Up-cycling is one of my favorite sewing challenges:
- It’s good for our environment to use existing materials, instead of producing more landfill
- Working within limitations can boost your creativity (as Tim Gunn says on Project Runway, whenever the designers have no more chance to use different fabrics “Make it work!” ….with what you have)
- If the materials have sentimental value, then giving them new purpose can be emotionally rewarding.
- It can be financially rewarding as well, but only if the value of the fabrics is high and the time it takes to upcycle is low….which often is not the case so this should be not be the first consideration.
Lately I’ve been up-cycling wedding gowns. What started out as a volunteer venture (sewing Angel Gowns for preemies who don’t make it home from the hospital) grew into a custom Christening dress business, as clients approached me to up-cycle a family heirloom. If this sounds like something you’d like to try, read on! If you’re not in the market for a baptism gown but have a wedding dress to play with, consider using the fabric and trims for all sorts of items, especially suitable for holiday decorations and gifts:
- holiday gift stockings (a nice way to spread a family heirloom among siblings)
- a tree skirt, a table-runner
- tree ornaments: sew little stars or mitten shapes, or embellish a styrofoam ball
- throw pillow or decorative sham (beautiful in the master bedroom)
- clutch purses or jewelry bags or fragrant sachets (lovely bridesmaid gifts)
- a bridal garter (instant “something borrowed” and “something old”)
- Communion dress or flower-girl dress
- a capelet or muff
- headbands and hairbows
- doll clothes
- a satin baby blanket..or a bassinet skirt
- baby bonnets
Even the tiniest scraps of satin can be made into artificial flowers for decorating some of the above items (instructions for flame-curling polyester circles are readily available on Pinterest). If there is an attached lining or petticoat it can be made into a new separate petti or one for a child, or part of a dress-up outfit or costume. If there is a lot of tulle, that can be used for wedding decorations. Once you start the process, your imagination will give you more ideas!
People have mixed reactions to the idea of cutting up a wedding gown: to some it sounds like a terrible concept (“But what if you change your mind and want your daughter to wear it?”), to others it’s logical and practical (“It’s just taking up space, being moved from house to house.”). Mostly people just want to know “How to you do it? Isn’t it scary?”
It’s only scary if you’re not sure that you want to upcycle. Once you’ve decided it’s a dress nobody will wear again, it’s easy. I’ll show you how, using this vintage 1980’s gown that I bought at a thrift store in the costume section just before Halloween:
This classic polyester satin dress has no label, chances are it was from JCPenney who was the largest volume bridal retailer in the U.S. at the time. This was when designer-label dresses were sold only in specialty and fine department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. Kleinfeld’s was still a discount store located out in Brooklyn, not the upscale Manhattan salon you know from “Say Yes to the Dress” fame. David’s Bridal was just a local group of shops in Fort Lauderdale. Fast-forward to today, when David’s is the largest wedding dress retailer, having been bought by May Company Stores, and then Federated , and then taken private by an investor group. (Full disclosure: I was a Bridal Buyer in New York City at the time so I’ve always been fascinated by the business.)
The dress has no train, no attached petticoat, it’s machine washable….look for something similar at a yard sale or opportunity shop, if you want to practice cutting up and recycling a wedding gown. Whether you are interested in creating a baptism gown, Christmas stockings, or decorative pillows….or volunteering for an Angel Gown network….getting some practice on a dress where you don’t know the owner (hence there is no sentimental value) can ease your mind.
About cleaning: I check with the client first, to see how she plans to clean the finished garment. Most likely she will want to wash (not dry-clean) the Christening dress. Babies are messy! And since most wedding dresses are labelled Dry Clean Only, a decision must be made:
- if the dress is silk then I have it dry-cleaned.
- if the dress is vintage pre-eighties, no matter the fiber content, I soak by hand in the bathtub and dry flat on a mesh sweater-drying mat
- if the dress is newer polyester, eighties or beyond, I prefer to machine-wash gentle-cycle and line-dry on hangers (depending on length of train, it can take several hangers). Gentle-cycle is pretty much the same thing as hand-washing, and in reality I’ve found that many people gentle-cycle-wash items that say “Hand Wash Only”.
Time to take apart your dress! The dissembling process is going backwards from how the dress was originally made. When in doubt, simply look at the seam stitching to determine the “sequence of stitching” and undo the overlapping top thread first.
Step 1: Remove the zipper: usually you’ll find that the zipper was added as the final step in construction, and you can remove it easily with a seam ripper. If the dress has buttons, they can be cut off and stored in a small Ziploc plastic sandwich bag (I keep one handy for storing any pearls that may fall off during deconstruction).
Step 2: Detach skirt from bodice. It’s faster to simply cut the skirt away, however once you get accustomed to using a good seam ripper you’ll appreciate the extra fabric that you get from separating the pieces and having the seam-allowances available if needed.
Step 3: Detach sleeves from bodice, then separate front bodice from back…or the other way around. Looking at the intersection of the sleeve armscye at the side-seam, whichever seam was sewn last (the “dominant seam”) is the one to un-stitch first:
Step 4: Remove lace appliques. Maybe. Here is where you need to study the fabric and trim, and make some decisions. Sometimes it’s more useful to have the lace separated from the garment, other times it makes more sense to keep trim and fabric intact.
- Yes, remove the lace appliques and edging if they have beading that was done before attaching to the fabric, since you can use it again pre-beaded. Also it makes sense to take of all embellishments if the silhouette of your new project doesn’t work with the original design in any way.
- No, keep the lace and fabric intact if there is beading (pearls, sequins) that was hand-stitched AFTER the lace was attached….because removing the lace means the embellishments will fall off since the threads will be cut. Also keep everything intact if you can use the pre-trimmed fabric as-is, for example if the skirt hem is embellished and you can use this for your new project. Generally the hem at the front of a dress will be on-grain but if the back sweeps out to a train, the hemline will be at an angle. In this case I like to remove the hem-lace in back and keep it intact in front.
(Side note: depending on the style of dress, you may have lots of fabric but not much trim…or possibly plenty of trim but not enough fabric. You can stay within the spirit of upcycling by combining trims from multiple wedding gowns into a single sewing project, or by adding in used vintage table linens. I’ve been lucky to find lovely white cotton jacquard tablecloths at yard sales, since many people don’t have the patience for excessive ironing much these days.)
Step 5: Choosing a new silhouette. There are a few considerations here:
- Gender-specific or gender-neutral? It’s easier to make a girl’s baptism dress than a boy’s romper, since the translation from dress-to-dress is simpler in terms of fabric and trims. However you may have enough fabric to make both a dress and a romper, or you might consider designing a simple gown that can be used by all of the babies in the family, with pleats instead of ruffles and tailored sleeves instead of puffed.
- Fabric weight and drape: lightweight chiffon or charmeuse can be gathered into a full and flowing gown, while shantung or slipper-satin is better suited for tailored lines. Keep in mind the size of the baptism outfit: a fabric that drapes well in an adult size may be too stiff in an infant size. For this reason, if you are working with a client, communication is key: the original vision may need to be modified. Just as in home remodeling or landscaping, it helps to have an open mind and be flexible: the fabric will “tell you” what it wants to do.
Note: dressmakers whose regular business is upcycling wedding gowns into baptism gowns generally charge around $150 to $250, plus additional for extras such as a matching bonnet. I’ve heard people say they think that’s a high price, “considering they don’t have to buy the fabric or trims“. Actually what the client is paying for is time and experience:
- Time equals money for any business, and it costs far more in time to dis-assemble a wedding gown, than to drive to the store and buy a few yards of fabric. It’s the dressmaker’s experience that holds the most value, and therefore commands a price.
- Experience in sewing special-occasion fabrics is fairly specific, but experience in knowing which part of the gown can most successfully be translated into infants-wear is rare. It is an art, not a science, and therefore it cannot be learned by following a set of specific directions. Only by hands-on doing, by trial and error, can one become masterful at any creative endeavor, and this is no exception.
Step 6: Design your own pattern, use a sewing pattern, or a combination? Your choice, but in this case I’ll be using a commercially available home-sewing pattern for the bodice block, and drafting the skirt. Compared to childrens-wear, there are relatively few home-sewing patterns published for infants-wear. Each of the commercial paper pattern companies has a handful of baptism designs, however in my opinion the sizing on them runs very big.
I will be making the most basic empire-waist puffed-sleeve dress, with the bodice using allover lace (underlined in charmeuse) and the skirt in charmeuse, everything lined with the nylon dress-lining fabric. For a basic block in a traditional design, I like the fit of the Tadah patterns “Tea Party” baby dress with the sleeve add-on.
Compare the fit of this (paper) Simplicity gown #8024 with the (pdf file) Tadah Tea Party (with the Sleeve Add-on, which has more ease in the bodice than the original Tea Party sleeveless design):
- Simplicity #8024 in 12 months is equivalent to Tadah Tea Party in size 2 years.
- Simplicity #8024 in size 3 months is equivalent to Tadah Tea Party in 6 to 12 months.
Simplicity children’s patterns are drafted about 2 sizes too large, in my opinion. Same with McCall’s patterns in children’s sizes. If you do choose to use them, you may wish to go down a size or two. Also the Tadah Baby Tea Party is graded down to preemie size, which is hard to find in home-sewing patterns.
Drafting the skirt. Here I needed to draft my own flared pattern piece, since both the Simplicity and Tadah patterns had rectangular skirt pieces….which are fine but they don’t work well with the typically curved hem of a wedding dress. A flared skirt is drafted by taking a straight skirt, then “slash-and-spreading” to add volume to the hem, while creating a curved waistline and hemline, and maintaining the trued corners that make sewing easy.
A gathered skirt should have a ratio to the bodice width of anywhere from 1.5 times (if using a full-bodied fabric such as duchess satin) to 6 times (if using a very lightweight fabric like chiffon). The fabric I’m using is a standard polyester charmeuse, so a skirt ratio of 2 5 times the bodice is a good starting point:
Length is a matter of fabric availability, and personal choice. I like to make the new gown as long as the fabric will allow, but that’s just me.
- A regal formal baptism gown for an infant can be as long as 40″ shoulder-to-hem.
- Still formal but sometimes more manageable is a 30″ length.
- If the child is already standing, an ankle length is practical (around 24″ for a 1 year old)
- For preemie size Angel Gowns, 24″ is a good length.
Step 7: Cutting out the fabric:
SKIRT: Since the skirt is the largest pattern piece, skirt placement goes first. If the hem is already decorated, using it “as is” can be a great time-saver. If the curve of the original hemline doesn’t match the pattern, you may need to unstitch some of the hem trim and re-draw the hemline. Or, you may prefer adjusting the pattern to fit the original dress….this is where flexibility comes in!
In my case, I unstitched the original hem-lace, and folded back the skirt pattern hem length to fit as long a skirt as possible….I also took advantage of the width of fabric available to add a bit more sweep by slightly pivoting the skirt pattern:
BODICE: The fitted bodice pieces are tiny and can be often be squeezed out of scraps (just make sure the grainline is correct):
To embellish the bodice, study the original dress and see how you can incorporate the design details:
I could choose to cut out the bodice from the lace “fabric”, or else separate the lace motifs and sew them onto the bodice afterwards. So much depends on the weight of the fabric. Also keep in mind any embellishments such as sequins or pearls….this piece had pearls, so they needed to be removed from the seam-allowance areas:
Since beading is often handstitched using a continuous thread, it’s important to secure any embellishments near the edges where threads were cut to remove the trims in the seam allowance:
SLEEVES: the Tadah pattern has both long fitted sleeves and short puffed sleeves. In this case, either version can be cut from the original garment sleeves, and this is an example of what you would discuss with a client if you were making a custom upcycle:
The tailored sleeve would make a stunning option:
But I decided on the classic short puff sleeves:
(Side note: although I love the Tadah pattern, in my opinion the non-puffed sleeve has too little sleeve-cap height. So many patterns have the same issue, I will explain this in a future post.)
The construction and instructions in the Tea Party dress are clear and professional, creating a lovely finished product. Here is the bodice with the sleeve attached…I changed the cuff from bias tape to elastic:
Two sets of sleeve setting instructions are included: the simple method with armscye seam allowances exposed, or completely enclosed for a clean inside finish, which is trickier to do but so nice for ease of dressing and baby’s comfort:
(Note: here’s an online tutorial from the Say Grr Sewing blog for how to stitch the enclosed armscye:
And “Tadah!” Here is the finished christening gown:
What do you think? Do you have the nerve to cut up a wedding gown?
Happy Sewing! Best, Janet