Until recent times, women were taught how to sew before they were taught how to read.
We could thread a needle as easily as slicing bread, and we had no fear of altering clothes, adapting patterns, and mending holes.
However, the craft of dress making and mending has been phased out in the past few generations because we have so many off-the-rack, ready-to-wear options available, and it is oftentimes quicker and easier to buy a cheap replacement garment than to fix up an existing one.
However, with climate change dominating the headlines, we are all being asked to become more aware of our carbon footprints and to make more of an effort to upcycle and appreciate the possessions we already have, rather than rushing out to buy more, more, more.
Being able to shorten a skirt or dress is one of the basic garment alterations that we all need to master.
How many times do you borrow a dress from a friend, or pull out something old from your wardrobe and know that if you could just make it that little bit shorter it would look FABULOUS!?
Well, in this article, we will guide you step by step through the different ways that you can shorten a dress or skirt, so that next time you feel like running out to buy an alternative, you can alter and jazz up what you already possess!
Deciding What Length Skirt Is Best
The first step in the shortening process is to determine exactly what length you want to change your dress to.
The length of a garment has an enormous effect on its overall impact, and different lengths are often associated with different ‘vibes’ and types of occasion.
Of course, the length of your dress should also be tailored to your body type, with certain lengths being more flattering on some than others.
With that said, ask yourself these three things before deciding on your desired dress length:
What/Where Am I Intending To Wear This Garment?
The type of event or occasion that you are intending to wear your dress at will often dictate what length you should aim for.
For example, if you are wanting to wear it out clubbing, then you might want a mini or mid thigh length dress, whereas an above the knee might be more appropriate for the office.
What Height And Body Type Am I?
You want to alter your dress so that it best flatters your natural shape, so considering your body proportions is crucial.
For example, if you are a petite person with short legs, a mid-shin or ankle length skirt can make you look shorter, whereas a knee length skirt will elongate your limbs and even out your proportions.
In the same way, if you are very tall and leggy, a mini might leave you feeling lanky, whereas a mid-thigh length will show off your pins whilst maintaining balance through the silhouette.
What Length And Fabric Is The Existing Garment?
Seeing what you have to work with will enable you to judge the size of the job you have ahead of you and decide what is possible and what is over ambitious.
This includes looking at the kinds of fabric that your dress is made from so that you can determine whether it will be tricky to work with (like silks, sheer fabric, and delicate fabrics) or compliant (like cotton and linen).
If your existing dress is floor length and you want to make it mini – then your approach will be very different than if you only want to make the dress shorter by a few inches so that you don’t trip at the ball.
Popular Dress Lengths
Mini dresses and skirts first became popular in the 1960s and are often associated with teens and younger women.
The hem line can sit anywhere between the upper thigh and the buttocks, and that is why it is considered a fun and flirtatious dress length.
Sporting garments are often mini length to allow for greater range of motion, and for those with short legs, it is amazing at elongating the silhouette.
Mid-thigh length dresses are a great everyday option because they are flirty and fun but less risky than minis.
These garments can be worn to college, the mall, and are a great option for first dates because they show off your legs without giving too much away!
They are a flattering option for tall girls who are looking to balance their proportions.
Above The Knee Length
Above the knee dresses are often associated with the 1980s because they are a great ‘power dresser’ option. Women who work in office jobs and want to look respectable as well as stylish absolutely love this dress length.
This length is almost universally flattering, and it is also a very comfortable option, as it offers lots of freedom and the right amount of discretion.
Below The Knee Length
Below the knee skirts and dresses are often associated with the 1950s, and depending on the style they can either be structured and formal (like the pencil skirt) or fabulous and fun (like full length circle skirts).
This dress length really helps to draw the eye down the body and elongate the frame. It can be particularly flattering for plus-sized women as it is a very narrowing length.
Mid Shin Length
Mid-shin length dresses are notoriously hard to pull off, but when done well they are chic and very “fashionista”.
Tall women with long lower legs will be especially suited to this dress length, whereas it can cause shorter people to look cut-off.
The type of footwear that you wear with a shin-length garment will really affect the overall look, with heels and exposed ankles working very well.
Ankle length dresses (sometimes called the maxi dress) are often associated with the 1970s hippie movement.
Floaty, flower-power, bohemian garments work very well at this length, and these dresses provide plenty of coverage and shade in summer sunshine too!
The ankle length dress has lots of impact, but should also be practical and allow you to move about unimpeded. It works well with sandals or boots rather than heels.
Floor length gowns are a timeless classic that never seem to go out of fashion. Once upon a time, women had to wear them every single day, but these days they are considered far too impeding for daily use.
Instead, floor length dresses are saved for special occasions, dinners, balls, black tie events, and beach holidays! Making sure that the hem just grazes the ground is vital to avoid tripping.
These gowns work best with high heels.
Measuring And Marking Up Your Dress
Once you have decided exactly what length you want to alter your dress to, you then need to embark on the important process of measuring and marking the garment.
The success or failure of the project will depend on this step, so don’t skip it, even if you are tempted to.
We also recommend trying your garment on and measuring at regular intervals as you embark on the sewing process because fabric has a habit of moving without your permission!
Measuring Up With A Friend
The easiest way to measure up accurately is to do it with the help of a friend. You will need a piece of string, a measuring tape, a piece of chalk, water-soluble pen, or pins, and a mirror.
* The first thing that you should do is turn your garment inside out.
This may seem strange, but it will allow you to see the seams and existing pattern pieces more clearly, and will also mean that you don’t mark or damage the outfacing material.
* Put the garment on and ensure that all the fastenings are fully done up. This may be difficult with the garment inside out, but it is important if you want to get an accurate idea of how it currently fits on your body.
Then take the piece of string and tie it around your natural waist. Your natural waist is the narrowest part of your torso, above your hips. The string will naturally want to sit there when you tie it tightly.
* With your waistline pinpointed, put on the shoes that you are most likely to wear with this dress and stand in front of a mirror.
Wearing the right shoes will affect the length that you want to opt for and will also affect your posture whilst wearing the garment, which in turn affects the hemline.
* Hold the top of the measuring tape so that the 0 aligns with the string on your waist at the front of your body.
Then ask your friend to hold the other end of the tape and measure the inches (or centimeters) to the desired length.
You must keep your chin up and use the mirror to observe because looking down at the hemline will impact the dress length.
* Your friend should then mark the desired length with chalk on the dress fabric. They can then move the measuring tape to the side and mark the same length again.
Repeat this all the way around the garment at regular intervals.
* Finally, take the garment off and use the chalk to join the dots together so that you have a solid and consistent line around the entire hemline.
Measuring Up On Your Own
In emergency situations or times when you are in a hurry, you may decide to measure up on your own. This is perfectly fine. You just need a pen and paper, some chalk (or pins), a measuring tape, and a mirror.
* Firstly, lie your garment out on the floor or on a table and ensure it is not folded or creased in any areas.
* Identify the waistline and mark it with a piece of chalk.
* Use the measuring tape to establish the length of the garment as it is now.
* Mark the new shorter skirt length on the fabric where you wish for it to be (you only need to do a little dot, not a whole chalk line).
* Measure how many inches of fabric there are between the chalk dot and the bottom of the garment. This is the amount of excess fabric the garment currently has.
* Subtract the excess fabric from the full length to establish the desired length.
* Use the tape measure to measure the desired length all the way around the dress and mark it with chalk. You will now have a consistent and even line all the way around the skirt.
7 Simple Ways To Shorten A Dress
Having measured up and marked your dress, you are now ready to get shortening.
The following are 7 different methods for shortening a dress, and the option that is best for you will depend on your sewing experience, the size of the alteration, the type of fabric, and the time scale that you are working with.
Sewing Machine Hem
This option is for the more experienced sewers out there, who have access to a working sewing machine and feel confident using it.
It is great for those who want to create a clean fabric edge that looks tidy and professional. Sewing machine hems are long lasting, and can be much quicker to achieve if you know what you are doing.
Sewing machines work brilliantly on compliant fabrics like synthetic fabrics, cottons and polyesters.
However, if your dress is made from a thick fabric like denim or leather, you will need to switch to a stronger needle and different sewing foot.
What You Will Need
* A sewing machine
* A pair of scissors
* Matching thread
* A sewing gauge
Step 1 – Use your sewing gauge to measure an inch seam allowance below your newly chalked hemline. Use chalk or pins to mark this on the fabric, and then use fabric scissors to cut away the extra fabric.
Step 2 – Turn the fabric up so that the additional fabric in the seam allowance is folded onto the inside of the garment. Use pins to hold the turned up fabric in place at spaced out intervals all around the hemline.
Step 3 – If your dress has multiple layers of fabric, use the pins to control and condense the layers.
Step 4 – Position the edge of the dress under the needle and drop the needle manually to check that it pierces through the fabric about a centimeter in to create a smart seamline. Then drop the sewing foot to hold the fabric in place.
Step 5 – Gently press your foot on the pedal and guide the fabric under the sewing foot as the needle pulls it through using a zig-zag stitch.
Keep the seam at exactly the same distance from the bottom of the dress to achieve an even finish.
Step 6 – Once you have sewn the entire hemline, you can select a stay-stitch to prevent the stitches from unraveling later. Lift the foot and pull the fabric out from the sewing machine.
Use your scissors to cut the excess thread that will still be attached to the machine.
Hand Sewing A Hem
Hand sewn hems are great for those who don’t have a sewing machine but still want a permanent alteration to their dress.
You can be much more delicate and accurate with hand sewing than you can on a machine, and therefore this method works well on delicate fabrics, light fabric, sequined fabric, and satins and silks.
Hand sewing tends to take longer than machine sewing, so make sure that you have plenty of time set aside if you don’t want to do a rushed job.
You Will Need
* A sewing gauge
* Fabric Pins
* Matching thread
* A needle
* A thimble (if you are sewing thick fabric)
Step 1 – Use your sewing gauge to measure an inch wide seam allowance below your chalked hemline. You can mark the lower line on the fabric with chalk and then use scissors to cut away the extra fabric.
Of course, if you want to perform a temporary shortening then you should not cut the fabric and should fold the entire excess amount into the hem, and then you can use a seam ripper to unpick the hem and return the dress to its original length.
Step 2 – Thread the needle with a long length of thread that matches the color of the garment and tie a knot in the end to anchor the thread.
Step 3 – Perform a straight stitch weaving in and out of the fabric all the way around the hemline and anchor the thread with a stay stitch at the other end.
Step 4 – You can now use your scissors to cut the excess thread and iron the hem to ensure that it lines nicely and is flat when you wear it.
Fabric Tape Hem
Hem tape is a specific kind of adhesive tape that can be bought from most sewing shops and online stores. It comes in long reels and is designed to fuse with fabric when heat is applied.
Adhesive tape is an excellent way to achieve a shorter dress if you are in a hurry.
The only downside to this method is that iron-on tape is not suitable for garments that are made out of heat sensitive fabrics. If you wouldn’t usually iron the fabric – don’t try fabric taping it.
What You Will Need
* Adhesive tape
* An iron
All you need to do is to lie your garment out and mark the seam allowance below the desired length line with chalk. You can then cut the excess fabric away.
Line the hem tape up with the chalk line indicating the desired length and fold the excess fabric over it until the adhesive tape is encased between the two layers.
Turn on your iron and heat it to a temperature that is suitable for the type of fabric you are working with.
Press down on the folded fabric and let the steam activate the fusing properties of the tape.
As you move your iron around the bottom of the garment, the tape should have stuck to both pieces of fabric and created a clean edge in your wake.
Fabric Glued Hem
Fabric gluing a hem is a great option for those who want to permanently create a shorter dress without any fuss or fiddly bits.
It may not look as professional and refined as other hems, so we recommend that you only perform this method on casual or inexpensive items.
If you are altering a ball gown then this might not be the route to take as the glue can sometimes seep through the fabric and become visible.
You Will Need
* Fabric glue (available from sewing stores and online retailers)
* Fabric weights (books or something heavy will do!)
Establish the seam allowance and trim the excess fabric that you do not need from the bottom of your dress.
Now apply a thin line of fabric glue just above the chalked line of your desired length – we recommend applying the glue in short lengths at a time, rather than gluing the whole hem at once.
With your glue applied, simply fold the seam allowance fabric over and press it into the glue – you can use fabric weights or heavy objects to keep the pressure applied, or alternatively you can use pins to hold the fold in place.
Leave the glue to dry overnight (24 hours if you can spare it), and when you return you will have made your dress shorter without making a single stitch!
Safety Pinned Hem
If you have a dress that you want to temporarily shorten, then there is no better way than by using the humble safety pin. It may not be the most subtle method, but it is secure, speedy, and very easy to reverse.
If you have a maxi dress that you just love, but you want to wear it as a midi for an afternoon event, then this method is for you.
Note: Safety pins don’t work with all types of fabrics, as some are too heavy and bulky and others are too light and flimsy for them.
What You Will Need
*Lots of safety pins
Take the bottom of your dress and fold the hem up as many times as you need to (using inch wide turns) until you reach the desired length that you are after.
Use a few strategically placed safety pins to anchor the fabric in place, making sure that the body of the pin is on the inside of the garment so that only a slither of the metal pin shows on the outside.
It is possible to completely disguise the pin by pinching the fabric above the existing hem and safely pinning the layers of pinched fabric to each other rather than pinning them to the loose fabric.
TOP TIP: We recommend taking spare safety pins in your bag when you leave the house because you never know when an area of your hem may decide to drop and need some extra anchorage.
Waist Belt Lift
If you are in a real hurry, and only need to shorten your dress by a few inches rather than completely transforming it, then you should never underestimate the effectiveness of the waist belt lift.
To achieve this look, you simply need to pick a belt that fits you well and compliments your outfit beautifully.
Tie the belt around your waist just a fraction looser than usual and stand in front of a mirror.
Slowly, begin to draw the skirt fabric upwards so that it billows over the top of the belt. You will see that the hemline lifts in the process, and you can shorten it as little or as much as you like this way.
Once you are happy with the length of the skirt, you need to decide what to do with the excess that you have created. If there is enough fabric, you can fold it over the belt and create a loose draped top with an attractive billowed bottom. Alternatively, you can cover the excess with a jumper or cardigan.
This final method for shortening a dress is a great option for those who love to create a fashion statement, and for those who have to solve the issue of a long dress sharpish.
For example, if you are out with the skids and need to run and play, then tying a knot in your maxi skirt is the answer.
Firstly, select where on the garment you wish for the knot to be located. Knotted hemlines can look very beachy and cool, hip knots can look sexy and create beautiful layers, and waist knots are young and fresh.
Next, gather the fabric together in that area and twist it so that it is easier to manipulate. Then fold the end of the twist in on itself and tie the fabric in a knot.
You can tighten or loosen the knot as much as you like, and the best part is that you can have as many tries as you like in order to achieve the length, look and placement that you like.
How To Cut A Dress To Make It Shorter
Of course, there is always the option of simply cutting your dress in order to make it shorter. This is a quick and relatively easy method, however there are a few things to consider before you get chopping!
Raw Edges – Raw edges are edges that have been cut and left untreated. They can look very cool in certain fabrics that fray slightly.
They often give garments an urban or boho feel and if you really want to embrace this vibe you could try cutting a small insert and then ripping your fabric instead of cutting it with scissors.
Of course, raw edges do not look great on all types of dresses, so be sure to assess whether you want clean fabric edges or rough and ready edges.
Clean Edges – Clean fabric edges are notoriously difficult to achieve when you are just cutting and not stitching your dress, however, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of success.
Firstly, using a rotary cutter rather than scissors will enable you to slice through your fabric more cleanly and consistently.
Secondly, applying a tiny amount of clear nail varnish to the bottom of your dress will stop the fabric from fraying by drying hard and sealing the fibers.
How To Temporarily Shorten A Dress
If you are looking for a temporary shortening option, then we recommend:
* Safety pinning your dress
* Tacking your hem (this means hand stitching very lightly so that the stitches can easily be cut loose.
* Using the waist belt method
* Tying a knot in your dress and making a feature of it
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Shorten A Circular Skirt?
Shortening a circular skirt is notoriously difficult because the hem is curved and therefore when you fold it up and in on itself, there is a greater circumference for the bottom that there is material to stitch it to.
Professionals suggest two options for these types of full skirts.
1. You can try shortening a circular skirt from the waist by pinching the fabric and sewing a new waistline.
2. You can use something called ‘facing’ (a ribbon like strip of material) to neatly sew the circular hem.
Can You Shorten A Dress With A Ruffle?
To shorten a dress with a ruffle, your best option is to unpick the ruffle from the bottom of the skirt.
Then you can fold up the hem on the straight part of the skirt as much as you like, and simply reattach the ruffle to it when you are done. The whole skirt will be shorter as a result.
Shortening a dress or skirt does not need to be a scary or intimidating task. In fact, it can be incredibly creative and easy and can help you restyle old favorites in a new way.
So before you throw out your old maxi dress from last summer, have a think about how it might work as a mini dress and then dust off the sewing machine!