Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Dressmaker's Daughter's Wedding

Making Claire's Gown: Part Two

I want readers to know that I have my daughter's express permission to blog about this process. Claire has assured me that "None of my friends are going to read your blog, Mom." Nor is her fiance. So, hopefully I won't get in any more trouble than usual.

Preparing for the Basted Fitting:

After deconstructing the muslin, the next step was to cut the actual dress, which consists of the lace overdress; silk charmeuse underdress and underlining; the China Silk lining; and the four layers of the foundation (China silk, cotton flannel, and two layers of crinoline), all of which took about three hours. I had barely enough of the charmeuse and just the right amount of the lace, with plenty left to cut motifs for the veil and to store the scraps for the next generation to use for alterations. 

I started preparing the dress for the next fitting by reinforcing the outside edges of the sheer lace upper bodice with strips of silk organza selvage, sewing it to the underside by hand. This would help prevent ripping and stretching, and will later be covered up by the scalloped lace edging. Then I basted the silk organza to the charmeuse wrong side for each garment piece of the underdress, and finally, I basted all the pieces together so I could fit them on Claire.

Fitting the Underdress Back

Fitting the Underdress Front

Next, I constructed the foundation, leaving the side seams basted and leaving out the boning until it was fitted. I sewed in the underwires and cups of one of Claire's old bras to the inner layers of the cups, and I fit the foundation on her.

Fitting the Foundation

To the point of this second fitting took another seven and a half hours.

Sewing the Dress Permanently:

Next, I finished constructing the foundation: adding hangers, the waist stay, cutting and tipping the spiral steel boning and inserting it into the sewn channels between the two layers of crinoline, turning down the upper edge and catch stitching it, finishing the lower edge with some pale blue lace, and adding my label.

All my wedding dresses get a sterling silver double horseshoes charm sewn onto the label. In French haute couture, in days of yore anyway, the workroom ladies used to make a horseshoe out of cardboard, cover it with blue tissue paper, and slip it into the hem of a wedding gown for good luck. I substitute a charm, and I always explain it to my brides or they might wonder why I was sewing horsie stuff inside their dress. For this special gown, I added something blue: a large Swarovsky crystal element, called, and I am not making this up, called a "Crazy Heart."

The Completed Foundation, with Hook and Eye Closure, Waist Stay, Hangers, Built-In Bra, and Label.

They Don't Call it a Crazy Heart for Nothing!
Then I sewed the charmeuse underdress permanently, removed all the basting, clipped and finished the seam allowances, and pressed them open. I made very narrow bias tubing out of charmeuse to make button loops for the upper back, and I sewed them to the overlap.

Next, I trimmed all the scalloped edge off of the lace and measured it, ensuring that I had enough to do all the edging that I wanted to do. I  then hand sewed some of the scalloped edge to the sheer upper back along the strap, neck, and armscye edges to finish them, and I gathered the lower strap edge in the front where it would attach to the cups.This took another five hours.

Then I sewed the lace overdress, which was an exercise in patience and a gentle hand. Embroidered tulle is fragile, and beaded embroidered tulle can be maddening to work with. If I were a good little dressmaker, I would have carefully removed all beading from the seam allowances and secured it by tying off all loose threads, or gluing them in place, but instead Bad Barbara put a #16 needle in the machine and sewed over the beads, which worked fine for the sequins and bugle beads but NOT for the pearls. If I got stuck, I lifted the presser foot and nudged things along, and I broke many needles and beads, all of which came flying up into my face. There was a flurry of broken beads and cut sequins on my workroom floor. 

I used a narrow double stitched seam for the lace pieces. This means that I stitched one row on the seam line, then stitched another line of stitching about one eighth inch into the seam allowance. Then I carefully trimmed away the excess seam allowance close to the second line of stitching. This is durable but not visually distracting. For the godets, I reinforced the upper point with a small circle of silk organza, and trimmed it close to the stitching after the godet was in place. 

Then I basted the lace overdress to the charmeuse underdress along the upper edges, and I basted the sheer upper back and strap pieces to the underdress by hand. I completed the lining, and sewed it to the gown right sides together, trimmed and clipped the seam allowances, and turned the gown right side out. I normally would baste the lining to the gown wrong sides together, then turn down the seam allowances on the upper edge and catch stitch them in place in preparation for sewing the gown to the foundation, but something told me that a future bride might want to wear the dress without the foundation, so I sewed the gown with a finished upper edge. Good thing, as I was to find out later, the hard way!

At this point I inserted the invisible zipper, after carefully reinforcing the lace at the end of the zipper opening and then basting the raw edges of the underdress and lace overdress together along the seam lines. Then I sewed on a white hook and eye and slip stitched the lining to the zipper tape.

I sewed Swarovsky crystal buttons to the upper back and along the zipper. The buttons along the zipper are decorative rather than functional. They are on shanks, so they wobble, but I refuse to be offended by the wobbles. Finally, I hand felled the foundation to the upper edge of the gown and added swing tacks at the center back.
Felling the Foundation to the Gown
I then hand sewed more scalloped edging to the gown's upper edge and to the cup seams. Another 14 hours readied the gown for hemming.

In the Bag, Ready to Hem - Or So I Thought

The Meltdown!

I try to be Cinderella's Fairy Godmother and make every bride's fantasy come true, and I try to control the thousands of variables inherent to each gown I make, but sometimes I make mistakes, and then I pay for them.

Claire came over after work for the second fitting, put on the dress and her four inch bejeweled heels, and both of us promptly had a little meltdown. I had made the gown and the foundation a bit snug on purpose since Claire, like every other bride on the planet, was planning to "loose a little weight before the wedding." However, I couldn't get about half of the hooks and eyes on the foundation done up much less zip up the zipper. Worse, the cups looked wonky. They stood away from her torso, forming a gap where the cup attached to the strap.
Now, this didn't have me too worried, because I know that dressmaking is a process, and it is as much an art as a science. I am not God; I don't know everything; I try to always do my best work, but sometimes I try something extra fancy that does not work. When that happens, I try to analyze and fix the problem, one logical step at a time.

Claire, however, despite two and a half decades of living with a dressmaker, did not seem to know this. She stamped her foot (which she has been doing since she was a very small child), scowled, snorted, and declared that she didn't like the way her boobs looked (another common bride thing!); she hated all the blue bows attached to the hangers; she picked at the scalloped edging on the cups under her arm and said the area "looked matronly" and said the underarm line on the cups needed to be lowered, and that the edging felt itchy on her arm. Of course, Claire saw this design line TWICE before and never said she didn't like it. And of course, beaded lace feels itchy. What did she think it would feel like, mink? 

I will admit I became a bit weepy. I asked her to take the dress off so I could take out one of the bra cups and see what would happen. I opened up a cup lining dart and surgically extracted one of the bra pieces, had her try on the dress again, but it still looked wrong. 

I have made dozens of boned foundations before, all with great success, but I hadn't made one for this particular style of dress. It was a fancy idea that didn't work.

I asked her to take the dress off again and wait, topless, tired, freezing in the cold room and seething, while I attacked it with a seam ripper (the dress, not my daughter!); I removed the foundation completely. 

Then I helped her into the dress again. A miracle occurred:  without the foundation the dress zipped easily and looked almost perfect; I only needed to pin out a bit of fullness in the cups, changing the dart to a princess seam.

All was well, and I helped her up onto my hemming platform so I could pin up all the hems.

It took another six hours to hem the lining and underdress, and to hand sew about seven and a half yards of scalloped edging to hem the lace overdress.

I removed the boning, waist stay, label, and hook and eye tape from the foundation to use again.The label went back into the lining of the dress, with only one blue bow for the "something blue" and the hangers secured with only two white bows. I nailed the *&*^$!^%$#@!! foundation to my garage wall, to keep me humble, like a white albatross around my neck (as in the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner).
The Albatross, Nailed to the Wall

Making the Veil

There wasn't enough of the scalloped edging left to use on the 50 inch long veil, so I suggested using individual lace motifs that I could sew to the edge of the silvery sparkle illusion. I pinned several to a piece of tulle so that Claire could see a sample, which she approved.

To start, I cut hundreds of motifs from scraps of lace. Since all the beading threads were loose, I squirted Fray Check on the backs and left them to dry.

Fray Checking the Loose Threads

Then I cut the rounded edge of the lower veil to shape it. I gathered the upper edge,  finished it with a French binding in silk organza, and sewed it to a clear plastic comb. I had a few inches of the scalloped edge to sew over the gathers to cover the leading edge of the comb. Then I started sewing motifs to the edge of the veil, shaping them around the curves, and stopping to cut and Fray Check more motifs as needed.

Shaping the Motifs around Curves
Front and Back of the Edging

I tried to vary the position and selection of the motifs so they would look organic and natural. I added a few extra beads along the way. The veil took seven hours to make.

I basted the new princess seam into only one of the cups, bought five sets of sew in bra cups with various degrees of padding, and asked Claire to come back one more time for a quick double check. She brought me one Godiva chocolate that she got free that day at the Mall as a peace offering, which I ate, since I certainly needed chocolate therapy. She also brought her stick-on, "chicken cutlet" style front clasp bra cups to try with the dress.

We spent the next twenty minutes stuffing an assortment of bra cups into the dress and looking at Claire's boobs. Finally, she decided that the chicken cutlets looked best, not the biggest, mind you, but the most natural.

Suddenly, I saw Claire's shoulders relax. She looked into the mirror, running her fingertips down the edge of her veil as her face caught the light, and smiled. The fairy tale, for both of us, came true.

"Are you happy?" I asked, and my daughter replied, "Yes, Mom. I look like a princess."


Today, I re-sewed the new princess seams on the cups and cup linings, tacked the lining to the cup seams, understitched the lining upper edge by hand, re-sewed the scalloped edging on the upper bodice in case it came loose as I ripped out the foundation, added beading to the cups for extra blingy boobs, sewed swing tacks to the lower side seams between the underdress and lining, and finally I sewed that blue Crazy Heart back into the dress, where Claire won't see it, but it will still work its magic.

Fifty five and one half hours in, there might be one last fitting in spring in case I need to take the gown in a bit and in case we decide to bustle the train, but stick a fork in it, it's done.

Sneak Peak!

Next Blog: The Bridesmaid's Dresses

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