the process of a custom wedding from start to finish

at the dawn of my eleventh wedding season i have been puzzling over the internal conflict i have been having about doing weddings. my dilemma i had best spelled out to my painter friend after someone asked me how i made my wedding work sustainable. in fact weddings feel like the least sustainable thing i do. i asked him, “what if you were commissioned to make a large several thousand dollar painting that took you six months or more to complete, and the couple put it behind them at their wedding ceremony, hung it over their table at their reception, took all of their wedding party photos in front of it, and then crated it and stored it in the attic. not hung this work in their home, but crated it and stored it in the attic?”

the bride usually comes to me at the beginning. she has an engagement ring on her finger, a date, and maybe a venue booked out. this might be a year before the wedding date itself. she will have in hand a stack of magazines, and her best friend or mother in tow. they will look in wonder at my messy studio. i will have some fabric sample books and paper to take notes. i will ask the date, the time of day the wedding will occur, and what she is looking for. i will ask me how she found me (to determine whether she was familiar with my work). i will ask as many questions as i can to determine what sort of dress she will wear, and whether i am the one to make it for her. i will do my best to focus on her if her friend tries to do all of the talking. i will make sketches, and make suggestions of types of fabrics to use for that particular style. i will ask her what parts of her body she likes and wants to accentuate, and what she doesn’t like, and wants the eye drawn away from. i will ask her what she wants to wear under her dress. i remind her that i can do any sort of line she wants that will look flattering to her figure, because i am cutting the dress from scratch. i will pull out my calculator and come up with an estimated cost with different options for different fabrics, and amounts of embellishment. this takes about two hours, more or less. i tell her to mull it over, and give me a call. sometimes i will never hear from her again.

in a day or a week, there will be a phone call or an email. another appointment is made. this time she usually comes alone. there are final decisions made about design, fabric and embellishments. we agree on a price and a payment plan. a contract is signed, and money changes hands. fabric is ordered, or a shopping trip is planned. i take her measurements. we come up with a loose timeline for when particular things will be done; muslin, first fitting, embellishment, hemming and closing, accessories, hand off. maybe i am given a list of bridesmaids who will be contacting me. i hand her swatches and encourage her to start looking for her shoes. we part, i will call her when the fabric arrives or when i am ready to fit her muslin.

i will write myself several reminders in my calendar to begin the muslin. a muslin is a plain cotton mock up of the dress that can be modified until it fits that the dress is then cut from. this involves me drafting a pattern from scratch, or lately modifying something that i already had designed to fit. i will sit in the kitchen at my studio and eat lunch with a piece of paper, a pencil, her measurements and a calculator. i will check and double check. i will draw and cut out the muslin after lunch. i will put the muslin together, and wonder why i thought it would take so long; it usually goes pretty quickly, but i have to fret over it for a few days first.

another appointment is made to fit the muslin. i remind her to bring her underpinnings to the fitting. this is important for the neckline to make sure that her bra or corset doesn’t show. if the muslin fits, we discuss the neckline. if it doesn’t i mark with a pen and pin the parts that need to be modified. if it is minor, she will sit and wait while i make the alterations, if it is complicated, we reschedule for a few days later.

once the muslin is fit to satisfaction, i will carefully pick the good half of it apart to cut out the dress itself. hopefully, i have all the fabric, lining, thread, zipper and everything i will need by now. i will cut out the dress, and put it together. if i am running behind, i will schedule the fitting before i do this to make sure i finish it to make sure i meet our timeline. if i am on schedule, i will call after i finish this part.

this first fitting usually takes about an hour. i ask how things are going. usually, the caterer has been chosen, the invitations have been sent out, the flowers have been decided on, but she is still looking for shoes and wedding party gifts. we discuss the embellishments. we can both have a better idea now that the dress is on and in front of us. the lines are clear. where the hem falls with the shoes on. if it is floor length, the hem is exactly 1/4″ off the floor in shoes so there is no tripping over the hem, and no need to lift up the skirt to walk. the bustle is marked to see how the embellishments will look with the train down and bustled. or if the hem is shorter, pinned so that it will hit in the most flattering spot on the leg. how her necklace looks with the neckline. a double check to make sure that no straps are showing underneath, no weird lines. if there are bridesmaids, we discuss the progress. when will the out of towners be arriving? i remind her to wear her shoes around the house so they are broken in.

then i am left to make the embellishments to pin on the dress. maybe it is a simple obvious placement, or it might be more complicated, and need rearranging. the bride may come in and stand several feet away to judge what they look like from a distance. i pin and unpin until everything is balanced. the dress is carefully tried on. maybe i have to make a little adjustment. i try not to stab her with pins. she will tell me about the inevitable conflict with mother/bridesmaid/aunt who insists that she should do x a certain way. i keep a bottle of whiskey in my desk drawer for these occasions. i continue to work on the last bits and she waits. we talk about hair accessories (i usually make these with the dress embellishment), and who will be bustling her dress after the ceremony. i am very close to being done. just a few more days.

i spend the next while carefully sewing down the embellishments, blind-stitching the lining closed, and sewing on the last finishings: hooks and eyes, snaps etc. i review everything to make sure that each piece is finished: dress, bridesmaids dresses, flower brooches, hairpins, head piece, pocket squares, garters. everything neatly pressed, all threads clipped. usually the night before our last meeting before i go home from the studio.

the final fitting is usually (hopefully) two weeks or so before the wedding. the whole thing is tried on complete with lingerie and shoes. and with promises of later photos, the whole thing is taken away.

i am not sure how many of these i have done; all or a part. more than i can remember, which is difficult to admit sometimes, as i spend so much time with some of these brides. some are friends now, some i haven’t seen since the day i handed them their dresses at that final fitting. i have been to many of their weddings. when i started doing this, i never thought i would be making wedding dresses, but there is not much demand for couture gowns in ordinary life outside of weddings. it kind of bums me out to know that i spend this much time on a piece only to be worn once. in victorian times, a bride would wear her wedding dress to every social engagement (to parties and to church on sunday) for a year after her wedding. in my perfect world, one would like to invest that much time and money in something that would be worn and loved over a long time, not just worn once, dry cleaned, shrink wrapped and packed in a box to be stored in the attic. every year i go back and forth about weddings; i don’t think that i will ever stop doing them entirely, but i do sometimes fret about spending so much time on something that will be used only once.

(photo by chi essary of my friends dulcinea and jared’s wedding june 2001)

2 Responses to the process of a custom wedding from start to finish

  1. EyePopArt December 31, 2008 at 7:09 pm #

    I love the part about you keeping a whiskey bottle in your desk for those occasions…

  2. LeaKarts December 31, 2008 at 7:14 pm #

    Wow. It is an amazing amount of work and brilliant attention to detail. I love reading about your process, as I know very little about sewing and it fascinates me. I would, btw, love to own a custom gown for special occasions some day!

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