Tuesday, 28 June 2016

What I learned and skills I gained from making Helen's wedding dress

I said I didn't want to have lots of posts with construction details of the wedding dress. My tutor, classmates and some others In person and via my blog have asked for more detail.  So I've decided to do a couple of posts saying what techniques I had to use, what challenges I had to master and what I learned. These will not be in tutorial form! I can highly recommend a few good books (you are aware that I'm a bookaholic) and of course, if you're lucky like me, you might have access to a real live tutor! I know that in this respect I am lucky. I find direct help easier than videos, books etc,  though they are all valuable. The books I can recommend come from the fitting area and also from general sewing. They include Vogue Sewing, Cole Czachor Professional Sewing Techniques for Designers, Joseph-Armstrong Patternmaking for Fashion Design - and others; this is not a comprehensive list.


One of the first things I (David) did was to modify a dressmaker's dummy to as close to Helen's sizes as I could, including extending length quite considerably. I have posted about that process previously. (here) I knew that I would have less access to Helen than optimum.

At first Missy, the dummy, was helpful. However, Helen decided to tone up for the wedding, not unreasonably for her big day. She lost a bit of weight (which I didn't think was possible as she was already so slim) but more significantly she started going to gym classes and workouts on a daily basis and her figure changed quite a bit becoming much more toned. This led to having to change the fitting of the toiles, of course - I expected that and this was one of the reasons why the dress could not be completed too soon (though admittedly there was never any danger of that!!).

The reason I mention it is that Missy no longer worked to help with fitting. I couldn't actually get my toiles onto her. Collapsible shoulders may have helped, I'm not sure. I could have removed padding from the hip and bum but the bust area is less adjustable. An earlier toile was on display at Sunderland Museum along with work from the other courses and that toile, which was too tight for Helen (I had overdone the taking in) could only fit on a half body. The final dress is on display at the college and does actually fit on a small mannequin - height not really being an issue.

I'm not sure at this stage what I do with Missy?  Strip her right back and repad probably? Any ideas? I don't know if Helen wants her - her flat is very small. There would have to be a great deal of padding for her ever to work for me!!

I made a LOT of  toiles! And of course pattern pieces. I can assure you that you don't want to see even photos of all of these. I do have photos of most stages (my disorganisation and using phone, camera and tablet on various occasions not to mention David using his, means that they are too scattered for comfort)

At first, Helen and I didn't really have our ideas in sync. Helen had a clear idea of what she wanted. I tried. I didn't like the result (I mean the style here) and didn't feel capable of pulling off an acceptable result (skill here). I kept coming up against my lack of skill and lack of experience. This led us down some blind ends. When Helen asked me to make her dress (no, I didn't offer!), she very sweetly said said she'd rather have a simple dress made by me than an expensive shop bought dress, which is why I agreed, but at first her ideas were far from simple. We regrouped and modified time and again. I love the end result - to me, it is so Helen. It is simple and elegant but as my tutor said, this is deceptive as it is more complex than it looks and there is nowhere to hide any problems.

The skirt front changed but otherwise skirt changes were for fit only, to make the skirt close fitting and flare out nicely at the bottom for the train. I thought I had the skirt cracked early on but it wasn't to be and it took a lot more work to get it right than I had anticipated, including adding additional fabric to get the drape correct as the fools were not lying correctly. Somehow the skirt had slipped at one of the fittings, I guess - to get the contour fitting where it should, I had to add to the waist though it had been right at one stage. Anyway, it worked out. Eventually!

The bodice had MANY changes. With illusion tulle, with stretch lace, with chantilly lace, with appliqued motifs, without any of these. On the bias,  on the straight grain. Princess seams, standard bust darts, French darts, multiple darts. With a back, backless, with shoulders, with straps etc. I made toiles for all of these. I needed to as I didn't have the experience to imagine or to communicate to Helen. She needed to see and to hear of the problems.
I mention this because
  • More experience would have meant fewer toiles
  • Ideally each toile would have been made in a fabric much closer to the real thing but that was too expensive. Helen would have been happier, earlier, as she was looking for very light weight and some of the toile fabrics were much heavier that the real thing and lay differently
  • I didn't get a chance to sew with the real fabrics until the real dress (I started with the lining. With the outside fabric, I started with the straps)
  • One advantage is that I got a lot of practice, earlier and so had a clear idea of the construction process and was sure the dress fitted (in the toile fabric at least!)
  • In the final dress, I was aware that fit might be different. Time had run out so the dress had to be made to allow final tweaks to fit in the last few days before the wedding. The toiles had a side zip but this process was too difficult in the real fabric which although lighter was also spongier and I felt it was too bulky with the three underlined darts. Therefore, at the last minute I changed to a back zip. This would allow easier changes to the sides but in the event weren't required. My tutor suggested stopping the zip at the waist but I so wish I had taken it all the way to the back V. It was too late to modify by this time. The top part was held together by two hooks and eyes but the zip would have been more effective. My tutor thinks I risked it straining at the waist; I would have included an additional zip stay as was the plan with the side zip.

This was an earlier full working toile on display at the local museum as part of our college work -  only one bust dart at this stage instead of the 3 parallel darts we finished with
These are the cardboard template pattern pieces for the toile, above. I didn't cut me out as you can just see the reverse of the toile  above my shoulder with at that stage 3 wide straps rather than the spaghetti straps we ended up with

Helen wanted soft, unstructured, fluid. She had to be dragged kicking and screaming (no, not literally!) to the idea of structure
Waist stay
Seam edge support
A layer of silk organza interlining to back in addition to underlining
She has a sandwashed silk dress which doesn't have any of these supports and couldn't see the need. By the end she was happy though and would when have accepted some side seam boning if I'd felt that essential,  though in the end I didn't.

Waist Stay
Over the course of my various toiles, I experimented with different waist stays. My final waist stay was lighter and narrower than some of the earlier ones to avoid it being seen through the close fitting dress.
Even though the dress was light and fluid, a waist stay was still required. I haven't put in any constructional details. The pattern pieces for one version of the waist stay is shown on the board above. This wasn't what I used in the end though.

I ‘auditioned’ a number of silk underlinings and with the help of my tutor choose a lightweight silk habotai. This kept the soft, fluid, unstructured feel that Helen wanted. It was a bear to sew with though!

There are a number of suggested ways to underline - I found it easiest to cut out the pieces the same size and attach to the main fabric. I found it too difficult to keep the grain when I tried larger interlining which then got cut back. This is choice, I guess.
I didn't sew down the middle to secure and then fold and trim as books suggest as I was afraid the silk would mark. I found that marks disappeared though so I could have done this.
I hand tacked the layers together using silk thread.
On the advice of my tutor, I sewed, by machine after hand tacking, just inside each of the dart legs - I had 3 darts on each side and I had been struggling a bit with these. This helped enormously, holding the layers properly together.
Insert image of darts here
I have joked that my outer fabric structured my underlining rather than the other way around! Half in fun, whole in earnest as they say!

Stay stitching
Although I was going to be using seam tape, I stay stitched all relevant edges as stretching was a big risk. I checked all the seams against the pattern.

Seam Edge Support
I used a fusible edging with a row of stitching - Vilene Formband T12 bias tape - as advised by my tutor.

I understitched what I could of the bagged lining.

V front  neck
My V front was difficult to create as the edges of the fabric were a bit too stiff and wanted to fold in the ‘wrong’ place! I think the fusible edging was too stiff, particularly with its row of stitching. Despite several practices I still find V necklines very difficult. I find the turning through of the lined V extremely scary. In one of my practices I cut too far;  in others I had to increase the snipping as I didn't cut far enough. I found trimming difficult too.
Verdict - a lot more practice required.

Hemming and weights
I used 50mm horsehair braid with the gathering thread along one edge. In my full working toile I had used a narrower braid 25 - 30mm which doesn't have that.
I didn't find using the braid difficult. I covered the braids edges with fabric to stop it abrading and remembered that as the braid is turned up,  being sewn on the right side of the fabric,  that it is the inside later that requires this.
I hand sewed curtain string weights into the hem, from side seam around the back and train to the other side seam.
What I did find difficult was the hand hemming - with such a very lightweight underlining, it was much trickier to ensure good stitching.
I made up penny weights for the side seams, enclosed in little bags - this was to ensure the side seams lay straight. Unfortunately I mislaid them and didn't have time to replace!  That is, I had more weights and more fabric,  but no time.

I've come to the end of what I wanted to say but realise I have said little or nothing of the fabrics. Before I started working with them, I got them all dry cleaned.

Main fabric
The main fabric was a lovely double crepe sandwashed silk from Berwick Silks.
I had to be careful to make sure I marked the sides so I didn't get them mixed up. There were differences but quite difficult to see - but I'm sure they would have been visible in the dress.
Also, I used a nap layout for the same reason. This used a lot more fabric, of course, due to the shape of my pieces. I'm not sure if it was 100% necessary.
I found the fabric okay to use, having been built up to it being very difficult. Also, it showed minimal fraying.
Conclusion - I really liked this fabric and would use it again. I don't have enough pieces left to create a vest top for Helen, which I had hoped to do. Helen and I need to discuss what will happen to the dress - there is a lot of fabric in that.

A lightweight silk habotai from Bedford Silks.
I sent off for their sample book and larger samples of the fabrics I was interested in. The samples were great, giving details including weight etc.
This fabric allowed the drape that Helen was looking for (originally I had planned to use silk organza but that wasn't drapey enough;  I did use an additional layer of silk organza on the rear wings)
I swear that my main fabric provided support for the underlining rather than vice versa! Together, they felt lovely and very lightweight.

In the UK,  I wasn't able to get ‘silk charmeuse’. I had wondered if this was a US term but my tutor had suggested it and says that there is a great loss of fabric knowledge in this country. Silk charmeuse had previously been available. Every time I searched online, crepe-back satin came up. It's similar but the construction process is slightly different.
I bought a very fine beautiful crepe-back satin silk, a sister to charmeuse, also from Bedford Silks.
Lovely fabric, felt luxurious but I found it difficult to work with. Helen said it felt fabulous next to the skin.
This fabric frayed like mad.
Right side; stitching less visible. 

Reverse side; still shows markings and hand tacking
In the sandwashed silk with habotai underlining, I had found darts difficult to sew and make them look good. My tutor suggested machine sewing along just inside the dart legs to hold the fabrics thereto properly and this helped enormously.
Overall dress
Yes, the dress was light, drapey, felt luxurious

Knowing what I know now, I'd do it again.
It was a great honour to be asked by Helen to make her dress - she put a great deal of faith in me. We were both naive (or perhaps she wouldn't have asked and I wouldn't have agreed) and that naivety led us down some blind alleys which were time consuming but I learned a lot and would go into it now with open eyes.
Yes, I'd do it differently, but that is what learning is about, isn't it?
Helen, I hope you have a wonderful marriage. I thought you looked beautiful. I'm a proud mother.


  1. Anne, you did a wonderful job - as you say, with a little bit more insight into what was involved, you may well not have said yes. But you did, and persevered against quite some obstacles until the end. The results speak for themselves. I too hope your daughter has a wonderful marriage. I am sure you have done a wonderful job as a mother in bringing her up to be able to have the abilities and emotional security to enable her marriage to do well.

    1. Thank you, Sarah Liz! I'm blushing at your remarks!

  2. You have the patience of a saint!! So many things going on in your life with the wedding your mum and the course work. The outcome is fabulous and you all looked amazing on the day. You need a holiday now K xXx

    1. Thank you, Karen. We thought we'd have a break in London but were just not ready for it so didn't make the most of our time there. London was not perhaps the best choice. We're looking at somewhere else, perhaps with some golf and whisky associated!


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