La Jolla Bow Dress {a sewing tutorial}



In my opinion, there is nothing sweeter than a little girl in a sundress. Living in Southern California we are especially lucky, because sundresses like these can be worn almost year round!  As a result, I am always looking for great sundress inspiration, which is easy right now because my good friend Melissa of Melly Sews is hosting her (30) Days of Sundresses series AS WE SPEAK. Head on over to her blog for a recap and to enter her amazing GIVEAWAY. 


I’ve had a few ideas floating around in my head for Abby’s summer dresses this year, and as part of the (30) Days series, I’m excited to share my new La Jolla Bow Dress! It’s named after one of my favorite upscale beach cities here in SoCal. The dress features a faux bow in the front, a shirred back, and straps that tie in a bow between the shoulder blades. I love this sweet, girly style that can be either dressed up or down depending on the occasion. Scroll down for the full sewing tutorial! And for those of you visiting from Melly Sews, welcome! 



The first step is to determine the cutting measurements for your dress. To determine the size of Abby’s front bodice, I took her chest measurement (20″) and divided it by 2 (= 10″) then added 1″ for ease and seam allowance (= 11″). The height of my bodice is 4″, which is perfect for a size 4. If you’re going up or down I suggest resizing in small increments, such as 1/4″ per size. (But that’s a total guess!).

To determine the cutting measurements for the back piece, use the full chest measurement (20″ in Abby’s case). The back piece will be shirred, which means it will shrink up to about half the length. You have a little wiggle room here since the back piece will be stretchy, but I suggest using the full chest measurement (and maybe an extra inch or so) for the back piece. Again, I used a height of 4″ which resulted in a back piece measuring 4″ by 20″. I hope these details help you figure out cutting measurements for your own child! The good thing about shirring is that the sizing is flexible.



  • Cut four bodice pieces according to your measurements (see above), two out of your main fabric and two out of the lining
  • Cut one back piece from the main fabric
  • Cut two skirt pieces (instructions below)
  • Straps cut from the lining fabric
  • matching thread
  • elastic thread for the bobbin
  • iron and a spray bottle

First, check that you have all the pieces: four front bodices (2 from main, 2 from lining), a back bodice, a long piece of lining for the straps, and two skirt pieces.

For the straps, cut a long piece from selvage to selvage, 2.5″ deep. For the skirt, see the next photo.

For the skirt, measure from the chest of the child (where the empire bodice will end) to the knee and add 1″. This is the length of your skirt. Cut the width anywhere from 25″ to 30″, depending on the size and how gathered you want the skirt. If you are using very lightweight fabric, use a longer width (such as 30″). If you are using heavier quilting cotton, you might want to use only 25″. As you can probably tell from the photo below, I like to angle my skirts in a slight A line. To do this, simply make the top 2″ narrower than the bottom and angle the sides between these measurements. Cut two skirt pieces: a front and back.


Prepare the skirt by placing it with right sides together (RST), pinning the sides together, and sewing the side seams. Finish these on a serger or with a zigzag stitch or overlock stitch on a sewing machine. Set the skirt pieces aside for later.

Prepare the straps by taking the long piece you cut and folding it in half widthwise with RST. Press it well, then sew the long raw edges together with a 1/4″ seam allowance (or, as you can see in the photo, I used my serger because it was faster).



Turn the long strap right side out and press it flat.


Now cut it in half so you have two straps of equal length.


Take one of the front bodice pieces of main fabric and pin the straps to them so that the short edges are in line with the top of the bodice. Place them 2.5″ in from the edges (specifically for the size 4). Baste these in place with a straight stitch.


Now take a bodice lining and place it on top of the main bodice with RST. Line up the edges and pin along the top edge. Make sure to keep the long straps out of the way.



Sew this top edge with a 3/8″ seam allowance.


Flip it right side out and press the top edge.


Take the remaining front bodice pieces (a main and a lining) and place them together with RST. Sew these together along the top and bottom edges with a 3/8″ seam allowance.


Turn right side out and press. DSC00739

You now have a front bodice with straps attached, and a second front bodice piece that will become the bow. Place these together so that the main fabric is facing out on both pieces. Baste the sides together with a long straight stitch (only about 1/8″ from the edge) and set aside.

Prepare the back piece. First, serge the top edge (or use a zigzag or overlock stitch on your sewing machine) and then fold it over 3/8″ and press.


Stitch the fold in place. This is the top edge of your back piece. DSC00771 DSC00772

Prepare to shirr the back. First, you need to wind the bobbin with elastic thread. This is much easier than it seems!


First, thread the end of the elastic thread through the hole in the top of the bobbin, as in the photo below. Begin winding the bobbin by hand, pulling on the elastic thread so there is some tension while winding but not too much.


Continue winding until the bobbin is full, and then place it in your machine as you would with any other bobbin. Your top thread should be regular cotton thread. Shirring requires different settings than a usual straight stitch. For my machine I use a tension of 5 (as opposed to my usual 3), the longest stitch length, and I always backstitch at the beginning and end of a seam. Practice with your machine on some scraps if you are not familiar with shirring on your machine. Some machines do better than others, and each one requires it’s own tweaks. It’s a trial and error process, but I promise the results are worth it when you get it right!

Tip: You also can see this post for more tips on shirring with elastic thread. 

 Begin shirring the back piece, with your first row of stitches 1/4″ from the top edge. Backstitch at the beginning and end of each seam. Place each seam 1/4″ below the last one until the whole back has been shirred. The fabric should begin to wrinkle up as you sew. This is how mine looked after 3 rows of stitching:


Go slowly and make sure your rows of stitching are as straight as possible. Sew your last row of stitches 1/2″ from the bottom edge.

Once you are finished shirring, go over to the ironing board and lightly spray the fabric with water. Apply a hot iron and watch as the fabric shrinks up before your eyes! This is some of the most fun I have sewing.

You should now have front and back pieces that look like this: DSC00788


Place these together with RST and line up the short sides. Since the back is now narrower than the front, pin the pieces together along one side first, and then the other.


Both sides pinned together look like this:


And both sides sewn together with a 3/8″ seam allowance look like this:


Make sure you put a bobbin back in your machine with regular, cotton thread before sewing the side seams! These should be sewn with a 3/8″ seam allowance and then finished on the serger or with a zigzag or overlock stitch. (You know the drill by now. Gosh, Caila, stop saying it over and over.)


The bodice is almost complete! Turn the bodice right side out. To keep the side seam from bothering the child, fold the seam allowance toward the back of the dress, pin in place, and sew it down close to the side seam. No one will be able to see this seam, and it will keep the seam allowance flat.
DSC00814Now it’s time to make the anchor for the back bow. Cut a small scrap of lining fabric into a rectangle measuring 4.5″ by 2.5″. Fold it in half with RST so you have a rectangle measuring 1.25″ by 4.5″ and sew it down the long end with a 1/4″ seam allowance. Turn it right side out and press well. Fold one of the short sides over 1/2″ and press well. Now fold the whole thing in half so that the other short end is tucked under the folded end. It should look like this:


Turn the dress inside out and secure the anchor piece to the exact center of the back. Pin it in place so about 1.25″ extends past the back of the dress.

Stitch this piece to the dress with a square of stitches. The straps will be threaded through here and then tied into a bow. Yay!DSC00845DSC00850

Now it’s time to make the front bodice into a bow. Take another 4.5″ by 2.5″scrap of lining fabric and sew it into a tube exactly like you did for the anchor. Turn it right side out and press. This will become the center of the bow.


Pinch the front flap on the bodice with your fingers until you have something that looks like a bow. (Take a close look at mine. I had to finagle the fabric to create three folds like that in the bow. This helps the bow keep its shape once the bow center has been added.


Slip the bow center around the bow where your fingers were pinching. Pin it the ends together, making sure it is tight enough but not too tight.


Stitch the ends together with approximately a 1/2″ seam allowance.


Turn this piece inside out so that the seam is tucked inside and looks like the photo below. Twist it so that the seam is on the back side of the bow.


Tada, a bow!


Give the bow a good press before moving on, just to hold things in place.

It’s time to add the skirt! Sew a long basting stitch onto the front skirt ONLY, and pull on the back thread to gather the fabric. Adjust the gathers so the width of the front skirt equals the width of the front bodice. Turn the skirt inside out so the wrong side is facing you.

Position the bodice so that it is right side out but facing upside down. (The straps should be pointing down, sorry they are twisted around in this photo).


Slip the bodice into the skirt so that the right side of the skirt is directly facing the right side of the skirt fabric. You are going to pin the front bodice to the gathered front skirt.


Pin the side seams together first, and then work your way along the front skirt, pinning it to the front bodice and adjusting the gathers so they are equally distributed as you go. DSC00967 DSC00971

The back is a little trickier. First, find the exact center of the back skirt and pin it to the center of the shirred back.

Since the back skirt isn’t gathered and the back bodice is shirred, clearly the two widths do not match. Place your next pin exactly in between your pin at the side seam and your pin at the center back. Repeat for the other side. You will have extra fabric folding between the pins, and that’s ok. When you sew you will stretch the shirred fabric while sewing the skirt to the back bodice. Trust me, it may sound crazy, but this works!


Continue pinning so that the skirt fabric is distributed evenly along the back piece, although it won’t all be laying flat. Here is what mine looked like: DSC00979 DSC00980

At your machine, sew the skirt to the bodice with a 3/8″ seam allowance. Start with the back skirt, since this is the tricky part. First, sew the backstitch to get started. Stretch the shirred fabric as you continue sewing. You will notice that the two pieces, skirt and back bodice, will almost fit together. The most important thing to remember is to stretch while you sew!


Sometimes, there will be pleats in your skirt fabric no matter how far you stretch the back, and that’s ok. Remember, the fabric will be gathered at the end, so those pleats and gathers won’t be noticeable in the finished product. See below! There is one of the many pleats I sewed over because of the “extra” back skirt fabric. It’s going to look great, I promise!


When you come along to the front skirt, continue sewing, but this time don’t stretch any fabric. Adjust the gathers while you sew and go slowly, maintaining the 3/8″ seam allowance.


When you have finished the seam, turn the dress right side out to make sure everything looks right, then turn it inside out again to finish the seam where the skirt and bodice meet (use a serger, zigzag or overlock, as usual).  DSC01005

You are almost done! Turn the dress right side out and press. Quick tip: press the seam allowance UP on the front bodice and DOWN along the back bodice. It just looks and feels better that way.


See how nicely the back gathers look? DSC01046Hem the bottom of the skirt by finishing the bottom edge (serg, zigzag, or overlock), and then folding it under 1/2″, pressing, and sewing it in place. This is my favorite, and the simplest way to hem.


Let’s finish up the straps, and then you can try the dress on your girlie! The ends of your straps are still raw and unfinished.

Using a small pair of scissors, or something else pointed, push the edges into the strap. Arrange it so that the end is diagonal, rather than straight across. DSC00870 DSC00872Starting on one of the long sides, topstitch along all the edges of the strap including the diagonal end. (Hint: you can always do this back at the beginning, but I prefer to try the dress on my daughter before I settle on a strap length. In case you’re wondering why we didn’t do this earlier.)

Now let’s tie the bow! Insert one strap through the anchor at the back…


… and then the next.


Tie them in a bow and, voila!

DSC01064Congratulations, you did it! I hope you enjoyed the process and didn’t get lost along the way. Please feel free to ask questions! Leave them in the comment section below so that we can all benefit. I would also love to see your finished projects on social media! Please use the hashtag #lojollasundress so we can find each other’s dresses on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Happy Sewing!





  1. says

    This dress is adorable. Thank you for doing the tutorial. I am going to Pin it so I can make one for my granddaughter.

  2. says

    Lovely little dress! I have never been able to make shirring work. The elastic thread always seems to just pull loose, even with backstitching it. Even backstitching and then sewing crosswise over the end of it with tiny stitches. Any tricks with it?

  3. Sheryl Ball says

    Love this sundress! I can’t wait to make one for my granddaughter!! Who am I kidding?? Only 1?!?!?

  4. Linda says

    Absolutely beautiful I LOVE IT !!!!!!!! GREAT JOB CALIA
    Thanks for the Awesome tutorial.

  5. says

    Thank you, you explain the tutorial very well I would try to make it for my little princess ( 14 months) 🙂

  6. Carol says

    Thanks so much for taking the time to do this tutorial. The dress is adorable and it looks so do-able!