Mary-Ellen's Isla Wrap Dress

Mary-Ellen's Isla Wrap Dress

The Perfect Picnic Dress - Cotton Lawn Isla

Cotton fabrics have always been a go-to for dressmaking; natural and durable, they come in a wide range of styles and textures. One of my favourites – particularly for the spring and summer months – is cotton lawn.


Cotton lawn is a plain weave textile made from cotton; it is usually a sheer and opaque cloth with a smooth look, perfect for the warmer months. Cotton lawn was first produced in France in the city of Laon, which is where the term ‘lawn’ comes from. When it was first introduced to Britain in the 16th century, lawn was traditionally made from linen but by the 20th century it was being made mostly from cotton. During the 1920’s, Liberty of London popularised the substrate with their Tana Lawn fabrics which were made from African cotton (‘Tana’ coming from Lake Tana in Ethiopia).

Cotton lawn is often mistaken for voile, despite being completely different fabrics. Admittedly, they look similar to the naked eye, but the thread count is higher in lawn and it has a crisp handle.

Cotton lawn is versatile and remarkably easy to sew with. It is perfect for making button-down shirts and shirtdresses, blouses, skirts and dresses. But as it is so lightweight, you may have to line your garment, depending on the pattern you have chosen. Being lightweight, it also offers a subtle drape which works well in summery gathered garments.


While it is easy to work with – suitable for all levels of sewists - there are a few tips that might be useful to keep in mind if you are going to sew with cotton lawn.


As with most cotton fabrics, it is necessary to pre-wash them before cutting to avoid shrinkage after your garment has been made, compromising the fit. Lawn can shrink up to 2% in length and 4-6% in width. It is best washed in cold water and then tumble dried on the low setting.


Lawn is semi-delicate so a low temperature and pressing cloth is the best way to iron it.


Lawn is not overly slippery; it’s not like working with a rayon, for example. If you are not confident cutting it, you can always use spray starch to help crisp it up and make it easier to handle. Personally, I am team scissors, but a sharp rotary blade works brilliantly. Pattern weights work well if you’re worried about snagging your fabric (I prefer fine glass head pins to hold my patterns down but only ever use them within the seam allowances).


As is the case with any fabric, you need to be mindful to choose a needle size for your project based on the weight and type of thread the material has. When sewing with cotton lawn, you will want a smaller universal needle: I use a 60/8.


Fusible lightweight interfacing is perfect for lawn; because lawn is so lightweight it does not work with sewn-in or heavy weight interfacings. Jenny stocks Vlieseline Easy Fuse Ultrasoft Light Iron On Interfacing which is perfect for working with cotton lawn.

Seam Finishing:

French seams are probably the best option for finishing cotton lawn; pinking shears work well, too. You can use your serger (I did!); just be aware that the lightness of lawn can make it liable to pucker up. Practice on a scrap piece of fabric first to set your tension as you will have to lower the tension for cotton lawn. Also make sure you have good, sharp needles on your overlocker.


The dress I am sharing today was part of a pattern test for Jennifer Lauren. I have to admit, I very rarely participate in pattern testing because of the time constraints that are usually imposed. With sewing being my hobby, I resist the idea of sewing to a deadline. Pattern testing is usually time consuming, too. There is always at least one toile that needs to be made so I need to really love a pattern to participate in a pattern test. When Jennifer Lauren put out a tester call, there was no image of the garment, but I knew the moment I read the description that it was right up my street, so I had to join the testing team. The Jennifer Lauren Handmade patterns are always reminiscent of vintage styles and some of my favourite patterns are from the JLH line, including the Juniper Cardigan and the Gable Top and Dress.


Isla is, in Jennifer’s own words, “a little bit of a mix between a 50's house dress and a casual modern wrap dress”. It is a back-wrap dress which features grown-on sleeves and a wide, gently rounded neckline (buttoned at the top back), waistline darts for bodice shaping and a gentle gathered skirt. It also has pockets – and, even if it didn’t, I would have added some.

Isla is suitable for light to mid-weight fabrics with some gentle structure, so I decided to sew with a cotton lawn, as the pattern felt like a perfect option for a summer picnic dress. There are so many beautiful cotton lawns to work with at Jenny Stitches, but I couldn’t resist the green and pink check lawn. One of the things I would say, when choosing a lawn, bear in mind the paler colours like pink or white are often quite transparent but this green check I chose was fine, particularly once the gathers were added to the skirt.

I get a lot of my inspiration from period drama and films and one of my favourite looks has to be Marguerite’s wardrobe in The Hundred Foot Journey. Imagine my surprise when I started sewing my own clothes back in 2020 to find that Sew Over It had replicated this look in their vintage-inspired pattern of the same name – the Marguerite Dress. The By Hand London Anna dress also has a similar look and feel. One of my favourite things about sewing is that it gives me the ability to recreate the looks that capture my imagination on screen.

The Isla dress is very similar to the Marguerite dress in style and shape, with two main differences:

1. It omits the waistband – the gathered skirt is sewn to the bodice; as a result, there is a little more ease in the Isla dress, which you can fit to preference with the waist ties.

2. It features a back-wrap which I personally prefer in terms of fitting to the Marguerite dress by Sew Over It which features a back zip and a keyhole opening, fastened at the top with a hook and eye closure, which most people find leaves a bit of gaping and excess fabric which is difficult to fix (even the official Sew Over It photoshoot garments show this problem).

The back-wrap feature of the Isla dress can be more easily fitted to avoid gaping – all you need to do is ensure you get the length of your bodice right. 

While I fall into both JLH size ranges, I chose to test the Curve block as I was curious as to how it compared with the Original size range. When a pattern designer creates two size blocks, I have varying experience as to which fits better; for example, the Original blocks of By Hand London and Megan Nielsen work better for me than their extended sizes, whereas I have recently discovered that the extended size range by Tilly and the Buttons works better for my shape.

The Curve block created by Jennifer Lauren has a bit more built-in ease through the bust, waist and hip area (rather than just everywhere which is what it feels is the case for some other pattern designer lines); Jennifer seems to have more finessed grading rules, especially for the upper sizes in the Curve block. For me, the main difference in fitting was that I found the Curve block to work better for me in the bust area - I didn’t have to do a Full Bust Adjustment! It’s one of those little wins I celebrate when I try a new pattern for the first time. The Original size chart ranges from a A-D cup whereas the Curve range is graded in 3 cup sizes (D-F); the F worked perfectly for me. Both blocks are graded for a height of 170cm (5' 6''); at 5’1 I’ve always found the length of Jennifer Lauren patterns to need adjusting but that’s one of the easiest pattern adjustments to make. Aside from adjusting the length, the only other pattern adjustment I made was to move my waist darts. It is a simple thing to do – positioning the bust and waist darts to point to your bust apex – but a lot of people don’t bother with this adjustment to the pattern pieces. You’d be amazed at the difference it makes to the final garment to make the darts work for your specific shape.

The shaping of the dress – particularly the use of the grown-on sleeves – means that the fitting process is minimal. I think it is worth noting how much work Jennifer goes to in order to make her patterns as inclusive and accessible as possible. Isla is aimed more at intermediate sewists, but I think - given the amount of work that has been put into the grading of this pattern, that an adventurous beginner should feel confident giving it a go.

The dress has made me feel ready for summer; I can’t wait to fill the picnic hamper up with treats and find a picturesque spot to relax with a good book and a glass of something sparkly. 

Mary-Ellen x

Instagram : @shesewshappiness 

Jenny says:

"Mary-Ellen is one of the most stylish Sewists I've ever met! Her attention to style and fitting is to be admired, especially considering she only really took up sewing during the pandemic! This pink and green Isla is summer personified, I'd love to join you for a picnic and something fizzy!"

Inspired to make your own version? Here's what you'll need:

Pink and Green Check Cotton Lawn

Jennifer Lauren Handmade Isla Wrap Dress pattern, 

(available direct as a PDF from the designer)

Printed using my A0 Pattern Printing Service.

Mary-Ellen purchased the materials for her project as part of her pattern test, however she received a gift voucher in recognition of the time spent on her project.
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