Perfect for summer (hey, it will be summer where I live until Thanksgiving) or the upcoming resort season.
I wanted to pack something new for a weekend trip to Key Largo in the Florida Keys, an easy drive from our home. At first, I wanted a maxi skirt, but then I settled on this sundress. My Key Largo dress.
I had a couple large pieces of fabric that at one time — probably before children — I had wanted to make something out of. One was two yards of a pretty yellow scroll design, and another was a yard and a half of a soft paisley. I figured I would need just a yard and a half for a simple halter-style sundress.
Studying the lines of my drool-worthy model dresses, it appeared I needed to make a bodice and a skirt, then sew them together. Come to think of it, this dress isn’t too different from a previous dress I made, for which I modified a halter top pattern. I didn’t realize it at the time — I could have saved myself a few steps. But that’s OK, because it was a nice challenge to make a dress without a pattern.
I started with some measurements. The top of the halter goes straight across the collarbone, then tapers under the arms. To make this to fit, I held newspaper to myself and drew approximation lines. Be sure to add an inch to almost every measurement, so you will have room for seams (1/2-inch seam on each side) and hems. I gave myself an inch and a half at the top and bottom of the halter so I could fold those edges under twice and create a casing for the string that holds up the dress, and the elastic at the waist. Don’t want to confuse you — keep reading….
Classifieds are good for making patterns because they have lots of straight lines. I guess I couldn’t find any this time.
To make my Key Largo dress super simple, I decided to make the front and back the same pattern piece. So, in pattern language, cut two.
There is one small difference: the top back piece needs an opening at the neckline where the ends of your string will be tied. So I just cut a four- or five-inch slit down from the neckline on one of the pieces and declared it the back.
Also measure your waist and hips and about how long you want your dress, then cut the skirt from there. I didn’t make a pattern for this step and left it a pretty straight skirt for the most part, using the fold of the fabric.
Now there are four pieces — top front, top back, skirt front and skirt back.
At this point, I didn’t think I was going to have time to finish my dress in time for the trip. Have you ever planned a family trip? Even a short trip? You have to pack everyone up for every conceivable activity you think there’s even a small chance that you might do, get the house ready, get the pets ready, get your family’s allergy-free food and drinks ready (we’re an allergy family), on and on…. and I was running out of time.
Fortunately, my husband had his own to-do list — and he was behind. So we didn’t leave on time.
While my husband was struggling with his own project for our trip (he modified an old trailer so we could take our kayaks with us), I was able to start the sewing of the Key Largo dress.
After sewing the side seams, I made a casing at the bottom of the dress’ top for an elastic waist. Because the top pieces are identical, but my body’s front and back aren’t, I figured I would need a way to level that playing field, so to speak, and to match it up with the waist of my skirt. This gives the top of the dress room for your chest and definition at the waist.
To make a casing, you make a tunnel in the fabric. Fold over the edge to the back side, or wrong side, of the fabric, then fold again or tuck the edge under so you don’t have that frayed edge. Then sew the edge to the fabric (back on itself) so you create a tunnel. Cut a piece of thin elastic to fit your body where you measured the top of your halter dress to end, and push that through the casing. I use a safety pin to make this easier. When the elastic is all the way through the casing (all the way around the bottom of your top), take the safety pin off and tie a knot in the elastic, or sew the ends together.
You also need to make a casing at the top of each top piece. This is where the string will be threaded through. This is a good time to finish the edge of the slit in the back of the top by turning the edges under and sewing in place, and to finish the edges of what will become the arm holes as well.
At this point, my husband said something broke on the trailer, and he would need to go somewhere to get a part. Yay! I could keep working on the dress — maybe I would even get it done in time!
For the string, I cut a strip about one yard long (36 inches) and two or three inches wide. Normally, I fold it in thirds, and in half again to stitch into a finished-edge string. But I was racing against the clock, so I took a shortcut and used a zigzag stitch after just folding the string in thirds.
Using the handy safety pin again, thread your string through the top of the halter dress. Start at one side of that slit you cut in the back, and then through one side of the front, out the opposite side of the front, and through the other side of the back, with the end coming out of the back slit. Until you try on the dress, it doesn’t look like much because the placement of the front and back need to line up with your body. That’s OK — it all comes out in the end when you wiggle into the dress the first time.
My husband came back and starting working on the trailer again. And all I had was a halter top, not a halter dress…
I sewed the sides of the skirt together, and then pinned and sewed the top to the skirt, right sides together.
How easily that halter top became a halter dress!
All that was left to do was to hem the bottom of the dress and quickly toss it in my weekend bag.
The sewing of the dress took only about an hour. (The measuring and pattern-making took more time.)
And yes, I got to wear my Key Largo dress in Key Largo, where I saw plenty of women wearing casual, fun sleeveless dresses.
If I make this dress again, maybe with my yellow scroll fabric, I might make the back of the top a simple rectangular shape with the elastic across the top of the back, and the tie string attached just to the front. That requires cutting two different pieces, but uses less fabric and probably requires less sewing.
Also, I will want to taper the sides of the top more than I did, because my Key Largo dress came out more like a tank-style dress that I had hoped for. I still love my dress, though, and have worn it a couple times.
If you make your own Key Largo dress, I’d love to hear about it!