How I made my own wedding dress

I’ve always loved the idea of making my own wedding dress.

Firstly, because I love a challenge. When I embarked on this project, I wasn’t a particularly experienced sewer. My sewing consisted of mainly shortening trousers (I’m 5 foot 2 inches) and mending holes. The clothing that I’d made from scratch was still from when I was six.

Secondly, wedding dresses are expensive. As most women do when they find themselves in a happy, stable relationship, I’d been browsing wedding dresses online for quite some time. I had found my perfect dress in the form of a beautiful Sassi Holford number, with a delicate lace bodice and flowing A-line dress. But after researching prices, I found out that it would cost me roughly £3000! This gave me an added incentive to make my own dress.

Thirdly, I could make the dress truly my own. I could pick and chose bits that I liked from different dresses and combine them into my own design. So after I’d made the decision to go ahead and do it (and everyone had told me I was crazy), where to begin?

Designing my dress

This bit is great, essentially it’s window shopping! I browsed tonnes of websites online and came up with bodice fronts, backs and skirts that I liked the look of.

This was great for inspiration. As I mentioned, there was one particular dress that I loved, and that was the Alexandra dress by Sassi Holford.

So now that I had an idea of what I wanted, I did a rough sketch of my dress. I had a bit of a wacky idea of having two layers to the dress so that the bottom half could be taken off later on in the reception for the first dance. I’m all about practicality and didn’t like the idea of being unable to boogie through the night in a dress that was too restrictive. After all, you’ve got to be able to enjoy your own wedding! So here’s what I sketched:

Not the best artist I know, but the idea was that the bottom two layers of the dress could be detached leaving a shorter skirt. However, I later abandoned this idea as it would spoil the clean A-line silhouette that I was aiming for. Plus it turned out to be quite a light dress and easy enough to move around in. So bring on the party!

Learning how to sew

Being an inexperienced sewer, I thought I’d best start by equipping myself with an arsenal of information. After trawling through many reviews, I bought two books: ‘Sew Many Dresses, Sew Little Time’ by Tanya Whelan and ‘The Sewing Book’ by Alison Smith (a newer edition has recently been released).

Tanya’s book I absolutely love. Once you have this book, you basically don’t need to ever buy another dress pattern again. She gives patterns for a variety of bodices, skirts, sleeves, and collars, and you can pick and chose the ones you like to combine into a customised dress.

Alison’s book is incredibly thorough and makes a fantastic resource to dip in and out of. The descriptions of different types of fabric was particularly useful for me. One part of the book takes you through how to make a strapless bodice, and this helped me plan out my bodice construction.

I first heard of Alison Smith through her Craftsy courses, which was the other thing I bought. These were:

She is such a good teacher, everything is done methodically and explained in great detail. They’re reasonably priced and I got them on sale (Craftsy regularly has sales on classes), and based on how much I saved by not buying a dress I felt I could afford to spend a bit more on improving my sewing skills. (If you’re interested in trying out a variety of classes, it may be worth signing up for Craftsy Unlimited which was recently introduced.) It really helped with giving me the confidence I needed to actually go ahead and start making my dress!

Fabric shopping

This gave me disproportionately more joy than it probably should have done. I love love love browsing fabrics and craft supplies. In fact, when a craft shop (Ultimate Craft in Camden) opened up that was on my walk to work, I ended up poking my head in practically every day.

The only real problem is that fabrics can be expensive. Particularly bridal fabrics like lace. Luckily I live in London where you can find pretty much anything if you look hard enough. After a bit of internet digging, I discovered Goldhawk Road.  What a true gem for sewers! Once you exit Goldhawk Road Underground Station and head East, there are about a dozen fabric and haberdashery shops lining both sides of the road, all packed to the rafters. And the best bit: they’re reasonably priced.

So this is the haul I came away with:

I was a bit frugal and didn’t come away with anything too extravagant. In total it cost me £111. Just in case, I bought significantly more material than I would need (there’s probably enough left over to make another dress). I bought:

  • Plain cotton in white
  • Polyester chiffon in ivory
  • Guipure-type lace in ivory

I say Guipure-type lace as the proper Guipure lace is very expensive at about £90 per metre. Mine was about £25 per metre. I think the difference is hand made versus machine made. Along with this I also had some cheap material (possibly muslin) at home.

Making a toile (or muslin)

The first thing I did was to make a pattern. I had the strapless bodice pattern from Tanya’s book which I traced onto pattern-making paper so that I wouldn’t have to cut up the original. I made a slight alteration to the neckline which I wanted to be a “gentle” sweetheart shape (not sure if there’s a correct term for this). Using the cheap cotton, I tested out the pattern by making a toile, also called a muslin. This is a test garment made of cheap fabric which you can use and try on to see if the pattern works for your body, so if any alterations need to be made you don’t end up destroying your actual fabric.

Seemed to fit pretty well! The skirt was a 3/4 circle skirt. I decided that this might be a bit too full so for the actual dress I ended up doing a half circle instead.

Making the bodice

The scary part: sewing the actual dress. Now that I had tested out the pattern pieces, I cut out the bodice pieces. To give it decent structure, I used four layers (from outside to inside): chiffon, white cotton, white cotton again (for attaching boning) and muslin. Alison Smith’s book goes into some detail on how to make a strapless bodice, and I loosely followed this method.

For the boning, I used Rigilene polyester boning. It consists of thin strands of plastic held together, but sometimes an individual strand can end up poking out and rub against the skin. To stop this from happening, I held the end of the boning over a lighter until the strands just started to melt and fuse together, a helpful hint from one of Alison’s Craftsy classes. Then I used a nail file just to smooth out any lumps at the end. Worked a treat, although careful not to burn it like I did initially.

After sewing the boning to the third layer, I tacked all four layers together by hand. Then it was time to sew the pieces together. I added a line of stay stitching to the neckline to hold it in shape. I also notched the seam allowances at the curve of the princess seams. At this stage the inside of the bodice looked like this:

and the outside:

Rouleau loops

I was struggling to decide what I wanted for fastening the back of the bodice. The easiest way seemed to be using a concealed zip. But my Mum persuaded me against this as she said it’s risky if the zip breaks. If a button pops off, it’s no big deal as there are other buttons holding the bodice securely in place. But a zip breaks, and all of a sudden the bride is center of attention for only two reasons! My father-in-law is a vicar and he actually saw this happen once. Luckily it was before the bride entered the church, and someone was able to sew her back into the dress.

So buttons or a lace-up back? I decided to go for the lace-up, as it can help clinch in the waist. Plus I wouldn’t have to worry if I gained or lost a few pounds before the big day as the dress would be adjustable. I’d seen Alison make rouleau loops in her Couture Finishing Techniques course that I mentioned earlier. It looked like fun so I thought I’d try it out. Here’s the result:

Attaching the lace

This was the trickiest bit. And this was also when I realised that I should have waited until the lace was on before sewing on the rouleau loops. Did not think this through.

I secured the strapless bodice to my dress form and hand tacked it in place. Because it had a bit of stretch to it, I made sure to stretch it over a bit as I didn’t want it to end up sagging, particularly around the neckline.

Now for fixing my previous mistake with the rouleau loops. Luckily, the lace was forgiving and I ended up snipping the lace up to the loop and fitting it through the gaps between the loops. I then straight stitched across all the bits of lace to hold them in place on the reverse side. Not ideal, but the end result looked pretty neat.

I needed to attach two other pieces of lace to cover each shoulder. But it would need to be done as seamlessly as possible so that it would look like just one piece of lace. After matching up the lace as best as possible, I pinned the pieces together. Now came the tricky bit. Using a tearaway fabric stabiliser underneath the lace, I used a small zigzag stitch to sew the pieces together, following the line of the lace and avoiding the holes. The stabiliser stops the lace from being pushed down into the bobbin compartment. And then I just carefully cut off the excess lace and ripped away the stabiliser.

So what to do about the neckline and sleeve holes? By this point I still hadn’t decided exactly what to do. I wanted something simple but elegant. The type of lace I was working with didn’t really lend itself to the type of unfinished edges neckline of some of the dresses I’d been browsing. But I wanted to finish off the edges as delicately as possible.

As the chiffon was semi-transparent, I decided to use it to make bias binding. This was pinned into position, front and back:

Once again using the tearaway stabiliser, I machine-sewed one edge of the bias binding. I then cut away the excess lace to give a smooth edge.

To finish it off, I hand-stitched the other edge of the bias binding. I was really pleased with the result:

At the back, the ends of the bias binding were tucked in and finished off by hand.

The finished bodice:

The skirt

In comparison, the skirt was very straight forward. I used the chiffon, backed with the white cotton.

After stay stitching the waist, I hung up the skirt for several days. This was because the weight of the fabric can make it stretch out over time, especially on the bias. And as you can see here, that’s what happened:

This is where it finally felt like a wedding dress, sewing the skirt to the bodice!

The back of the skirt was sewn together, with a gap at the top for getting the dress on and off. Small snaps at the top were used to close the gap. It wasn’t particularly well finished, but I would be adding a waist sash and tying a bow with it at the back which would cover it up anyway.

To get the length right, I had a friend help me pin up the dress once I was wearing the shoes. I loved the shoes so much I had to post a photo:

The inside cotton layer was pinned first. I decided to make the back of the dress slightly longer than the front so that it was just skimming the floor.

It was then finished with a narrow hem. The same was done to the chiffon layer, but 1.5cm longer.

Making the sash

The final component to the dress: a rouched waist sash. I wanted the sash to be noticeably different from the rest of the dress, so chose an ivory satin as it has a glossy look. The rouching was created by sewing perpendicular to the sash length using a long stitch length, and then pulling the end of the thread so that the fabric bunches up together.

I found that the rouching didn’t stay the way I wanted it to look, and kept moving about. A bit like a bed head look, it takes a bit of careful positioning to produce an “organised mess”. So to keep the folds in place, I pinned them in a random fashion, and ironed over them to make it stay.

Finishing touches

The finishing touches were to attach a lining to the bodice, and add a piece of material to cover the lace-up section at the back. I used the left over satin for this.

The other thing was a petticoat to bulk up the skirt. I took the lazy option for this and bought one off Amazon for just £15.99. Perhaps I’ll try and make one at some point.

And the end result…

Are you planning on making your wedding dress? Planning something ambitious for your next sewing project? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!