Making your own wedding dress

There were lots of good reasons for me to make my own wedding dress. I guess the main one was “I’ll be mad/sad if I don’t at least try” which sounds stupid but sums it all up. Now I’m mad/sad that I don’t have any photos where I’m not holding my bouquet like a shield. The bodice actually did sit flat, I didn’t need to disguise it. Contrary to the next picture.

This was the first garment I’d sewed in about four years, I think. Looking back I’m surprised that I didn’t actually stop to think about that, but I guess that’s actually me down to a tee. The flip side was, if it worked out then I’d have exactly the dress I wanted, without spending a fortune.

How to choose your pattern:

Do: look past the colours they use, and outside of the ‘events’ and ‘bridal wear’ sections in the pattern books

Burda 7569 looked pretty awful on the pattern envelope (sorry, Burda people) but totally worked with a petticoat. This was in the normal dresses section. Because we all wear satin, every day.

Do: be prepared to tweak it

I changed the neckline slightly and also chopped miles off the hemline. I’m 5’6” and this would have hit three-quarters of the way down my calves at literally the most unflattering possible point. I would have looked like an ambulatory iceberg. And obviously I ditched the ribbon doo-dad.

Do: look at all the pattern manufacturers

I’ve never actually made up any Burda patterns before, I think I was scarred by memories of Home Economics and my teacher battering on about how they didn’t have seam allowance included and how that made them almost impossible. Firstly, that’s crap and now they do have all allowances included. Plus (and I really liked this) they number corresponding joins and points accordingly on different pattern pieces ie the tailor’s tack mark on the bodice and the mark on the skirt to which it should be aligned are both called 4, or whatever. Join 1 to 1, 2 to 2 etc. That’s really simple, and it’s helpful*.

Don’t: do a cut and shut

Deciding ‘that Vogue pattern neckline is perfect, now I just need to slap it on the fishtail from that Simplicity evening dress’ is probably going to be more trouble than it’s worth. If you’re accomplished enough to do that then you could probably draft your own pattern from scratch. If not, stay well away.

Don’t: pick an incompatible pattern and fabric

If you see yourself in a long column dress, then a velvet or heavy satin could just pull the whole thing down and show every curve of your silhouette (which might be fabulously flattering, otherwise bring on the Spanx). Or a full fairytale cloud skirt may require lots of light tulle for the shape and then be unable to support that beaded lace overskirt you’ve seen in your dreams. If the pattern is a deal-breaker, commit to it and take it with you when fabric shopping. Discuss your options with the assistant at the fabric shop (always knowledgeable, often makers themselves). Don’t be afraid to browse at specialist shops and ask questions, even if you don’t end purchasing there.

How to choose your fabric:

In the end, I went for a synthetic satin from John Lewis and it worked out about £65 for everything including the pattern, threads and zip (I think the red bodice lining may have come later and been another £10).

Why not real satin? Well, I wanted splurge on having someone come to do my hair and make up on the day instead (no-brainer in my case and it was definitely the best decision for me). Also, I felt that this fabric draped really well and I really like the colour. Being very very honest, how often am I going to wear my wedding dress again? My options are to dye it (possibly risky with synthetic fabric), embellish it or consign it to the dressing-up box if this baby is a daughter. For the sake of £65, I’m fine with that.

Do: align your budget with your ability

When you are making your own dress, in case things don’t go entirely smoothly, or if you’re like me (bit rusty at sewing, fluctuating size, kind of making it up as I went along) you need to be relatively confident when playing with hundreds of pounds-worth of fabric. So maybe not the silk at £120 a metre (“Yes, you’ll need five metres” “Gulp”).

That’s not to say that if I’d had more cash to play with I would necessarily have indulged in different fabrics or lace. I nearly bought some amazing lace when fabric shopping but it would have meant a different shape of dress entirely and in the end, I’m glad I found my pattern first and not the other way around. It also would have been in excess of £200 just for the lace, with the whole fabric budget about £400, and once you get into that territory I could have found a nice off-the-peg dress.

Do: pick a colour that suits you, whether it’s strictly traditional or not

Was so tempted to have a red dress. (Registry office wedding so no startling the vicar issues). In the end I went with what is optimistically called Oyster, and incorporated red into the details and accessories which was a good compromise. Hint: white is really really hard to wear. My bodice was lined in red, which nobody really saw but me but I was happy with it.

Do: buy more material than the pattern calls for

Add at least an extra half metre to the pattern allowances. That should allow for last minute screw-ups and especially tweaks to very tailored sections – in case you need to cut the back bodice panels again because you forgot to add the seam allowances to your alterations, like (cough) someone I know… you’ll probably be able to use the surplus for accessories etc.

If you don’t buy extra, be aware that you have little or no margin for error so be extra paranoid about ‘measure twice, cut once’; and that you’re unlikely to be able to buy the same fabric again. Unlike yarn, it doesn’t have colour shades and dye lots so the only way to ensure it will match exactly is to get it all from the same bolt at the same time.

Do: Have the material cleaned before you start

Whether by a specialist dry-cleaners for expensive stuff, or by chucking it in your washing machine if it allows, do it once to get any production residues out and minimize shrinkage during future cleaning.

When you’re making it:

Picture 1: relatively unchanged front

Picture 2: many sizes’ difference compared to the original back

Do: make a muslin

I also spent about £16 on a couple of metres of double-width sheeting and for the first time ever, cut a muslin. Because I’m way above the standard C cup to which most patterns are cut, I ended up with a very curious garment at this stage. This was also before I really got on the wedding diet in earnest. I cut the biggest size on the pattern.

To accommodate my chest, I ended up keeping that size 20 front to the dress.  The back worked out about a size 8 but somehow the underarms seams were exactly under my armpits which I still can’t quite figure out. Fortunately my pattern had a long zip all the way down the rear to below my hipline. I simply waited til I was near the end of the diet, pulled in the back to where it needed to be and did all the final alterations along the zip as if it was just a centre-back seam. The petticoat filled out the skirt shape too.

Once I was happy with the fit, had drawn all over it with Sharpies and knew it was almost right, I transferred the changes to the paper pattern and cut the actual fabric. [the red line in the photo above is where I needed to alter the fabric to for it to fit me]

Do: remember that commercial pattern sizing is not the same as clothes sizing

Just because you’re generally a size 12 in shops, don’t just cut out a size 12 from the pattern and go for it. Get a friend to measure you accurately and work out which pattern size your hips, waist, bust etc correspond to. Remember that back length can also be important depending on the pattern (and whether you’re short waisted or have a long torso!)

Do: factor in diets, underwear and seam allowances

I lost quite a bit of weight in relevant places hence needing to pull and tug the dress into a quite radically different size by the end. So I waited as long as I could (about 2-3 weeks before the wedding) before touching the actual fabric for the dress.

I ended up changing the underwear I was going to wear after that, which is what you’re *not* supposed to do, but the new bra was actually much more flattering. But don’t do that, get your underwear ready for when you’re going to cut your fabric.

If you do make alterations, when you pin the muslin exactly to you, make sure you add on a seam allowance to the actual fabric before you cut it. I forgot on the back bodice panels and had to recut them but luckily had the spare fabric to do it. Ironically I then lost weight and realised the ‘mistake’ pieces would have been perfect.

I opted to buy a petticoat rather than make one myself. Chosen from a website, it was a custom job and was about 75% right. The colour was perfect. But…

It was also both heavier than I expected which meant that it dragged down further than intended in a lot of photos, and scratchier. The woman I bought it from rhapsodised about how soft the fabric she used was – actually the tulle was attached to a band of cheap acetate lining on the top which had the potential to be a bit sweaty. She also used the most rubbish elastic in the waistband, thin knicker elastic that wasn’t really up to holding that weight of fabric and I did have terrors about it all ending up around my ankles at some point. I could have bought one from a local burlesque shop that would probably have been just as suitable and substantially less expensive.

It was longer than I expected and by the time it arrived, I was too braindead to face raising the waistband and replacing the elastic, especially given that I finished hemming the dress at 1am on the Friday morning with the wedding on Saturday. In hindsight, I wish I had.

Do: get help with the hem

I am pretty sure it was a bit wonky. It’s not something you can do yourself – measuring a consistent length from the bodice is fine if you’re a perfectly aligned human. I am certainly not.

In fact, enlist help with the whole thing. Not to necessarily hold your hand all the way through, but a friend who’ll help with measuring and marking alterations, as well as telling you not to panic, you’ll look great on the day, is invaluable.

Don’t: just use the muslin for sizing

Treat it as a practice run. When I got to the making up stage, I had a few questions about the pattern that would have been solved had I actually sewn the muslin fully rather than just using it for sizing and roughly seamed it.

Don’t: bother sewing the zip into the muslin.

You’ll only have to unpick it and life’s a bit short, frankly. You can do just as good a job by tacking it, then pulling it with pins and a helpful volunteer.

Don’t: use a muslin fabric that’s a different weight to your dress fabric

It can be a cheaper version but should be the same weight or you won’t be able to judge the drape and fall (if you have a local market, they can be great sources for fabric at £1-2 per metre).

Moral of the story?

It’s time consuming and if you’ve got a huge wedding to plan, it’s a pretty big responsibility to take on. Would I dressmake again, for a big occasion?

Hell, yes!

*My other favourite pet peeve? Why the hell don’t pattern manufacturers (particularly for multi-size patterns) mark somewhere on sheet where you can see it before you unfold the whole damn thing which pieces are on the particular sheet? It could be in the edge margin: “This sheet pieces 1, 3, 4 (8-12), 7 (10-14)” or whatever. Because we all know that once they’re unfolded, that tissue paper SWELLS like a pregnant woman’s ankles and is never going back in the envelope in the same way again.

The Enterprise, Holborn

You know how everyone thinks that their wedding* was the bestest party ever? Well, we’re no exception to that rule. Credit where it’s due, here are some of the people and suppliers who helped us along to that conclusion.

The Enterprise, Holborn.

It’s one of those places where people narrow their eyes and say ‘Oh – I think I know it’ – but often don’t as it’s a common name. The Enterprise is hidden away opposite Lamb’s Conduit St, at 38 Red Lion Street towards High Holborn.

We wanted a central London wedding and a pub venue for the reception. Ideally without any hire fee and somewhere that we could bring in our own food. A case of hen’s teeth, you might think.

Our fabulous baker friend remembered clients who’d had a strict budget which they spent on Waitrose canapés and wedding cupcakes in a pub that allowed you to bring your own food, and that’s how we found Diana and the Enterprise.

This woman is a saint. I’d like to think we were relatively chilled (because every bride does, even as others are queuing up to slap her silly) and that was largely down to Diana’s patience and organisational skills. Her default answer is “yes” and they literally could not have been more helpful. How many pubs would say

Why don’t we just put up the 75 metres of bunting? Much easier than your coming over. We’ll do it at midnight on Friday when we close, so it’s all ready for you on Saturday at 11:00am.

And the flowers too. We can do those. Would you like balloons? What about balloons? (no, no balloons)

Tea and coffee? Well either you can supply your own which we’ll use or we’ll get in whatever you want.

And yes, we can mix a cocktail on arrival with that specific ginger beer you want and the house Bloody Marys too.

Music? Live band? Great! Just bring an iPod or use or Spotify account for when they finish. What about the disco ball? (yes, definitely disco ball)

You can drop in stuff any time you like or get it delivered directly here.

Of course, your caterer can use anything in the kitchen and we’ll get the chef to come in on Saturday morning to make sure everything is ok.

If you want to pop back on Sunday we’ll have everything packed and ready for you to take away. Or we can keep it until after your honeymoon?

How about an extension until 1:00am? That’s free of charge, we’ll sort it out.

You want striped straws and Fentimans? Just send them over.

And on, and on. We didn’t have to pay anything for hire, just meet a bar spend which was rather lower than anywhere else that we looked at. We had the pub to ourselves for the day (and when one person did wander in off the streets opportunistically, it took the staff about seventeen seconds to clock him and move him on). The pub’s Victorian glory meant we had to do very little to dress it up – in fact we did nothing as it was all handled by the pub.

The Eating.

We were in the lucky position of being able to work with people we knew well for the food.

Sylvain from Undercover Kitchen toiled away in the kitchen for about twelve hours and pretty much used every cooking method available to him. I’ve known him for a while and knew that the presentation would be great but above all the flavours would be perfect. I hear that the quail scotch eggs and the fish and chips went down well (also did that classic thing of not actually managing to eat much at our own wedding, dammit). He made piles and piles of Ginger Pig bacon butties and London Rich sausage sandwiches. He was also game for doing two complete sets of food and even supplied the sugar syrup for the bride’s cocktail. Nothing was too much trouble.

Some issues ahead of the day meant we changed the plans from a small family lunch and evening party, to brunch and afternoon tea and late night shouty singing. Baked greats – not just goods, greats – came courtesy of Scott from Kooky Bakes with American Breakfast Whoopie pies amongst other dazzlingly pretty cupcakery and also including the infamous Kooky Slice; and the amazing Arianna Halshaw of Bittersweet Bakers made all manner of treats. Particularly our favourite Rice Krispie Marshmallow ones, and flourless chocolate cookies, and cinnamon rolls…. the best damn cake ever.

It was three tiers of Guinness and Ginger with vanilla cream cheese icing and it was devastatingly tasty. To the point where I know she’s been bribed for the recipe and she very generously gave it to me too – it’s going to be our Christmas cake this year. It’s gloriously unctuous and moreish, a melting, rich gingerbready concoction. Available to order from her website…

My lovely mum brought us a great pressie, hand carried all the way from Ireland. A wheel of mature Mossfield cheese, made by my cousins from organic milk, fifteen minutes away from where I was brought up. “The Irish Cheese” is like a Gouda and also comes in other flavours like garlic and basil or herb and sundried tomato. I say: the mature wins every time. It’s available from Paxton & Whitfield here.

Steven at Union Hand Roasted Coffee dashed to get a kilo of Revelation into the post to me at 5:00pm on Thursday night after I totally forgot to order any in advance. By 4:00pm on the day of the wedding, given that the ceremony had started at 10:00, people really needed coffee.

We had a ball at our own wedding, not only because we were surrounded by a ton of people we love, but also because we had brilliant people helping us. If you’re considering a London wedding, or even further afield, can’t recommend them all highly enough. Oh, and our photographer Chris was awesome too.

Photos by Chris Osburn, Scott Ball and MiMi Aye.

*Blogging got a bit neglected with wedding planning then getting married and moving house twice, all in the same month. Normal service to resume…