I borrowed a machine and started trying to teach myself to sew once I had my daughter. I had previously had a hand-me-down machine and figured out how to do simple curtains (thought it would be cheaper Haaaah!), but I had never made clothing or such. I think pillowcase dresses are a great first sewing project since they are very forgiving and cheap to make. They also grow with your child which is very appealing to me. My 4 yr old niece has worn the 1 yr olds lemon dress as a long top with shorts.
I tried a few different methods:
1) "Traditional ribbon method". A tube pocket sleeve is sewn in back and front with ribbon to both gather and tie the dress. This seems good, but was impractical since the ribbon comes out, doesn't stay tied very tight, and I worried it could be dangerous around her neck.
She outgrew that one and I never got a photo. It did not get much wear at all since the satin ribbons were forever coming out and a hassle to get back in. This is the most common method I found on-line.
2) "Traditional tube with elastic not ribbon". This is another method I saw on various sites. I made the tube pocket sleeve as I did in #1 but I ran elastic through it and anchored the elastic at the ends. I used bias tape for the arm hole edging and ties. It looked and wore MUCH better. I liked it but did not think it would be very adjustable width wise as her shoulders grew wider. The elastic was not sewn except on the ends so it did not naturally give much without major stretching.
3) "No tube method"-Not one to give up I came up with an idea for this one. I'm sure it has been done 1M times, but it seemed like a eureka moment to me!
I tried sewing elastic directly into the top to gather. I folded down the top edge about 1/2 inch and ironed. Then I laid the elastic where the top edge folded and sewed the top hem and the elastic gather with one zig zig stitch line. While I sewed the zig zag I was stretching the elastic so it would gather on its own. If you try this you will need to precut the elastic to the finished width wanted. I also marked the middle of the elastic and the middle of the fabric so I have a reference point. That keeps you are aware of how much you should be stretching the elastic. It worked well with bias tape for the ties or with ribbons sewn at the shoulders as ties. Sorry I was tool lazy to iron for the photo and the hanger is crooked not the dress!
4) "Shirring method"-Then my last pillowcase dress I tried using the elastic is 4 short rows to shirr the top. The fabric was a bit more elegant so I wanted a fancier look. I did a hidden edge on the arm holes and sewed the ribbon at the shoulders. It worked just as well as #3 but looks a bit fancier.
At this point I was getting tired of pillowcase dresses so I guess #5 is try something new!
If you are just looking for your first sewing project (I am still very green after only 1 year of sewing) I would recommend trying to make pillowcase dresses in multiple ways. It was a great learning exercise in which I learned about hemming, how to use bias tape, zig zig verses straight stitching, sewing with elastic, edging arm holes, and it boosted my confidence to try more challenging things. Also no pattern to buy and it is cheap! Lastly, you do not need a pillowcase as the name implies. I never used one. I took 2/3-1yd of fabric folded in half on the 45' side and sew a tube. Then hem the bottom as needed.