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Upcycled Dress from a Poncho

I’m always on the lookout for easy secondhand wins for sewing when charity shopping. There are a few places where I could, pre-covid, sometimes find lengths of fabric or good quality duvet covers. But if not those, then something with larger panels of fabric often catches my eye. Think larger sizes, gathered skirts, generally something without much tailoring. This poncho was one of those. I forgot to get a good before photo, but found someone selling one on eBay so you can get a sense of what it looked like:

It was viscose, and more or less a rectangle of fabric – no seams, just some hemmed/bound sides around the front opening, neck hole, and sides.

It sat in my to-upcycle collection for at least a year, waiting for the right project. And that finally came as I wanted to make another True Bias Southport dress. I’d worn the ones I made last year sooo much, but they’re now too big and it’s not an easy project to resize. The only problem was that ‘more or less’ part of being a rectangle of fabric.

Pattern Tetris

The important thing when laying out your pattern pieces is to think about the grain of the fabric. Here’s a little article about what that means, but it’s important so the final garment looks like it’s supposed to and doesn’t twist out of shape. So ideally:

  • all pieces would lay along the same grain line.
  • the pattern would mostly go in the same direction – I didn’t want it to look too jarring or draw attention to the fact that it was pieced
  • I wanted a midi dress – about mid calf, so I could feel comfortable wearing it without leggings.

Despite the amount of fabric it took a while to pattern tetris my way into something that made the most of the shape I had. Here’s what I came up with:

I mostly used the cross grain here. And while the gallery above makes it look like a speedy process, it took a while!

I’m really proud of myself for finding this layout. The big winner was splitting the front and back bodice pieces. I know they’re small, but the armhole/neckline area leaves a lot of odd pieces in the fabric when cutting out. Getting those from other areas of the poncho meant I could make the most of what I had.

Ultimately I was able to get nearly all the pieces along the same grainline and with the pattern running in the same direction. The exceptions were the top of the front and back bodice pieces. Rotating those to run the same way as the rest of the dress would’ve shortened the length of the skirt and made it harder to assemble the bias binding (more on that later). And having a different pattern/fabric/etc in that section of a garment isn’t uncommon, so I hoped it wouldn’t look too out of place.

Assembly

Sewing the dress together first meant piecing all the pattern pieces together. I needed to turn 11 pieces into 4 (not counting bias binding or casing here), before I could even start with the normal construction of the dress.

The poncho is made of viscose, which can stretch and fray quite easily, so I decided to flat fell all the seams.

The sides of the original poncho were hemmed with a double fold of fabric, and I used that to my advantage when assembling the pieces. Flat felled seams are one of my favourite finishes – they hide all the raw edges, meaning your work is stronger and lasts longer. Here’s a tutorial, though I’m generally lazy and do all my sewing on the wrong side of the fabric. Most of my stitching was black on black, so if it’s a little wonky you can’t generally tell.

Unfolding those original hems after I cut the pieces meant I had the little flaps I needed to fold over and sew down without having to cut as much (if any) of the seam allowances away. I got the idea from someone on instagram, who mentioned that in commercial sewing patterns, the seam allowances for pattern pieces with flat felled seams are different so the sewists don’t have to spend time or create waste cutting excess fabric away.

It did make lining up the seams a little harder, but I just used lines of chalk on both sides and stuck pins through to make sure they lined up properly. And then used copious copious pins to hold the pieces in place so they didn’t shift.

Bias Binding

One of the last bits to assemble was the bias binding, which I took from the odd bits around the neck hole.

It always amazes me how much bias binding you can get out of what appear to be little scraps of fabric. And although it can take a lot of time, that stuff is so useful for sewing! I’d recommend everyone get at least one of the little tool you can see in the photo on the right if you make any bias binding for yourself. They come in different sizes – buy one you feel comfortable with, and then just use that size tape on your projects as long as it’s close!

Actually Sewing the Dress

The pattern itself is relatively simple, especially when you omit the button placket in the front of the dress. Here are the front and back panels, ready for sewing together. Can you tell where they’ve been pieced? I added lines on the photo to the right approximately where the extra seams are:

The little black blob at the bottom of the photo is Tilly, who decided to ‘help’ me on the photo shoot.

I made one other tweak to the pattern, beyond removing that button placket, and that was to make a casing for elastic in the waistband instead of using a drawstring. While it was on the inside of the garment (so I could’ve used whatever I had that was about the same weight), I was able find more scraps to piece it from leftover pieces of the lower skirt panels and some scraps around the neck hole I didn’t use for binding.

It ended up a little narrower than I would’ve liked, so instead of attaching one edge of the casing when sewing the bodice and skirt together, I tucked the top raw edges into the flat felled seam as I was finishing it. The lower edge was folded over and basted before sewing it to the skirt. Apologies for not having photos, it was a fairly tense operation…made even worse when I tried to thread the elastic through and realised I hadn’t caught the casing (or it frayed) in a few places along the top edge and I had to unpick and re-sew. Next time I’d stay stitch/fold over/or otherwise reinforce that top edge as well. So far it’s held up to a few wears and washes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point I have to replace it.

I also managed to stretch out the neckline while sewing on the bias binding. It’s not too noticeable, unless you sew, but it sticks out a little instead of lying flat.

A small win I had was to use the original hem as my hem on the dress – tbh it wasn’t entirely straight, but isn’t noticeable during wear, and a reminder that the things you buy in shops aren’t perfect either!

The Finished Dress

Ta Da!

I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It’s a super comfy summer dress perfect to throw on when it’s hot out. And I’m really pleased I used up so much of that poncho.

Here’s all the scraps that were left:

Scraps have this amazing ability to look huge, even though there’s really not much there. I promise those are all wonky whispers of fabric that would’ve be useful for anything besides stuffing.

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