the one-time-only dress

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I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about this project, for a few reasons:

  1. It’s not relevant to a lot of people who sew, because not everyone wants to make their wedding dress;
  2. I’m pretty sure if I tried again, I could make it better;
  3. I don’t have many pictures of the process;
  4. Don’t you get tired of people who talk about their weddings all the time? I don’t want to be that person.

But here’s the thing: When I was planning to make my dress for my wedding back in May, I obsessively searched the Internet for people who made theirs. I shook my fist, figuratively speaking, at people who made their own dresses, or made dresses for relatives, and didn’t put an explanation on BurdaStyle or Kollabora or whatever. People, I needed help, and I soaked up whatever I could find.

So maybe if I share my experience, that’ll help others.

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So! I made my wedding dress. It was fun and hard! You should do it too, maybe.

(Note: This post has exhaustive detail, because that’s what I was looking for when I was making this. It also has a jillion photos — professional-quality, for once — from our great photographer, Amber Wilkie. You’ve been warned.)

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PATTERN

Initially, I thought I’d buy a dress, like a normal person. I knew I wanted something soft, something flowy, something textured, maybe with a low back, maybe with a soft train, maybe with sleeves? Not strapless, not beaded, not bedazzled, not stiff, not shiny, not polyester. Oh, and I didn’t want to spend tons of money. That’s not a problem, right?

It’s OK — take a minute to have a good laugh. I’ll wait.

So I scouted online and got a sense for what I wanted. And I kind of freaked out when I saw this dress. THIS DRESS. GO LOOK AT THIS DRESS RIGHT NOW. That! I wanted that! Maybe with warm accents instead of the cool gray sash, but that!

Specifically, I loved the soft train in a dramatic length, and the sheerness, and the low back,  and the drapey fabric, and the general silhouette. I told myself if I found a pattern, I’d do it.

And I did. Why not?

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Ultimately, I made my dress from a heavily modified version of this Eva Dress pattern, a reproduction from 1937. (The pattern instruction booklet says “VOGUE COUTURIER” on the front page. Very intimidating.)

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On the bodice, I changed the darts into princess seams and inserted a support structure of boning and bra cups. You know what that means: I didn’t wear a bra on my wedding day, and it was frigging awesome. (I also wore ballet flats. Can you believe we used to wear corsets?)

FABRIC

This dress essentially consists of two dresses: a silk underlay and a lace overlay. The underlay was made of crepe-back satin from Mood Fabrics in a delicious, buttery cream color called “tapioca.” Actually, when I opened the package from Mood, I thought to myself, “Oh my God, it’s the exact color of butter; what have I done?” But it turned out a lovely creamy hue with the lace over it.

Sarah-Jordan-wedding-fb-size-50The underlay bodice is underlined in silk organza and self-lined. The underlay skirt is lined with silk habotai from Dharma, which is brutal to work with but lovely to wear.

The lace overlay is made from an ivory cotton/nylon blend lace from Fabric.com. Yes, Fabric.com. I wanted a soft lace with lots of drape, and I wanted something botanical rather than floral (leaves, vines, etc.) and that’s what I got. I felt a little sheepish about the provenance — some people are making wedding dresses from $150/yard lace, you know? — but then I saw a dress made in the exact same lace at David’s Bridal. No bullshit; true story. It cost a few hundred dollars, which is pretty amazing, considering I paid something like $9/yard — retail — for this super-wide lace yardage.

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To give you an idea of how yellow that silk underlay is, the sash in the picture above is made from the same fabric.

I bought the lace first, then looked for an underlay fabric to go with it. I ordered fabric swatches for the underlay and pinned them to my dress form with scraps of lace pinned over them, so that I could see how it looked in various lights. At first I felt sure I didn’t want satin; I wanted a very matte look to my dress. But with the lace over it, the satin had only a muted sheen, which I found really appealing.  I also went with that buttery color to set off the lighter-colored lace, instead of using a satin that matched.

CONSTRUCTION and MODIFICATIONS

I made three muslins of the bodice, two of which were attached to skirts. The final muslin was essentially a dress rehearsal (NO PUN INTENDED); I didn’t make any changes from that one, I think.

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In case it’s not clear from the pattern art — and it’s definitely not clear; I know because it took me such a long time to figure it out — the skirt front is a bias-cut A-line piece. The skirt back is essentially one-half of a floor-length circle skirt, gathered deeply at the back of the waist. The side seam curves sharply over the hips toward the back, making for a slim fit.

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(The glass broke on the second try.)

Here’s what the lace looked like on the dress form partway through; you can see the curved side seam here. The ribbon acts essentially as a waist stay/waistband, and it was covered later by a sash.

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I wanted to keep the pattern’s beautiful skirt, but added a fairly long train (and therefore a bustle). I also omitted the center seam of the skirt front and cut the whole thing on the bias, which apparently is a good way to end up with an unevenly draped skirt. That didn’t happen to me, happily.

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“Are we on now? Should we go?”

As written, the lace bodice had a high neckline with an inverted box pleat. I simplified it to take out the inverted box pleat in the front, turning it into a moderate V-neck, and removed the jabot-style flutter along the V-back. I loved the sweetheart neckline (and actual straps) of the underlay, so I kept that, although I reshaped the neck a bit.

I also rejiggered the pattern to create a center back closure, instead of the fairly complicated closure on the pattern, which was part of one of the back skirt darts.

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Here’s the back of the lace overlay, after I added about 18″ to the back of the skirt. I trimmed the skirt down later:

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Also, please excuse the slobby phone photos. At the time, I didn’t think I’d be showing these to anyone but my mom.

This was my first time working with lace. It was … interesting. I used the triple stretch stitch for the first time, since the lace had some mechanical stretch. For the hem at the neckline and armholes, I used an embroidery stitch on my basic Brother machine to create a sweet, scalloped edge around arms and neck. The lace was too flimsy to sew over, though. So I hand-sewed very narrow strips of organza on the neckline and armholes, which I had thread-traced. Then I sewed the embroidery stitches over the organza strips and trimmed the lace around the edges of the scallops, like so:

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For the skirt hem, I LEFT IT RAW. #idowhatiwant

FINISHING

The sash is just an organza-interlined strip of satin, closed with a hook and bar. I didn’t even tack it down to the waist — it didn’t need it.

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For the bustle, I used three hooks and eyes. The hooks were sewn into the waistband ribbon (and hidden under the sash); the eyes were sewn into the skirt back in places that would lift the skirt right above the floor. This worked … ok. It wasn’t perfect. The bustle started out with elegant drapes of fabric, then gradually turned into poofs that I had to wrangle back into elegant drapes. Still, it worked, and I was dancing too hard to notice the mess-ups.

The picture below kind of shows the awkward poofs of fabric in the bustle.

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People were pretty excited to hoist us up in those chairs. Particularly the Catholics in my family. It was all new to them.

“BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ME?”

I don’t really feel qualified to give advice to people thinking of making their own dresses. But these were the keys to success in Sarah’s Great Wedding Dress Project of 2013-2014:

Try on dresses in stores before you start planning. That gives you a sense of what you want. If you don’t know what you want beforehand, you’ll get yourself in trouble. And let’s be real: The best-case scenario is that you find a lovely dress, and it fits great, and it costs $400, and you just buy it, no big deal. Sewing is a great option if you can’t find something you like, or if you can’t afford the dresses you like best.

Get educated. If you’re an intermediate or advanced seamstress, you’re probably fine. If you’re more of an advanced beginner, as I was, you’ll probably have to learn some new techniques. In addition to the obsessive Internet research I mentioned earlier, I took Susan Khalje’s Couture Dress class on Craftsy, and I checked out her book “Bridal Couture” from the local library. People are not joking when they say Susan Khalje knows what’s up. I learned so much, even though I didn’t make the dress that Susan makes in the class (the class price includes the pattern so that you can sew along). I didn’t even want to try to make a couture-quality dress, but what I did learn helped really improved the quality of the dress — and everything I’ve sewn since then, too.

Note: If the class’s price tag is a little rich for your blood, the book contains a lot of the same techniques, although a book is not quite as easy to understand as a video.

Make a muslin. No, seriously. Make two.

Leave plenty of time. I started doing research a little more than a year before the wedding. That left me enough time to research wedding dresses, try on wedding dresses, research dress patterns, argue with my sewing buddy about whether I should do it, obsessively read blog posts on the topic, research fabric choices, take that couture class online, argue with my mom about whether I should do it, modify the pattern, make a muslin, make a second muslin, convince my mom that I should do it and immediately start doubting myself, start constructing the damn thing, baste baste baste,  order extra fabric six weeks before the wedding after making a mistake, research bustling methods, improvise a bustle, and finish the last sewing steps a few days before the wedding even though the rest of it was done a month before.

Most importantly, starting early let me set aside the project for weeks at a time so that I could actually have a life. Serious, leave plenty of time. Who wants to be rushed?

Have a backup plan. Even if you’ve lowered your expectations and made a muslin and left yourself plenty of time, you might still put a dress together only to realize, “Oh my God, I hate this.” It could happen. Make life a little easier by having a Plan B that can be executed in a short timeframe — something like, “If that happens, I’ll just order that dress from Bhldn/J. Crew/Ann Taylor/Ruche, and it’ll be here in two weeks and it’ll be fine.”

Expect the unexpected, unless you’re a super-experienced seamstress who expects everything well in advance. Example: Me cutting one of the final skirt pieces upside down. Duhhhhhhh. This was for the super-simple A-line skirt for the silk underlay, and I had to reorder a length of fabric and hope that Mood would ship it in time. I managed the fairly complicated lace overlay with no problem, of course.

Another example: The delightful catch-stitched hem on the silk underlay did not, as it turns out, get along well with the tiny metal appliques on the back of my shoes. On the walk to the church, the thread on the skirt’s hem caught in my shoe and wouldn’t come loose, even after the thread had broken. Luckily, one of my bridesmaids was a sewing buddy and had her sewing kit at the ready. Before the ceremony, she safety-pinned the hem up, and we covered the shoes’ metal appliques with masking tape. Yes, that’s right. I spent the time to carefully blind-stitch the hem of the dress, but it was safety-pinned for almost the entirety of my wedding day. Ha!

Stop nitpicking. When I look at my wedding pictures, you know what I see?  An armhole that gapes in the back, and a hem that kept streeeeetching because it was cut on the bias and because that lightweight lace probably shouldn’t have been used for that heavy skirt anyway. You know what everybody else saw? “Wow, a dress!”

Good luck. Hit me with any questions.

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22 thoughts on “the one-time-only dress

  1. Wow, you look stunning! Your dress is gorgeous. I love the lace, its so pretty and delicate (and I really love that it isn’t floral!). I’ll definitely look into making my own dress when I get married, so I’ll keep your tips in mind 🙂

  2. Amazing and despite no intentions to make a wedding dress (mostly because I’m already married. Mostly!) it’s great to read through. As you say you see the imperfections but I think it’s amazing and you’re amazing in it. Lovely lovely work!

  3. Awesome work! I recently made my wedding dress and shared my muslin process on my blog because I also couldn’t find many other people blogging about making a wedding dress. I should have my proper photos back in mere days. You’ve inspired me to write a detailed post about the construction so others can get something out of it.
    I hope you’re still basking in the glow of making it!

  4. Thank you for blogging about this because I am going through the same thing. I’ve been sitting on my muslin for like 5 months now, and I am a little freaked out about cutting into the silk…maybe this weekend I’ll finally do it.

  5. Pingback: me-mades in the wild (year-end roundup) | root branch bole

  6. Amazing! I too thought of making my own wedding dress. I searched and searched for good information and patterns and all I got in return was stress. I ultimately bought mine. Which I’m glad I did, it was perfect and my sewing skill level wasn’t cut out for the challenge. Your’s came out beautifully!

  7. Pingback: Inspiration | O.T.B.

  8. Jenny from OTB here. I’ve been thinking about my mad wedding dress project, and I think I’m going to approach it like I would a project in the lab. If I make enough lists and check off what I’ve done, and what is where, as I go, hopefully I’ll keep track of the whole shebang, because I’m sure as hell that my brain will not cope with this by itself! Angling for Susan Khalje for a birthday present I think, too… Anyway just wanted to say hello over here rather than sneaking in, linking to you, and sneaking back…!!

    • Hello, hello! I think a scientific strategy is a great idea. And I definitely recommend the Khalje course; it was really great for all the rest of my sewing, too. Good luck and remember to have fun!

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  10. Wow, thanks for sharing! This is amazing. I wish I would have seen this post before making my prom dress a few years ago, it would have been so helpful. Great work 🙂

  11. Your dress turned out absolutely beautiful! I got engaged this fall and have been toying with the idea of making my own dress. As you also suggested, I went to try on dresses in a store and hated what I thought I loved… and loved what I thought I’d hate! I’m glad I didn’t start sewing my own yet 😉 Your dress is very inspirational–thanks for all of the details and insight in this post!

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