Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Flowy Kaftan Dress

As I have time, I am slowly going through my sewing supplies, streamlining what I can and keeping only what I really love. Decluttering is a constant process in a house with six kiddos and even "my space" is not really mine - they like doing homework in the calm quiet of the tiny sewing room as it's one of the coziest places in the house. So I like to keep everything that can be put up, up.

On one of my organizing evenings I came across a few yards of some flowery rayon fabric that my friend Katherine gave me many years ago. I had kept it with me all those years, wanting to use it for something but never knowing quite what to make. The colors weren't the best for me (rust, gold and olive green) and the fabric itself wasn't suitable for any particular historic period. A modern dress, then? But I never made one.

When I pulled it off the shelf this last time I knew it was now or never. Use it or lose it! I held the length up around me and looked in the mirror and then I knew what it would be - a kaftan!

If any of you have ever watched the old 80's sitcom Three's Company, you probably remember Mrs. Roper, the landlords wife. Slightly eccentric, dramatic and just a little obnoxious she often wore colorful, flowing kaftans.

I knew almost nothing about the history of this style of loose fitting dress so I did a little digging. It's hard to say where the style originated, but it seems that the general consensus is that this type of garment has been worn for thousands of years in Africa, parts of Europe and Asia. It's basic form is a rectangle, with a hole cut for the head and openings left at the sides for the arms.
Vintage kaftan from pinterest
Morocco seems a likely place that the style flourished and it seems that its still part of traditional dress there. Although, the term "kaftan" or "caftan" appears to refer to several styles of loose dresses or tunics, some with cut on sleeves or sewn on sleeves and some opening down the front.
Moroccan Kaftan from Wikipedia

In America, the kaftan became popular in the mid 20th century along with the hippie movement. Patterns from the 1960's and 1970's include kaftans, like this one:
Vintage Pattern from Etsy

Vintage kaftans are very popular today. This absolutely stunning one is from etsy:
Vintage Kaftan from Etsy
I wanted my kaftan to be kinda hippie/boho inspired, kinda elvish/narnian inspired. I ended up making a rounded rectangle, adding a waist belt (placed slightly above the natural waist) and with a simple faced neck slit for a head opening. 

I started with a rectangle of fabric that was twice as long as I wanted my finished dress to be, and as wide as the fabric was, minus a 4" strip I tore off one selvedge to use for the belt. I made a neck slit and faced it with dark grey fabric reused from an old skirt.
I have the best helper!
This old grey skirt was one of those tiered peasant style ones, with a drawstring elasticized waist. It had served me through many pregnancies and beyond and I was ready to finally get rid of it. But it had the prettiest embroidered trim along the bottom edge and I wanted to find a use for it, somehow. It worked well for edging the neckline of the kaftan and the embroidered trim went down the front, just under the empire waist. The dark trim also helps tone down the fabric a bit. 
I had to sew all the trim on by hand since the main fabric is so heavy and slinky! It
took a while but it was worth it! The belts are attached at the sides of the "waistband".
Once I got the trim sewn on I had to finish the edges. Some kaftans are sewn up the sides with a regular seam, allowance towards the inside, leaving just an opening for the arms. I wanted mine to have the side seams sewn in from the edge a few inches so I decided to hem all the edges of the dress. The heavy rayon slinky fabric did NOT agree to this at all. So I ended up tearing up the rest of the old grey skirt into strips and binding the edge instead. This took so long, but at last was done. I shaped the hem into a U shape instead of leaving it rectangular. This is so the sides of the dress won't drag the ground when its being worn. Shorter length kaftans can be left rectangular but my dress is made to be quite long.
Kaftan almost done! Just have to sew up the sides.
I made four faced slits at the waistline, through which to thread the belts so they
can tie at the center back.
I didn't want the kaftan to be sewn all the way down since that could potentially restrict the movement of my legs. So, the side seam starts 12" down from the shoulder and goes for 20". I sewed it 5" in from the edge.
The last thing to do was to thread the belt through the holes on the front and back. Then try on time!

It slips on over the head easily. . .
The fabric feels cool, smooth, heavy and luxurious. It does! 
I do feel very elvish-y and Narnian-y. And Mrs. Roper-y.

I was so happy with how it came out that I considered it the most beautiful thing I have ever made. It's not, of course, (although beauty is very relative), but I do love it and I have been and will be wearing this a LOT. It's a fabulous alternative to my usual around-the-house outfit of yoga pants and a t shirt and hoodie.

I've already started the next one, with another piece of fabric I've had for a while. (I had JUST enough - just about 3 yards of fabric, which cost me 75 cents at a thrift shop awhile ago.) This one will have a visible neck facing of brown linen, which will be edged with beads. I may go for some fringe round the edges; since the fabric is so very lightweight it will help give the dress some drape. 

Here's my notes about making mine:


  1. This is a very, very beautiful kaftan dress indeed! :)

    1. Thank you! I'm glad I was able to turn that fabric into something wearable. The colors are straight out of the 1970's!

    2. :) Was about to say, the fabric said 1970s kaftan to me as well!

  2. They are even comfier if you tie the belt inside at the back. i.e. cut the slits for the belt in the front fabric but not in the back fabric. The ends of the belt hang down inside. You pull your hands inside the kaftan to tie the belt around your waist.
    That way you have a fitted waist at the front and a flowing robe/cape at the back and the arms don't bind at all.
    At least that is how I remember my Mom's working.

    1. What a fabulous idea!! I think I will try that with the one I am working on!

  3. I didn't think I'd love it but I do, so much! Now I want one. I'm trying to get my stash under control; maybe I can find something appropriate. I like how your beloved skirt gets to live on. I get attached to my clothes, and it is special when something like that can be done with them when they're past their wearable age. Making a quilt out of all types and colors of fabric does not appeal to me, but upcycling pretty bits is a great idea!

    1. It is nice to use bits from old clothes. I like the idea of a quilt but it's not practical for so many reasons. Let me know if you make a kaftan and how you like it! I am loving mine. It's so nice to feel feminine in a long loose dress. I've gotta get away from the spandexy crap I've let myself get used to.

  4. It's beautiful! I'm getting an urge to see if there's some suitable fabric in my stash for a similar one..


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!