Learn how to make a simple shift dress

This month Nicky Sherwood headed to the pretty village of Clovelly in North Devon to try out a beginner’s dressmaking course at new craft venue Rowan Tree Studio.

As a child I vividly remember the sound of my mother’s sewing machine whirring into the night as she whipped up children’s clothes, curtains, lampshades, and birthday party gifts of home-made sewing baskets lined with floral fabric and filled with all the sewing essentials a little girl could wish for.

Despite her best efforts to teach me as a child, somehow the sewing gene seemed to have passed me by. So it was with a hopeful heart that I headed to Clovelly in North Devon for the chance to redeem myself on a two day Beginner’s Dressmaking Course at Rowan Tree Studio.

Rowan Tree Studio

Founder Sarah Harper is pretty much living the dream, having recently moved down from London with her young family to start the business. Housed in a converted stone barn, the bright and airy studio space is filled with fabrics, trims and a collection of vintage sewing machines – a crafter’s treasure trove – making it impossible not to feel inspired as soon as you walk through the door.

Rowan Tree Studio

Sarah keeps course numbers small to ensure personal attention, and my fellow dressmaking student was another mum of small children so the three of us instantly hit it off.

Our projects for the two days were to be a simple skirt, a pair of pyjama bottoms, and finally a shift dress. First up was the skirt where Sarah demonstrated that it is possible to create a stylish and wearable garment using a very simple pattern and basic sewing skills.

Rowan Tree Studio Dressmaking Course

Having measured ourselves, Sarah showed us how to create a pattern and cut out the fabric using a rotary cutter (a revelation in itself – I will never use scissors again!). Sewing the fabric into a tube shape with just a few simple seams, we then folded the top over to create a drawstring waistline, before threading through a contrasting satin ribbon for a soft and comfortable fit.

Rowan Tree Studio

Our skirts were complete before lunchtime, and we sat down to a steaming bowl of Sarah’s homemade soup, followed by Devon scones with jam and clotted cream. All in the name of research, of course!

The afternoon was spent learning to make a pair of elasticated waist pyjama bottoms – my first ever attempt at making trousers, which I was pleased to find reassuringly straightforward under Sarah’s expert guidance.

Rowan Tree Studio How to Make Pyjama Bottoms

She even helped us cut out a mini version of the pattern for our children (by this stage I’m thinking cosy winter pull-ons for my youngest son and ragged-edged pirate trousers for my eldest… the possibilities are endless).

The great thing about learning Sarah’s simple dressmaking techniques is that once you have mastered the basic skills, it’s easy to adapt them as you grow more confident.

Rowan Tree Studio How to Make Pyjama Bottoms

Heading back to my mum’s farm in Cornwall for the night, I borrowed a couple of Sarah’s inspiring sewing books (see below) and spent the evening planning my children’s new wardrobes….

The next morning found me back in the studio bright and early, where I made a start on my final project – a shift dress featuring a concealed zip, no less.

Beginners Dressmaking Course at Rowan Tree Studio

Again, Sarah broke the process down into simple, manageable tasks. First cutting out the pattern, piecing the sections together, pinning and then sewing the concealed zip in place, creating yokes for the armholes and neck using iron-on bondaweb (a marvellous invention), before sewing it all together. The finishing touch was to choose a contrasting ric rac trim for the neckline.

Beginners Dressmaking Course at Rowan Tree Studio

Having never so much as sewed a buttonhole before, I was thrilled at finally being able to use a zipper foot on the sewing machine – a skill that I will definitely be able to use for all sorts of future sewing projects back home.

Rowan Tree Studio Devon Beginners Dressmaking Workshop

What I enjoyed most about this inspiring course (aside from the Devon cream tea) is that it enables you to learn a really practical set of skills at your own pace, in relaxing surroundings, with an expert on hand if you get stuck.

As a tutor, Sarah gets the balance just right between teaching and allowing you to explore and discover for yourself. I know that the skills and techniques I learnt on this workshop will be with me for life, and I left with my head buzzing with ideas for future projects… always a sign of a great workshop!



Find out about craft workshops at Rowan Tree Studio at www.rowantreestudio.co.uk


We love these books featuring simple and stylish dressmaking projects…


Making Children's Clothes by Emma Hardy

Making Children’s Clothes by Emma Hardy


Weekend Sewing Book

Weekend Sewing: More Than 40 Projects and Ideas for Inspired Stitching by Heather Ross


Feeling inspired? Take a look at the Creative Courses category in our Directory, where you’ll find a variety of inspiring courses, from crafts to fashioninteriorscooking and gardening.

 If you run a creative course that you think our readers would be interested in reading about, do get in touch by emailing editor@frombritainwithlove.com.


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