Introduction: Making a Wedding Dress (designing and Sewing)

Making a wedding dress is a creative marathon, full of fabric, sticks by pins, and lots of seamripping. Before starting, you should probably have some comfort with a sewing machine and desire to craft. The rest can all be learned through a lot of trial and error.

Total time to complete: Very hard to say. I went very slowly and methodically over 8 months and worked 2-15 hours a week on this (casually in the first 5 months, more in the final few). I’m sure it took well over 100 hours, though it was really my first big sewing project, and it took me a while to get the hang of things. Give yourself a lot of time!

Total cost: Maybe $200-300 of materials

Materials: 11 yards synthetic organza, 2 yards synthetic satin, a 50 yard bundle of horsehair braid with gathering thread, the old Japanese obi (the gold material-$10 from a flea market in Japan), basic cotton for bodice lining, many yards of basic 3-4mm cord for the lace up in the back, interfacing for waistband, encased boning, and a lot of scrap or cheap material to practice on

Supplies: sewing machine, iron, horsehair braid, bodice pattern, seam ripper, fabric shears, small scissor, fabric shears, ivory and clear thread (Gutermann brand is strong), needles, tape measure, yard stick, ruler, Fray Check, zipper, thimble, and pins

Photo Credit: Maven Portraits

Step 1: Try Some Professional Models On

I went to shopping for a dress, before deciding to make my dress. Though I felt grand, I couldn’t get over many of the price tags, and the thought that sewing sounded like a fun distraction. So I looked for what worked for my style and body, and snuck pictures of inside seams, ties, and layers while asking about the material things were.

Though I had dreamed of a Bohemian chic lace, I soon found that the poof skirt just fit me. Be prepared for surprises! This skirt actually had 2 more tiers I am holding out of the photo (five tiers was a bit much)

Step 2: Get a Pinterest Account to Brainstorm

I spent a lot of time on Pinterest, pinning away: formal gowns, necklines, beaded cap sleeves, kimono-inspired dresses, and colors. It’s wildly helpful to inspire and see some thoughts in action. I referenced it dozens of times throughout the whole process.

Step 3: Design and Draw It

I knew I couldn’t sew a white wedding dress as well as Vera Wang, and a liberating moment was when I realized I didn’t have to- I could make mine gold! There are no restrictions, as you can color, accent, shape, and embroider as you please. For the bodice, I used an old, golden obi (kimono wrap) I had bought in a Japanese flea market years ago. Sketches can let you visualize better, and helps when soliciting input from family and friends, who might have a hard time visualizing your ideas. This was revised multiple times in the process, so be flexible.

Step 4: Prepare Your Supplies

I started out with a bodice pattern, well worth the $14.99 to buy McCalls m6838 for the 3-layer bodice (outer, inner with boning, and lining) and the instructions. For the skirt, I decided it would be a circle skirt, and I used the various websites and youtube videos about this to help calculate the measurements. The circle skirt pattern can be made on tissue paper or directly on the fabric. See the full supplies list for others.

Luckily I found a some mom and pop shops who helped me out, answering all my questions about the fabrics and helping me match things. Thanks, local store! When I had tried the chain store, they didn’t have as much patience with me, and thought me crazy.

Step 5: Practice a Dress

Having never really sewed a bodice or circle skirt before, it was well worth my time to do some trials. I started with a muslin bodice to do multiple adjustments (from the McCall's pattern). In the end, I made a draft of crepe chiffon bodice and a satin ¾ circle skirt with lining (skirt pattern made from youtube videos and tissue paper), similar to my dress style but something I could wear again. Horsehair braid was used to hold the shape, and I learned a lot using it. For example, don’t have the horsehair braid end at the seam, instead use a continuous piece around the seam (as the skirt tends to want to fold at the seam anyways) and overlap to pieces by a few centimeters before cutting. Anyhow, the internet is full of websites and youtubes that explain this all very carefully (molding boning, sewing curves, adding lining, adding horsehair braid, etc), it just takes patience and practice.

Step 6: Make Your Bodice (multiple of Them!)

My pink practice strapless dress was my first bodice, and I could pin on some trim to try out different straps and such. I also tried just wrapping my fabric around and pinning on different sleeves. As my fabric was very stiff, I also made a mock halter bodice out of a similar fabric (another obi). Here, I found that the halter I imagined looked more like armor than an elegant dress! And while I hadn’t wanted a strapless dress, I finally realized it was what would be best for the material.

The iron is your best friend. Iron every seam, sometimes twice, for the clean, crisp look.

Inner bodice layer (holding the boning) and lining was made from 100% cotton (the store told me to do something breathable on the special day).

Particularly given the thick material I had, the back was very difficult, and I opted to lace it up tightly so I could hide the ties behind flaps. This first picture was in process- the flaps buckled and the ties were showing, so in the end I put in a strip of boning at the edge to give it structure and had to sew the ribbon of loops into the lining multiple times to get it right. It was a trial and error thing, and again a lot of looking things up on google.

Step 7: Making the Layered Skirts Up As I Went

To be honest, a beautiful and elegant dress could just have a ¼ circle skirt of heavy satin with either a liner or a ¼ circle organza on top (see photo). I decided to give organza layers a try, as I was really enjoying the experience. The slant on the layers occurred when I realized the fabric bolt wasn’t wide enough and I had to be creative. I actually bought a very cheapy bolt of decorative organza to play around with the layers first. Be careful if you are taller or wider waist (which affects circle skirt dimensions a lot), because I was running out of space on a 60” wide bolt for the height. If needed, you can alter or add more seams. See multiple planning pages where I had to re-learn trig a bit. In total, this dress had:

  1. ¼ circle skirt of peau de soie (matte) synthetic satin, floor-length (a few inches on one side I ran out of material, even though I’m quite short at 5’2”! So I sewed on a bit of my patterned satin for fun at the bottom, see photo)
  2. ¼ circle skirt of synthetic organza, floor-length skirt to cover the satin
  3. ½ circle skirt of organza, almost floor length on right-side and higher at left side (see “high-low” circle skirt patterns to get the idea). Of note, I had to creatively make it higher because the bolt wasn’t wide enough to make it all floor length!
  4. ¾ circle skirt of organza, with a creative slant (again)
  5. Full circle skirt on the top with a very creative/dramatic slant that was planned using the 60" bolt dimensions

For color, I chose ivory as it’s a little less harsh than the white color and does better in photos.

The very bottom layer of satin had an invisible zipper sewn into the back. The upper layers of organza I actually didn’t sew together completely, and where the zipper would have been, I just “pressed” the seams but never sewn the last bit. It’s a trick I saw looking at other multi-layer dresses. When the whole thing is zipped, the fake seams come together nicely and close (as all layers were joined at the waistband). I also used Fray Check on any raw edge to keep from unraveling.

To hold the layers together, I sewed them all to a satin strip with interfacing which became a 1” flat waistband. It fasted at the back with a large hook and eye (like on a pair of trousers) and I included a few ties to make sure it stayed. It was all hidden anyways beneath the longer bodice.

To get the floating wave of the hem, I tried a few different horsehair braids (a 1.5”, a 2” golden that looked more like urine, a stiff version) before I got it right with a 2” white with gathering thread. The horsehair braid was initially machine-sewn on before folded over itself (creating a ¼” seam opaque trim) and once flipped up and fitted with gathering thread, I handsewn it up (there are youtubes on this) to create the thicker “ribbon” edge. I did a lot of ironing, though be careful as too much heat seemed to stiffen the horsehair.

Step 8: Keep on Making Things, and Write About It All!

You must be creative and probably slightly crazy to be considering this. Though think of the money saved! So we made my husband’s bow tie and my clutch from leftover fabric, as well as a veil. Again, thanks youtube for all of this, which after the dress were all relatively easy. And why not, we did the bouquet as well (don’t forget the boutonnière like we did!).

I spent hours on hours googling and pouring over every account of people making their dresses as I was starting out the process (thank you everyone who contributed!). I hope this can be helpful for someone else : )

Step 9: Enjoy It All

Wedding planning is unnecessarily stressful (eg, seating charts) and I found the experience wonderfully meditative to just focus on the fabric folding in your hands, cutting out a pattern on the lines, and the slow hand stitching. I mostly relaxed to the rhythmic sound of my machine or when I sat seamripping, and when doing more complicated parts I didn’t have the bandwidth to stress about other things! Mistakes will happen, and that’s part of the ride. Be prepared to change plans if need be. There will be some flaws (see back of bodice never aligned perfectly), extra seams, a ton of seamripping- though it won't really matter to anyone (except you). I was very happy on the big day, which in the end, didn't have too much to do with the dress : )