The Black Linen Shirt Dress
Posted on Sunday the 16th June 2019 by Anna-Jo Sews
The British summer might be in hiding this year, but I’m sharing this summery (black!) shirt dress in the hope that the sun will make itself known again.
I’ve been looking for the perfect shirt dress pattern for a couple of years now, and just couldn’t seem to find anything that fit the bill. I wanted something with a narrow silhouette, simple lines and without a waist seam. I had the idea that some vaguely military or tailored details would be involved, much like a beloved black shirt dress I had in the late 90s.
Then one day I stumbled across Vogue 8903. Although the colour and the belt on the model shot put me off, when I looked at the pattern details I realised I might have found that elusive shirt dress of my dreams. I went for view B which is the one shown on the model. It features bust darts, fish eye darts at the back, a collar with stand and short sleeves. I left off the belt as I know I’ll never use one. Alternative pattern views have two longer skirt lengths, full length sleeves, sleeve tabs, a collarless option and strange little angular cap sleeves.
What else for a summer dress other than linen?! And I know black isn’t a traditional summer dress colour, but I’m going with what I know works for me. This 100% Black Linen is a true medium weight, and it’s of the most wonderful quality as well as being a real bargain. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to sew with linen as I’ve always loved wearing it. Okay, there was a pair of self-drafted purple Bermuda shorts I made in a linen cotton blend many years ago, but let’s just say they didn’t turn out too well and leave it at that. Maybe the whole experience subconsciously put me off sewing with linen. Who knows.
Anyway, I reckon I’m going to be making up for lost time now and sewing ALL THE THINGS IN ALL THE LINEN. You have been warned :-)
I prewashed the linen twice on a cotton setting and tumble dried hot both times to ensure any shrinkage happened before cutting out. This turned what felt like a really stiff, unyielding fabric into a much more soft and fluid one. I’m looking forward to seeing how much it softens with repeated wearing and washing.
I used some Medium Weight Woven Interfacing for the collar and pocket flaps, which was perfect for this linen. It’s resulted in a collar that feels just right and keeps its shape without being overly stiff. Marvellous.
My measurements put me in a size 16 but I know from years of experience sewing Vogue patterns that they add in so much ease I generally need to cut two sizes smaller. In this case that was a bit of a gamble as it meant buying the smaller size range packet, which only goes up to a 14. It was even more of a gamble as Vogue only print the finished measurements on the pattern tissue, meaning you can’t check before you buy.
Luckily it turned out that cutting a 12 would give me 1.5” of bust ease and 4.5” of waist ease, which seemed ample to me. Hips were a bit tighter with only 1” of ease so I decided to grade to a size 14 there and get an extra couple of inches there. I have learnt the hard way that I need more ease at the hips! After basting the side seams to check the fit I realised I could do with a smidge more ease at the hips, so I let out an extra 1cm each side which seemed to do the trick. Hooray for wide seam allowances.
I have to admit, I only glanced at the instructions to make sure there were no surprises and then I went and did my own thing. Again, I’ve learnt the hard way that I don’t like inserting collars or sewing yokes the way Vogue tell you to, which seem unnecessarily fiddly and don’t result in a particularly tidy finish. I did a burrito yoke because it’s hands down the best method I’ve tried. I did leave off attaching the pocket flaps until after this, though, as the linen is fairly bulky already and I didn’t fancy having any extra fabric rolled up.
For my collar construction I followed a set of four blog tutorials from Sewaholic (posts one, two, three and four), which set out a completely different method than I’ve used before. There were definitely a lot more steps than in the pattern instructions, but it’s given such an amazing finish with a lovely shape to the collar. Even better, it was definitely easier and didn’t result in cursing and unpicking multiple times like my previous collars have. I recommend this technique to everyone and I’m super proud of my finished collar!
The other area where I went off piste was with the sleeves. Just looking at the pattern piece for the sleeves worried me. There is a really high sleeve cap which means lots of easing in the sleeve, and with this linen I was really worried it might result in a poofy looking sleeve cap. For the record, poofy looking sleeve caps are fine on other people but they look ridiculous on me. The other reason it set alarm bells ringing was I worried I might not get a good enough range of motion with a sleeve fitted like that. For a full and well-illustrated blog post on why this is the case, check out this post on sleeve drafting.
So, in the end I basted the sleeve with a lower sleeve cap but before cutting away the excess. Happy with the way it fit, I went with a 3cm reduction in the height of the sleeve cap. It does mean the sleeves stick out a little at the sides, but at least I can comfortably put stuff up on high shelves (really important with an inquisitive 13 month-old in the house!) without my whole dress riding up indecently.
Okay, let’s talk buttonholes. Basically, if you want to make a shirtdress like this, you’d better get friendly with your sewing machine’s buttonhole function. Luckily I quite enjoy sewing buttonholes on my Bernina, although by the time I got to the last couple I was starting to get buttonhole fatigue. Yep, that’s totally a real thing. To make it easier on my eyes when sewing black thread on black fabric, I used pieces of masking tape to mark the ends of my buttonhole slits.
As for buttons, I did contemplate black buttons or shell ones, but in the end I went with these Fish Eye Buttons in grey, 14mm. I like that they show up more than black would, but they’re still fairly dark and plain looking, so they don’t clash with the dress. I also finally had a chance to use my Simflex Gauge, purchased last year as a birthday treat to myself. These things are an investment but they are invaluable if you want to carefully place your buttons so you don’t get that dreaded gaping at the bust. I needed to raise the bust button by a centimetre or so, and this affected the buttons all the way down the front, meaning I could add in one more at the bottom. The jury is still out on whether I should have done this as it’s maybe too close to the hem, but it’s there now and I can always leave it unbuttoned if I want to.
I’m so happy with my finished dress! Yes, it’s really plain (and black!) which I know won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that just means I can style it lots of different ways. And importantly for my current life of child wrangling, it’s super comfortable and hardwearing. Anything that can take being scrubbed with a flannel to get mucky handprints off it is good by me. Yep, that’s pretty much my life right now.
I like the slim silhouette which gives it a bit of shape, but there’s enough ease to give ventilation in the heat. I also love the breast pockets. I know I’m unlikely to use them for anything much as they’re too small to take my phone, but they give a bit of interest and detail to an otherwise extremely basic dress.
The only thing I would do differently, looking at these photos, is to take in some of the excess fabric at the upper back. This will be simple enough to do by extending the back darts and I’ll be getting onto it pronto! In terms of sewing up, the only change I would make would be to mark all notches with tailors tacks, as the linen frays so easily I kept losing the ones I cut into the seam allowances.
Issues with fraying aside, sewing this linen was a lovely experience. Way more enjoyable than sewing a black fabric with black thread should be. It was such a nice sturdy weight and took a press so beautifully it really was a joy to deal with. It’s the perfect weight for a shirtdress and would also be ideal for trousers, jackets and skirts.
I like the different options I have for styling this dress simply by doing up or undoing the buttons. Its relatively plain style means it lends itself to a lightweight layering piece for the summer, as shown in the next pic.
I can also ring the changes by buttoning it up all the way. Admittedly, I’m unlikely to do this as I’ve never worn shirts that way, but it feels pretty comfortable and I do like the way it looks, as shown in the next picture. I could also unbutton from the bottom for varying degrees of leg flashing, if I want to give it some va va voom. Okay, and I could unbutton another button at the top, but that’s definitely an evening look and not one I took any picture of!
You might have guessed it by now, but I’m definitely planning on making this dress again! Next time I think I’ll go for a stretch woven and try adding things like the sleeve tabs from view E (but not with full length sleeves) and draft epaulettes to make it look even more like that dress I had back in the 90s. I’d even be into trying one of the longer lengths and adding side seam splits, or perhaps that strange angular cap sleeve finish of views A and F. I might also add things like contrast topstiching and inseam pockets. This is definitely a fairly blank canvas which will allow me to make wildly different looking dresses from the same basic pattern. Yay for not having to trace out more patterns!
Happy sewing, everyone!
All materials for this make were kindly supplied by Minerva in return for an honest blog post. Thank you, Minerva!