How to Make a Twirly Dress

[January 17, 2010]

In December, 2009, I made “Twirly Dresses” for my four granddaughters.

Hannah, the oldest (age 9) helped me; she chose the colors. I got the idea from a pattern I saw at JoAnn Fabrics. I bought the pattern, but when I began to make the dresses I realized that there was no need to cut fabric into panels and then sew them back together. The skirts would be small enough that I could just cut circles directly out of the fabric. Here is how to make the dresses that way.

1. Preparation and Purchase.

You will need these measurements for the girls:

Waistline circumference

Length shoulder-to-waist

Length waist-to-foot. (Not all the way to the floor; the skirt should come to the instep.)

Next, figure out what width fabric you need to buy. Fabric usually comes in either 45” or 60” width.

Find the diameter of the child’s waist by dividing the waist circumference by pi (3.14).

The four-year-old child had a waistline of 20”. Divide 20 by 3.14, and you get the diameter: 6.37”.

The fabric will need to be wide enough to measure from foot to waist, across the waist diameter, and back down again from waist to foot. This child measured 22” from waist to foot.

So add together 22 + 6.37 + 22 =  50.37. You will need fabric that is 60” wide.

The two-year-old child had a waist circumference of 16”, for a diameter of 5.1”. Her waist-to-foot measurement was 14”.

In her case, 14 + 5.1 + 14 = 33.1”. Her skirt could be made from the smaller 45” wide fabric.

You can use any kind of fabric you want, but it seems to me that a stretchy knit is best, since the dress is likely to become a dress-up favorite and be pulled on and off repeatedly. A knit is also more flexible and floaty than a woven fabric.

Hems: This measurement does not allow for a hem. If you want to be able to hem the skirt, add another 2” or so to the needed width.

I planned not to hem the skirt because (1) it is tricky to hem a circle—the fabric bunches up; and (2) a hem would make the bottom of the skirt stiffer and heavier, and less “twirly.” So I bought fabric that would not unravel, and would not need hemming.

For a Christmas dress, I bought a stretchy crushed velvet fabric. For warmer weather, you could look for a lighter fabric that would not unravel. A knit is likely to be best, but if you choose a woven fabric, you could still avoid hemming the bottom by topstitching a ribbon of stretch lace to cover up the raw edge.  Whatever you decide, when you choose your fabric take into account whether you’ll need the wider size to compensate for a hem.

2. Cutting the skirt

(Of course, put the fabric through the washer and dryer before this step.)

There may be a more sensible way to do this. This is what I did.

I laid the fabric open, flat, on top of a bed, with the “inside” side up. In about the middle of the width I pinned a safety pin. I cut a piece of string to the measurement needed and drew a big circle with a piece of chalk, to mark the outside edge of the skirt.

Here’s how to find the measurement you need. Divide the diameter of the child’s waist, the number you had above, in half, to get the radius. The waistline that was 16” in circumference had a diameter of 5.1”, and half of the diameter is the radius, 2.55”.

Add the radius and the waist-to-foot length together. 2.55 + 14 =  16.55”. This is the measurement from the very center of the circle to the bottom edge of the skirt.

I cut a string that length and tied one end to the safety pin, and held a piece of chalk at the other end. I drew the string around in a big circle, marking with chalk what would be the outside (bottom) edge of the skirt. Then I cut out along that line.

Next I measured the string from the safety pin to the length of the radius, in this case, only 2.55”. I held the piece of chalk at that 2.55” point and drew the smaller circle that would be the waistline. I cut out the inner circle.

At this point the skirt of the dress is finished. You could leave it just as a skirt by finishing the waist, say with a button or zipper, or (easiest) by sewing on an elastic waistband, such as on athletic pants.

3. Attaching the top.

You can turn the skirt into a dress by sewing it to a t-shirt, or any other shirt that would pull on overhead. I wanted the four dresses to match, so I went online to Logo Sportswear and ordered 4 navy blue t-shirts. The problem I ran into is that it’s hard to tell what the sizes mean, online; these shirts turned out to run very large, and the 9-year-old ended up (after shipping and returns) taking a 3T. You’ll get surer results if you can find the shirts you need at a store.

Turn the shirt inside out. At several points, front and back, measure from the shirt’s shoulder down the length of the shirt, to the shoulder-to-waist measurement you took earlier. Make multiple marks with chalk at that measurement point. Connect those marks with a straight line; this will be the line you sew along to put shirt and skirt together. Cut off the bottom of the t-shirt, allowing an inch or so margin below the chalk mark.

Keep the t-shirt inside-out, and lay it on the bed upside-down so that the waistline is pointing upwards. Keep the skirt right-side out, and lay it next to the shirt, also with the waistline up. You’re going to put the skirt inside the t-shirt, and match up the waistlines so you can sew them together. The skirt should be right-side-out and the t-shirt inside-out, so that the finished sides are touching each other.

Line up the top edge of the skirt with the chalk mark on the t-shirt. Sew the shirt to the skirt by along the chalk line. Use a zig-zag stitch, so it will have some give when pulled over the head.

The dress is finished, but it will “twirl” better if the waistline is snug against the child’s body. I went the easy route and cut sashes out of white satin ribbon. You could also sew a band of elastic inside the dress, at waist level; or sew a wider band of elastic to itself, as a belt that could be pulled over the head.

I am presuming you have a sewing machine. If you don’t, you can get one at a thrift shop for $25 or so, and they will probably be built of stronger materials than the ones you could buy new. You can locate the manual on the internet. These old sewing machines won’t do all the fancy stuff new ones do, but for purposes of mending and simple sewing (like this project) it will do fine. 

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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