Sewing a cheongsam from scratch

To take my fancy new bodice sloper for a test ride, I decided to make a cheongsam. From scratch.

Cheongsams (also called qipaos or chinese gowns) are simple figure hugging garments featuring a rounded stand-up collar, a high neckline with decorative closures to one side,  and fancy hip-high thigh slits. In other words, a whole lot of glam!

I have a Malaysian-Chinese tea ceremony to attend this summer in KL, which originally gave me the idea to try my hand at one. (Altho I’m not as sure now if it would be appropriate for me to actually wear one to the wedding. Too much room for a faux pas!)

It’s a great first project to break in my shiny sloper, plus it has so much potential for pretty variations, for such a dead simple design… I had to give it a go!

So off to Pinterest (and down the rabbit hole) I went…

These three images pretty much sum up my inspiration for what I had in mind.

  1. Understanding the basic construction of a qipao so I can figure out how my sloper can be adapted to create the pieces I need
  2. A shape that doesn’t 100% match the original – so my version is not so literal an interpretation that it has to be culturally accurate
  3. And a non-red floral silk sateen or similar fabric with just enough sheen and movement that it feels luxe but also with enough structure to hold its shape.

 I had some cotton fabric lying around that I was itching to cut into. It’s a teal green with small white specs, kind of makes your eye dizzy in a lovely way even though it came up all grey in the photos.

I kind of calculated that I’d have enough to make up the shell of a cheongsam for fitting purposes, with just enough left over to eventually convert this test qipao into a wearable button-down shirt. Two projects in one! And I may end up with something I can finally wear at the end! Coz let’s face it I won’t be running around in tight fitting cotton dresses slit up to my thigh anytime soon…

So cutting and sewing I began… Overall I feel that using the sloper did it’s magic as expected, and I don’t have very many fitting issues at all. Excuse the lack of pressing or finish in these photos but behold cheongsam try #1:

As you can see I did minimum effort in order to be able to test the fit and shape, and there were a couple of learnings for the next piece based on this sloper:

  • I’m pretty sure I should have moved those bust darts out by about an inch, so they don’t end right on my nips
  • Not pictured: too much ease in the lower front of the armhole – this is probably handy when you’re inserting a sleeve but for anything sleeveless, I’ll have to pinch out about an inch from the pattern next time. I might just re-do the bust dart and try to absorb it in there with this one.
  • Ignoring the waist shaping on my sloper means I probably should have done a minor sway back adjustment as I’m getting a bit of fabric pooling at the back hip.

 Other than that I’d call this first attempt at using my slopers successful. As beginners sewing projects using self drafted patterns go anyway…

I’m sadly apart from my sewing machine for a while, but the next time we’re reunited, I’ll be getting on to cutting a new front right piece from the leftover fabric, and plackets for the button-down front, and sew that up. 

I envision a rounded stand-up collar (salvaged from the qipao), a slight V of a neckline with the placket and buttons running down from just above the bust, small bias-bound cap sleeves and a hem that curves up slightly at the sides.

Until I’m ready to give an update on either the cheongsam or the shirt, tell me this though… what happens to YOUR toiles/muslins? Do you ever make one for an experimental project and then try turn them into something simpler and more wearable to salvage the fabric?


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