Heirloom Wedding Dress, Part One: The Consultation

Tracy Popken

I'm very picky about which wedding projects I take on, but family heirloom wedding dresses get me every time.  It's everything I love about fashion: beautiful quality, classic style, the romance of good things that last, and a sense of your place in time with lots of love mixed in. 

So I'm inviting you to go on a journey with me and a lovely client, Angela.

Angela is a few years older and a few inches larger than her mother was at her wedding, so the first thing we'll be doing is creatively letting out and reshaping the torso to fit her figure.   Right now, it won't even close and looks really awkward from the front because of that, and some other issues with proportion.

Here is the dress before, with nothing done:


The overall look is a bit floppy and a lot frumpy, but there is a LOT of great potential in this dress, which makes it a perfect example of an heirloom dress re-styling.  We'll keep as much as we can of the original dress, but carve away at it to re-proportion it.  (Trust me, this can become something awesome!)

Currently, the back doesn't even close, and it's challenging to get a proper sense of what to change in the front with the dress so floppy.  Therefore, the first thing we'll do is take of about 12" off the train(which is really long) and use that fabric to extend the back panels.  I learned years ago that the best way to alter something so it looks like nothing happened is to take apart the garment all the way back to the part of the sewing process where the changes would have been done if it were made right the first time, then sew it that way.   So, the process for extending the back will be:

  1. Take off the current buttons and button loops, opening up the center back seam until it can be ironed open flat.  I will keep the skirt sewn together though, just opening up the zone of the closure.
  2. Open up the waist seam all the way to the side seams and an inch beyond them. giving me access to the side seams.  
  3. re-sew the side seams with less seam allowance, sewing about 1/4" from the edge of the seam allowance at the bottom and angling my seam to rejoin the position of the old seam at the arm pit.  Carefully take out the old seam.  Letting out the side seams some will add about 1" to the circumference of the torso.  While I have it open and flat, I can use a wash cloth and a glass of water to wet the old seam and gently massage the threads of the fabric back into position and ironing it smooth, closing up the marks from the old seam.
  4. Extend the piping a few more inches on each side.  To do this I'll first cut new 3" strips of bias fabricate width of the old piping fabric.  Then I'll take out the stitching holding the piping fabric around the rope,  hand sew an extension of rope to the old end,  sew the "new" bias strip to the fabric of the old piping,  then fold all the fabric over the rope and have one long new piece of piping.  I'd like to have taken the entire waist seam apart so it would be one new piece of rope throughout the piping, but there's delicate topstitching in the front on the waistband seam that I don't want to disturb if I don't have too.
  5.  sew a new panel of fabric to the torso in the back, extending the back panel
  6. let out the gathers in the back skirt a little bit so it matches up with the new extended width of the back.
  7. I also want to lower the back neckline 5" so it isn't quite so high, giving her a bit more air in a hot satin dress, and bit more movement in her shoulders, and a slightly more modern look, so I'll unsew the old neckline seam up to the shoulder, where it meets the front sheer panel, cut a new facing, sew the facing on and fold it under.  Voila, new neckline.
  8. Last, but not least, I'll fix the hem of the dress where I cut fabric off the end of the train.  using a ruler, I'll mark and cut a new curve, the undo the rolled hem a few inches beyond where that new curve meets the old hem and cut the raw edge so there's a smooth transition between old and new hem.  Then I'll carefully iron in the rolled hem and sew it into place using the same original tiny machine stitches and ivory thread

Check in over the next couple months as progress continues.