The making of Mabel’s flower-princess Halloween costume (in excruciating detail)

(As always, you can just look at the photos and ignore the geeky minutiae.)

Generally I dislike sewing Halloween costumes. Costume sewing should be quick and cheap and go for maximum drama with minimum effort, but my style of sewing is slow and subtle, paying attention to nice details and finishing. And I prefer for costumes to be sturdy, warm, and washable, which requires extra work and thought.

Also, when my kids have a perfectly good hand-me-down costume to wear, they usually have some new idea that I get talked into making for them. (And then sometimes the costume never gets worn again–I’m looking at you, Cactuar costume. I suppose it’s no coincidence that was also one of our least successful creations.)

However, this year when we got out the hand-me-downs, I was surprised by how satisfying it was to see all the treasures, with the memory of the tedious sewing long-since faded. Better still, there was something for each of the three youngest that they liked. (Hazel had at least three options–and luckily she was amenable to the one I liked best.) Isaac had had an idea for a store-bought costume, and I had already ordered it for him, so his costume was taken care of.

So I told Mabel that since it was her last year trick-or-treating, I would help her sew a princess dress. I figured it would be a great chance to teach her to sew.

At first she was thinking of being a “nerd princess,” but when I suggested the idea of a flower princess, she took to it. (Believe it or not, this is only the second time she’s ever dressed as a princess for Halloween.) Here was her design:

She didn’t want satin or sparkles or puffy sleeves; she wanted a matte fabric with a long dirndl skirt.

First I took her to a thrift store and made her try on some dresses that I thought we could alter, but nothing matched her vision. She came close to tears, and told me she would sew the dress herself if I would just let her start from scratch. (I wouldn’t have forced her to start with a thrift store dress, but it sure would have saved time.)

So, after quite a lot of looking, we found a pattern in my stash at home that she liked. (Her measurements called for a size eight, and she’s just months away from twelve. She’s petite, but commercial pattern sizes are also wacky.) We took some of the silk flowers with us to the fabric store, and although we’d been thinking of making a green dress, we ended up liking the flowers best against a red background.

Then we sewed. It was a lot of fun at first, since I was excited to be teaching her sewing techniques that she’ll be able to use forever, and she was excited to see her dress taking shape. (She’d done some sewing before, but never clothing from a pattern with details like a zipper, sleeves, and a gathered waist). Then we both started to get tired, and she confessed that she’d had no idea that sewing a dress would be so much work. Toward the end I took over just to save time because I’m faster, but up until then she did quite a lot of the work, and I think she learned a lot.

I suppose it’s unlikely that anyone will want to duplicate this exact look, but in case you ever want to try sewing silk flowers onto something, here’s what we learned, for what it’s worth:

Buy the flowers at a dollar store. Not only will they be cheaper than at a craft store, but they’ll be easier to take apart. We dismantled ours completely, keeping only the petals. We shopped at a couple different dollar stores to get a variety of colors, and we also already had quite a few flowers at home left over from making hair clips. Be warned that dollar stores’ flower supplies are seasonal–if you go in December, you might only be able to find poinsettias. In Utah Valley, Honk’s in Provo seems to have the best variety (but again, they’re seasonal).

The large flower on the bodice was glued to a pin-back, so it’s removable.

We used a basting glue stick (available in the notions area of fabric stores) to glue the layers of petals together and to glue them to the fabric. This worked very well; sometimes I lost a petal or two while I was sewing the flowers on, but mostly they stayed put. (I probably should have put a piece of stabilizer behind each flower for strength, but to skip that extra step I gambled that the petals would be lightweight enough not to tear through the cotton. So far, so good.)

We considered sewing all the petals to the skirt before constructing the dress, but I thought they would get in the way. Instead, after the dress was sewn, we did the flowers in batches, gluing about 10-20 flowers at a time. Then we took them to the machine where I sewed them on, carrying the threads between flowers and clipping all the threads after each batch. My machine has a large eyelet stitch which, stitched in light brown thread, turned out to make an easy flower center. (It sews it a bit off-round, but we didn’t care.) I guess I didn’t get a good close-up of the eyelet stitch, but here’s a blurry one:

And since I warned you that this post would go into excruciating detail, here’s some trivia about “directional stitching” on old Berninas: It doesn’t work well.

[Really, really excruciating trivia follows.]

When I bought my two used Berninas (I have a 1530 and a 1630) I actually bought two extra 1630s and sold them on eBay, making enough of a profit to significantly offset the cost of the two machines I kept. Since the 1630 has “directional stitching,” meaning it can sew in 8 directions and can sew quite a few decorative motifs without a hoop, I wanted the directional stitching to be perfectly tuned before shipping the machines I sold. When the directional stitching gets out of tune, meaning that the machine sews faster in one direction than another, the starting and stopping points of a motif won’t match up. Well, this kept happening to the Berninas I wanted to sell, so I kept taking them back to the dealer to be adjusted, but they would get messed up again on the drive home.

Finally the Bernina dealer confessed to me that he hates the directional-stitching feature, because it’s extremely hard to tune and gets out of tune easily.  He wishes Bernina would just go over completely to hooped embroidery–which is very precise because the hoop moves rather than the feed dogs feeding the fabric. (But for Mabel’s and my project, hooping would have been a much more tedious method for sewing on flowers.) And then he taught me how to tune the machines myself, so that I could fix them after the drive home. And he’d told me the truth: it’s a very fiddly, tedious adjustment to make, because you have to open up the machine, BUT you have to close the machine back up before you can test if the adjustment worked. So sometimes you have to open it up and then close it several times before you can get it just right. I had Dean help me do it at home (it’s really a two-person job) and we got it perfect just once, but since then I’ve never wanted to try again (and I’ve forgotten how) so I just live with slightly crooked motifs.

[End of excruciatingly detailed tangent.]

I use my 1530, which has a narrower stitch and no directional sewing, for all my basic sewing since it feeds more precisely on seams with a narrow seam allowance. But I kept my 1630 for its wider decorative stitches, and for this dress the eyelet stitch was ideal; it would sew a nice little circle (only slightly askew) without my having to move the fabric under the foot at all. It also was great to have two machines so that Mabel could be working on one part of the dress while I worked on another.

So, is this dress warm, washable, and sturdy? Yes! I’m sure we won’t want to wash it often (and ironing it will be a pain) but I did test-wash a few petals sewed onto a scrap, and the petals only frayed a little in a cold delicate cycle. And Mabel had a red cardigan she wore when she got chilly.

Most importantly, Mabel learned a lot about sewing, I had fun teaching her, and she loved her costume.

This entry was posted in My kids actually are funny (and sweet and wonderful), Parenting, Sewing. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The making of Mabel’s flower-princess Halloween costume (in excruciating detail)

  1. the MomB says:

    This is just fabulous. You know how much I love it! Such a great way for Mabel to learn to sew–and it’s so (sew) exciting that she wants to. Loves….

  2. Helen Hall says:

    The costume was amazing, and so is the explanation! I’m glad I got to see that beautiful girl in her charming dress!

  3. Barbara says:

    SUCH an adorable dress. Wow. What a mom. (…and, why is it this darling girl’s last Trick or Treat year? She’s little! …. I’m perfectly good with the cute 16-year olds who come around dressed up….teens like candy too.)

    • zstitches says:


      After age 12 we transition to Halloween parties, or the older kids take the younger ones trick-or-treating. So far my kids haven’t minded this rule–I think it makes them feel more mature and responsible, in a good way. My 14-year-old took the little ones trick-or-treating this year and he seemed to enjoy it. Quite a few people did offer him treats, which I’m fine with–it’s different than a teen who’s taller than I am standing on a doorstep saying “Trick-or-treat.”

      I did tell Mabel I’d give her one more year, but she says she doesn’t want to trick-or-treat after she’s 12. I’m curious to see whether she’ll change her mind.

  4. Jillybean says:

    The dress is so cute! She did a good job. I’ve been trying to teach my daughter how to sew, but she lacks patience, and apparently, so do I. (actually, I would be happy if she could just learn to change the thread in my serger so she can do it for me when I’m in a hurry)

  5. Virginia Wood says:

    Wonderful dress, beautiful daughter, and what a great mom/daughter bonding experience. She will remember it with fondness her whole life! Shoulda called me. I could have sent you a barrel of FREE silk flowers. Until I saw your post I was planning on just throwing them out. Now, well, you never know if I will need to make a flower princess costume for a grandchild . . . .

    Aunt Ginger

    • Virginia Wood says:

      Another idea came to mind as I watched Avalee and JoAnn make hairbows. Instead of actually sewing the flowers to the dress, stitch an eyelet everywhere you want one. Then remove the backing from the flower, insert one of those cute brads from front to back that are used for scrapbooking to hold the flower together, insert brad through the eyelet and bend back your brad ends. Then, you could remove the flowers for washing, change up the flowers to all one color, or try different blossoms depending on the season, and have a whole new look. Just think–snowflakes at Christmas, colored leaves in the Autumn, holly berries, jeweled centers, etc.

      Aunt Ginger

      • zstitches says:

        I hadn’t thought about doing removable flowers. Velcro would work, too–the loops on the dress side and the hooks on the flower side. (Although I’m not sure I’ll ever have a reason to make a flower dress again.)

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