knitting · pattern review · sewing

Handmade Christmas: 18″ Doll Dress & Cardigan

When I was in grade school, I spent a year-and-a-half saving my dimes and dollars for an American Girl doll. (This was the early 90s, before the original Pleasant Company sold the American Girl line to Mattel, a move I still mourn. Barbie and Molly McIntire do not belong in the same universe). I bought Molly, who had long brown hair and blue-grey eyes, just like mine.

For my parents, the advent of Molly was a goldmine for Christmas present ideas. For the next several years, my father built Molly wonderful furniture, and my mother sewed a whole wardrobe of outfits for her.

Although my active play with Molly diminished through my teens, I never really outgrew my delight in her. My mother, too, never “outgrew” her delight in making doll clothes. If a former student or friend from church has a little girl with an American Girl (or similar 18″ doll), Mama is likely to surprise the girl with a homemade wardrobe.

When I first had Molly, the pattern catalogues only carried one or two options for 18″ dolls, although you could buy sewing patterns directly from the Pleasant Company. These days, all the major pattern brands feature several pages of patterns, both historical and contemporary. I’ve picked up a few of these during 99ยข pattern sales, but this Christmas was my first chance to make any.

In October I visited some dear friends, and their three youngest daughters mentioned that their dolls might enjoy some new dresses. I took the hint, made some notes on color choices, and added “three doll dresses” to my list of Christmas projects.

I chose a pattern from among those I had already purchased, Simplicity 8282.


Although I loved some of the more historical patterns The Dollies Dressmaker has developed for Simplicity, by the time I was actually on holiday for Christmas, I didn’t have much time if I wanted to sew three dresses and mail them off before the 12th Day of Christmas. Simplicity 8282 (View C) promised to be straightforward and quick.

Besides the absolute delight of sewing such wee frocks (because everything is cute in miniature, right?), creating these dresses was a valuable project for several reasons:

  • Sewing a doll’s dress is a good primer (or reminder) of the basic construction of a garment. With no complicated frills or closures, and with everything on such a small scale, I really felt I was making–studying, even–a model of a dress. Once I had finished three, the basic components (bodice, skirt, facing, etc.) felt more fixed in my physical memory than they had before.
  • Making three of something gives you an opportunity to think through best practices for construction. In general I have no complaints with Simplicity’s pattern instructions, and I usually follow them in order. However, after making the first dress, I realized that I could save a lot of time by pressing everything in advance, finding all the pieces needing gathered and running the gathering stitches all at once, and so forth. Normally, if I do make a pattern more than once, the sewing sessions are usually separated by long intervals. Making three of the same dress in short order helped me critically and creatively take ownership of the process. As an evening-and-weekend seamstress, I don’t usually have the luxury of refining my process in this way.
  • If you have lost momentum, a small project (or three) can be a wonderfully encouraging boost to keep working and learning.
All the fabric came from my mother’s considerable stash. The purple-and-white is left from the curtains I picked out for my bedroom in 1996, when I was twelve years old.


In addition to the dresses, I decided that my girls had to have cardigans for their dolls, as well. After all, my family did want some time with me away from the sewing machine, and I was able to find a wonderful top-down raglan pattern by Elaine Phillips, which was easy enough to sew during Christmas films and other merry-making. The body is knitted back and forth in rows (I used a long circular needle), and the sleeves knit in the round, so there’s no seaming or assembly at the end. I omitted the pattern’s buttonholes and buttons.


After seeing the cardigans on the dolls, I think they look a little large, but this may be because their dolls are slimmer than the American Girl body I used to test the sweater fit. I’d like to try a version with a finer yarn and/or smaller needles, but I’m not displeased. Every girl needs a big, comfy cardigan to snuggle up in, even if she is only 18″ tall.

girls and dolls

The sweaters knit up very quickly, and I had everything finished and ready to mail by the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26).

After finishing this project, I completely understand why mother enjoys sewing doll clothes so much. They’re quick, clever, and instructive. But most importantly, they contribute to the most vital, beautiful, and important work of childhood: play.

silly girls

Did you make any handmade gifts for Christmas this year? Or do you have any special memories of receiving a handmade gift?

My husband’s favorite was apparently the green ensemble. Good thing he got his own handmade gift, or he might have been jealous!

8 thoughts on “Handmade Christmas: 18″ Doll Dress & Cardigan

  1. They were so delighted with their special gifts as were the rest of us! Thank you so much for your thoughtful presents! We miss you and love you and hope to see you soon! Praying for you and Steven.

  2. Thanks for sharing the background and construction details of the project, Bethany! I love that some of the fabrics have special connections for you. (When I make several different items out of the same piece of wood, I often think of different pieces as being “siblings” or “cousins” somehow.) Thank you again–so very much–for these little treasures!

    1. You’re welcome! I love the idea of tracing the lineage of a material that I use in different projects. That purple curtain-cloth, for example, definitely has sisters as curtains, a few pillowcases, and at least one quilt square.

  3. I knitted a scarf for my daughter-in-law–the Sushi Scarf. It was basically a joke, but I still had fun doing it.
    I was going to try to put the picture in here, but I can’t figure out how to do it.

    1. Hmm – I’m not sure how to post a photo in a comment, but that gives me an idea: a readers’ gallery of projects! If you email me a photo of the scarf, I’d be happy to feature it!

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