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My 1940s sun dress has proved to be the perfect all year vintage dress as it doubles up as a pinafore too! I made this using the vintage pattern McCall’s 7475* during the summer, but have found that I get more wear out of it now that I can layer it over a shirt.
1940s Sun Dress Video
Patterning and Cutting
I had to make some quite substantial adjustments to the fit of the pattern using my custom drafted bodice block. This meant I knew I was going to need to make a toile of the bodice to check the fit. Thankfully, it fit pretty well so I got stuck in to the making process.
I started with the skirt. Now, I didn’t have nearly enough fabric to make this dress, so I had to rather drastically alter the skirt. I made it considerably shorter, which actually turned out okay on me as I’m only 163cms tall, but my fabric was only 90cms wide so I had to make the skirt panels narrower at the hem as well.
I basically just cut a wedge off the edge of the pattern. This will mean the skirt isn’t quite so full at the hem but will still fit at the waist.
I didn’t follow the pattern instructions in the order given. This is because I like to batch my tasks! Perhaps that’s a blog post for another day, but I like to group all the similar task together to save energy. This is very important for me because of my chronic illness.
So first I chop roughly around the pattern pieces before, going in and cutting each piece more precisely. For this project I used just a regular pair of pinking shears and boy could I feel the difference compared to my angled spring loaded fiskars pair*.
But I wanted to use pinking shears as this vintage Liberty cotton fabric is so tightly woven and such good quality, I knew I wouldn’t need to do any other kind of seam finish.
I marked up in my usual way, with carbon paper* and a tracing wheel, only this time the chalk was quite hard to see so I did end up going over quite a few of the lines with tailor’s chalk.
Before I start sewing, I always make sure to read the instructions all the way through. This helps me to identify which task I can batch together.
For this project, I started by pinning in the darts, making sure to match up the balance marks. I started with the waist darts, and then moved on to bust darts.
Then I pinned all the bits of the facings together for the neck and the armhole facings.
Next I pinned together the skirt panels, starting with the centre front and back. The side seams had to be left open from the waist to the hip, but I pinned them together below the balance mark.
After all that pinning the pattern pieces looked like this.
Then I got my machine out and started stitching in all those things I had just pinned. The pocket, the facings, to save on thread, I stitched the facings together in a continuous chain. It also helps me not to lose things. Then I moved on to the darts, making sure NOT to reverse and leave long threads instead.
Next came the skirt seams, remembering to leave the side seams open to the hip mark.
Once all those seams were stitched in, I pinned in place the shoulder seams, and then stitched those in place. I don’t like to do the shoulders until the darts are stitched in because it becomes a bit of a nightmare to get this prickly bodice through the machine otherwise.
With all that stitching done, I then snip all those threads in one sitting. Remembering of course to tie off the points of the darts before trimming the threads down.
I then take everything to the ironing board and press all those seams, starting with the long skirt seams. For the darts I use a tailor’s ham to get a smooth point to the darts and keep the 3D shape of the bodice.
I also use the ham for the shoulder seams and facing seams as this turned out to be easier than trying to get the neck of the bodice over the end of the ironing board.
I simply pressed the pocket flat to set the stitches.
After all that pressing I could start pinning the next batch of seams. For the bodice side seams I left the left hand side open below the balance mark as this is where the zip will go.
Constructing the 1940s Sun Dress
I pinned the neck facing in place matching the shoulder seams and the balance marks, before pinning in the pleats in the centre front and centre back of the skirt.
Next, I pinned the pocket into the hip opening on the right hand side of the skirt.
And then, all those seams were sewn in place starting with the side seams.
For the neck facing, I carefully pivoted around the corners, rounding them off slightly to create a crisper corner when they are turned through. I had to be careful when sewing in the pocket not to accidentally catch the wrong layer of the skirt. Then finally, I stitched in the pleats.
Then I began grading down the seam allowances around the neck facing. I trimmed one layer right down, and snipped into the corners. I also trimmed the seam allowances that overlapped at the shoulders to cut down on some of the bulk.
With the side seams sewn up I could pin in place the armhole facings, matching the seams and the balance marks of course.
I then took the table off of my machine and stitched the facings in place. Unlike sleeves, facings don’t have to be eased in and they should fit the armhole exactly so that they lie flat when turned inside. But they can still be tricky to negotiate through a sewing machine. You can see here how I have to keep adjusting the bodice to keep everything nice and smooth.
With the facings in place I tacked the pocket flat to the front skirt panel.
To create the pleats in the skirt, the centre front seam has to be centred over the stitching for the pleat like this. Of course, the same is done for the centre back and then they too are tacked in place.
I then went back to the armhole facings and graded the seam allowance right down with pinking shears. I also trimmed the seam allowances where they overlapped, and also clipped the curves of the armholes right down to the stitching line to help the curve lie correctly when turned through.
Then back to the ironing board for more pressing. The pleats were simple enough to press in as the instructions said to only press them as far down as the end of the stitching. The side seams got pressed open and then the armhole facings were also pressed open using a tailor’s ham. They are then turned around to the inside and pressed in place precisely along the seam.
This same process was repeated for the neck facing, pressing open, turning around to the inside along the stitching and then pressing in place.
To help hold the facings in place and set that crisp edge, I tacked the layers together close to the stitching line.
With all the edges of the facings tacked in place it was time to attach the bodice to the skirt.
I matched up the seams and the balance marks and pinned the two together. I had tried to do a bit of pattern matching, but really I had nowhere near enough fabric to do it properly so it didn’t really work.
I then stitched the two together.
Next it was time to install the zip. I really hate doing this so don’t want to dwell on it too long.
Hemming and Hand Finishing
With the zip installed, I put the dress on my mannequin for a few days to let the hem drop. I usually use a long metal ruler to hem my skirts but I couldn’t find it and ended up having to borrow my Dad’s meter rule, but I did find my wrist pin cushion, which many of you suggested in the comments of Sewing with a Disability and made leveling this hem a lot easier.
I knew that I wanted this skirt to be as long as possible so I simply measured the height from the ground at the side seam, which was on the straight of grain, and then pinned at that measurement along the hem towards the centre front and back seams which were on the bias.
The hem had only dropped a little bit but I trimmed the excess off to make everything nice and level.
As I was hemming this skirt to be as long as possible, I used bias hem tape instead of folding the raw edge under. I could only get this rather too bright lemon yellow but I don’t mind that. I pinned in on to the right side of the hem curving it around to follow the shape of the hem, before stitching along the fold of the tape.
Then I remembered to make a belt! I used the leftover sew in interfacing from my 1950s dress and two strips of the checked fabric sewn right sides together. I put a diagonal in one end to create a point. Leaving the other short end open, I stitched down the other side of the belt before grading down all the seam allowances. Then began the long and fiddly process of turning the belt right side out.
Now I went back to working on the hem, pressing the bias tape down away from the skirt, before turning it up like with an ordinary hem. This way I only lost about a cm of length on my skirt which keeps it at that longer vintage length. The other bonus to using bias tape is that it is much easier to shape the hem into a curve using the steam on the iron. I also gave the belt a thorough press, making sure to get the stitching right on the edge.
I decided to hand sew the hem in place, so I retired to my favourite hand sewing spot (my bed) knowing that this was probably going to take an absolute age. I used a slip stitch and was very careful to only catch a single thread of the main fabric of the garment. This was so fiddly, due to the densely woven nature of this cotton and made the whole process even longer, but I do really love the final result.
I also stitched all the facings down by hand. The instructions had called for the edges to be turned under and slip stitched in place, but as this fabric was such high quality and I had already pinked the edges, I herringboned the facings down instead. This should help to prevent more fraying and will also keep the facings nice and flat, instead of the bulk of a turned under edge.
At last it was time to turn to the belt. I raided my stash for a suitable buckle and installed it in the end of the belt using an awl. I then herringboned the raw edge of the belt in place again to reduce bulk. A quick try on was needed to figure out where to put the hole in the belt which I then made with an awl. I over sewed this hole much like an eyelet to stop the fabric fraying.
The final step, which I learnt from making the belt on my 1950s dress was to include a popper at the free end of the belt to stop it flapping about.
Only this wasn’t quite the final step. I removed all the tacking from around the edges of the facing and of course I needed a belt loop to hold the belt in place. This I made using a thread chain again like on my 1950s dress. I threaded the belt in place and the sun dress was complete.
The Finished 1940s Sun Dress
And…. here it is! The finished dress.
This was a junior’s pattern and the finished result is definitely somewhere in the region of 1940s schoolgirl, which I’ll be honest, isn’t usually my thing, but guys I kind of love it.
As someone who isn’t a huge fan of florals or bright colours I struggle to find summer clothes that I like but this outfit is summery and feminie without being too cutesy.
I love the fact that it has a pocket, and is so versatile. I will be wearing this dress well into the winter.
I actually really love this look. I feel like all I need is a pair of saddle shoes and ankle socks and I’d be ready for my first semester at University in 1947. Either that or I’m about to start my new job as the librarian nobody suspects of the murder in an Agatha Christie novel.