Retro-inspired Girls' Sailor Dresses


For Easter this year, under pressure from how much I loved last year's dresses, I decided to turn to one of my most prized possessions: a collection of vintage sewing patterns that my Grandma gave me when her arthritis made it too difficult for her to sew any more.

 I love these old patterns for several reasons. First off, they don't skimp on anything. There is an assumption of quality over quickness that most patterns now choose to reverse. Quick, boxy, and as simple as possible is today's rule.  But these old patterns use lining when the shortcut would be a turned under hem, stuff like that.  Speaking of hems, the girls' dresses call for a 2 to 3 inch hem that gives a gorgeous weight to the bottom of the skirt!! The skirts are always gathered in SO tightly that I always wonder if I'm going to actually be able to get it all in around the waist. My girls notice & appreciate the difference immediately in the twirl-ability of the magnificently full skirts!

 Second, these patterns fit my girls' bodies. Most contemporary patterns I have to modify for my tall, thin girls. For my oldest girl, who is nine years old, for example, I usually cut a size 5 or 6, then use the size 8 or 10 length in order to get it to not drown her in fabric. These older patterns just seem to assume a slimmer build throughout - from shoulder breadth to arm diameter.

Pattern used for the Classic Sailor Dress - FANTASTIC pattern!
There are drawbacks, however, to using the older patterns. They are, typically, more difficult. Not just because of the level of quality, but also because the directions are obscure and vague. Instead of step-by-step, assuming any sewer may be a novice, these patterns will include steps such as "attach cuff to bottom of sleeve," without any picture, diagram or further instruction. How does the cuff attach? Is it right sides together? It folds back on itself, how is that achieved without showing the raw edges? I find myself pinning and visualizing a LOT as I try to negotiate steps that the instructions assume I already know how to do. But is it worth it? You tell me!

 For my youngest, I chose a classic Sailor dress with the main flair being the bright yellow.  Evey's favorite, favorite color is yellow and she begged and pleaded for a yellow easter dress.  When I found this gorgeous deep sunshine color, I was happy to oblige. I love the yellow with the traditional blue & white of nautical styling.

I'm often asked about fabric choices for dress sewing, so here is a quick thought.  I LOVE a poly-cotton blend for little girls' dresses.  It is harder and harder to find in this world of 100% cotton for quilters, but it washes like a dream, never ever has to be ironed, and doesn't seem to hold on to stains.  It is my go-to fabric for any dress that has gathers or pleats.  Now, it isn't fancy - so it won't do for flower girls' dresses or special occasion if fru-fru is desired - but for a good ol' bright, easy to sew, easy to wear, fabric, I love my simple poly-cotton, which is what this dress is made out of.  The yellow, navy and white are poly-cotton (also used the white for a sewn-in slip).  The striped inset is one of those crazy "unknown content" bolts.  So far it seems to be ok.  I also used grosgrain ribbon for all the trim.  I love grosgrain for the way it lays flat and cooperates.


My great joy on these dresses was the silly navy & white stripey buttons, which I found in my sewing drawer.  Just a lovely serendipity.  No idea where I originally purchased them. They appear on the front of Evey's dress, on Chloe's belt, and down the back of Chloe's dress.

For Chloe, I opted for a truly vintage look.  The cornflower-blue fabric (again, a simple poly-cotton) was perfect for the retro-feel, and enabled me to coordinate the girls' outfits without having them actually match.  I didn't want the square sailor collar, so I got creative.  Had to combine a couple of patterns to get the look I wanted, but that's less unusual for me than making a dress with just one pattern!  I did have to improvise the cuffs and tie myself, but that wasn't hard.  Chloe wanted me to keep the skirt longer than the pattern called for, so I didn't get the big, deep hem the pattern called for, but I agree with her that the longer skirt gives it a charming look.

Finally, for Lily, since she's the oldest, I wanted something a little more mature while still being little girl.  I browsed ideas online and found a lady's pattern that inspired me to create this more contemporary dress that, while not a sailor dress, still has nautical elements.  Again, I had to use a couple of different patterns to get what I wanted, but no vintage patterns for this one. Working with stripes makes me want to pull my hair out by the roots - especially when I didn't have much to work with and kept cutting the pieces the wrong direction, but it all worked out, so... *big sigh*.  I doubled the skirt with just an inch difference, and added white grosgrain ribbon trim along the edge, which is sweet and gives a lot of movement.  As tall and thin as Lily is, I think the dropwaist is perfect!!
Of course, the original intention of the dresses was for Easter (though they made for darling pictures at the lake, too!  Bonus for mommy!).  Here are some pics of how they performed on the big day.  Note how adorable Chloe was with Easter gloves - one relative commented that she looked like she belonged as a permanent resident of Main Street, USA at Disneyland :)

So cute with gloves! Very proper!
And of course, I do have the boys as well.  I don't sew much for them any more (though I did have to alter a ridiculously long tie recently - that was a feat!), so they don't really get featured here on the crafty blog, but they did coordinate and look fabulous and get their pictures taken a lot too.

And lest my pictures make anyone think that my kids are always prim and proper and well behaved and perfect... REALITY:

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