customizing with oliver + s: tea party sundress, Alabama Chanin style

A few years ago, Natalie Chanin invited me to one of her workshops. If you even have an opportunity to attend one, I highly recommend it. Natalie holds them in her studio, and I’ve heard from quite a few people who have made the trip and absolutely loved it.

Natalie has a daughter who is a little younger than S, and for a photo shoot she had made her daughter a Tea Party Sundress that turned out absolutely beautifully. For the workshop I decided I needed to give it a try myself, and I really enjoyed the process. Here is the finished dress.


Tea Party Sundress, Alabama Chanin Style


Not too long ago, we received an email from a customer who wanted to try making one for her daughter. I gave her a few tips, and she got busy sewing.


Tea Party Sundress


Didn’t it turn out nicely? Sarah, who made the dress, came to the Weekend Sewing retreat in Vermont a few weeks ago and brought the dress. It’s even better in person, and I asked her to tell us a little bit about the dress and the process in case you’d like to try this yourself. Here’s what she said. Thanks, Sarah!

The Tea Party / Alabama Chanin Sundress

I was looking for a bite-sized project to try out the hand-stitching techniques in Nathalie Chanin’s Alabama Stitch Book, and the Tea Party Sundress from Oliver + S made a great little project. In all it took me about a week of evenings to get the Tea Party Sundress completed.

Here are some things to think about if you would like to try this out.

Pattern Choice

  • The Tea Party dress pattern is easy to follow, and very easy to adapt to the slightly bulkier weight of the recycled t-shirt material (cotton knit), which is effectively doubled at the seams due to the reverse-applique technique used for the dress panels.
  • The fitted body shape of the Tea Party Sundress works well with the drape and more snug fit of the cotton knit fabric (which stretches a bit over time).
  • Using a pattern that you have tried out before will make it easier to make decisions about where you may need to improvise and where best to stick to the pattern.


  • Look at closely at sizing before you begin. The Alabama Stitch Book advises going a size or two smaller than usual, to allow for some stretching as the finished garment is worn over time. I chose to go one size smaller than usual for my two-year-old, and it worked perfectly.


Tea Party Sundress, Alabama Chanin Style


Fabric, Paint, and Thread Choice

  • Recycled cotton knit t-shirts work well for a toddler-sized dress. I used about three or four men’s XL t-shirts found at the local thrift shop. You can also purchase beautiful organic cotton at Or look for sturdy cotton knit at your local fabric store. If you are working with new fabric, be sure to wash it well in advance to remove the sizing. (This will help the paint adhere to the fabric.)
  • Choose a good fabric paint, and try it out an advance to see how best to “set” the paint. On the dress I made, the paint has washed off in many places. Total rookie mistake. I should have thrown it in the dryer to set the paint before I washed it, but I forgot. Lesson learned!
  • Use button/craft thread. The Alabama Chanin folks have tested a lot of different threads, and while it might be tempting to choose one based on color alone,  take their advice and work with the poly/cotton Button Craft thread they recommend.

Preparing the Pattern Pieces

  • Cut the fabric pattern pieces in duplicate (a top layer and a bottom layer).
  • Lay the fabric pieces out on a large surface. Consider covering that surface with plastic or old newspapers.
  • Prepare the stencil (or choose a ready-made one).
  • Select a good fabric paint, appropriate color and spray bottle (or air brush if you have it).
  • Decide how to place the stencil and which parts of the dress to leave un-stencilled. (I left the bodice plain.)
  • Select a thread color that works well with the colors of the two layers of fabric as well as the stencil paint.

A Note on Thread and Knotting

  • Before you start sewing, read up on knotting and “loving” your thread in the Alabama Chanin books or website.
  • The importance of using the knotting technique suggested by Alabama Chanin cannot be overstated. I tried to shortcut this and paid for it after washing my Tea Party Sundress the first time. Where I was lazy and knotted only once or left a thread tail too short, I had to re-tie the knots using tweezers. Yikes!


Tea Party Sundress, Alabama Chanin Style


Sewing and Constructing the Dress

  • Decide what technique you want to use for embellishing your dress panels. There are lots of ideas in the Alabama Chanin books and website.
  • If you go with the reverse appliqué technique (I did), start by sewing the dress panels using a simple running stitch along the outline of the stencil shapes. Be sure to knot well and leave one-inch long tails.
  • Once complete, use sharp embroidery scissors to out the insides of the top layer of the stencil shapes, about 1/8 inch inside the running stitch. Be careful here to only cut the top layer of fabric!
  • With the reverse appliqué embellishment of the dress panels complete, you can begin putting the dress together. At this point in the process, it is best to follow the pattern directions from Oliver + S. I deviated from the pattern instructions in a few places:
  1. I used the Alabama Chanin seam sewing techniques, so I hand sewed and felled the seams instead of doing this by machine. The results are beautiful.
  2. To join the dress panels to the bodice, I overlapped the bodice onto the dress (securing it with a tight running stitch), instead of sewing it according to the Oliver + S instructions. This was due simply to the bulk of having four layers of cotton knit to sew through. Again, great results, embellished further with a zig-zag chain stitch which allowed me to secure the seam allowance on the inside of the dress.
  3. I left the hem unfinished, but you could do a faced hem or a zig-zag chain stitch to secure the two layers of fabric together.

A Note on Washing and Wearing

  • Wash your garment on the gentle cycle and either lay flat to dry or tumble dry on a gentle setting.
  • That said, washing gently doesn’t mean your finished garment is particularly fragile. My daughter, (2 years old), wears her dress regularly and it has held up to the regular regime of food spills, playing in the park, a few dips in the local swimming pool, etc.


Tea Party Sundress, Alabama Chanin Style


The Alabama Chanin folks have published three great books and maintain a beautiful web site that provides endless inspiration for how you might choose your fabric, paint, stencils, thread, sewing techniques, and even beads!

Similarly, the Oliver + S and Lisette patterns provide endless possibilities for dresses that would work well for any of the Alabama Chanin hand-sewing techniques.




  1. Sarah

    Beautiful! I would love to see close up pics of how the bodice was attached to the skirt. Hand sewing can be so cathartic and rewarding!

  2. Sarah

    You can see a few more detailed photos here:

  3. shae

    Wow, amazing job!

  4. hello. I worked my way to your site from FB Alabama Chanin site. Firstly, thank you for sharing. The sewing community is really fantastic about sharing – such a gift. Your thoughts and tips are great for those of use eager to try out the Alabama Chanin way. Secondly, awesome job. Best wishes on future projects.

  5. Kim

    Oh, this is so sweet! Thank you for sharing. I, too, have had the good fortune to go to one of Natalie’s workshops. The thing that struck me was seeing the garments in person – without beads, or baubles, or (gasp!) finished seams, they are absolutely stunning. And it’s such pleasant, mindless work to do, as well.

Post a comment