Sunday, 27 October 2013

Wedding dress and sewing on the bias

dress +  my lovely husband.
Photograph courtesy of Belinda Lawley ( 
Dress particulars: Full length bias-cut satin dress with a deep cowl neck and a low standing collar at the back. The dress is dartless with curved waist seams and a small puddle train.

Pattern- self drafted

Fabric- Heavy Italian silk crepe-backed satin in Ivory from MacCulloch and Wallis in Soho London- £69/m. I bought 4 meters which left about half a meter for contingency.

Bodice lining and skirt underlining- 2.5 m Cupro bremsilk £10/m- also from MacCulloch and Wallis. The front of the bodice is self lined with the silk crepe satin.

Thread- Gutterman silk thread in Ivory 

Sewing method: 100% hand sewn using techniques as describe in Claire B Shaeffers Couture Sewing Techniques.

From the moment the question was popped there was no doubt that I would make (or at least attempt to make) my own wedding dress. I knew my sewing would have to step up a few notches but I wanted a simple design and I was confident that if I took my time and planned every detail I would end up with something wearable, right?

To me a garment like this is the holy grail of home sewing and I have learnt so much from the process. For anyone considering making their wedding dress it isn't a decision to be made lightly, but I would definitely say that for me it has been a 100% positive experience and I absolutely loved my dress and wearing it was a dream. However, it was the result of three months of meticulous planning and very careful sewing, I didn't count exactly how many hours it took, but it was a lot.

I had planned to detail the construction method on this blog, but there is too much and little of it is probably useful. Instead I thought it would be useful to list some tips of working with bias silk as I struggled to find much information looking at fellow blogs, youtube and even books. Claire Shaeffers book had some tips that were useful, but mainly I had to paste together tidbits from here and there and use trial and error. Below I have detailed some of the techniques I used which I found helpful and highlighted where I struggled. I don't profess to know everything, but if you are thinking about sewing on the bias they might come in handy.

Photo courtesy of Belinda Lawley (

I made two toiles, one in calico whilst perfecting the design and basic fitting and one in a cheap polyester to test sewing a slippery fabric.

1) Cutting
With bias sewing is the fabric has to be on grain to prevent bumpy seams and the fabric twisting and warping uncomfortably. Make sure you find the cross-grain by snipping and tearing or loosening a single thread and cutting along the line it leaves. My fabric was very tightly woven and so I had to use the tearing method. Anyone else a bit terrified of working with expensive fabric, I tried loosening a thread, but it was impossible.

Once I had found the grain I secured my fabric to the cutting surface (the floor for me) to prevent it from moving whilst pinning and cutting. Placing the cutting board underneath the fabric and lay the selvage edge along one of the floorboards, but you could use the edge of the table, and secured it with parcel tape. I then gently smoothed the fabric and secured the fabric on the other selvage edge and each end, taking care not to stretch the fabric.

I used a protractor to check the pattern pieces were neatly on grain and cut the pieces using a rotary cutter. Always use a single layer of fabric, it will be impossible to ensure the fabric is on grain if you double it over.

When bias pattern pieces meet at the seam it is necessary that the lengthwise and crosswise grains are running towards each other and meeting at the seam. This is because the lengthwise grain will stretch more than the crosswise and if they are not aligned the seam will stretch and warp out of shape. This article from threads magazine explains it better than I have, but the key thing to remember is when laying your pattern pieces out, the pieces for the left side should be at a 90 degree angle to those on the right side of the body. Many bias garments have a centre front and centre back seam to prevent the lengthwise grain dominating one side of the garment. I was determined to avoid this in my pattern and did not have any problems in cutting full pattern pieces. I think this was mainly as the fabric I was using was so tightly woven that it did not slip off grain that easily. It was so tightly woven that it was difficult to get a pin through it at times.

2) Construction
With the toile I tried stabilising the fabric with tissue paper to prevent the fabric slipping out of shape, but when I tried to remove it it became stuck in the seams, leaving a dress that rustled when I moved- not quite the sound I was going for. With the actual dress, I included the seam line on the pattern pieces and thread-traced all the seam lines, so I could be confident that my seams were correctly aligned. When sewing bias seams, Claire Shaeffer recommends stretching the seams as you go and pressing flat to prevent rippled seams and this did the trick for me.

When designing the pattern in calico, the back collar stood proud easily and I thought that it would need some kind of interfacing to support it. For the toile I cut the collar on the straight grain and interfaced with heavy calico, but the collar pointed upwards and any creases created a bumpy drape (see picture below). For the final dress I cut the collar on the bias and used stiff crinoline in the hope that this would work better, but it was even worse and I began to despair. Luckily I removed the crinoline, preparing to investigate alternatives and the collar draped perfectly on its own. A good reminder to work with the fabric not against it.

I failed in adding any type of fastening to this dress. Without a back seam the only option was to put the zipper in the cured side seam. I tried this with the toile and it was as much of a disaster as I expected- it was bumpy and looked just awful. Claire Shaeffers book recommends avoiding zips in bias seams and suggests slashing the fabric if you really must. I did not want to have to stabilise the zip as I was sure that the extra bulk would ruin the drape of the dress. Fortunately I was able to get the dress on over my head without any opening ad could forego the zip altogether. The only feasible alternative would have been to slash a seam down the back and insert the zip there. However this would have been a bit difficult with the back collar and I was glad I was able to avoid it. I will have to conquer this technique another day. Any recommendations are welcome.

I finished all seams by pressing them open and overcasting each side. Seam finishing is optional on bias garments and in couture pinking is widely used to prevent unnecessary bulk. For some reason I just couldn't pink my wedding dress, but was too scared to leave them completely unfinished. As I was using silk thread which is much finer than cotton, I wasn't too worried about the extra bulk.

3) Hemming
I hung the dress for three days before hemming as bias fabric will stretch when hung and worn, my dress grew by two inches! I was lucky that the fabric was quite stable and stretched evenly. After hemming the dress has been stored flat as it will continue to stretch if hung.

I was quite confused when it came to hemming, I didn't want a heavy hem to interfere with the swish of the dress, but wasn't too thrilled about having a rolled hem that would show from the outside. This is a pet hate and I try to use invisible hems where possible. I trialled a rolled hem, a 2 cm hem and a 3 inch hem. I rolled hem had too much body with the heavy fabric as did the 2 cm hem. The three inch hem was softest and when pressed flat was the least noticeable and not at all bulky- Success!