Friday, October 25, 2019

A 1980's Gunne Sax Dress

I love Gunne Sax dresses. I remember being a small girl, looking at old photos of my beautiful mother in Gunne Sax-style dresses. I loved the old fashioned appeal. To my young mind, they were exactly right the look for an "olden day" outfit and my little heart coveted a calico gunne sax dress. Then and only then, I thought, would I look like Laura Ingalls. In my teens I discovered eBay and oh! joy of joys! Lots of listings for vintage dresses, both true Gunne Sax (pricey!) and the slightly lower quality, cheaper knock-offs. I purchased several dresses and skirts in my late teens and wore them to death. I didn't attend any dances or proms, since I was homeschooled, but for my 16th birthday my dad took me to see an Andre Rieu concert at the Peoria Civic Center and I dressed in a lovely white lacey Gunne-Sax style dress for the occasion. When I graduated homeschool-highschool in 2004 I wore a white eyelet Gunne Sax dress with petal sleeves and a faux front laced bodice.

Just-turned-18 Sarah in 2004 with friends Adam and Laura

Then in 2005 I got married after a 2 month engagement (yikes. Don't do that, kids) in a purple and white Gunne Sax knock off, after my one and only year of community college (alas, I majorly regret not finishing my program!) and babies started arriving a year later. My new mom body no longer fit into those old, pretty dresses so eventually they were donated to thrift stores or the material repurposed into newly sewn items. 

Fast forward thirteen summers and here we are ,this past September, at the 4-H building at the county fair. On a table in the back were free patterns. (It seems there are always free sewing patterns at these 4-H functions!) I picked a few to take home with me, one a simple shorts and blouse pattern for the girls, one for a 1970s trio of bags and a set of gaiters, and, the shining jewel, a 1980 Gunne Sax pattern!

I was feeling pretty uninspired at the time. I hadn't sewn much all summer, or for that matter all year. I really loved the dress pattern though and thought I'd like to take a slow time of making it. Nothing rushed, nothing with a deadline. I wanted to make it thoroughly and well, and follow the instructions exactly, and buy actual new fabric for the sole purpose of making the dress. I began to think about the dress and look for material when I went out. I had it in mind to make a light colored dress, maybe cream or yellow or pale blue, in a tiny floral print but one day a vision of this dress made up in a somewhat gaudy floral black fabric popped into my head. Um, black? I absolutely did not want a floral black dress. Ew. But the vision would not budge. I sighed, resigned myself to the fact that this is what this dress wanted to be, and went to Hobby Lobby where I bought five yards of this nice, smooth appropriately gaudy black floral fabric. It reminded me at the time of the wallpaper common in ye Olde Days of when I was a child. The pattern called for a lot more fabric but I was fairly sure I could eke it out of 5. I did, but just barely.

The pattern, just one size, was close enough to my measurements that I was sure it would fit. I decided to make it exactly as the pattern was drafted and not try to fit it to my individual body. I cut out all the pieces carefully and began sewing it together. The method of sewing was odd to me, with lots of hems  with raw edges and lots of lace trim, but it looked okay. Once the bodice was put together I put it on and was disappointed with the armholes. They were so low. The bottom of the armholes went basically to boob level. And considering I wasn't wearing a bra, nor do I wear one with the dress, this is *really* low. This not only made raising my arms very difficult, but it made the whole bodice look frumpy. But still, I persevered and made and attached the skirt, which is a lovely gored skirt with a lot of fullness at the hem. I tried it on. It fit. . .kind of.

I didn't feel content with it. Not only were the armscyes ridiculously huge, the bodice itself seemed too long from shoulder to waist. There were weird wrinkles radiating down from the shoulder to mid chest. I didn't like it. It is quite true I could have left the dress as it was and likely no one would have ever noticed anything off about the dress, as it fit about the same as any off the rack dress might. But it bothered me. It didn't sit right. I felt awkward and conspicuous. So. . .

I redid the thing. I disassembled the dress, took the bodice apart, shortened the entire bodice from the shoulders and  reset the sleeves, redid the collar while I was at it, making it a 2 layer collar instead of a single layer (the single layer collar didn't have enough body to hold its shape nicely) and sewed the skirt back on. While I was at it I redid all the previously serged seams with french seams. The dress fit, and felt, much, much nicer when I was done. I put it on, zipped it up, and immediately felt right. This is how the dress was supposed to be!

I cannot describe in words how much I love this dress. ๐Ÿ˜ญ It feels so good to wear. Not just materially, although the fabric has a nice feel, but spiritually, emotionally, it just feels right. I feel like myself. It's easy to put on and move in, doing everything I normally do, without feeling restricted either mentally or physically. It's a glowy dress. Does that make sense? It probably doesn't...but that's ok. I know how it makes me feel, and I like how it makes me feel. I know that this fabric and this style isn't everyones cup of tea, and honestly, before I made it, this was not mine either! I really resisted making this pattern up in this fabric! ๐Ÿ˜‚ I am glad that I didn't put my preconceived aesthetic ideals on this dress and let it develop as it wanted to. It turned out exactly right.

It's definitely not the tight-bodiced Gunne Sax styles that I liked and wore in my youth. With the long sleeves and high neckline, it could be considered almost too modest. But I like it. My mother was 17 in 1980, when this pattern was published. I envision her in my mind, wearing a similar type of dress and feeling as happy as I do now when I put this on. I love that this dress makes me think of my mother, and our shared love of Gunne Sax dresses!

Thank you to Malachi for taking these photos for me, the first day of autumn at one of our favorite nearby places. I brought my Native American style flute with me that day, as I had recently received it, and  it was fun playing it out in the open without other people around to annoy! ๐Ÿ˜‚ Isn't Rosie the sweetest??

Much love,


  1. Dear Sarah,
    Yes, glowy is a good word to have coined, and makes intuitive sense. The dress is happy on you and is the soul of Autumn.
    Very best,
    Natalie in KY

  2. You did a wonderful job with this dress. It is beautiful and unique, and you look lovely and confident in it. Your story was inspiring to me. I just recently "discovered" Gunne Sax dresses; I ran across photos of them online and always admired them, but didn't know that Gunne Sax was a thing. It wasn't until I discovered a picture of my teenage Mom in the 70's, wearing what was unmistakably a Gunne Sax dress, that I really took notice. I was captivated by that darling dress in brown calico, with the lace-up bodice and long white, sheer sleeves. Too bad she no longer has it, but I never could have fit into it, anyway! :) However, that discovery put me on the search to learn more about these beautiful vintage dresses, and then I discovered how rare and sought-after they are, to my dismay. I'm still on the hunt for the perfect one that actually fits (those tiny sizes, gah!) that I can afford. In the meantime, I admire your determination to sew your own, using a vintage pattern. If I had more patience for sewing, I would do the same!


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!