I hear all the time from sewers who have been enlisted by a friend or relative to build an Irish dance dress and have no idea where to start. They often feel like they don’t know what they’re getting into, and even parents who’ve spent years going to feisanna often have questions (“what’s going on with the skirt??”). The high price of solo dresses, the complex embroidery, and reverence of big-name dressmakers can make constructing these garments seem unattainable. It’s my goal to demystify the process of sewing modern Irish dancing costumes. So join me on this textile adventure as I break things down in the post below!
What is a solo dress?
Solo dresses are costumes worn by (female identifying) Irish dancers for solo competitions. Compared to school costumes, which can be an identifying factor and give an adjudicator preconceived opinions about a dancer, a solo dress is designed to be un-identifying while also providing an opportunity for the dancer to personalize their look or show off their style! Beginner dancers usually wear school costumes to compete, switching to a solo dress when they reach an intermediate or advanced level. Some schools also invite their dancers to wear their solo dress for non-competitive performances.
Fashions in Irish dance costumes have changed over the decades. The current style features a long bodice and dropped V-shaped waist with slim sleeves and a center-back zipper. The short skirt is flat across the front and sticks out at a sharp angle on the sides. Dresses often feature capes, which started as long swaths of fabric pinned to the back shoulder, but have evolved to small patches that Velcro to the back of the dress. Many dresses are even designed without capes now.
The skirt is the aspect that puzzles people the most, as it’s constructed differently than standard apparel sewing. Skirts have a stiff frame made from heavy interfacing (“dress stiffener”) and boning that helps to create the unique shape. The frame and skirt pieces all sandwich into one large pleat on each side of the skirt. The pleat sits a couple inches forward of the side seam, which helps to keep the skirt flat across the front of the abdomen. Skirt styles differ from plain flat, to pleated or gathered, but all have the same overall shape. Due to the angled shape of the seam between bodice and skirt, the bodice is top-stitched onto the skirt, rather than seamed.
Fabrics and Stiffeners
Solo dress construction differs from standard apparel practices, and is more akin to theatrical sewing. If possible, get your hands on a real dress or two to look at the layers and construction first hand. If you don’t own one, consider borrowing one from a classmate, or browsing the “used dress” rack at a local competition.
The bodice is comprised of two (or more) layers of fabric; a base layer of something thin-but sturdy, and the outside layer of “fashion fabric”. Because many fashion fabrics can be quite thin and flimsy, the base layer adds structure and support. Each piece of the bodice is comprised of those two layers which are basted together around the edge, and henceforth treated as one when the pieces are seamed together. This technique differs from many apparel practices, where each layer would be constructed separately, then stacked. Besides the structural benefits, lining each piece individually creates seams that are accessible on the inside of the garment. This makes it easier to alter if the dancer grows or the dress changes hands.
Fashion fabrics for the exterior of the dress can range from satin, velvet, silk, gabardine, power mesh, and more. We recommend a base of lightweight twill for backing thin fabrics like satin or silk. For bulkier fabrics like velvet, try a thin cotton broadcloth or a woven fusible such as Pellon ShapeFlex. Check out this blog post for more on fabric.
The main skirt consists of three layers; the outer fashion fabric, a base layer to add structure, and a lining. Much like the bodice, the outer and base layers are basted together and treated as one. After being embroidered or embellished, the lining is added to the back of each piece. Because skirts are lined, they can not be let down at the hem to accommodate a growth spurt. Dresses are lengthened and shortened at the bottom of the bodice (the “Dropped Waist Seam”). We recommend a medium-to-heavy-weight sew-in interfacing for a base-layer. Combined with the frame, this helps the skirt to keep its shape while still curving around the shape of the bum and having a little movement.
You can read more about skirt frame stiffener and base layers here.
Embroidery and Embellishment
The complex embroidery of Irish dance costumes is perhaps what they’re best known for. If you have an embroidery machine, that’s great! Use your own software to create your design, or purchase digitized artwork. If you don’t have an embroidery machine, don’t fret; you have a lot of options. If you’re patient, you can free-hand satin-stitch with the zig-zag function on your sewing machine. Many people use pre-made embroidered or lace appliques. You can also create beautiful designs from lace fabric, sequin trim, or even just lots of well-placed crystals.
Embroidery should happen after the fabric pieces are cut out, but before the garment is constructed. Our pattern instructions give more details.
Where To Go From Here
If you haven’t purchased our solo dress pattern yet, do so here. It includes a plethora of design features, comprehensive instructions, and guides on basic pattern adjustments.
Our popular Video Masterclass includes even more details, walking you through each seam – perfect for visual learners. You’ll also find plenty of extra tips on embroidery, dress care, and more.
We also have several blog tutorials on dress construction and pattern modification.
Last but not least, download our FREE design templates! These are perfect for sewers sketching out ideas. They also make great coloring sheets for dancers of any age.
Here’s wishing you best of luck in all your sewing endeavors!