Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Anatomy of a Wedding Dress

Long time, no blog.
I have been plying the needle unceasingly for the past year, too weary and drained to blog. Now that things have settled down a bit, I am ready to get back in the blogging saddle, starting with this custom wedding dress.

The bride fell in love with Carolina Herrera's Monet inspired Water Lily Dress from her 2010 Spring Bridal collection. You can see the runway show here.

The only problem was the time element- I had 6 weeks to make, fit, and deliver the dress. I decided that I was up for the challenge.

We designed her dress to be very much like its inspiration. The waterlily fabric of the original was hand painted especially for the collection and was not available to us, but she found another spectacular Herrera fabric to take it's place.

The biggest challenge was the 500 miles separating the seamstress and the bride. Good measurements are always essential, especially in a closely fitted strapless bodice. The bride found a local seamstress to take measurements and to do fittings on her end. I made a pattern and fitting muslin based on her measurements and mailed it to her. Once it had been fitted I made the lining, which was then shipped out for a fitting. 

 Next came the outside of the bodice.  The organza over bridal satin base was overlaid with a layer of hand pleated organza. Fun fact: there is a total of 64 pieces in the bodice, not counting the boning and cups.
Last but definitely not least came the skirt. One of the unique features of this dress is the blue underskirt that peeks through three layers of organza. They are all attached to the outer bodice.

To save time, I purchased a lightly used petticoat instead of building one. After cutting it to the right length, I attached it to the bodice lining.

After that came the lining, zipper, and putting it all together. I shipped it to the bride, and it arrived 3 days before the wedding. She was stunning in it!


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Those Crazy Days of Summer

Long time, no blog. I blame those crazy days of summer, which are anything but lazy around here. Summer is prime wedding season, and I do lots of wedding alterations with a few custom wedding, bridesmaid and flower girl dresses added to the mix to keep things interesting.

Lace is stylish everywhere right now, especially in bridal wear. This makes me happy, as I love lace. This summer I had the opportunity to make a custom lace wedding dress. The bride found a dress she loved on Pinterest and asked me to make one like it. 

She purchased off white re-embroidered lace in the NY Garment district. It was lovely to work with, albeit hard on my scissors. As usual, the most challenging part for me was the pattern making for the bodice. We did multiple muslin fittings, as perfect fit is not optional for a dress like this.

I also made a dress for the flower girl. Lace and tulle... What could be cuter?


When I wasn't sewing, I was gardening. We had a very good year.

Summer is over, my fall theater season has begun, and with any luck I will be blogging regularly again.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Your Wedding Dress- Dream or Disaster?

I do alterations- lots and lots of them, especially at this time of year. Most of the alterations I do are on formals for proms and weddings. Some dresses just need a tuck here and there or a quick hem. Others need major work that could have been averted by educated shopping. As someone who spends much of her time fixing problems, I would like to offer some suggestions before you head out to the local “Bridal Walmart.”.

-Style. Just because something is stylish doesn’t mean it will look good on you, even if you have a great figure. If you have an uncommon figure type a mass produced wedding dress might not work for you at all.

-Choose the shop with care. Everyone has a reputation, either good or bad. Look into shop policies and sales techniques. Educate yourself before you start looking at dresses. Some of the smaller shops have a surprisingly nice inventory of carefully curated gowns. They aren’t necessarily more expensive than a chain, and the service is often better.

-Does it come in your size? A sales clerk tried to convince my size 0 niece that they could easily cut a size 6 dress down to fit her. Fortunately her mother knew enough about garment construction to see that would be impossible in her case.

-How is the dress constructed- will alterations be easy or extremely difficult? If you find yourself in love with a dress that will need alterations no matter what size you buy, look into this before you sign on the dotted line. Come back with a friend or professional who knows enough about alterations to figure this out by looking inside the dress. Some shops push women to buy a dress a size larger than the one they tried on. I recently altered one of these dresses. The size 2 bride who tried on a size 2 dress that fit perfectly was pushed into ordering a size 4 dress. When it arrived it was (no surprise) too big. That was when she learned it would cost her $150 for alterations- not counting the bustle on the train. She left, furious, and was directed to me by a relative. When I looked inside the gown, I saw that it had been made to be altered both up and down. Even if she had gained 20 lbs the size 2 would have worked just fine. Sometimes the opposite is true, though.

-Hemline details. Does the dress have hemline details or embroidery that you love? Will you lose those details if the dress needs to be hemmed? A young woman I knew bought a dress just for the embroidery designs around the hem. She is 5’ tall, and the dress was designed for a person 5’ 11”. The only way to raise the hem on this dress was from the bottom, but no one at the shop mentioned that to her, and her purchase was not refundable. In the end she wore the highest heels she could walk in and I built her a Cinderella style petticoat that lifted her skirt up and out. We still lost about an inch of the embroidery.

-Don’t buy under pressure. If you have any doubts, make a note of the model number of the dress and think it over. If you are ordering a dress, a day or two won’t make any difference.

-Ask questions about in shop alterations. Ask who will pin up the alterations and what experience and training she has in this area. Most alterations are pinned by sales clerks who have never sewn a stitch in their lives, not by the seamstress who will do the work. I have repinned and repaired some of these. Very few shops have someone on the premises to do the actual work. It is generally sent out to area seamstresses. Check with a local seamstress to see what she would charge you.

-Many shops have marked down or discontinued models. This means you buy straight off the rack. If you are an easy to fit size, you might be able to save a lot of money this way.

If you are not satisfied with your bridal shop experience or want to avoid it entirely, there are other options.

-Direct order from China. Do this only with the greatest care and plenty of research. There are lots of horror stories out there. I do know two people who bough their wedding dresses this way and were very satisfied. I know this is controversial, but nearly all mass produced wedding dresses are already made in China and ordered from there by the dress companies.

-Check out formal garments at department stores and online outlets. The prices and selections are often better, as are return policies.

-Go Vintage. Wear your grandmother’s dress, or shop thrift stores, Craigslist, Ebay, and Etsy sellers. There are a lot of beautiful gowns out there that have only been worn once.

-Get a vintage dress “remodeled” and updated to suit you.

-Have your dress custom made. This will not cost less, but if you are hard to fit or want something unique it is the best option.

Happy Shopping, and I hope you find the perfect dress.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Anatomy of a Pirate Costume

You are staging Peter Pan or some other show featuring pirates. Captain Hook is a pirate, and everyone knows what he looks like.  But what about Smee, or other pirates with less name recognition? How does the audience know for sure that they are pirates, too? The obvious answer is that they look like pirates.  Here are some hints on how to make that happen, even if you are on a tight budget.

Most pirates- and their costumes- are a form of historical fiction. While there is some truth in this image, there is more that is the product of the imagination. If you do it well, your show should carry its audience off into the world you have created. Bad costumes are a distraction and an impediment to this.  Since most Americans think “Disney Captain Hook” or “Johnny Depp” when you say the word pirate, sticking to this sort of imagery works well.   Without buying cheaply made and expensively priced commercial costumes, how do you accomplish this?

Start by looking at pictures of pirates and visually dissect what they are wearing.  Some of the things I noted were blousy shirts, open at the throat, knee breeches or pants tucked into boots, heavy belts, sashes, vests, long coats, things that lace up, ragged edges, stripes, eye patches, bandanas, earrings, and hats.  I also used billowy skirts and corset style belts for some of the lady pirates.

Go thrift store shopping and start looking for these elements. Almost all of the guys wore something from the ladies rack, because in our culture, women generally wear more varied and interesting clothing than men do.  One day I went looking just for pants. I found stretch leggings with pleather on the front of the thighs, loose fitting heavy knit pants with faux diamond trim down the sides, and flared capris with eyelets and lacing on the outside of the leg. The leggings and blingy pants were worn with high boots or boot tops, and the pirate wearing the leggings also wore a coat that covered his thighs.  

The next time I hit pay dirt on belts- most of them heavy leather, studded with metal brads. Another day I went looking for vests.  I was amazed at what I found when I walked through the store thinking “pirate vest.”

 Bandanas can be cut, raw edged, out of suitable fabric.  I made a lot of hats (that is a blog entry unto itself) but I was also able to turn dollar store straw hats and a couple thrift store wool felt hats into pirate hats with minimal work. 

 Once you set your mind on the pirate channel you begin to see pirate in clothing items you might not have considered before.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Dancing Snake

More often than not, I design and make period and theatrical costumes as well as wedding and formal wear. In a departure from this, I recently made a snake dance costume modeled after one from the Chinese Ballet. It was a fun change of pace. It is worn by Miki Reaume, who dances the part of the snake in the Easter Production How Love Wins. If you live in the Corning, NY area and would like to see it, you will find dates and times here. Photos by Becky Enders.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Styling the 1930's

Yesterday I was called upon to create a last minute costume for a last minute understudy in a production of 42nd Street. The actress needed a red dress from the 1930’s.  I do this sort of makeover frequently, though I rarely start it at noon of the performance day.  

A red dress, several sizes too big with plenty of extra room in the skirt was purchased for $3 from a local thrift store.

While I awaited its arrival, I studied my condensed version of the Sears Catalog of the 1930’s.  

The dress was a size 16; the actress generally wears a 12. I started by removing the collar, facing, and sleeves. I put the dress on a properly sized dress form. Since there was no waist seam, I marked the waist, cutting the skirt off an inch below the waist, removing the stitching around the zipper so that it could still be used in the final product. After pressing the pleats out of the skirt fabric, I carefully squeezed the pattern pieces onto it. I used a pattern from my collection that had the proper shape.


 The bodice was taken in at the back darts and the new skirt attached. All of the dress fabric- sleeves included- was required to make a properly shaped skirt.  Fortunately in the 1930’s it was trendy to use a second fabric for the sleeves and trimmings.

. I chose a red and white polka dot fabric from my stash for this.

The actress came out for a fitting before I put in the sleeves, so I was able to tweak the fit first.  It took me about 3 ½ hours to convert a well-used garment from the 1980’s into a stylish dress of the 1930’s. It was challenging and fun, and is a great way to save both time and production costs.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Take time to play.
In a society teeming with entertainment options, this might sound like a strange thing to say. The entertainment junkies aren't the only ones out there, though. We workaholics need to remember to give ourselves permission to play guilt free once in a while.

I recently gave myself permission to play in my sewing room for a couple days, and it was one of the smartest things I have done in a long time. Why? It was relaxing. Playing promotes creativity. And it made me remember that I really do love to make things with fabric. I did not push myself to make something useful, sale able, or creative. I just did what seemed like fun at the time. I played with a couple unusual patterns- boot style moccasins being one of them. I made myself a warm velour cowl neck that fits perfectly. I made my husband a shirt. I made some cats toys for the grandcats. And I made a dragon.


Making the dragon was the best part. It was not difficult, and it was fun to personalize. It has a rice bag in the central part of the body, and it wraps around the neck nicely.

The dragon first appeared in the customer gallery of my favorite embroidery website, Urban Threads. It was such a popular item that she put up a pattern and tutorial (you might want to make one, too!).

I feel refreshed. Alterations and zipper replacements are often dull, but I won't mind them today. After that it's bridesmaid dresses. But it's all good- I've had my annual dose of fun.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Making it Real

On stage and screen, actors transform into characters from another time and place. Take, for example, a show like Downton Abbey, or a movie like Les Miserables or the Hobbit, in which the fantasy seems so real - it makes you feel as though you've stepped into another place or time. How do they do that?

It's all in the details.
I am a costumer, so that is my focus, but the principle applies across the board. Colors, velvet vs. fabric ribbon, buttons made out of bone or covered buttons, fabric types, and the style of lace are just a few examples of things that can make a much bigger difference than you might think. There is no substitute for research. Use online resources, books, museums, and films that are known to be accurate representations of the time period. The more you know, the easier it will be to pick fabrics, trims, accessories, and even thrift store garments that fit the time period. I choose pictures- photos of people and museum pieces and fashion plates- for each character and use them throughout the process as reference points. Sometimes when a costume doesn't look quite right I go back to the pictures and analyze them bit by bit until I figure out what detail is missing, or what modern detail I have inadvertently included that I need to remove. I just completed Four Tickets to Christmas, set in 1905. Here are a few examples of what I do.

Underwear matters.
The S corset and related underthings all help to create the female silhouette of the time period. We built corsets (on a very tight budget, that is a blog of it's own), corset covers, bustle and bust pads to shape the ladies.

Authentic patterns are great when you can get them. I used authentic patterns from 59 Authentic Turn of the Century Patterns and The Edwardian Modiste for the boy's suit and the ladies dresses. I also used the cover of a theater goers magazine from 1905 as a model for the dark green dress and hat. The photo is from the show; the pictures below it provided guidance and inspiration. It wasn't enough to make the garments- trimming them appropriately changed them immensely- especially the boy's suit.

Use existing pieces whenever you can- especially for the men. Suits and coats are labor intensive. The drawing on the left from Men's Fashion Illustrations from the Turn of the Century portrays the dapper urban gentleman of December 1905 we were trying to create. I made the white vest, tall collar and tie, but everything else was put together from vintage parts.

Sometimes only a little thing is required to transform a garment. The jacket with the lace collar is from The Voice of Fashion. I drafted just the collar pattern and added it to a simple cape. I picked up a straw hat at a thrift store and covered it with fabric before embellishing it.

Look to museum pieces for colors. The actress really liked this museum piece, so I did my best to replicate it. We made the jacket, had the blouse, and I tweaked a skirt we already had.

This costume was made entirely from existing parts.

Last but not least, we used vintage choreography to go along with the costumes.

If you would like to see more photos, click here.