Tea-towel dresses

Story highlights

  • Charming, antique tea-towels are just the right length for toddler's dress
  • Martha Stewart used vintage towels to create dresses for her granddaughter
  • No zippers, snaps or complicated sewing required for this fun project

Now that I am a grandmother (finally!), I have many opportunities to dream up creative projects for a whole new audience: children.

Shopping for little girls' dresses is so much fun, but it occurred to me that it would also be fun to make dresses for Baby Jude, using some of the simple designs she— and her mother, Alexis—favor. I then remembered the charming collection of vintage towels in my attic—scores of towels, sets of towels that would never, ever be used to dry dishes, pots, or pans but could be easily transformed into washable, comfortable, delightful shifts and smocks.

And who else could persuade me to break up "valuable" sets but my very first grandchild, Baby Jude? A trip to the attic in Katonah yielded many wonderful stripes and a few sets of "Scottie Dog" embroidered days-of-the-week towels, all laundered and ironed and stored by my housekeeper Laura Acuna, and ready to use.

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I worked with the crafts department to sketch some shapes, and we set to work creating simple patterns that anyone with a sewing machine can make with minimal effort—no zippers, no snaps, just a button or two, and occasionally some bias tape or fabric ruffles.

We fashioned bloomers from the towels, too, using the patterns to their best advantage. Drawstrings and elastic allowed for flexible fit, and ruffled hems permitted a tunic or smock to become a dress if so desired. Scraps were not wasted, becoming dresses for dolls and accessories for other toys.

When the young ladies gathered in the photography studio for the picture session, all felt very happy to be dressed in such charming and easy-to-wear clothes. And as you can see from the photos, every dress was flattering and very, very cute.

Now my only challenge is to find more little girls to wear these adorable clothes. I have to use up the rest of my vintage towels, so I'm not left with any partial sets of Scottie homemakers or kitty-cat housekeepers!

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Tunic dress

All of the patterns are sized for a 2-year-old. You may need to patch together towels before cutting the pieces, or supplement with linen yardage (vintage or store-bought).

Tools and materials: Tea towels, sewing machine and supplies, bias tape

1. Download, print, and assemble pattern. Lay out on towels (you may need to play around with positioning) and cut out.

2. With right sides facing, sew back pieces together, leaving

3 inches unsewn at neck. Press seam open. Cut a 6-inch piece of bias tape; sew on.

3. With right sides facing, sew seams at shoulders and sides. Press seams open.

4. Cut tape to fit around one armhole; sew on. Repeat on other side.

5. Cut tape to fit around neck, adding 12 inches on each end to create tie closure. Sew on. (Or cut tape to fit neck opening, sew on, and add a button and thread-loop buttonhole.)

6. Optional: Add ruffle. Baste along one long edge. Pull ends of thread to gather. With right sides facing, sew gathered edge to bottom of dress. Press seam open.

7. Press hem under by 1/4 inch, then another 1/4 inch. Sew.

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Drop-shoulder dress

You can also use bias tape, rather than facing, to finish the neck and notch at back.

Tools and materials: Tea towels, sewing machine and supplies, half-dome button

1. Download, print, and assemble pattern. Lay out on towels (you may need to play around with positioning) and cut out.

2. With right sides facing, sew interfacing pieces together at shoulders. Press seams open.

3. With right sides facing, sew torso pieces together at shoulders and sides. Press seams open.

4. Baste skirt piece along one long edge, then pull ends of thread to gather. With right sides facing, sew gathered edge to bottom of torso. Press seam open.

5. With right sides facing, sew interfacing around neckhole and notch at back of dress. Trim seam, flip to inside of torso, and press down.

6. Sew button at neck closure. Using some thread, create a loop buttonhole.

7. Press sleeve opening under 1/4 inch, then another 1/4 inch, and hand-sew (with a slip stitch) to hem. Repeat on other side.

8. Press hem under by 1/4 inch, then another 1/4 inch. Sew.

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Sundress

To maximize the length of this dress, use the existing selvage, both at the hem and the neckline, and create the channel with ribbon.

Tools and materials: Tea towels, sewing machine and supplies, ribbon or twill tape, 1½ inches wide and 1 inch wide

1. Download, print, and assemble pattern. Lay out on towels and cut out.

2. With right sides facing, sew side seams. Along one arm opening, press fabric under by 1/4 inch, then another 1/4 inch. Sew. Repeat on all sides.

3. Cut a 1-yard piece of 1˙-inch ribbon or tape to width of upper edge of towel. Create a channel at top of dress (sew it on inside). Repeat on other side.

4. Using a safety pin, thread a 1-yard piece of 1-inch ribbon or tape through channel. Repeat on other side. Tie bows at shoulders. (Trim as needed.)

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Bloomers

These can be worn as a diaper cover or over underpants.

Tools and materials: Tea towels, sewing machine and supplies, soft-stretch elastic, ¼ inch wide

1. Download, print, and assemble pattern. Lay out on towels (you may need to play around with positioning) and cut out.

2. To make front, sew center seam (with right sides facing) and press open. Repeat to make back.

3. With right sides facing, sew side seams and press open.

4. To create leg openings, sew inseam (with right sides facing).

5. At waist, press top edge under by 1/4 inch, then again by 1 inch. Sew around, leaving a 1-inch opening at back. Repeat process with leg openings.

6. Using a safety pin, thread 1 yard of elastic through waist channel; overlap ends (trimming as needed) and sew. Repeat process with leg openings.

7. Hand-sew openings closed.

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