How I made my own wedding dress (and did not turn it into a disaster)
As I skipped through my Forties, little hope did I have to marry at some point in my life. Well… “It always comes as a surprise” is a rather fitting tune from the Pet Shop Boys “Bilingual” Album and my new hymn on all thing love and romance. One Saturday night when I came home from an on-call and just wanted my dinner in bed followed by a few pages of a novel, I found a box of macaroons and my boyfriend holding a ring box in bed, too. A few months later, we married in a small ceremony. And I made my wedding dress. Having sewn rather basic clothes and curtains before, I am still surprised it did not turn into a disaster!
Which dress for a small informal wedding?
A few months later, we had a venue, chapel, flowers, rings… everything but a dress.
My husband cautiously enquired whether he could wear the suit he bought for his dad’s wedding. Then I seriously started to think about a dress and whether I should sew my own wedding dress. Our wedding would be an intimate (registry office) ceremony in a historical hospital chapel. Then we’d have dinner and dancing. All in early March, when you can expect rather temperamental weather in Germany.
Dresses I did not want
I knew what I didn’t want. Nothing strapless, nothing that I cannot move in, nothing heavy. Not made with slave labour. Nothing too expensive either. Nothing too princessy. I would have loved to say I made my wedding dress, but I was somewhat worried it might look awful. I can sew pretty neatly, but my tailoring skills were nonexistent.
We were discussing the details of a religious blessing at some stage but that would probably take ages – I mean, I cannot just approach a priest and say “Hey, very nontraditional Catholic and atheist here, we’d really like a religious blessing, but the husband does not want too much mentioning of God, okay” and they’d probably tell us to get lost.
So we agreed on getting the paperwork done in a nice setting and invite our nearest and dearest for a good knees-up first. Because it was “just going to be a registry office wedding”, I boldly ordered the Ghost London Salma Dress from John Lewis. If its good enough for a Bond Girl, it’ll look great in someone double her size for sure. I ordered it in green because its something a bit different, it was on sale, and I could easily wear it again to the opera. The biggest size sat extremely snugly on me, but every bride will lose weight, right? Sadly, not me.
We bought a house, and as a result, I worked a lot more and sat down to nice calorie-laden dinners. As months went by, I wasn’t so sure about the dress any more, convinced it would not fit properly and the green would look out of place.
When I looked for alternatives, I checked out the wide spectrum of the 50-Euro cheap ‘n nasty from the usual online auction and 2000 Euro gowns from ethical suppliers. Looking for the perfect vintage dress for under 500 Euro and in my size which is somewhat on the plus side was somewhat utopian. I had no illusion I might find anything in the “Used” category that wasn’t some undefinable cheap shiny fabric, a pouffy strapless number or a dress that looked stunning on whatever model but totally unrecognisable on an actual real life person.
When looking for something sensible in between, I found 90’s secondhand dresses in my size as well as new mid-length dresses costing about 600Euros. All for a dress I would wear just once ???
Then, in some equally crazy idea, I decided to make my own dress – I would buy fabric from a reputable supplier, and sew myself. And the slave-work free ethic certainly won over the “thousand stitches, thousand tears” old wifes tale that one should not make their own dress. A good friend who’s an expert sewist offered to make it years ago, but as she herself was in a bit of a tiff four weeks before the wedding making her own party dress, I would not bother her.
About six weeks before the wedding date, I piled up all Burdastyle issues I had collected over the years and picked out the spring and Christmas issues which usually have wedding/party dress styles. For good measure, I ordered the Butterick pattern infamous Pippa Middleton bridesmaid dress – just to be safe.
Buying wedding dress material
I didn’t want to order online. Firstly, time was running a bit short and secondly, some fabrics look way different they they actually feel.
So I set off to the largest local fabric shop. In my case, this is Hueco in Berlin where I headed straight to the “premium” section. I bought a nice French embroidered lace lace and silk for the lining. As well as a more 1960’s vibe crepe-ey cotton/polyester for Plan B. For good measure some colourful Missoni wool which I turned into a shawl. I paid 200Euro for everything and headed back into town the next day because I had forgotten to buy thread, an invisible zipper and fresh needles. So far, so good – materials weren’t breaking the bank, but in retrospect I should have settled on a dress first, then bought only the fabric I needed.
I’m not the type to renew vows (once is enough) and when on earth will I be able to wear a white structured shift dress again? I will sew something with it eventually, but in retrospect, it was somewhat unnecessary except that I felt safer in the knowledge should anything go wrong with Plan A, I would have another dress and material to fall back on.
Here is a detail of the lace. I did not do a flame test but I think it is some cotton/polyester mix. It is an embroidered French lace with rather thick embroidered flowers on a delicate tulle netting. In a way, I wish the pattern had been larger, but even in Berlins largest fabric shop, there is only so much cream lace in my price range. The fabric dis somewhat scare me – it was okay to cut, but how on earth would I sew the delicate tulle without damaging it?
My choice of dress
When time was really pushing on, I decided on a Burdastyle 3/2015 midlength dress – easy to moderate, long-ish but no too long for dancing, relatively simple. It is lined with Raglan sleeves and a flattering V-neck. There are cascading side seams. A bit unusual, not too revealing (March, remember), and graded as “easy to moderate”. It got a lot of flak on sewing forums, especially for the cut of the skirt. “Shapeless”, “weird corners” were just some of the nicer ones.
The actual picture in the magazine looked good to me. I mean, Burdastyle are no styling geniuses, and when something is off, you often see it in the photos already. This one looked alright. Except I am somewhat wider than that woman. I also had a Plan B shift dress pattern. This is what I bought the other fabric for. But in the end, decided it was a bit too short and casual.
Making my wedding dress
I made the dress over two weekends.
Using a pattern from a magazine pattern sheet, I copied the pattern pieces using a Burda tracing set. The transparent foil it comes with is super clear but also light and sometimes a bit too flimsy. I’ll switch to my grandmothers method of tracing feel through pattern onto packing paper once the foil is finished.
The hardest part was cutting into the actual (pricey) lace. I double checked that I had pinned the pattern pieces correctly twice. Oh, and did I mention that in order to save money, I had only bought what I thought I absolutely needed, so I had to patch up a bit of fabric on the skirt?
I finally dug my scissors into the fabric, starting with the silk lining. Then I pinned the lining together, dug up my old Husqvarna Viking 2000 and happily sutured the side seams of the silk lining. So far, so beautiful. It looked good and then I pinned the pieces onto me, thy looked alright – to tightening or squeezing anywhere, so I took a deep breath and cut out the lace.
I basted the side seams of the lace and then fell into bed, exhausted.
Tip: Make a toile from some old sheet to check fitting. If it fits terribly, you can make adjustments/ditch the pattern without wasting precious fabric.
A week later I was determined to finish the dress into a wearable state so that I could be sure it fits and tidy up loose ends at my leisure.
The lining will be very visible under the lace – if you use any lace for the actual dress, make sure the lining is flawless. In some of my photos it looks like there is a seam running down the middle of the front, but there isn’t. One of the strange quirks of the not-so-perfect but much loved dress.
As usual, I had two very helpful cats overseeing the whole process.
Very carefully, I then sewed the shoulder seams of both dress and lining and constructed the sleeves. I had to be quite careful as I used the scalloped edges of the lace as a bottom seam, so there would be now seaming of any wonky bits on the lace dress, whereas the silk lining would be seamed.
In the end, I was quite happy with the finished result. Altogether this dress cost me about 220 Euro, factoring in the “Plan B” fabric purchase. I sewed it over roughly four days/ two weekends. Because of time constraints, I did not do much to neaten any seams. I simply zigzagged the silk lining. The tulle lace did not require any seaming, so I simply cut it short.
I made my wedding dress – and here it is, finished!
There are many ways I could have improved this dress. However, what really mattered to me was that it was ethically made, fitted, comfortable and did not look too bad. I finished it to a wearable state with six days to spare. Of course I didn’t use a planner, and did my last clinic two days before the wedding. I was glad to have put in a little buffer between finishing the dress and the wedding.
The wedding was informal, with a lot of singing and dancing right from the beginning. I probably should have tried to shape that dress better under the bust. Just looks rather shapeless here in my best Jarvis Cocker impression but hey, it was very comfortable indeed.
Also, pattern matching on sleeves was a fail. Did any one notice? Probably just me. Everyone else had too much of a good time. And it’ll be only me scrutinizing these wedding pictures thinking “hmph, that sleeve should have matched better and the side bust darts positioned higher”.
The Small Print
I have paid for everything presented here using my personal funds. Wedding pictures were taken by our wedding photographer Henry Mundt or my friends @melusinearashi and Joe. This post does not contain affiliate links.