how to: line a sleeveless dress

One of my favorite classes in college was the senior capstone course called mass marketing. It was the class where all of the skills we had learned came together, and we were required to design, produce, and present a six-piece ready-to-wear collection. The focus was on knowing your target market, identifying your customer, and designing a spring or fall collection to meet her needs. Spec and cost sheets were part of the final presentation, along with full color sketches, a marketing plan, and styled photos, and we learned about industry standards in manufacturing and pattern making, sourcing, and the elements of a successful collection. It was one of the most stressful semesters of my college years, but it was definitely the most fun. I loved every second of that class.

A couple of us had lined, sleeveless dresses in our collections and questions came up about how to close the armholes. I remember very vividly one student exclaiming that she knew how to do it and all you had to do was open up the shoulder seam and . . . this was the point that I looked over at my professor (my absolute favorite teacher who knew everything) and saw her sort of roll her eyes and say, “No, no, no. That’s not the proper way to do it.” Class was over at this point and we all had to be elsewhere, so my professor told me she’d call me the following morning and explain it to me.

So there I was the next morning, which happened to be a Saturday, sitting on my living room floor finishing up some hand sewing and watching a cooking show on PBS when my phone rings. My professor, who to this day remains the best seamstress and biggest source of fashion knowledge I’ve ever known, explained to me how to line a sleeveless dress in about five minutes. I did it later that afternoon, and have done it since hundreds of times.

This tutorial shows you this method. I’ve never seen it explained this way in commercial patterns, so I hope this is helpful. Sleeveless dresses are such a big part of our wardrobes in spring and summer, so why not know how to make these garments truly shine?

(Quick note before we get started: by this step in the process of lining a dress, I have already attached the lining to the neck and understitched it, and the skirt lining has not been attached to the bodice lining. I like to do this after the armholes are closed.)

Firt step. In this photo, we’re looking at the right shoulder seam on this dress. You can see the raw edges of the armhole on the right.

Fold the armhole seam allowances under and hold in place. It’s alright if what you pinch isn’t exact, we’ll get precise once we get underneath.

Putting your hand into the dress, pinch the seam allowances that we just folded under. Your hand is sandwiched between the lining and the fashion fabric.

Here, a different angle showing me holding the seam allowances together.

Still pinching the seam allowances, carefully pull the seam allowances towards you and turn it wrong sides out. This is when we can re-match the shoulder seams if things got wonky as they got turned. So, now I’m holding the shoulder seam allowances, right sides together.

Carefully sew the armholes closed, using whatever seam allowance you have in this area. You can pin as you go, or just match your notches along the way. I usually keep an eye on my notches and pin the side seams together as I get closer. Sew all the way around the armhole. It may get tricky around the shoulders if you have a narrow shoulder seam, so be mindful that a shoulder seam 1.5″ or narrower will be a challenge. I’ve got about 4″ at the shoulders on this dress, so it was a breeze.

I like to backstitch at the shoulder and side seam for a little extra strength in those spots. The arrow in the photo points to the front armhole notch, which I’ve made sure matches the notch on the lining underneath.

Once you’ve sewn all the way around, trim the excess seam allowances down to 1/4″.

Clip the seam allowance about every 5/8″. This step is essential because it’s what allows the armhole to spread properly once it’s turned right sides out.

The armhole will look like this after it is sewn.

Then, press and understitch the armhole just like you would understitch any other area. And remember, if your shoulder seam is narrow you may not be able to understitch all the way up to the shoulder so just go as far as you can. (This step is shown on a different dress.)

As for your pattern, there are a couple of easy adjustments you can make to ensure that the lining “rolls under” correctly. Lining pieces shouldn’t be exact copies of pattern pieces, they should be trimmed in some areas so that they remain hidden from the right side. This example shows a simple sleeveless fitted bodice. Keep in mind that different designs may require additional adjustments.

Begin by tracing the bodice pieces to make a copy. This copy will become the lining.

Around the armhole, trim off 1/8″, grading down to nothing at the side seam. Repeat for the back.

You can see the difference with the lining pattern on top of the bodice pattern.

Trim off 1/8″ from the waistline. Repeat for the back.

Again, this shows you the difference in the two patterns when the lining is placed on top.

A full view:

And that’s it! Let me know if you have any questions!

This is the sleeveless dress from my senior collection. This dress is umpteen layers of various silks with an empire bodice and boning in the side seams, an inner belt, a ruffle that took forever, and a sash belt. After a few tweaks to the design, I’d make this again in a heartbeat!


  1. Tonya Martin | 30th Aug 17

    Beautiful work!

  2. Juls | 30th Apr 17

    Thank you for such an informative post. I would love one on linings in the future. I have been thinking about what to line embroideries anglaise with as it’s cotton. Originally I was thinking of something light like a cotton lawn but the lady at the fabrics department said I should use something more slippery as the it will start to rise whilst wearing. What is your experience of using cotton to line cotton, do you find one layer works it’s way up whilst wearing? I was going to make an a-line skirt so would hate to have to keep tugging the layers back into line whilst walking.

    • Emily | 3rd May 17

      Hi Juls! Thank you for your comment! Great question about cotton linings. I haven’t had any trouble with my cotton linings riding up, but that can be a concern in some garments. If you’re planning to wear tights underneath a garment lined it cotton, that would be a problem. The cotton lining won’t do well on top of tights. In that case, something like rayon or silk would be better. Hope that helps! 🙂

  3. Pam | 27th Apr 17

    Where oh where do you find these gorgeous fabrics to make these gorgeous dresses?! It’s sure not JoAnn’s ?

    • Emily | 27th Apr 17

      Hi Pam! I find fabrics all over the place. If you search for “favorite fabric stores” a list of my favorites will come up. A lot of these fabrics came from Fashion Fabrics Club, but I found the fruit print last year in London. The brocade is from Promenade in New Orleans. I always keep an eye out for pretty fabrics! 🙂

  4. Heather Myers | 26th Apr 17

    Hi I love your site and posts. I’m starting a sleeveless dress so this is timely. It might be clearer when I’m at that point, but I’m confused- is the lining sewn to the neckline already? Are you doing the understitching with the waist open, ie lining not attached there? Thanks.

    • Emily | 26th Apr 17

      Hi Heather! Great questions. The lining is already sewn and understitched at the neckline before I sew the armholes, yes. It’s also not attached to the skirt lining yet, so the waist is open there, yes. I do it that way because there’s less lining to deal with when you’re trying to sew around the arms. After the arms are sewn, I attach the skirt lining, etc. I’ll edit the post to include this information. Thank you for the comment! 🙂

  5. Amanda | 26th Apr 17

    Thank you!!! I am in the process of cutting out a sleeveless dress with a lining so this is incredibly timely and helpful!

    • Emily | 26th Apr 17

      I’m so glad!! 🙂

  6. sew2all | 26th Apr 17

    These tips are great and finally, a way to keep the lining from peeking out! One question, have you put interfacing on the lining of all of these garments or can you do without on some garments? Also, it’s very interesting to me that you use a variety of fabrics for your linings. I’ve always thought there was a “law” or something that one always uses lining fabric for almost everything. Would appreciate a post, sometime, on what fabrics you use for linings. Thank you for all these educational tips that make our garment sewing less frustrating and more professional looking.

    • Emily | 26th Apr 17

      Hello! I’m so glad this post was helpful! Great question about the interfacing. I never interface the lining on a garment. I will, however, interface a facing piece if I need a little extra support in an area. An example of this is a bodice like the one in this post with a Peter Pan collar. I designed a dress like that a few years back, and the collar was heavily beaded. I interfaced the bodice facing to help support the weight of the collar, but the lining was not interfaced.

      Some folks might think there are hard and fast rules about lining fabrics, but as long as they’re more lightweight and the fiber content makes sense with the project, you can use whatever fabric you want. I use lightweight cottons all the time, because most of my garments are cotton. This way, I maintain the characteristics of the fabric I’m using, which is to say its breathability. If you line a cotton skirt in acrylic or polyester, you’ve negated the characteristics of the cotton. I also love cotton, so that’s a big part of it. Some fabrics are better suited to a silk or rayon lining, and I use those fabrics all the time too. I’ll put a post together and go into greater detail soon. Let me know if you have any other questions. Thank you for the comment! 🙂

  7. katyrenee | 26th Apr 17

    Was it Ms. Greene? Loved her.

    • Emily | 26th Apr 17

      Hi! Nope, I didn’t know a Ms. Greene. It was Judy Lusk! <3

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