Taking it easy – My Summer Shirt Dress

Blog topper Summer Shirt Dress

There are times when I yearn for an easy life. Loudly and with some regularity. The yearning lasts just as long as it takes someone who knows me to point out that:

  1. I have a low boredom threshold
  2. I’d probably invent something to relieve the boredom pretty quickly
  3. Could they not be around when that happened, because they’d rather stick with the devil they know.

However rude that might be ?, it’s probably true. There are times when I relish the idea of sailing away on my treasured Mustard Sofa of Books and Dreams for a lifetime.

However once I’ve recuperated there for an hour or three, I’m usually ready to look for trouble again.

The same applies to my wardrobe. Of course I could spend my life in jeans and a shirt or some other form of daily uniform – but I know that’s not for me. Eventually I’ll get that sinking sensation of being trapped in a persona that doesn’t fit; not all the time, at least. Last time that happened it led to my Style Crisis series; proof, if any were needed, that I’ll crack.

Like most of you, I find joy in creating my own garments that suit and fit me. I hope and plan for them to last but that doesn’t mean they won’t vary in style. My clothes vary from day to day along with my mood, my diary and the weather.

Pragmatic wardrobe priorities

The problem is, there’s not always time to make the garment I’d like to have. So when I come across the perfect item in the shops, occasionally pragmatism gets to outweigh purism in the wardrobe department. I particularly love the serendipity of a good sale rack.

A case in point. Earlier this year in the space of 30 seconds I rescued two pairs of trousers from the same sale rail that amazingly, fitted perfectly. One pair from Modern Rarity, the other from Weekend MaxMara. Lovely fabrics, great colours, one printed cotton, the other a classic plain wool. 70% off. And did I mention they FITTED PERFECTLY? I suspect most of you have spent many an hour toiling the perfect trouser pattern. I certainly have – and I have worn the resulting trousers day in, day out. But when fate dangled two perfectly-fitted pairs in front of me, ready made – well – I’d done enough trouser fitting to recognise their value.

Both pairs of trousers have been worn several times already so gratifyingly, their cost-per-wear is rapidly decreasing. The wool pair featured underneath my polo-neck top last month.

Trouser cheating. But, pockets and easy fitting!

If you’re new to the concept, cost per wear is a calculated by dividing the cost of a garment by the number of times it’s been worn. It takes account of quality as well as price since a more expensive item might well cost more but last longer. (There are honourable exceptions to this formula such as garments purchased or made for a special occasion. However the calculation serves as a useful prompt to consider giving away a posh frock for re-sale or donation.)

The last time I’d bought an item off the rack was a Whistles shirt dress at the end of last summer. It’s done duty as workwear, casual wear and even delivery-room-wear for 48 hours in January. It was purchased in the sale for £37.50 – they usually retail at around £120. I’d say its cost-per-wear is well below the 50p mark by now.

About that Whistles shirt dress

I’ve been eyeing these up for some time now. Whistles do a variety of versions; Jigsaw too have their own interpretation of a similar design.

The shirt dresses appear in mid-weight viscose twills in the late summer, floatier fabrics in the warmer weather and heavier wools in the winter. They come with variations in sleeve length, but all have a dipped-back curved shirt hemline, and a pleated front falling from the shirt-style opening. They also feature cleverly-cut French darts (i.e. steep darts falling from the bustline at the front to the hipline at the side seam) incorporating inseam pockets. Not only do these darts provide some subtle shaping, they also conceal practical pockets. The yellow version below isn’t the fabric I have but it illustrates the design.

'Lola' Dress by Whistles showing French darts and inseam pockets
‘Lola’ Dress by Whistles, showing French darts & inseam pocket

Not only do they cross seasons depending on the fabric used, I’ve also found that these shirt dresses can be layered over leggings and/or t-shirts in colder weather. In the summer they work just as well over bare legs and sandals as they do over opaque tights and boots in the winter.

Creating my own shirt dress

I’ve sewn shirt dresses before but the simple, practical elegance of this design appeals, as does its ability to re-invent itself according to the season. I decide to have a trawl through the pattern pages to see if I can’t find something similar. My criteria:

  • A simple loose-fitted pop-over shape with no buttons
  • A collar
  • The ability to add, subtract or adapt sleeves
  • Pockets
  • Some form of shaping

You can see my candidates in this Pinterest Board – but the winner was this ‘Autumn’ dress by Style Arc. (I know. Autumn. But Style Arc are Australian so it all makes sense).

'Autumn' Dress Pattern by Style Arc
‘Autumn’ Dress from Style Arc

There were two criteria it didn’t fill. It doesn’t have sleeves – nor does it have darts to shape.

On the sleeve front, it’s worth noting that the Whistles version doesn’t have shaped sleeve heads. Upon close inspection, the sleeves are simply drop-shoulder sleeves added on to an extended armhole – which is ready and waiting in this pattern. An easy fix. Likewise, shaping could also be added in very simply by drafting a French dart to the simple shirt-like cut of the dress. I decide to take the plunge.

Making my ‘Autumn’ Dress for summer

I’ve had my eye on our linen mix ‘Alhambra’ fabric for some time. I adore the colours in this – and if I learned anything from my Italian foray last year, it’s that hot weather deserves some serious colour. I decide that for a summer version, this is the fabric to check that box; it would be cool and breathable too.

'Alhambra' chartreuse & rust striped linen fabric

Like all the Style Arc patterns we’ve used, this one goes together very easily. There are only six pattern pieces. Collar fits collar stand which fits the neck. Seams and notches match. And then…I hit the pleat.

Pleat problems averted

The most seductive delight of this pattern design is surely the dramatically-draping cross-over pleat, falling from the yoke at the back. It looks very simple in its construction – and indeed it is. Not quite as simple however, as suggested in the erroneous diagram in the Style Arc instructions. A visit to a couple of sewing blogs soon showed me where I was going wrong but it still took me a while to get my head around it.

At this point I should explain my shirt dress has become our latest ClothSpot kit. I’ll explain all the reasons for that in my next post – but as a result of our decision, I was able to take time to deconstruct that pesky pleat and come up with a simpler way of explaining it. My explanation is based around the fact that the pleat is essentially an inverted box pleat – but one where the folded edges overlap, instead of butting up to each other.

To find our more, click here for our step-by-step guide as well as the Sew-along for the whole dress.

My finished dress

Here’s the final result!

The day the sun shone

I wore my dress over cropped leggings, simply because my legs haven’t seen a ray of sun this year and so my knees really aren’t coming out any time soon. However this would be a very easy pattern to lengthen.

I also found that when the dress hangs straight, the back pleat helps shape it by softly pulling in the side seams. Cunning stuff!

Fabric fortunes

I was taken aback with my choice of our ‘Alhambra’ fabric on a number of fronts.

First, be aware that the bands of thin stripes are loosely woven and therefore fray easily. I found the solution was to overlock my pattern pieces right away; also I needed take care not to over-press those parts of the fabric. Also, the bands of stripes are not symmetrical (as you can see in the yoke below) so I attempted to balance the stripe distribution rather then get hung up about matching them. I could have cut the yoke along the grain but I wanted a contrast in stripe direction. The pattern repeat in the stripes is 50cm.

For all that, as I worked with this extraordinary linen, it struck me more and more as a work of art. The different weave structures give the fabric amazing structure, but without stiffness. The way the back pleat falls in this fabric is almost sculptural, rather like a futuristic 60s cocoon dress or (at another extreme) reminiscent of an 18C sack-back dress.

Here’s a shot of the dress from the back

My choice of fabric is probably not indicative of how most fabrics would perform in this design, but I’m rather in love with it. When I wear it, the dress naturally sits a little way back on my shoulders. I especially like the way this accentuates the fall of the stripes down towards the back of the dress, echoing the lower back hem.

Actual stripe matching!

So here we have it. Not at all the garment I expected when I set out – but I really couldn’t resist those colours, those stripes…

How would you have managed the stripes? Thoughts welcome – I haven’t been a great stripe-wearer in the past so this has been a step into the unknown.

And now we’re just getting silly…

Meanwhile – I do love the design – and when the weather briefly warmed up this week, it was wonderfully cool and comfortable to wear.

As mentioned, we’ve launched this pattern as our ClothSpot Summer Shirt Dress Kit. Next week I’ll post about the back-story to that – including the appearance of Judy, who (whisper it) I’ve persuaded to step out from behind the cutting table…

Thank you for dropping by – let me know what you think!

14 thoughts on “Taking it easy – My Summer Shirt Dress

  1. Sarah Skinner says:

    Oh Alice – wow ! I really love this. The stripes, the way the pleat makes the back fall and the silhouette all add up to simple sophistication. Oh, and that rust colour with a pop of lime. A perfect combination of fabric and style. Only an emoji will do now:
    ?? ?

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Oh Sarah – I am glowing now – thank you very much indeed! I must say it was a surprise to see how it turned out but for once, a surprise of the pleasant variety. I see your ? emojis and raise you ☺️ in return – thank you again!

  2. Chrissie Durrant says:

    Hi Alice, your dress looks fantastic. I made this dress earlier this year and found the Stylearc instructions for the back pleat so complicated that I fudged it. Somehow it still looks great and I’m wearing it a lot because it’s cool and very comfortable. I’m very impressed with your explanation for the back pleat and will definitely be having another go with a different fabric (I used atelier brunette double gauze for my first one). Thanks for sharing, Chrissie D

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Chrissie – and thank you so much! We do like the Style Arc patterns and usually they go together like a jigsaw. We were a bit worried when we discovered the ‘pleat problem’ when I made our first sample – then all was revealed as we did our research on various blogs. However I’m thrilled and relieved that our explanation does the dress justice. We thought the design was too good to pass over – and I’m delighted you like the look of it – thank you for letting us know! I bet your double gauze hangs beautifully in the back. It’s amazing how different fabrics work their own magic – I hope your second version turns out just as well as your first!

  3. Marion George says:

    Do you read my mind? Its quite uncanny as I’ve been looking for a simple shirt dress pattern this week as I start to think of a few things for the summer. Looking at your lovely dress I think I have found it. The colour and the stripes won’t be me but they do suit you, so a good choice. I would need to make it a little longer as I’m fairly tall, 5ft 8in, and my knees seem to have gone weird in the last few years, so better to cover them up. Great to see Judy in that super summery fabric too.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      God knows Marion – I’m with you on the ‘weird knees’ front. I remember the moment in my mid thirties (yes!) when I looked down, horrified, and wondered if there was such a thing as a knee-lift. Put me in a pair of shorts and I look as if I’m off a-wandering as a goatherd in the Sound of Music. I’m sure neither of us has knees that bad – but they probably will look a little better with a tan. Meanwhile I’m delighted to hear our eavesdrop into your Alexa brought us some reliable intel as to your summer wardrobe. Your kit was despatched with pleasure on Monday – we’ll look forward to seeing the results – thank you very much indeed for the enthusiastic reception!

      • Marion George says:

        It arrived this morning. My husband, the Doug, told me I had a present, and there it was. Always so beautifully presented it seemed a shame to open it. But open it I did and read through the pattern instructions. I’m going to have fun with it, I can see what you mean about the back pleat. Btw the Scree slate grey fabric is lovely, I’m itching to get my hands on it. I’m going to forego the pockets. Besides the knees my bum does look big in most things so I don’t want to emphasize my widest part. I shall properly miss them as I do love a pocket.

        • aliceclothspot says:

          Delighted to hear that it’s arrived safely, Marion – we do love to spread the joy around! I hope you enjoy working with that linen as much as you anticipate. We’ve been working with ‘Solana’, its paprika counterpart – and I can report it’s behaving itself very nicely – we’re as excited as you to see the end result. I know what you mean about the pocket position – but you could always adapt them a little by using only the back pocket piece and stitching it to the front of the dress so it doesn’t ‘hang around’ your hips? Just thought. Anyway – have fun – and we shall look forward to seeing the final result!

  4. Di says:

    Hello Alice, your dress is great. The colours /style really suit you. Quite a difficult fabric to work with but it looks very ‘on trend’. Notice you’re still wearing the LFF makeup–(had to comment).
    Like both the Whistles and Style Arc designs. Too short for me (though that wouldn’t be a problem), and I’d need to busy myself with fake tan before baring my legs/knees in public.
    It occurred to me that some of The Maker’s Atelier patterns are easy sews for loose summer wear.
    Overall I’m not a huge fan of their loose, seemingly unstructured, designs and there are quite a few to choose from.
    However, I made their ‘Holiday Shirt’ ,which was comfortable on hot days in Cyprus last year and looked casually smart. Can also be made in various fabrics. Even the drawstring waist worked and there’s the potential to lengthen the pattern to make a tunic or dress. Just a thought.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Good evening Di – and thank you very much indeed for the approval – it’s much appreciated! It was a tricky fabric but well worth the extra effort. It was definitely an occasion when I didn’t know quite how it was going to turn out but all the more exciting when it went well. Yes indeed – the LFF kit is working well! However I might yet invest in a less pink lippy for the summer…. I don’t think you’re alone in your opinion that those off-the-shelf designs as well as our kit, are quite short. However the pattern’s easy to lengthen and for now, both Judy and I are layering ours over cropped leggings which makes us feel a little more secure!

      I agree with you about MA patterns – I don’t think they suit my broad-shouldered build as they hang down from my biggest area without much in the way of fitted-ness and I end up looking a bit shrouded. I really like the collar on the ‘Holiday Shirt’however. The boxy top wouldn’t work for me – but the drawstring-waisted version might. Was there a lot of fabric pulled into that waist? Or did it fit quite nicely? I’d be interested to know. Thank you again!

      • Di says:

        Know what you mean about the shoulders. I have them too and I don’t swim like you do. I blame mine on genetics.
        Yes, the collar on the MA Holiday Shirt is good— it sits well at the neck. Don’t know about you but I prefer open necklines. Hate that ‘buttoned up’ feeling which doesn’t suit me anyway. Re the drawstring waist—-I lowered it’s position on the pattern and lengthened the pattern to do this. I was glad I’d done that as the fit was more relaxed over the top of the drawstring and lower than where my waist is. It gave the impression of having a longer body and looked fine over trousers and a pencil skirt. If I’d followed the pattern I think I’d have ended up looking a bit ‘sack like’ and frumpy.
        So, yes, there’s quite a bit of fabric to pull in. A plus for me at the time was that it was an easy make. I think it might look better in a flowy fabric ie viscose etc. I used a very lightweight cotton —a cross between a lawn and a muslin, that had self colour thread tracery all over it–a fabric that had been in my stash for years.
        Think I went down at least one size too, based on flat pattern measurements. If I make it again I might add darts for shaping.
        Hope that helps Alice.

        • aliceclothspot says:

          Hello Di – thank you so much for the feedback on the MA Holiday Shirt. It sounds as if you have very similar needs to mine in the upper body – I too like to have things sit a little lower to suggest a bit more body length. Your suggestion of making it in a more fluid fabric is a great one – I think it would work much better on me with a bit more drape. It sounds like a candidate for a ‘wearable toile’ by the sound of it, since like you, I’m very fond of that style of collar. I really appreciate the insight – and I’m sure others will too. It’s on my list with aforementioned provisos – I hope you have a lovely Bank Holiday!

  5. Christina Ivett says:

    I love style arc patterns and cannot wait to start making this kit! It looks great on you.. all the tips and hints and suggestions for adjustments are going to be helpful. I have already cut out. Thanks for another great make and as always an interesting blog.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Christina – if your Summer Shirt Dress looks as fabulous as your other makes, you’ll have an enviable addition to your summer wardrobe! Thank you very much indeed for your lovely feedback ? – we’ll look forward very much indeed to seeing the results!

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