Sewing Modest Dresses for Little Girls

Variations on Kwik Sew Pattern 3944 (K3944)

(Photo © 2012 Fashion Belle) Shopping for girls' modest dresses may be easier than shopping for women's modest styles, but the challenge is growing as elements of immodesty are being pushed into the clothing market for increasingly younger ages (reference this scholarly research from Sex Roles journal, Sexy clothes: too much, too young). A recent shopping trip with my oldest niece reminded me that beginning with girls' size 5 here in the US, cut-away tops, short hemlines and pictures of cartoon characters, themselves dressed in revealing clothing, fill the majority retail floor space that is dedicated to girls. When my niece wore toddler sizes, making a modest outfit for her usually meant purchasing a cute dress from a store and sewing on a ruffle for extra length. Starting with girls' size 5, however, most of the dresses in stores require the addition of sleeves, raised necklines and other changes beyond just the addition of a ruffle for length that suffices for toddler outfits. The effort needed to sew an original dress is, in my opinion, less than that needed to make multiple patchwork improvements. Another motivation for sewing is that the final effect of a made-to-be-modest dress is more cohesive than a dress that has been re-designed. So, for me that means more sewing and less shopping in stores for the girls in my family as they leave the toddler size range.

For movement room, select a sewing pattern with a full skirt

One of the first lessons I learned when sewing for girls is that the ideal dress pattern features a full skirt to allow room for movement. Most of the patterns I used when starting to sew girls' sizes were for a-line dresses, and when I extended the hemlines on these designs to mid-calf or ankle level, the hem circumference restricted normal play activity. Most commercial patterns for girls place dress hemlines at the knee or above. If made as designed, these hemlines will not restrict walking or running, since range of motion increases dramatically below the knee. What children wear when they are young is what they will lean toward wearing as they grow older, however, and my preference for all ages is that hemlines be long enough to modestly cover the knee when seated. When a girls' a-line dress that was intended to end at the knee is extended, the circumference is usually too small for the increased range of movement below the knee. Rather than increasing the sweep of an a-line hem when trying to lengthen it, I have found that selecting a pattern with a full skirt from beginning saves time.

Cut a size larger plus add extra length

Children grow quickly and sewing takes enough investment that it is wise to cut a size larger than the child currently wears. Remember that in US sizes, a child usually wears one size larger than her age, so a 5-year-old would wear a size 6. The larger size contributes extra length to the pattern, and an extra 2 inches or more can additionally be placed at the hem. My observation of active girls is that with practice, they can play just as well in a skirt a few inches above their ankles as they can in one that ends at the knee, and the extra length for growth and modesty is preferable. An elastic casing may be placed to pull in a loose dress at the waist when the girl is younger, and the elastic may be removed as she grows older. The majority of room for growth room is needed in length, since children expand much more rapidly in height than in circumference.

Long, full girls' pattern design Kwik Sew 3944

While variations on the tiered look will probably always be available among girls' sewing pattern collections, one of the best-selling girls' patterns of this type on the market in 2012 is Kwik Sew 3944 (K3944). The skirt is full enough to spread all around a girl when she sits on the ground, the sleeves are non-restrictive for movement, and the pattern may be sewn quickly. Three variations on this pattern are pictured. The printed pattern shows seams and elastic casings stitched to the outside, exposing serger thread detail. My serger is only a 3-thread rather than the 4- or 5-thread serger that would be needed to make this technique attractive, so I opted to turn seams to the inside and to extend the neck and sleeve edges to allow for self fabric turned back elastic casings. Technical hints for sewing this pattern follow.

Technical advice for sewing Kwik Sew 3944 (K3944)

  • Shorten the neckline elastic allowance to allow for greater modesty. Recommended for a size Medium is 16" and for the Extra Small, 14". Overlap the neckline elastic about 3/8". Sleeve elastic allowances may remain the same as stated on the pattern.
  • If desired, in place of the top-stitched casing pieces, extend the neckline and sleeve edges 5/8" for a self casing that holds 1/4" elastic. Turn 1/4" then 3/8" and stitch to create the casing.
  • Add 2" to the bottom tier for extra length. Be aware that this will make the bottom two tiers about the same width.
  • If desired, sew a gathered ruffle with extra length in place of the bottom tier. This will reduce the amount of fabric required, since a ruffle may be cut straight across the fabric rather than as a curved tier (example above, right).
  • If sewing several sizes from the same pattern, use a tracing wheel to trace sizes to new paper in order to keep the original pattern intact (use paper available from large rolls at teacher supply stores).
  • If sewing multiple sizes at the same time, lay out pattern pieces together to estimate yardage needed. Because of the curved shape of the tiers, interspersing pattern pieces from a smaller size along with those of a larger size dramatically reduces the amount of fabric needed versus pattern estimates for those same sizes cut separately.
  • The tiers on Kwik Sew 3944 are not smoothly shaped across the side seams and will result in sharp points if the side seams are sewn last. My recommendation is to sew side seams of tiers separately and then assemble tier by tier. The tiers may be sewn to each other successively with no pinning required. Keep the larger tier toward the feed and hold it loosely so that it will be eased in. Place the smaller tier on top and pull it snug over the loosely-held bottom tier as both layers are pulled under the presser foot.
  • The dramatic curve of the bottom tier could present a hemming challenge. My recommendation is to serge the bottom edge and then turn once to stitch in place, avoiding the need for a double turn.

This is a versatile pattern with a beautiful shape. You are welcome to share with us photos of your version of this or any other pattern for modest girls' dresses. Please also share with us your recommendations for other patterns that lend themselves well to the addition of hem length. Happy sewing!