Thursday, 30 June 2016

Bridesmaids' Dresses

Joanne and Alison in the final bridesmaid dresses. These are sleeveless with armhole princess seams and a hem band which was a feature added at the last minute
Early Inspiration

My three daughters and I sat down and tried to work out what we wanted from a bridesmaid's dress for two of my daughters at the third’s, (Helen's) wedding. The bride’s fiancĂ©, Anthony, was also involved in the discussion and decisions.

All three were keen on some back interest, perhaps backless with a bow, as the front was going to be pretty plain.  Following discussion, we thought the dresses might have a lace overlay on the bodice and organza on the skirt and the sleeves would be lace; our first discussions had involved long sleeves.

At this stage, lace 3/4 length sleeves, ribbon trimming to lace bodice and a lace waist treatment;
the bows persisted but the neckline became less of a V shape

Lace bodice with V neck trimmed with ribbon.
After this, we tried boat neck before finalising shape and of course removing sleeves.

The dresses did not need to be identical. Originally we were not thinking of full circle skirts, more like a half circle or even A line perhaps. Gradually these ideas were modified.

The bridesmaids

Daughter 1, Alison, is of above average height about 5’9”. She is slim, with large breasts which caused her considerable distress when she was younger. Her bra size is UK32G +. (the exact size of course depends on the style). In common with most people with large breasts, she has larger shoulders and upper arms than she would like - she doesn't like the size of her arms and would prefer to hide them with a small sleeve like a cap sleeve or a three-quarter or long sleeve. She doesn't like tee shirt length sleeves as they are unflattering to her. She also feels she can look shapeless if the under bust area is not sufficiently tight. She likes a deep waistband/yoke. She discussed neck shapes and thought she'd like a boat neck, quite wide and fairly low. She has a pretty good idea of what suits her.

Daughter 2, Joanne, is slightly taller. Like her mother, she is pear-shaped and considers herself overweight as she won't let me make anything for her until she ‘slims down’. I'm quoting what she says - these aren't my thoughts. Her waist is her best asset and she likes to emphasise it with a narrower waistband; she doesn't suit a wide waistband. She has a large tattoo on her upper arm and she thought Helen would prefer her to cover this with a sleeve (Helen didn't mind either way) - also she wanted to keep it concealed from her grandmother.  I must say I told my mother about the tattoo before the wedding to minimise the issue - this was successful as a ploy as my mother very surprisingly didn't even mention the tattoo once at the wedding or since for that matter! Joanne also liked the idea of a wide boat neck and small cap sleeves.


Anthony and Helen wanted the dresses to be in the shade Cambridge Blue (I've discussed this choice in the waistcoat post). They searched for suitable fabric that would match the groom’s and ushers’ ties, and groom’s waistcoat (this fabric was bought at the same time). They found a good quality crepe-back satin in the right shade in Joel and Son, and bought this after telephoning me for reassurance about quantities (design not finalised at this point).The dresses are very close to the shade they were looking for - I don't believe they could have done any better. Having found this fabric in this shade, that dictaede the final fabric - we had looked at various silks etc without finding the right shade. So we now abandoned the idea of lace or of a silk organza overlay. 

Unfortunately Joel and Son doesn't sell thread or other notions and I had to buy them separately. I also had to buy underlining and lining materials.  I bought the underlining, a faux dupion silk, from Bombay Stores in Bradford - this fabric was in the perfect shade. I bought the lining after searching online and getting samples from Truro Fabrics - again, a pretty perfect shade, important in case any of the bagged lining peaked out despite understitching.  The fabric was going to be used satin side out and really didn't need additional lace - and we decided against an organza overlay to the skirt.

A bit more work on the design

Some internet searching led us to an inspiration photograph. This particular dress was sleeveless, had princess seams and a jewel neck and a low back with bows across. Our final design ended up rather more like that than our original inspiration.

This still had a lace bodice but the back ended up virtually the same shape

The cap sleeves were later dropped, otherwise the silhouette is similar to the final dress, though fabrics changed

Dress Design and Toiles

My first step for both girls was to make up a basic fitting toile, after getting a lot of measurements. I used the Sure Fit Designs system to draw up the bodices. Alison would require a very substantial FBA from a regular commercial pattern and Joanne would require a lesser one. The SFD kit allows cup size to be taken into account. The kit also uses bust point, bust apex to apex width, length of shoulder to apex and shoulder to waist etc as well as shoulder width. I paired these bodices with a simple circular skirt, did the toiles, using the same toile for both daughters as it happens (and we eventually decided to go with this type of skirt). I was making these up without my daughters being present as they live at a distance from me.

I quickly found that I really couldn't pair a wide low boat neck at the front with cap sleeves and no neck support at the back. Boy, I tried!  
An early toile;
the final neckline is both higher and narrower as bra straps are visible on the inside and the sleeve was falling off the shoulder

An early toile; the centre back panel is very narrow here and was widened significantly, although the final shape was very similar
The back consists of two side panels joining via a princes seam to centre panels which themselves don't meet so there is an area of waistband/yoke with no centre panel above it. There just wasn't enough support - the sleeves wanted to ride down the arms, just falling off the shoulder. Not a good look. I felt that the sleeves contributed to this.  I tried more than one type of cap sleeve with no luck.

I rebelled! I narrowed the neck width by widening the shoulder inwards towards the centre to provide additional support. So I ended up with more of a slightly lowered jewel neck. There were a few bodice toiles and I fitted these by mail and photos, and when I visited my daughters or vice versa. Joanne also had a visit to my sewing class where my tutor helped me adjust the fit. Later, Alison required very similar adjustments, which I did on my own. For both the shoulder had actually started much too wide, despite starting with accurate measurements and using those as instructed. As the same happened with the bodice I made for myself, I find I am less trusting of the kit than I was previously. Or do I not know how to measure shoulder width accurately?
The shoulder needed to be narrowed significantly.
I wanted to bring it in to cover the bra straps so both daughters could wear their normal bras
This photo on Joanne shows the rear princess seam and some of the earlier alterations required

During toile fitting, I adjusted the type of princess seams on a number of occasions - I tried shoulder, armhole and highest armhole. I wanted to find the most flattering fit but minimise the difficulty of sewing - Alison in particular had a very marked curve in the side front panel and I did find it difficult to sew, though reducing the seam width did help. I used 1cm seams.  Joanne's was easier to sew as the curve was less marked. I wanted to match the position of the seams on the two dresses, although the waistlines were different. The final dresses had armhole princess seams, as shown in the introductory photo of the final dresses at the wedding.
It was a shoulder princess seam at this stage.
I cut one of the sleeves off and later we agreed to have a sleeveless dress instead.
My changes to the front neckline and the shoulder helped stabilise. I followed a number of contouring instructions from Helen Joseph Armstrong's book to help the back side panels lie nicely without gaping - this included substantially reducing back width and taking out a wedge as well as slightly altering shoulder angle. I did this partly by flat pattern making but a live fitting appears always to be necessary!

By now, we had our design, not substantially different from the drawings above, other than fabrics to be used - and sleeveless. 

After Joanne's live fitting with my tutor, I made another toile and felt the fit was very satisfactory. Now it was time to think about making up her dress in the final fabric. I finalised the pattern pieces for the main dress with separate pattern pieces for the lining. I can't lay my hands on any photos of this stage, for some reason (lack of organisation again I'm afraid)

Too big at sides
had thought Alison’s dress would be at the same stage, but I was wrong. When she visited, I adjusted the toile and it seemed very satisfactory so I decided to go ahead with a final toile with all the adjustments made to the pattern - and the toile fit was awful!! Her weight had changed slightly but the fit changed dramatically! I pinned the changes on the toile as on the photos here and then tried to make further adjustments to the pattern pieces based on this and on photos, as by this time she was back home. I asked my tutor for help with this. I modified the pattern pieces. However, I hadn't tried out these changes by making a final toile and time was by now running out I felt (as I was far behind with the wedding dress)

Too big under bust and in waist
Too long and baggy in the back

Change of direction

By this time, just a few weeks away from the wedding, I realised, finally, that I just didn't have enough time to do these dresses justice and make the wedding dress. My tutors agreed to make up the dresses,  checking Alison's pattern first to make sure it was trued and do a final fit when the girls arrived a couple of days in advance of the wedding. They estimated the cost of this based on 10 hours per dress - I reckoned if they took 10 hours it would take me at least twice that although by this time I'd had plenty of practice making this dress up!  

The relief in handing over was great, although I felt somewhat panicky towards the end as my tutors clearly didn't feel any need to make up much in advance of the final fitting. They were booked into their workload a week ahead of the wedding. One of the tutors became ill leaving both dresses to one, who was then herself under a great deal of pressure, particularly as the final dresses appeared to fit much more closely than the toiles. That is, they were tight  - no,  the girls hadn’t gained weight, indeed Alison had lost a bit, so this was presumably the result of fabric change or maybe interpretation of pattern seam allowances, or in Alison's case the fact that the pattern changes hadn't been tried out.

Final Construction

Some adjustment was required for both girls - allowing more space around the waist in both cases. When they arrived for the Thursday morning fitting (Saturday wedding), Alison's dress was more or less done apart from the hem but Joanne's hadn't been made up. Alison's dress had to be altered. Joanne was able to try the bodice and skirt on separately. However, there was a significant problem with the zip. It seemed that there was insufficient girth and this was putting a great deal of strain on the zip. Joanne has a significant difference in girth between hips and waist. More adjustment before we were able to pick up the dresses late Friday afternoon.

Last Minute Design Change

The design changed even in those two days before the wedding!  As often happens, the hem of the circle skirts dropped unevenly - and of course, they hadn't been made for that long. When the hems were evened off, with the girls wearing them and the skirts marked from the floor to the shortest length and this distance marked all around, the skirts were too short, although we had been happy with the length of the toiles. The original inspiration photograph had a contrast band of organza at the bottom of the skirt and Rory suggested she could add a band, even reversing the satin to provide a greater contrast. There was just enough fabric. We all agreed that the band was necessary for length but felt we didn't want the satin reversed. I had originally decided against such a band as I felt it added too much complexity for my skill level. I'm glad the band was added as this is the part commented on most (Images I have are from the front, so no opportunity for people to comment on the back). Thank you for rescuing the dresses, Rory.

I had originally intended a horsehair braid hem but with the band, that wasn't necessary. As I didn't construct the dresses, I'm not aware if there were any other changes to my original working drawings and constructional instructions. We literally picked up the dresses on the eve of the wedding. After the wedding, I handed the dresses back to Rory for our display and won't get them back for a couple of weeks. So I haven't examined them - but I seem to have an awful lot of fabric left! 

Edited to add - I've just got the dresses back.  Now that I have them back, I'll show an image of the back of both dresses but not, unfortunately on the live models. Missy is somewhat smaller than either dress so the backs are rather gapey compared to how they were on the live models and I decided against steaming them so these are as they just came out my carrier bag! I'm afraid it's miserable weather, pouring rain and rather dark so this is the best I can do for photos today.  I'm going to leave this post and schedule it to post automatically in a couple of days - the weather is forecast as being even worse tomorrow. I plan to put them away and move on.

Back detail of Joanne's dress. on Missy

Back of Joanne's dress and front/side of Alison's

Although I didn't do the final sewing, I nevertheless feel a sense of achievement. Alison feels the same - she says it feels great that we all designed the dresses together, that I made the patterns to fit them perfectly, checking fit via the toiles; she loves having a well fitting dress. To my surprise, Alison says this is a dress she might wear again - I had thought of them as pretty much wear once only.

We held our collective breaths as we zipped Joanne into her dress on the wedding day but thankfully it held!

As we didn't get the dresses until the eve of the wedding, I don't have pictures of the girls in them at that stage; I had to leave Alison to pick up the dresses after a final try on and get to the church for the rehearsal as I had to leave to pick my mother up from the station. A big rush!  The wedding snaps I have so far don't show the reverse of the dresses. I can't do anything about that, I'm afraid. I do have a photo of the reverse of one of the dresses (they are not identical) as they hang at the college display. This unfortunately doesn't show how well they fitted.

An image from college showing my boards x3, my sketchbook, some of the cardboard pattern pieces, the two bridesmaid dresses, the waistcoat and the wedding dress sans veil and belt. That's the back of Alison's dress, front of Joanne's. I don't like the length of my dress, btw.

Would I do It Again?

I said earlier that I had made these dresses up many times at toile stage. Of course, I still have the personalised patterns and could consider making up a dress in a different fashion fabric for Alison (I don't think it's Joanne's style, somehow). I probably would alter the pattern to include the hem band although an alternative would be to make the skirt longer if fabric width allowed that. Then I would feel I could legitimately lay claim to having made the dress from start, making the pattern, to finish and only then could I put a review on PR of course. Yes, I'm disappointed that someone else made them up (although that's allowed and is standard practice for the design students - as my fellow students and I found to our amazement) but it was essential at the time as I had taken too much on;  also essential was buying my mother of the bride outfit rather than making the outfit I had planned.

Thank you, Rory, for making up the dresses for me - I appreciate it especially when there were so many other things going on at the time. Thank you, too, Dan for your help.

Yes, I'd do it again (even if slightly differently!)


  1. Having got the dresses to the stage where someone else made them up is an achievement in itself. The dresses look wonderful, and really didn't need lace bodices. They do look so much better on the wearers than dummies though - always the case.

    1. Thank you, Sarah Liz. I think the design without lace and sleeves worked better with the wedding dress's smooth lines.

  2. What an interesting tale, and one with a wonderful ending. The whole look and style, colour and swishiness of the dresses was entirely successful. I agree that the bands at the hem look great, and I love the back bows too. You should feel very proud indeed of your achievements Anne.

    1. Thank you, Kate. I/we do! I think a minor change to the back to make it less bridesmaidy (not sure if that's a word but it is now!) and this design is good to go for a lot of occasions.

  3. You certainly learned so much about pattern drafting, fitting, construction and fabrics. I'm sure there were stressful moments but the final result was worth it. Nice to know that you would do it all over again. Your daughters all looked lovely and are lucky to have such a persevering mom.


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