Back to School Wardrobes: Tween Girl (and why it’s so hard to dress them)

Alright!  Time to get sewing these clothes for school.  I’m starting with the toughest to sew for, and working from there–in our house, that’s our tween girl.  She’s 8, so just barely a tween, but old enough that a lot of the available sewing patterns on the market either don’t go up far enough in size or look too juvenile for her to realistically wear to school (or both, let’s be honest).  My goal was to fill the gaps in her wardrobe with things she’ll really want to wear and like wearing, that make her feel excited and also let me feel confident that she’s dressed well–truly well, in things that are well-made and good quality, and that don’t have crappy “sassy” or “juicy” logos and skeezy messages all over them, that encourage her to think well of herself.

back to school wardrobe step 3

There are times when I think my attitude about how my girls dress is so fundamental to how parents think that I skim right over it.  And then there are others when I realize that for a segment of the population, they REALLY don’t think about the messages our children’s clothing can send, and how that will impact them throughout their lives.  Mainstream media–like this article from ABC  or this one from CNN about skimpy fashions–have even begun to report on the long-term negative effects of overly “sexy” tween clothing and how that impacts our girls.  I would extend that argument to include the “sassy” contingent, who seem to want to imbue tween girl clothing with messages virtually guaranteed to breed a whole host of Mean Girls in the fourth grade.  It makes me gag, over and over, and I know I’m not the only one.

kids back to school wardrobe organization

At the same time, I am a mom of older girls, and I totally get it: there just isn’t much on the market for them.  And it’s hard to sew clothing, especially, beyond just buying it, that allows our girls to look…well…normal, for lack of a better word.  I don’t want to send my girl off to school looking like Holly Hobby (oh, how I miss her, though!), or like some homemade bumpkin who doesn’t fit in and never could.  But I also don’t want to send her to school looking like a miniature adult–which she isn’t.  It’s a tough age, and a tough transition, and I know I am not alone in wanting to make it gracefully.

girls knit tee walking away

So I’ve worked to locate patterns that satisfy our goals: well-made, nice-looking clothing that is classic and that a young girl will love to wear.  I’m less concerned about “fashion-forward” than classic shapes, but confess that there isn’t much being designed right now for this age that is fashion-forward without showing more skin than an 8-year-old needs to be showing.  (There does seem to be a movement in the right direction–there is Yellowberry, a line of bras and panties for young girls, and some argument in the media that we’re headed “away from trashy twelve and more toward sweet 16.”  A recent article pointed out that “there’s a trend toward…something that’s a little more timeless, a little more quality,” which I think is amazing.) When it comes to sewing patterns, though, at least for the moment, the choices are often between large-toddler and mini-grandma styles–I suspect that will change rapidly, but finding patterns to sew for your tween is still more time-consuming than for your toddler girl, where there are seemingly new crops of patterns out every ten minutes.  The gap seems to be in finding patterns that are suitable for girls as they try to figure out how they want to dress before they understand that what they wear sends messages, intended or otherwise.

I am all kinds of willing to fight this battle, with my needle as my sword and an oversized bobbin for a shield, y’all.  Our To-Sew list for my eight-year-old includes the following items:

sewing plan for a tween girl wardrobe

I created a printable to organize these projects, just the ones I’m sewing as opposed to the ones I’m willing to buy.  It lists what garments we need, what patterns I’m planning to use, and what fabrics I think will work best for each one.

back to school wardrobe sewing list


And I’ve rounded up a short list of the patterns I have on hand or have already sewn up, that I think work for what we hope for our girl while still giving her the sense that she’s free to make her own choices.  Lots of these are meant to be mix-and-match, too, so that I don’t have to sew a zillion separate pieces for her to have a wide number of wearable outfits.bateau top sewing pattern by Wee Muses on EtsyFor the knit tops, she needs at least two short sleeve and two long sleeve tops.  I have been hoarding striped vintage-feel jerseys from Girl Charlee all summer, and am planning to make three striped and one solid top for her to supplement the ones she already has.  The Bateau Top, above, is such a sweet and versatile pattern, which I’ll be using for both the long sleeve and one of the short.  I’m thinking of modifying the Schoolbus Tee from Oliver + S for the other short sleeve, and giving it a little more volume and a lower neckline.


For the skirt, I’m thinking my 20-minute skirt, with just a dirndl shape and an elastic waist.  We have a mess of these that she’s handed down to her younger sister, and she keeps trying to wear the too-small versions, so some larger ones might be in order.  (On a side note, this is HER, in this photo!  Man, it all goes so fast…)  These skirts are the PERFECT place to use novelty and seasonal prints–they look great with solid or striped tees plus a cardigan, and allow me to indulge my long-standing passion for silly prints.  Plus, our kids really, really groove on the almost-but-yes-ok-totally-tacky seasonal prints from the big box stores: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July.  They looooove that there is fabric that’s specific to a special day, and a quickie skirt that uses just a half-ish yard is the perfect place to let them choose their own fabric and wear it with pride (and for tweens, they can even make the skirt themselves!).

dimensional denim shorts w ruffled pocket

She’s already got one new pair of shorts, using my go-to self-drafted pattern, and needs one more.  I’m not really sure what fabric I’ll use here, but suspect I still have some cotton twill down in the basement in a box that I can dig out.  I feel like, to minimize the sheer NUMBER of garments I’ll be sewing, I should focus on versatile fabrics and colors that can be incorporated into a LOT of outfits.  I think this is a really important point, and while it might seem to contradict using those seasonal prints for the skirts, they go hand-in-hand: I want my children to have unlimited choice within an edited palette of options.  By making quick and simple-to-sew projects in fabrics that don’t go with much but that they love, and making more challenging projects in fabrics that are versatile and go with everything, they get to have freedom and have a solid foundation from which to make choices.

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For church dresses, I like this simple and classic shape with princess lines: Simplicity 1382.  I know it doesn’t look that great in these line drawings, but if you look closely, you’ll see that this pattern can be easily adapted with a lot of fabrics and made to look both classic and chic, and not-so-little girly.  She’ll need at least one in a nicer fabric for the holidays (I have some silk-blend plaid left over from a holiday skirt I made myself) and another in a pretty cotton print (I’m thinking a Cotton + Steel print).  Yum.

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For a woven tunic, I also love the Ice Cream Dress from Oliver + S.  (Their blog even has an article posted about all the versions of their patterns made in tween sizes–did you know nearly EVERY O + S pattern goes up to a size 12??)  I also really like the idea of sewing up the Book Report Dress, with its cool pocket detail, in a knit.  Our girl would wear the stink out of these both on their own, now while it’s warm, and later over leggings and skinny jeans.  I have some heavier knits (including a polka dot Ponte de Roma) that might be great for this.

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She needs a couple woven blouses, to balance out all the knit tees in her wardrobe.  At first glance, this Simplicity 1625 is total crap–I don’t have the first clue what’s happening with that weird overlay, for one thing.  But I do like the view C top, and think she would look great in a slightly longer version of that–somewhere between the dress and the top length–in a Liberty floral.  Yes, I will sew Liberty for my child.  But only because I know she can pass it down to her little sister.

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I also totally love this fun vintage look that I discovered on Etsy.  There are SO many great vintage patterns you can dig up in girls’ sizes that have a classic vibe with clean, classic lines.  If you’re struggling to find things you love, you could do worse than to haunt Etsy and eBay looking for great styles from the past.

And that’s that!  A total of 10 garments to sew for our oldest girl, and a stack of those are repeated patterns.  Now tell me: am I crazy in thinking that pickings are SUPER slim out there for tween girls?  Did you read all this and think she has lost it/I know of a zillion patterns & stores to get great stuff for this age/geez, Deborah, when did you get so uptight?  Tell me in the comments!  I’m still on the hunt for a great tween girls’ skirt–share your pattern numbers, folks!



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  • Leslie
    August 26, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    I agree about the slim pickings – not just in sewing patterns but in clothes all around. Fortunately I have a 10 year old girl who is completely happy to be in t-shirts and skorts/athletic shorts/jeggings 99% of the time – and I think that is why I have given up on sewing – it is not even worth it when there are so many cheap, easy alternatives at Old Navy, Target, etc. I know, lazy, but the fact of the matter is that these are for one year and then they are outgrown. I do still decorate a lot of plain tees for her to personalize things. And I would sew a dress – I love the picture of the tank dress with the ruffle top! There are very few suitable options for dresses out there for this age group – Boden’s Johnnie B line is one of my go-to, and might be good for inspiration.

    • Deborah
      August 27, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      I do love Boden for ALL ages–that’s a good one! Some of their styles are SO, SO simple and classic (which is why I like them) that I can’t quite justify the expense. But I’m with you on the sewing vs. inexpensive alternatives–there are times (like I did this year) when there are deals so good that sewing it yourself almost seems silly. I’m still trying to find the sweet spot in between, where I sewing the things we can’t buy but also because I enjoy doing it and she enjoys what I make. I had a close girlfriend in high school whose mother sewed for her all the way up until we graduated, and I’d love to have that kind of closeness with my girls, too!

  • Samina
    August 26, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    I am so glad that I’ve got a boy! He’s 6 & has already begun to notice what the older kids are wearing & wants to wear the same stuff. For us, it’s the Dri Fit type Under Armor & Nike shirts. So, that’s not so bad, but I do cringe when I see some of the girls wear at the bus stop. It’s got to be tough to find options for girls that are neither too pop-tart-ish or too twee.

    • Deborah
      August 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      Oh, isn’t that the TRUTH? And their parents are RIGHT THERE! That’s the part that gets me–I know that there isn’t much out there, but really? You chose the “juicy” top instead of a solid color top and that worked for you? The critical part of me wonders how things will go as their girls get older if they give in on wardrobe now, but I try so hard to see how tough it is and how fortunate we are that when we look at garments we see possibility instead of inevitability. Sewing is POWER!! 🙂

  • Diane
    August 26, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Love the princess line dress – timeless.

    I had the “D” version in a light blue silky fine cotton in 1961 or 1962. I didn’t have a womanly shape at 12, so the waist was snug and the top not filled out. But it was a beautiful dress that my mom brought home from a Friday night shopping trip with my dad.

    • Deborah
      August 27, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      I love the deep pleats on that one, and the simple sleeves. I think she would look so lovely in this, but am super tempted to do a bright print for her. She likes to be bold!

  • Rachelle - Warming Crafts
    August 26, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    I only have boys, but for those middle years I love Ottobre patterns. I used to get the magazines and the styles in them are sufficiently timeless that only a small adjustment makes them look perfectly modern while not being sleazy. The fit tends to be good too, especially for those skinny kids like mine.
    Not cheap per magazine, but if you’re ok with tracing patterns and adding seam allowances you get a great deal of patterns for that price.

    • Deborah
      August 27, 2014 at 1:39 pm

      Oh, that’s a great suggestion!! I don’t mind tracing, and I don’t mind adding a seam allowance, so Ottobre seems really do-able to me. I’ve never subscribed, though–can you still get it through Amazon? Our kids are all skinny in the middle, too (we always pull the adjustable waists up four or five buttonholes), so it’s nice to find patterns that are proportional instead of bag-like on them.

      Great tip, thank you!!

  • Mary Ann
    August 27, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Such a well crafted list! I love to sew for my granddaughters and as there are 3 in stair step order I enjoy knowing they will pass down . And the holiday skirts…also a big favorite. Thanks for doing the hunting for us !

    • Deborah
      August 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      Knowing they’ll hand it down is the BEST feeling. I was telling a friend the other day that our youngest is wearing things my mother made for my younger sister literally 20 years ago–and when you compare that to the inexpensive clothing you can buy these days, it just seems to be a much better investment. And something about spending the time and effort to make nice things that are good quality causes us not only to take better care of them, but to keep track of them–they aren’t disposable, literally, and we hand them down lovingly. I have things I made for our children that NO ONE can fit any longer, and I can’t bear to donate them–I’m waiting for the right nephew/niece/neighbor to come along who will really appreciate it. Good reminder, Mary Ann!!

  • Sabrina B.
    August 28, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    Love the ice cream party dress! I made one when my daughter was about 2, and I always that it was lovely and well constructed.

  • Cherie
    August 28, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    My daughter is 11 years old. She’s tall and slim. It is very difficult to find dresses and skirts for her. They’re either too short, look too grown up, well you understand. So, I am very eager to get sewing a fall wardrobe for her. Maybe not jeans. But some of the essentials, yes. I would love to learn to make knit tops for her – and me! I just never know which knit fabric types to pick for shirts.
    I do see some cute tween patterns from independent companies. But a lot of them are pdfs. And not all of them are inexpensive either. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t have the gumption to spend a whole lot of money for a pattern that I have to print out. I have to use my paper which is an additional expense. And then tape it all together? I have used pdfs for small items but not dresses, etc. I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I’m missing?
    Also, I just went to your link for the 20 minute skirt. Awesome! I will admit that I haven’t read the whole tutorial yet, but how much fabric would I need for an older girl who fits a size 12 in patterns?
    Thank you again for all of your wonderful inspiration and sharing all of your sewing knowledge!!

  • mjb
    August 29, 2014 at 9:25 am

    What about the alder skirt from imagine gnats? It comes in girls and women’s sizes

  • Kristi Andres
    August 30, 2014 at 12:39 am

    I completely agree. My oldest daughter just turned 10 and we have some hand me downs, some skinny jeans, but I make a lot of her stuff. Especially tunic length tops so she can wear stretch pants with something that covers her booty! Have you checked out the blog, Sew Cool for the Tween Scene? It’s really great!

  • Kate
    September 1, 2014 at 8:56 am

    I just want to say what an inspiration all of you ladies are! I’m a single mum of a 4 year old girl and already I worry about what she will want to wear… I have NO time and am still fumbling thru debs beginner classes so I fear she will forever miss out on all the sewing I would love to do for her! Your all very inspiring, none of you happen to be in Melbourne, Australia do you?? Xo

  • Girls’ Skirt Measurements: A Handy Reference Chart | Whipstitch
    September 9, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    […] many of you were pumped about the 20-minute skirt I included in my post detailing my tween girl sewing list that I put together a quick printable for cutting! The 20-minute skirt is a quick and easy dirndl […]

  • Erin Waters
    October 17, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Yes! I would love pattern designers to start amping up the selection for sizes above size 10. My girls love for me to sew for them and my oldest daughter is creeping out of a size 10 as I type.

    • Deborah
      October 18, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      Some of the smallest sizes on a lot of indie patterns seem like they’d fit girls in the 10-12 size range–have you found that to be the case? The XXS often seems to have pretty close measurements. Of course, that’s assuming the styles are age-appropriate, but it’s a place to start!

  • LaPriel
    October 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    If I am purchasing clothing for that size, I have always liked Lands End.
    Tween patterns are difficult.
    I really enjoy your blog. Thank you for all of your great info.

  • LaPriel
    October 28, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Has anyone tried any of these patterns:

  • LaPriel
    October 28, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    Ok, one last FYI. This shop appears to have quite a few. Mod kids only had 2.

    Most of these go to 12. There are a handful of size 14.