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Child’s Shirred Dress Project

Shirred dress project

This project is an extract from The Great British Sewing Bee: Fashion With Fabric published by Quadrille Craft.  The book accompanies the 3rd series and has 30 projects with full size patterns.

This shirred dress project will make both the wearer and the maker happy. It’s an easy sewing project that doesn’t require a paper pattern. Girls love to wear gorgeous dresses, and this style is not only comfy to wear, it’s cute too. The dress will fit for several summers, as the straps are adjustable. The shirring elastic will stretch as she grows, and when it’s finally too small as a dress she can wear it as a skirt. Using just the chest measurement to mark out your fabric, this is also a great way to make an adult-sized summer maxi dress.


Lightweight fabric

Shirring elastic (also known as elastic thread)

Co-ordinating sewing machine thread

Basic sewing kit

Difficulty Level


Fabric Suggestions

Cotton lawn, lightweight poplin, silk cotton.


A 1.5-cm (5/8-in.) seam allowance is used throughout unless otherwise stated. All the seams are open seams. Neaten all the raw edges of your seams as you work through the dress.

Shirring works best on lighter fabric such as a lawn or lightweight poplin. If you use a striped fabric, it can really help you get the rows of shirring parallel; a spotted fabric or any pattern with a horizontal direction can help, too.

This project is created without a paper pattern – you just need the measurement of the chest, and a measurement for how long you want the dress to be. You can either mark directly onto the fabric or use some paper to make your own pattern first.

Work out your fabric measurements

This dress is made up from two large rectangles for the body and four smaller rectangles for the straps. To work out how wide you should cut the body rectangles, take the child’s chest measurement and refer to the chart below. We’ve given a suggested length here, too, but you can adjust it to suit: just measure the child from her armpit to the length you want the dress to be, and then add on 6 cm (2½ in.) for hemming the top and bottom. For the straps, cut four rectangles that are 4 cm (1½ in.) wide x the length given in the chart.

Fabric requirements for a child's dress

Make the Straps

Fold the first strap rectangle in half lengthways, with right sides together. Pin the long raw edges together and sew, taking a 1-cm (3/8-in.) seam allowance.

Rouleau straps technique

Make a small snip at the folded edge of each tube and attach a safety pin around the snipped fabric. Slide the safety pin inside the strap and pull the fabric to the end, turning it right side out. Repeat with the remaining straps, then press so that the seam sits on one edge.

Making straps for a dress

Hem the Top of the Dress

The straps will be tucked into the hem at the top of the dress. We’re using a narrow double-folded hem technique: fold under and press 1 cm (3/8 in.) to the wrong side of the fabric along one width edge of each body piece. Then fold and press under another 1 cm (3/8 in.), so that all the raw edges are completely hidden.

Dress sewing techniques

To work out how far the straps will sit from the outside edge, fold one of the body pieces in half widthways. Measure from the outside edge to the middle and mark this point with a pin on either side. This is where your straps will sit.  Open out the fabric again, tuck the straps under the double fold at the points marked with pins, and pin in them in place. Pin along the whole of your pressed hem.  Repeat with the other body piece.

Sew a girl's summer dress

Machine stitch the prepared hem in place, close to the inner folded edge, then press the straps upwards and pin them out of the way.

Sewing a dress bodice

You’re now ready to shir the bodice. Working with the right side facing up, start your first row of shirring stitches by stitching alongside the fold of the top hem. (For a toddler, six or seven rows should be enough, but you may need to increase this on a bigger dress.) Once you’ve completed one half of the bodice, repeat the shirring processes on the other body piece.


Stitch the Side Seams

Trim all the excess threads from the sides of the dress pieces. Lay one dress piece on top of the other, with the right sides together, ensuring that the strap edge is at the top. Pin and stitch the side seams, taking a 1.5-cm (5/8-in.) seam allowance.

Sew a shirred bodice on a dress

Once you’ve adjusted the fit at the side seams, you need to neaten off the edges. The best way to do this is to zigzag the edge of both seam allowances together, making a closed seam. This is a really strong seam, and will last well in laundry. Hem the bottom edge of the dress in the same way as the top, using a 2-cm (¾-in.) double fold hem.

Tuck the raw edge of each strap to the inside, then press and slipstitch the two edges together.

Dress for a child by the Great British Sewing Bee


This is a really easy technique that gives a lovely smocked effect on fabric. Once you’ve mastered it you can use it on all sorts of projects, like the hem of baggy trousers or to add shape at the back of a loose-fitting garment.

Hand wind the elastic onto the bobbin. Wind it so there’s a little bit of tension, but not tight. If it’s too tight or too baggy, you won’t get the elasticated effect as you sew.

Put your bobbin into your bobbin case in the usual way for your machine. It’s important that you get the elastic into the tension guide on the bobbin, in the same way as you would usually do. From now on, you use the shirring elastic in the same way as any bobbin thread. You will use normal sewing thread in the top of the machine.

How to machine sew shirring

Start sewing right at the edge of the fabric, and backstitch to secure the threads. Continue sewing forwards, keeping your stitching line straight. You may see the fabric starting to gather a little as you sew, but it doesn’t always happen on the first row.

Shirring is achieved with parallel rows of stitching. For the second row, you can choose to either follow a stripe in the fabric or use the width of the sewing foot as your guideline. As you sew the second row, hold the fabric taut to stretch out the first row of stitches. This helps you guide it in a straight line. Repeat the rows of shirring until you’ve achieved the depth wanted on your bodice.

Shirred maxi dress
Adult Shirred Dress Project
To make this dress for an adult the sewing processes are the same as for the child’s dress.

To work out how wide to cut the body rectangles use this formula:

Bust measurement x 1.75 plus 6cm, (3.5inches) divided by 2 = width of both rectangles.

To work out how long to cut the body rectangles use this formula:

Measurement from under your armpit to the length you would like your dress, plus 7cm (2.75 inches)
For example if your bust measures 90cm (35.5 inches) then the calculation is as follows:
90cm (35.5 inches) x 1.75 = 157.5cm (62 inches)
Plus 6cm (2.5 inches) = 164cm (64.5 inches)
Divided by 2 = 82cm (32.25 inches) width for both rectangles

The Great British Sewing Bee: Fashion With Fabric by Claire-Louise Hardie (Quadrille, £25), with forewords and masterclasses by May Martin and Patrick Grant. Includes all the full-size paper patterns needed to make 30 projects.

Photography: Jenni Hare, Charlotte Medlicott and Benoit Andureau.
llustration: Kate Simunek, Stephen Dew and Trinity Mitchell

How to do shirring

Why not make our fat quarter dress project next?