I handpainted my wedding dress last year, using a plain vintage dress as a blank canvas. Technically, this was an ultra simple project, and relatively inexpensive. The most important thing is to find the right materials for the fabric you're working with, and to experiment on some test pieces before diving in.
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Step 1: Find a Cheap Dress + Make It Fit
I went out looking for a canvas. I bought a blank off-white vintage dress at Burcu's Angels in Vancouver BC. It began as a strange satin thing: high-necked, high-backed, too big, with huge wide shoulders. A mystifying slit ran all the way up from the floor to my navel. But it had been beautifully hand-sewn from long single strips of fabric, and had so much excess fabric that it was perfect for cutting down. Not unlike a paper doll's dress.
Doing all the fitting took more skill than I have, so I took it to my friend Miss Bombshell in Oakland. She cut away the excess fabric, sewed up the centre, gave it a V-back, and put in some boning. I found some matching silk in a fabric store bargain bin, and she sewed that into a sash.
(Remaking dresses is challenging, but here are a couple of Instructables that involved some impressive surgery: Custom Wedding Dress and Upcycled Dream Wedding Dress & Accessories.)
Step 2: Assemble Fabric Paints + Markers
It's essential to figure out what kind of fabric you're working with. Many formal dresses are made with a synthetic satin-weave fabric, which is what my dress was made out of. It's neither as delicate nor as expensive as silk. To confirm what kind of fabric you have, do a burn test on a tiny piece of it.
I bought a series of blue textile paints and pens, on the expert recommendation of amazing textile artist Carol Larson. I picked these up at Dharma Trading; you can order from them online. I used Lumiere & Neopaque paint (~$3.50/bottle), an ideal paint for synthetics, and FabricMate Permanent Superfine Fabric Markers (~$1.65 each).
I used regular paintbrushes and old ceramic dishes as a palette. Ideally, you have some fabric that you can use as a test, as I did in this photo.
Step 3: Sketch Out the Drawing
Knowing where and what you're going to paint can take out some of the fear of destroying a perfectly good white dress. I started scribbling on the dress with a pale grey marker, and then followed that with the blue. (The pale grey doesn't show up in the photo.)
I laid the dress out on an ironing board that I had covered in plastic, since the paint will leak through and stain whatever's below it.
Step 4: Deep Breath; Then Paint
I mixed the paint with water in some areas to get a watercolour effect. The sash was made from silk, so the paint reacted slightly differently to it than it did on the synthetic: it's a natural fibre and absorbs water more - you can see this in the second image. Water also darkens the silk, so you don't know the exact outcome until everything dries. The synthetic resisted water, so it was easier to guess the final outcome. The markers worked best on dry fabric, and blended great with the paint.
I was running behind, so I took the markers along with me to the wedding and worked on it on the floor the day before. Finished it up by ironing everything, so that the paint was set and wouldn't run if it got wet. It's a good idea to cover the fabric with some cotton and then use the iron, rather than having the iron placed directly on the painted fabric.
Step 5: Wear It
There was enough silk that my guy was able to make a matching tie, so he stayed up late learning how to sew one for himself.
Our tiny outdoor wedding took place at Channel Rock, on a remote island archipelago in British Columbia. My dad paddled me to the ceremony by canoe. Rain threatened. We scrambled around on rocks and played music until 2 in the morning. That dress held up just fine.
(Thanks to Kris Krüg for the wedding photos. He shot a whole set.)