Why do we make things ourselves? Why do we strive to make anything in an age where things can be ordered online and delivered direct to your door? Why do we bother? That’s the question I find myself asking as I write this post about one of the most difficult garments I have ever made, a lace cover up for the wedding of one of my oldest friends.
Earlier this year Jenny asked me to make a lace cover up for her to wear on her wedding day. I jumped at the chance, I was honoured to have been asked and to be able to contribute something to her big day, but I also I really wanted the opportunity to make something in a beautiful fabric to a high level of finish. When she asked me we had plenty of time and I naively thought that I would be ready with time to spare. How wrong I was.
Unfortunately neither Jenny nor I realised when we started that it would take some time to order the lace and have it delivered. Added to this we don’t live in the same city so we were only able to do two fittings, and both of these only with the toile since the lace hadn’t arrived yet. In the end the final garment was made in under 12 days, sewing between 3 and 4 hours a night on week days and about 10 hours a day or more on Saturday and Sunday. Overall I think I worked on the final piece for about 50-55 hours in that two week period.
In the end everything came together and Jenny was one of the most beautiful and radiant brides I have ever seen. I wanted to share the story of the jacket here to capture that beauty and radiance but when I came to write it what came out was a list of all the lessons I learned while making the jacket. At first I wasn’t sure about sharing this list at all, I was worried that if I shared the glory and the madness that went into the construction I would somehow besmirch the sublime vision of Jenny walking down the aisle. But then I realised that that image is bullet proof and nothing I can do can take away from her beauty on the day.
Maybe that’s the real reason we choose to wear handmade garments, not because they are perfect or because they save time or money. We wear them because we love the mad wonderful chaos that surrounds all human creative endeavour and the love and friendship that goes into making them. All garments, brand new or second hand, shop bought or homemade had a secret life before they became ours – sometimes I think we are afraid of that. For me it’s something to be celebrated and that is what this list represents:
Planning is key to the success of your garment. If you don’t have a lot of time and you’re trying to make something complex or something which you want to have a beautiful finish then planning is key.
Once I had made a toile and I knew exactly how to construct the garment to get the look I wanted, I then sat down and wrote a step-by-step plan of how I was going to construct it. It had 12 points and under each point were further sub points. I deliberately went into a lot of detail because I didn’t want to gloss over any steps or miss anything out. So for example I didn’t write “Attach sleeves” I wrote “Attach sleeve one” followed by “Attach sleeve two”. This also means that you can have the satisfaction of crossing out each step as you go.
Decide what you are going to call the garment early on and then just stick with it – I couldn’t work out if the technical term for what I was making was jacket or cover-up so I ended up using both interchangeably which caused confusion whenever I spoke to people about the project.
Create a useable workspace
If sewing isn’t your day job then it’s likely you don’t have a perfect space to work it. Because of a lack of space I had to cut all of the fabric on my kitchen table and do a lot of the hand sewing there. I was very worried about getting dirt or grease on the fabric so every night before I began I scrubbed down the table and cleaned the surrounding area. I actually found it quite therapeutic and it got me in the right headspace.
If you have a bad lighting situation in your work area try sewing with a head torch on. I inexplicably broke two desk lamps in the process of making this garment (don’t ask me how) and it turns out a head torch is a good and robust alternative.
Work with a first aid kit next to you.
The tiniest pin prick can cause the tiniest spot of blood and you will never get that out. At some points I had a plaster on every single finger. It worked – I only got blood on the jacket once and that bit was easy to take out and replace. Yes Jenny I did get blood on your jacket but that piece of fabric didn’t make it into the final garment so it isn’t unlucky I promise!
Keep the heating on
In Britain people don’t really like to turn the heating on, but this is one of those times when it’s definitely a good idea. Cold hands lead to shaky hands, leading to bad workwomanship. Cold hands also lead to chafed skin, leading to bleeding fingers – don’t say I didn’t warn you, I learned this one the hard way.
Sewing with a cup of tea is one of life’s great pleasures, but make sure you keep that mug away from the sewing area. My biggest fear was spilling a drink on the lace so I ended up keeping all coloured drinks on the other side of the room and walking over to take a sip rather than risking having it near the fabric. This approach required discipline but did work, and if you are worried about your tea getting cold I recommend resting it on a radiator.
Appliqué seams just aren’t that hard
There is a lot of chat out there about how difficult it is to do an appliqué seam but honestly I didn’t find them that difficult. Time consuming yes, difficult no. I sometimes worry that millions of sewists around the world are being put off this beautiful technique just by a handful of naysayers. Don’t believe them, you can do it!
Get a second opinion
Working on bridal wear means you are probably working in a vacuum. The bride will want to keep her outfit a secret which means that you won’t be able to share work in progress shots online as you might do with a normal project. This can feel very isolating, particularly at moments of indecision or crisis. I got around this by texting pictures to a friend who didn’t know the bride or groom but who did know a lot about sewing. Before I started sending her the photos we agreed that she would only send me positive feedback. Even though you know you have told someone to only text you positive comments it somehow works as a validation process and makes you feel much better. Thanks Kate!
Watch TV but pick the right programmes
Lots of sewing bloggers talk about what TV they watch whilst making clothing. If you are making bridal wear I recommend sticking to costume dramas. Whilst making this jacket I watched the following: Downton Abbey (season 5), Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, North and South, and Upstairs Downstairs. Once you get past 50hrs of sewing there is nothing like watching Lady Mary swanning across the room in a couture lace dress to validate your life choices.
Take Creative Breaks
After about 35hrs of sewing I felt completely burnt out and like a woman on the edge. Luckily a month before when the timeline had been more doable I had signed up to take a Christmas Wreathmaking class with the awesome Pyrus flowers. Meeting my friend Claire and talking things through really helped, as did doing something fun and creative to take my mind off things. I found it really freeing and I was totally delighted by the wreath I made. When I started to sewing the next night I was really excited to get back to it.
More first aid tips
If your wrist starts hurting do put deep heat on it, but then don’t try and take your contact lenses out straight after. If you do do this, get in the shower and run your face under the water and it will stop hurting after between five to ten minutes.
Even if you have discussed the garment in microscopic levels of detail with the bride to be, there will be times when you will need to make decisions. For example which way round should a flower detail go? Or should you match the trim detail on the neckline with the waistline? These decisions can seem terrifying, you want to make something the bride will love and really don’t want to get it wrong. But you need to learn to trust yourself, you are the designer and the creator, you are the one with the garment in front of you, if the bride doesn’t live near you you can’t run every tiny decision past her. The truth is she doesn’t actually want you to do that, she has a million things to deal with for the wedding and the reason she has chosen you to make this is because she trusts your style and your skills.
The first cut is the deepest
Check all your measurements twice and then go for it. Cutting into expensive fabric is scary but again you need to trust yourself. If you have measured the bride, made a toile and then done a fitting you have done all the ground work you need, there is no need to check it twenty times before cutting, this just wastes time. I did this and now looking back it was a completely unnecessary waste of two hours I didn’t have. I should have trusted my skill and ability from the off.
On flight sewing supplies
You can take scissors with a blade of up to 3 inches on a flight, this will seem reassuring until you get to your destination where you will realise they are actually way too small for what you need. Also travel with a head torch, you won’t regret it.
No-one will notice that tiny mistake
At some point during the wedding you will notice a tiny mistake in your finished piece. Don’t let this ruin your enjoyment of the day. Even if the bride has noticed (and she probably hasn’t) she will be too busy enjoying the happiest day of her life to care. Resist the urge to point it out to anyone/Worry about it/Completely freak out and instead reach for a glass of champagne and have a good time. You’ve done an awesome job and you’ve earned it!
A quick word on Resources
I’ve already spoken about the problem of sewing in a vacuum when you are creating bridal wear – one of the problems is that there are fewer online resources dedicated to making bridal wear. People who do it professionally don’t want to share their designs in case they are copied and those who do it for themselves want to keep their dress a secret before the big day. If they do blog about it afterwards it’s usually in a quick round up post (a bit like this). It’s rare to find a post which goes into the forensic level of detail you will find online about other sewing techniques.
Here are some posts I have found useful:
How I made my own Wedding Dress by Misha and Mia
The Wedding Dress by Sew Dixie Lou
How I sewed my own wedding dress (and only cried like four times) by Susan Kigner
My Wedding Dress by Queen of Darts
Project WD by Poppy Kettle (I actually only saw this after the wedding but her posts are really detailed and the dress looks amazing)
Everyone recommends that you get a copy of Bridal Couture by Susan Khalje, but it’s out of print and so far I haven’t seen a copy selling for less than £90 (and in some places selling for as much as £200!). Instead I bought Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire Shaeffer which is very detailed with clear easy for follow instructions. I highly recommend it!
Finally when all else fails try google image searching bridal wear. Sometimes just seeing a garment made in lots of ways and photographed from lots of different angles is helpful. This certainly helped me when it came to pattern matching and sleeve construction.
All the beautiful professional photography in this post was taken by Big Bouquet Wedding Photography, you can see more photos of the wedding on their website. The photos look amazing, some of the best wedding photography I have ever seen, and Emma was really lovely so definitely check her work out!
Meanwhile all the fuzzy, badly taken, mobile phone photography was taken by me.
All that I have left to say is a massive thank you to Jenny for letting me be a part of her wonderful magical day. Thank you for putting your trust in me and for being my friend.