A couple of years ago, after they got engaged, my brother’s fiancée asked me if I would be willing to make her wedding dress. As a rule, I don’t sew for others, but for this request I didn’t have to think long to say yes. One of the things which really helped, was that she also asked how long in advance I would like to start, to which I replied ‘about a year’. That meant that fall 2020 became the starting point of this special project. As the wedding is now done, it’s time to finally share the process!
The first thing we did, was to go to a bridal store to try some things on. She had an image in her head (and pictures via pinterest) of roughly what she wanted: a tulle/lace skirt, lace bodice and sheer top with lace on it. However, she is also decidedly shorter than the average bridal model, and she wanted to see how certain dresses looked on her. I would really recommend everyone who wants to make their own wedding dress to also do this, you cannot try on a dress which is being made for you, and it can really help to get a feel for what you like. The only important thing to remember is that if you want exactly the dress you tried on, you should probably just get that. A dress made for you can incorporate the same elements, but will always be a little bit different in the end.
After this excursion, the dress she liked most on herself was this one below, by Modeca. So this was the rough inspiration we started with. The main things which I changed already in my initial design was to slightly raise the dip in the front neckline, changing the back buttons to lacing (that’s more versatile size-wise) and removing the round lace on the train, as this would be very difficult to achieve with lace not created for this shape.
Next up was fabric shopping! In the end, we bought two types of tulle for the skirt, two types of lace, sheer fabric for the top, cotton for the base of the bodice and lining fabric for the skirt. In the rest of this post, I’ll take you with me on the base skirt construction in particular.
To make sure that a skirt has volume, there are several solutions. The first is layering. Historically, this is what petticoats do. The second is support structures, such as hoops. What happens mostly in current bridal fashion is a variant on layering which does not use separate skirts, but layers of ruffles attached to a base skirt. This helps to create more of an A-line shape where the top is still narrower, rather than the more bell-shaped version you see in historical silhouettes with many petticoats. In modern wear, this is typically done with very light fabrics, and in particular tulle.
For this skirt, I used two types of tulle. The first is the common, stiff tulle you can find cheaply in many colors. This has the advantage of being both stiff (less fabric creates more volume) and cheap (which is good, because you need a lot). However, it doesn’t look very luxurious. So on top, I used a softer, much nicer and finer bridal tulle. In total, the skirt has about 26m of tulle in it.
The base is a half circle of the stiff tulle. I temporarily attached this to a waistband elastic to be able to put it on the dummy and for fitting, and stitched some horizontal lines on it. The plan was that these would be the placement lines of rows of ruffles. Starting from the bottom, each row up would have an increasingly tightly gathered strip of ruffled tulle. In the end, I didn’t exactly follow my own stitch lines, but used them as a guide to stitch the ruffles on straight.
Then it was time for many, many, many strips of tulle. The strips were cut off, seamed together (with a narrow zigzag), a gathering stitch run through one end, gathered up, and pinned to the base skirt using stitch markers for knitting/crochet. These are basically non-sharp plastic safety pins, and perfect for a fabric which absolutely won’t hold pins. Then the whole thing was put under the machine, and stitched on.
As you can see, the monster slowly became bigger under my machine, and with the additional layers, you see that the skirt starts to stand out more. Although I planned the amount of layers and yardage per layer and length per layer and how much yardage I had in total, I did change this planning a few times throughout. Because maths. And also because I had never done this before, so I was going by eye on how big the skirt should become and how much fabric I had.
Somewhere half way through, I made the skirt lining. Made out of lining fabric (a little less than half a circle), this exists basically to make sure it feels nice against your legs. The stiff tulle isn’t very soft, and this makes it much more comfortable to wear. The hem on this is basically just a zig-zag, because it’s easier on a round edge, and you will never actually see this layer.
And then I went back to more layers. I stitched on a total of 5 layers of this stiff tulle, increasing how tightly gathered the strip was. As the base was a half circle, the skirt became narrower going to the top, so the area the strips covered did become smaller, but the ruffle-per-base cm ratio did increase a little bit every time.
The hard tulle stops a little while before the top of the skirt, because I wanted it to narrow out and not have too much of a bell shape. From this point, I added the soft tulle. The soft tulle was very wide (I believe 3m), so each layer has a fold at the top and basically has half the width as the length. I added one layer like this about 10cm below the waist, and then two more at the waistline. These layers aren’t gathered, but pleated as they would be more visible, and the pleats look nicer coming down from the bodice. I did knife pleats, with a box pleat center front, so the pleats all run towards the back.
The seam of the soft tulle is at the side. This means I had to cut a slit center back for the opening, but as the center back is also the middle part of the train, I didn’t want a seam coming down the whole length from there. To seam the soft tulle, I used a sheer nylon thread, and stitched down two edges on top of each-other by hand, for each of the six layers. You can see the seams if you look closely, but from a distance it’s completely invisible this way.
The final step was hemming! The train is basically formed by the half width (1,5cm) of the fabric falling down from the waist all the way at the back. Because the bride is fairly short, this creates a small train. To hem the skirt, I first cut all of the stiff tulle layers to the right length. Starting from the inner layer, and ensuring that each consecutive layer was just a little bit longer. This took a little while sitting on the floor because I did it layer by layer, but it worked well.
For the soft tulle, I safety-pinned it to the right length, we did another fitting to check, and then I cut off the layers one by one, shaping it into the train at the back. The one very big advantage of tulle: it doesn’t fray, so no need for any hemming aside from cutting it to length!
I have some of the soft tulle left over, but only from cutting a little of the length off at the front, all the rest was used up!
Hemming was the last stage of the base of the skirt. Between finishing the layers and hemming, I did also work on the bodice part, so the length could be checked with the full base of the dress on, and not just the skirt. This is helpful as this way, we’d know exactly how high the skirt would sit. In the next post, more about constructing the base for the bodice!
In the end, the skirt ended up a little fuller and slightly less pure A-line than the example skirt. However, I took pictures throughout, and we fitted the skirt shape a couple of time, and both the bride and me really liked the shape we ended up with.