Extreme Pattern Hacking: Kirsten tee to cowl dress

In the recent spirit of my “Plan Less Sew More” pledge, I basically on a whim decided to make a dress that’s been floating around in my head for a year or more. In the spirit of The Quirky Peach’s summer stashbusting pledge, I finally cut into some lovely fabric from Michael Levine (the real store, not the Loft, gasp! from back when I thought I had to pay more than $2.50 a pound for fabric) that has been languishing in my stash for more than two years because I was afraid I would make it into something unworthy. And in the spirit of using whatever pattern has caught my fancy in the last few weeks (read: has not been put away yet), I decided to use as my base the indomitable Maria Denmark Kirsten Kimono tee (previously hacked here, here, and here).

But this would be my greatest hack yet! I would make it into a cowl neck dress. Inspired perhaps by all the Myrtles showing up everywhere, I suddenly wanted a cowl dress with an elastic waist. I was reminded of this (no longer available) dress from Boden that has been in my inspiration file for a while, which has a contrast color wide elastic waist (and yes, basically an unaltered Kirsten for the bodice, but dammit I wanted a cowl neck), and I dug out the lovely striped fabric I’d been hoarding. I found the perfect contrast color in a beautiful merino knit I got at The Fabric Store in January, which I’ve been saving for cooler weather to make into a long sleeved cowl top (I decided I wouldn’t miss a few inches off one end of the piece). And chanting my “plan less” mantra for courage, I hacked away. And it worked!

kirsten cowl dress

First, the cowl. I knew it must be possible to convert a normal neck into a cowl neck, and indeed a casual googling turned up this diagram, originally from pattern-making.com, but now available on every sewing alteration pinterest board ever:

cowl neck alteration

Okay, seems straightforward enough. I traced the top of the Kirsten and made the cuts for the double drape cowl. It wasn’t at all clear to me if I was supposed to make a cut at the bust as in the diagram, but it turned out that I had to make a cut there (and a big one) to get everything to lay flat.

tee-to-cowl alteration

I then traced my slashed piece and added a facing to the top (it’s a straight line on the pattern piece, but when I cut out the fabric I curved it out about an inch more at center to give the facing more incentive to stay flipped to the inside). Sure looks like a cowl pattern to me:

kirsten cowl pattern piece

Just to make sure, I (gasp!) made a quickie muslin from some random knit and, yep, it was a cowl! The one thing that is not addressed in the diagram that I realized with the muslin is that using this method your shoulder seam ends up an inch shorter than on the original pattern, which means the front shoulder doesn’t match up with the back shoulder anymore. I wasn’t sure how to address this, so I just kinda futzed it in the cutting, adding a little to the sleeve of the front and shaving a little off the back sleeve. Knits aren’t fussy. But I don’t know what you should do in a woven fabric, or if you happen to have any desire for precision at all (I don’t, in case you couldn’t tell). At any rate, the resulting cowl is the perfect depth for me. Many of my commercial cowl patterns are of a slightly scandalous depth, but this one is modest without being choking.

kirsten cowl dress 2

For the skirt I wanted something with a little flare, not just a straight gathered skirt like from Vogue 1224 (which I’ve pirated before). I ransacked the pattern stash and came up with Simplicity 1810, a wardrobe pattern that I’m pretty sure I bought during my it’s-got-a-yellow-sample-picture-and-it’s-only-a-dollar pattern buying phase. The shape and fullness of the skirt looked just right. Of course, the pattern piece is an all-in-one bodice/skirt affair, so I traced the bottom half, freehanded a slightly curved line at the marked waist, and added a seam allowance to the top.

For the waistband, I measured the bottom of the bodice (19 inches) and the top of the skirt (23 inches) and split the difference, cutting two waistbands (front and back) that measured 21 inches long. I was using inch and a half elastic, so I made the waistband 2 1/2 inches tall (1/2 inch seam allowances). I didn’t want to use more merino than necessary, and I wanted to make the waistband a bit sturdier, so I cut waistband lining pieces from the main striped knit.

Construction-wise, because of the elastic waistband channel, I couldn’t leave the side seams ’til last like usual. I constructed the bodice (finishing the back neckline with a strip of merino turned to the inside and topstitched, because I like the pop of color at the back neck on the inside for just me to enjoy), sewed up the sides of the skirt, then attached bodice and skirt to the waistbands. I first sewed the side seams of both the waistband and the waistband lining (using a basting stitch for one of the lining seams, which I pulled out later to insert the elastic then sewed shut by hand), then placed the lining circle into the outer circle and stitched both as one first to the bodice and then to the skirt. The inserted elastic gathered the whole shebang up just the right amount.

kirsten cowl dress back

Now, as usual there are some sloppy hacking errors. The back bodice blouses out more that I might have liked, and the front is a bit too crumply too – I would probably have benefited from shortening the front and back bodices some, or figuring out how to make the cowl alteration work without adding that huge wedge at the bust. The skirt seems slightly higher in the back than the front, because I used the same pattern piece for both and my rear is quite a bit larger than my front, plus the waistband sits higher in back than in front. But overall I’m gonna call it a success. I feel strangely accomplished for kinda-sorta venturing into pattern making. I never cease to be amazed at the ways you can move ease around a plain ol’ bodice to make something that looks so different. I’m gonna want to cowl-ify all my bodices now.

This sort of dress is my bread-and-butter: appropriate for a variety of activities from work to evening out to vacation. The fabric is a heavy, very drapey knit with a super smooth hand and great recovery; I’m gonna guess viscose? (Ha, even though I bought it in a real fabric store I still have no idea what it is.) Whatever its provenance, it feels great to wear and I’m gonna wear the heck out of it. Thanks, random capricious whim, for making me make this dress so now it’s in my closet instead of my head!

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18 comments
  1. Judi said:

    I don’t see the things you call sloppy hacking errors. I think it is very cute!

  2. Wow this looks amazing! What a Cowl-tastic hack. Lovely fabric choices and the pop of colour in the waistband is fabulous. Well done you!!

  3. gilliancrafts said:

    I like it a lot! I”m starting to think that you might be my sewing twin… I like every hack and pattern you use, and they’d all look at home in my closet! 😉 You were smart to go with a Mrytle-esque hack, instead of the real (oddly-fitting_ thing, and I really like how it looks with kimono sleeves too!

    • aleah said:

      I would be honored to be your sewing twin! Knit dresses for always! Our closets could definitely be friends. 🙂

  4. Angela said:

    Your plan is working! Lovely dress, and wearable to so many occasions.

  5. So cute!! Well done for braving the patternmaking. I see those diagrams all the time on pinterest and have yet to try any of them. You’ve inspired me:)

  6. lisa g said:

    this looks great! i love the color combo, i bet you’ll get a lot of wear out of this one!

  7. This looks wonderful! Loving the contrasting waistband – that pop of color is super cute. You did such a good job combining patterns! This is a great silhouette on you- that cowl neck is super flattering – I’m going to be wanting to cowl neck all my patterns now too. Cowl neck lady skater anyone? 🙂

  8. Great cowl neck, so flattering. You make pattern hacking look easy! The coloured waist is super.

  9. Hey, this is a great frankenpattern! I love the contrast waistband. And, I’ve lately become obsessed with all things cowl as well.

  10. So awesome! Love this hack, and it looks great on you! I love how you’re always so creative with your patterns!

  11. I think you must be reading my mind – I have been pondering exactly the same type of dress, found the same diagrams, pondered a contrast waistband…. The only difference is that you have actually made yours and mine is still in my head! well done – it looks lovely and comfy and everything a summer dress should be!

  12. Nhi said:

    Great Kirsten Kimono hack. I love that pattern. I made myself another tee recently. Just a tip on the cowl-tifying, you need to draw in the seam allowance and cut to the seam allowance. You’ll need to clip into the seam allowance to get the paper to lay flat. So all you have is a little itty bit attached at the seam allowance. This way you don’t change the length of the seam and the front will match the back assuming it matched prior to the hacking.

    • aleah said:

      Ah ha! I should have known you’d have the answer!

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