How to Decorate a Plain Dress

Decorating a plain dress is a fun project to do with a friend.
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Instead of viewing a plain dress as boring, consider it a blank canvas for your creativity, a garment just waiting for you to adorn, bedazzle, enhance, decorate or otherwise work your own particular magic on its fabric. If you're short on ideas, plan your project by looking at pictures of ornate dresses for inspiration, then take a trip to the craft store to stock up on a few supplies. Otherwise, let your imagination run wild and rummage through your drawers for tools and notions to re-purpose at no cost. You don't even need to be especially artistic to transform a plain dress into something special -- sometimes the simplest designs and easiest techniques can work wonders.

1 Paint a Picture

With fabric paint and a paintbrush or special fabric paint pens, your plain dress really will become an artist's blank canvas. Fabric paint is applied just like any paint, but it's designed to stay on the fabric through many washes and be somewhat soft to the touch. Practice your design on paper first and decide the ideal placement on the dress. Wash and iron the dress before you start, then attach the first area you will paint onto a piece of thick cardboard with thumbtacks. This gives you a smooth surface to paint on. You can paint freehand onto the fabric, use a stencil or rubber stamps. Freezer paper is ideal for templates -- you can draw your design onto it, cut it out then iron the paper onto the fabric. It will easily peel away when you are done. The design does not have to be complicated, nor does it have to be all over the dress. A row of stripes, chevrons or polka dots parallel to the lower hem, around the sleeves or around the neckline is simple but pretty. Motifs with bold silhouettes, like stars, hearts, bird shapes and arrows, are also easy to execute.

2 A Dress to Dye For

Fabric dye isn't only useful for changing the color of an entire garment. You can also use it in more creative ways to add patterns or abstract designs to an otherwise plain dress. Some dyes, such as all-purpose dyes, must be used with hot water; others, such as fiber reactive dyes, need cold water and other chemicals. Choose a dye that is suitable for the fabric your dress is made of, and follow the instructions carefully. Tie-die is a classic technique that can be far from "hippie-dippie" if you choose sophisticated colors. Dip-dyeing is an easy way to make a plain dress much more interesting -- just soak the bottom or top half only in the dye bath. A variation on this is ombre dyeing -- gradually lowering more and more of the fabric into the dye bath over time to get horizontal bands of a lighter and lighter shade of the same color. Armed with a spray bottle and different colors of dye, you can turn that plain dress into a galaxy of colors. Freezer paper stencils can also come into play with the spray bottle dye technique.

3 Embroidered Embellishments

Even if your needlework skills are limited to threading a needle and tying a knot in the end of a piece of thread, you can work a simple embroidery design onto the fabric of your dress. An embroidery hoop is useful but not absolutely essential. A row or two of running stitches -- essentially straight lines -- in a contrasting color thread adds considerable visual interest to a plain dress. Other designs that are easy to do include rows of X-shapes, French dots and zigzag patterns. Simple embroidery designs can be very effective -- imagine a cluster of silver stars on the bodice of a navy dress, a row of yellow daisies around the collar of a white summer dress, or a thick blanket stitch along the sleeve edges and button placket of a shirt dress.

4 Artistic Applique

Applique basically means sewing a fabric shape onto a fabric backing, the backing in this case being your plain dress. There are several methods to consider, and they don't all have to involve sewing. Fusible web lets you iron the fabric shape directly onto the dress without the need to sew, as does fabric glue. Stitching around the edges of the applique, though, will help it last longer. Non-fraying fabrics, such as felt and leather, are best if you don't want to sew. If you have more advanced sewing skills, fold the raw edges of the applique shape under and sew the folded edges neatly to the dress by hand or machine. You can cut shapes from patterned fabrics, for example, a single flower from a flowery fabric, or draw your own simple shapes like stars or hearts. Elbow patches are a fun way to add applique to a long-sleeved sweater dress.

A writer of diverse interests, Joanne Thomas has penned pieces about road trips for Hyundai, children's craft projects for Disney and wine cocktails for Robert Mondavi. She has lived on three continents and currently resides in Los Angeles, where she is co-owner and editor of a weekly newspaper. Thomas holds a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol, England.