Tutorial: How to Make a Tiered or Gypsy Dress

How do I love maxi dresses? Let me count the ways. I love them for their effortless elegance and laid-back charm. I love how they make me feel so feminine. I love that they aren’t one-season wonders: they’re spring-perfect with a light cardi or a cropped denim jacket, they’re summer-ready with nothing but flip flops and a tan, they blend right in with falling autumn leaves worn with chunkier shrugs and cowboy boots, and they’re far sexier winter lounge wear when worn with cosy jumpers than your average tracksuit bottom. But what I love most about maxi dresses is that they’re relatively easy to make.

The tiered maxi dress is a classic example. All you need are a few rectangle fabrics of different lengths and widths, sewing notions, a sewing machine, and an overlocker or serger  (for gathering). If you don’t have an overlocker, fret not. Manual gathering is entirely possible and a lot more economical, as I found out the hard way. So, let’s start!

A warning before proceeding: to achieve the fullness and silhouette that I wanted, I used my Janome 9300D overlocker for gathering and this method will be used throughout this tutorial. A separate tutorial for manual gathering will be posted soon.

Project: The Tiered Maxi


  • Black 60-inch wide single jersey fabric        4 metres
  • Black 1 cm wide elastic            1 metre
  • Black elastic thread                   1 roll (of course, you won’t use all of this)
  • Black regular thread
  • Rouleau loop turner or a thin blunt stick for turning thin straps right side out.


Step 1.  Make a blueprint for your dress.

This project doesn’t need a pattern, but you do need a master plan. This was mine.

The working drawing: Tiered Maxi Dress

Before cutting your fabric, decide on the following:

  • skirt starting point
  • the length of the skirt
  • the number of tiers
  • the width of each tier (in most tiered dresses/skirts, the bottom tiers are wider than the top ones, but this is entirely up to you)
  • the fullness of the skirt (the more gathers there are, the fuller the skirt)

These are my preferences:

  • circle skirt with full gathers
  • total skirt length   –  35 inches from just below the waist (1st hip) to the floor
  • number of tiers      –  5  tiers numbered in ascending order, from top (Tier 1) to bottom (Tier 5)
  • tier width                  –  7 inches plus 1/2 inch seam allowance on each of the long side.
  • tier length                 –  There is no formula here. As I used my overlocker to gather my fabric, I let the machine dictate the length of  each tier, except for Tier 1. The finished dress has the following tier lengths:

Tier 1       42 inches (actual 1st hip measurement  32 inches + allowance 10 inches)

Tier 2        72 inches

Tier 3       112 inches

Tier 4       204 inches

Tier 5        318 inches

Ridiculous lengths, I know, but if such is the price to pay for a fully gathered circle skirt, so be it.

Step 2. Cut your fabric.

Set aside 1/2 metre of the fabric for the bodice and strap. Divide the remaining fabric into thirteen 8 inches x 60 inches rectangles. We will have to join rectangles together to get the desired lengths for Tiers 2 to 4.

Tip: Gathers fall naturally along the straight grain, so cut your fabric from selvedge to selvedge (or along the crosswise grain).

Grains and Selvedges
Tiers 1, 2, and 3 folded in half

Step 3. Start gathering!

The beauty of using your overlocker/serger to gather is that it is quick and easy. Basically, the machine does the job for you. It will gather one tier, attach it to the un-gathered edge of the next tier, and serge the seams in one go. The secret? The special gathering attachment.

A Genius Invention: The gathering attachment

To start gathering using the Janome 9300D overlocker:

  • Attach the gathering attachment to your overlocker by following the manual included. Open the left front cover of the machine – you will find a small screw at the front. Unscrew it halfway, slot in the gathering attachment front piece (see above) and screw it back tightly. Once the gathering attachment is screwed in, you will not be able to open the right cover of your machine.
  • Slide the movable metal arm to the right, away from the needle plate.
  • Set the Stitch Length dial of your machine between 3-4 and the differential feed ratio between 1.5-2.5.
  • Set tension on all four threads to ‘3’
  • Do a trial session on a scrap of your fabric and if you are satisfied with the result, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, adjust the dials.
  • Take Tier 1 and Tier 2 and place them right sides together. Tier 1 should be on top.
  • Stitch 2 or 3  normal stitches to secure the fabrics, stop, raise the presser foot, slide the movable metal arm to the left and place it directly under the presser foot sandwiched between the two rectangle fabrics, lower the presser foot. Start sewing. The fabric at the bottom (Tier 2) will be gathered. Tier 1 remains un-gathered.
Gathering attachment in position, metal arm sandwiched between fabrics and under the presser foot
  • Repeat the last step on the remaining tiers. Tier 2 on top of Tier 3, Tier 3 on top of Tier 4, and Tier 4 on top of Tier 5.
  • Stitch the side seams together and serge.
  • Fold the Tier 1 top seam allowance and stitch.Using your overlocker, finish the hem of the skirt with a rolled or narrow hem. You have just finished the skirt portion of your dress.
The finished skirt

Tip: Gathering long pieces of fabric may seem daunting at first but you will get the hang of it. Guide the fabric sandwich as you go along, making sure that the top and bottom edges are securely caught by the presser foot and the gathering attachment. Stop every so often if you need to.

Step 4. Make the bodice.

From the remaining fabric, cut a rectangle 18 inch wide and 42 inch long. This will of course depend on your own measurements. As a guide, measure around the bust and add 9-12 inches allowance depending on how loose you want your bodice to be.On the long edges, fold down 1 cm  towards the wrong side and stitch. We will now shirr the top portion of our bodice using our elastic thread. Elasticated shirring is similar to normal sewing, except that you use elastic thread in the bobbin instead of regular thread.

  • Wind the elastic thread on the bobbin by hand, taking care not to wind it too tight or too loose. Thread the sewing machine with regular thread as usual.
  • Set stitch length to 4 and thread tension between 3 and 5. Test on a scrap fabric and adjust tension accordingly.
  • Begin stitching a straight stitch 1/2 inch from the edge along the long side of the fabric. Sew two more rows of straight stitch 1/2 inch apart and you’re done.
The bodice diagram

Tip: To secure your shirring, back stitch at the beginning and at the end of each row. As an additional precaution, leave 3 inches of threads at both ends and tie them into knots.

The elastic shirred top

Step 5. Make the straps.

Cut two 1.5 inches x 10 inches rectangles. Fold in half lengthwise, right sides together. Sew one short side close and stitch along the long side, creating a tube. Use the rouleau loop turner (or a thin, blunt stick) to turn the tube right side out. Attach the straps to the elastic shirred top.

Rouleau loop turner in action
The finished straps

Step 6. Attach the bodice to the skirt.

The last step is to attach the bodice to the skirt. At the same time, we need to make a casing for the elastic. This will create a gathered waistline.

  • Turn the bodice inside out and slide the skirt inside the bodice. The right sides of the bodice and skirt should be touching. Position the top edge of your skirt 1 inch lower than the edge of the bodice and stitch. This 1-inch allowance will form our elastic casing.
Attaching bodice to skirt
  • Turn the whole dress inside out. Smooth the 1-inch allowance over the seam where the bodice and the skirt join together. Simply stitch around the bottom, leaving a 1-inch gap for elastic insertion.
Sew along the bottom of the 1-inch allowance, leaving a gap for elastic insertion
The finished casing viewed on the wrong side
  • Without stretching, take the black elastic around your 1st hip, just below the waistline. Take 2 inches off that measurement and cut. Attach safety pins at both ends of the elastic – one will help you ease the elastic into the casing, the other will stop accidental  snapping of the other end of the elastic into the casing. Carefully ease the elastic into the casing, adjusting gathers as you go. When you are satisfied with the gathers, stitch the elastic ends together. Stitch the casing gap close.
The elasticated waist
Tiered/Gypsy dress with full circle skirt

—————————————————————-END OF TUTORIAL——————————————————————————

Voila! Your very own tiered maxi! Wear and flaunt!

Thanks for coming and see you in the next tutorial!



2 thoughts on “Tutorial: How to Make a Tiered or Gypsy Dress

  1. How do you do this without a overlocker/serger machine and on a normal domestic sewing machine with no gathering attachment foot…?!

    1. Hi Lizzie, it will involve a lot more work but it can be done. You will have to gather each rectangular strip manually. Manual gathering may be done either by hand or by normal sewing machine. The former is simple: thread your needle and secure the end of the thread, do a straight stitch (length depends on how big or small you want your gathers to be) along one long side of the rectangular strip of fabric, and make gathers by pushing the fabric along the thread away from the needle. If you’re using your sewing machine, simply set the stitch length dial to ‘5’ or longer, stitch along one long side, making sure there are enough thread allowances on either side and then create gathers by hand as above. Adjust your gathers such that the ungathered side of the tier above fits the gathered side of the tier below. Then, just stitch your tiers together. Hope this helps!

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