Say No to the Dress
At the end of November last year I spend a day with one of my closest friend trying on wedding dresses. I browsed through several hundred dresses and tried on a few dozen. I visited 3 American style wedding shops that sell white wedding gowns. I wasn’t in love with the styles. I wanted something very simple; no train, no excess fabrics/puffiness, minimal bling. I did want sleeves anywhere from a cap to a 3/4 length and a soft tulle skirt. Seems like that was not the “in” style at the moment. At 5 ft tall and petite proportioned the fit was so far off that I looked like human laundry clothesline as they clipped me in (left pic). The pic on the right I look like I’m kneeling down or I’m 3′ 6″. One of the salesperson suggested I would have it “cut off at the hem.” Yes. She. Said. That.
Major surgery (on the dress, not on me!) could alter this dress to fit me better but at what cost? I know people who spent more on the alterations than the cost of the dress. I also visited one Chinese dress shop that would custom sew me a dress for $300-350 with 2-3 month lead time. They had me try on a sample dress in the style and fabric that I wanted and the fit was almost perfect. I don’t speak Chinese but my guess is that the ladies were discussing my fitting changes as they pinched the excess caused by my slopey shoulders. It was really a perfect dress if I was having a Vietnamese Tea Ceremony but I had decided to have an American style ceremony. Sure I would wear anything I wanted but decided to say “no” to the dress.
Sewing a Wedding Dress, How Hard Could it Be?
There are few sewing challenges I shy away from. In my mind nothing in sewing is permanent i.e. stitches can be undone, pieces can be recut and even wadders can be given a new life. So at Rimmon’s Black Friday sale I bought silk duchess satin, silk organza, french lace, silk charmeuse and tulle. I didn’t have a pattern yet so I bought reasonable yardage since some of the fabrics were quite pricey. In hindsight I should have over bought on the skirt fabrics because I eventually decided on a circle skirt which sucked up a lot of fabrics.
The Bodice: Boning Part
For the bodice I used Catina’s tutorial with significant fit and style modifications. Because I’m short and wanted a low back there was very little height/inner-structure above where the waistband will eventually go; especially in the back. To keep the structure of the dress, I had to have the inner-structure go down well below where the skirt would attach. I couldn’t go as long as I would have wanted because it started to ride up when I sat down. That would be unattractive and uncomfortable.
Inside the bodice I had a bra band like strap. I sewed in some batting bra cups. I used baby blue thread stitching for the inside boning.
Much, much later I added a guide for the bra band. Because of the low back I didn’t want the bra band to peak out. I used some cheesy Valentine’s day ribbon. I love the pop of red but now I’m concerned the red dye might transfer over time onto the dress.
The Bodice: Lace Overlay
The second part of the bodice is the lace overlay. I finally could have the 3/4 sleeve all the stores told me were difficult to find. 95%+ of the dresses they sold were strapless. The french silk I bought was leftovers from a Beverly Hills bridal designer that I can’t remember the name.
I’d like to think my dress could fetch the thousands of dollars that the designer dress was selling for. The fabric has an eyelash scallop along both selvedges. Coming into this I had no idea how difficult the lace would be. It didn’t occur to me what it would take to make a straight lace edge curved. I’ve sewn with lace a number of times on panties and bras but there was minimal shaping involved. To get the pieces to curve I had to cut out sections of the lace and restitch them. Yes, it was as painful as it sounds. This lace has a very delicate base fabric so there was little fabric for the stitches to hold onto. I think the professional solution is to have silk organza under the lace for support. This gave me a fake skin look like you see on figure skaters. It’s beautiful from the distance but close up I always thought it looked too fake.
I drafted the pattern pieces with a little drafting know-how and some on-the-fly fitting. On the bodice, you can see I originally planned on a v-neck. That was a complete disaster since there’s no structure with a low v-back and a v-front. After a few attempts I decided it was too much of an engineering feat to get this to work and went with a boat neck. I drafted the sleeve with one elbow dart. The sleeve cap needed a lot of work since the drafting had an almost symmetrical cap. I’m always surprised to see this on patterns because very few people are shaped this way.
Here’s a pictures of the sleeve cap post fitting. Looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. I love the scalloped edge at the hem.
This pictures has the pattern piece I had drafted and fitted underneath as a guide. You can see where I cut the lace and reshaped the edge. It’s pretty scary cutting that expensive french lace at first until I remember that nothing was permanent. Take note the lace pattern at the center front looks like 3 oval flowers.
Then I had to sew patches of lace fabric to fill in the voids. I put an orange piece of paper underneath so I could see the lace layers better.
Remember the lace pattern at the center front with the 3 oval flowers? If not, scroll back up. The way the scallops laid the center front scallop ended up too high when I wore it. It looked fine on the table. On me it was a boat neck with a mountain peak in the middle. I ended up cutting it off and sewing on a different portion of the lace. The picture on the left was the right shape but it thought it was too obviously stitched on so I had to cut that off too and then some. See how the oval flower in the middle is now sideways? Picture on the right is what I decided on. I had to cut away the center front almost 3″. See how there’s a large leaf motif in the front now? Oh the magic of lace piecing.
If you look closely you can see all the patches of lace. You can also see the minimal bling I wanted which isn’t in the vocabulary of the dress shops. More on that next.
I used clear beads, sequins and thread to embellish the lace overlay. The clear sparkles at the right angle. It’s subtle and much more beautiful in real life. The clear nylon thread was really hard on my eyes. You have to hold it just right for the light to hit it or else it invisible. I used my black beading felt mat on a lipped surface for my working surface. The lipped surface is a top of an IKEA bin lid. I’ve used this set-up for beading for years and it’s 95% effective in keeping your beads on the tray. It’s a good idea to take off anything on your hands that will get caught on the lace or the thread.
The beading is simple. I anchored the thread onto a more substantial part of the lace near the cording from the public side. I catch a sequin cup side up onto the needle and then a bead. Then I insert the needle back into the hole of the sequin. The bead keeps the thread from slipping through. Then I secure the thread and cut the tails short. I initially tried to jump from sequin to sequin underneath the fabric. This would have worked perfectly if I left enough slack in between. The lace has a slight stretch due to the holey-ness of the lace so you need more slack in the jumps. The upside of sewing them separately is that if the thread gets lose you only lose the one set of sequin and bead instead of the whole string of sequins. The downside is that the little thread tails can irritate the skin. It’s nylon and not particularly soft. If you have sensitive skin I would not recommend doing this.
The Skirt: Tulle Layer
For the skirt I wanted a soft, flowing, airy skirt like the 3′ 6″ me had tried on months ago. I had grabbed 9 yards of tulle from Rimmon’s during their sale. I drafted up a circle skirt which was pretty easy. Just takes some math and a lot of floor space.
The pic on the left I think was 1 full circle skirt in the front and 1 in the back. It’s a bit too flat for me. The final skirt (center pic) I ended up sewing 4 or 5 full circle skirts sewn together. The dress has been professionally cleaned and boxed so I can’t go and count the pieces. The pic on the right is the seaming of the tulle. Near my hand you can see the seam allowances. I ended up stitching several lines and trimmed as closely as I could to minimize it. Ideally I would have used 104″ wide tulle but I couldn’t find it in the right softness and color.
For the skirt lining I used 2 layers silk charmeuse: one for the layer that shows through the tulle and the other as the lining. I cut these as a-line skirts because I that was what fit on the 2 yards of fabric I bought. It worked out because there was less bulk. The problem I ran into with the charmeuse was it’s inherent sheerness in this light color. I could see the bodice boning that extended past the waistband layer under the charmeuse. It’s the same effect you get when you wear white bra under a white t-shirt, it was a color difference. So I had to add not 1, but 2 layers of cotton muslin in between. Now the boning bodice was put to the test with 4 layers of underskirt and a layer of tulle made of 4 circle skirts. It was something like 18 yards of fabric total. The waistband is a long gathered rectangle. Nothing much more to say about that.
The zipper is not in yet so I’m holding the dress together with my hands. It’s also not yet hemmed.
For the back I wanted something with interest. I feel like people spend a lot of time looking at my back during the wedding that it shouldn’t be boring. I had initially wanted a keyhole back. Again my height and proportions foils my plans. Instead of a long tear drop shape it looked more like a frumpy egg. I used blue tape to “try on” a tear drop, oval, circle and this football-like shape.
I ended up going with a slit with 3 buttons at the top. Simple and a little interesting.
The buttons I bought from International Silk and Woolens. I tried making my own satin buttons with a kit where you use your own fabric but they turned out a bit lumpy around the edges. These had lace already on them and in an ivory that matched the lace on the bodice. I used a thin corded elastic for the loops. The loops are decorative as they couldn’t hold the back in without the buttons sliding to the side of the loops. White hook and eyes underneath is what’s holding the back together. I have a soft clear elastic down the center back to prevent gaping.
50 Shades of White
I knew from house paints that there were so many shades of whites and off-whites. For some reason I thought they would just all go together as a whitish family. I didn’t pay too close attention to the shades of color and ended up paying for it. I have a lot of natural light in my sewing room. For night time I have a natural light color temperature bulbs. The whitish family of colors looked in harmony until I took the dress to sew at a friend’s house. Her lighting cast a bit more of a blue-ish color and the skirt looked way out of place. The ceremony was outdoors and the inside lighting had more of a yellow cast but I didn’t want to chance it. Finding a soft drapey tulle in the right shade of ivory was pretty challenging. A lot of the tulle I found in stores was very stiff and crunchy. I bought some at JoAnn’s and tried the suggestions online with the fabric softener and vinegar etc. Nothing helped soften the fabric enough. Then I bought dye thinking I could dye the skirt but after consulting with another sewing friend I was really worried about getting all that yardage a consistent color. Buying online was also tricky because people’s versions of “soft” was all over the board. I ended up finding the right fabric at International Silks and Woolens for something outrageous like $10/yard multiplied by 9 yards plus 3 more yards because I cut one piece terribly wrong. Don’t talk to the phone while cutting! The moral of this story is pay attention to your whites while you’re shopping for material.
I had 5 floor length layers that needed hemming and it was a big task. I had 2 friends help pin up the hem of all 4 layers with me teetering on a stack of cook books. I figured once they did this I could cut and sew the hems myself. I cut and hemmed the lining first since no one would tell how badly I botched it. Then I tackled the 2 cotton muslin layer. I serged those hems. Again no one would notice how uneven it was. Then I got to the charmeuse layer under the tulle and the pinned up layer was quite uneven. With all the extra fabrics pinned up none of the layers were laying straight. I had to repin the hem in about the dumbest way ever. I must have completely lost my mind by this point of the wedding planning. I was looking at the hem and mentally noting things like “5 inches to the right of the center front I need the hem 1/2″ higher”. Then I would take off the dress, repin it, and put it back on. A wedding dress is incredibly time consuming to get on and off; especially, by yourself. I did this about 3-4 times before I realized I could just pick up the hem repin it and drop it to the floor again. ::sigh:: The tulle layer was the diciest to hem. After all the time and cost to get this skirt made, I didn’t want to screw it up by cutting it too short. You can’t patch tulle so if it was too short I would have to do something tacky like sew lace to the edge or recut a whole new skirt.
What I ended up doing is pinning up the layers with my new and improved hemming method. The pins need to go straight down on tulle or the pins fall out. I thread traced the hem edge. This way I could lay it flat and even out the edge. I used rotary cutter to trim off the excess. It was a scary couple of minutes but I went slowly and took a lot of breathing breaks. There was 15 yards of hem on this layer!
In the end I was constantly moving or sitting behind a table cloth covered table so who would really notice an even hem. Here I am coming down the aisle with my parents. See you don’t even notice the hem.
I’m very happy about how the dress turned out. It’s exactly what I wanted and the fit is spot on. It was a fun puzzle to solve with lots of opportunities to use my noodle. My #1 advice to any sewist looking to tackle this type of wedding dress, start early. The first part is “start”. This is a general sewing advice. No matter how much you read and research your situation will be different from what you read. Your body is different. Your materials are different. Nothing can replace actually sewing and trying on the garment to figure out what needs to be adjusted. I muslined the bodice with the boning. I turned out to be a waste of time as my fabric behaved differently even though they had similar characteristics. On this close fitting of a garment a little difference in the fabric made a big difference in the fit. The pattern pieces took so little fabric I should have used the expensive fabric in the first place.
The second part is “early”. The finishing takes much longer than you ever think it would. The dress seemingly came together quickly. When I had the bodice and skirt sewn together I thought I was almost done. Wrong! Figuring out the zipper, buttons, sequins and hemming took probably 4 times longer. In the finishing you do a lot of work and it doesn’t seem like you’re making any progress. You will run into unexpected problems. This is Murphy’s Law. If you’re the bride sewing this, you’ll be eyeball deep with other wedding preparations that you don’t want to stress out about your dress. I kept saying to myself, I have time. I’ll do this and that now because they’re more time sensitive and kept delaying the dress because I could finish the dress the night before if I had to. I couldn’t hire a photographer or pick napkin colors the night before. I did finish my dress well ahead of my night-before deadline but I made it a priority. Congratulations on making it to the end of this long post. You’ll be reward with this video of the dress.
Special thanks for my beautiful group of sewing friends who encouraged and helped me along the way. I spot a few sewn dresses in this group!
And lastly, big hugs and kisses for my 2 favorite men who had to fend for themselves while I disappeared into the sew room.