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Creating my Wedding Dress


Silk dresses dyed with fresh leaf indigo!

Photo credit: Kelsey Kobik, flowers by Top Blossom Farm


Last year I had two main goals: to finish the renovation of a large 1880's multifamily home my partner and I had purchased, and to pull off a very DIY wedding. Since most of my days were filled with scraping and painting the exterior of the very detailed house, I funneled my creative energy into evenings and weekends working on art projects, many wedding-related.


Weddings were not something I'd spent much time thinking about before deciding to have one, but I immediately knew that I wanted to make my wedding dress. I've always felt that handmade things are the most special, and clothing in particular has always felt magical--an object that becomes animated when worn and holds onto the memory of the bodies it's clothed long after they're gone. During my many hours playing dress up as a kid, I remember trying on my friend's grandmother's wedding dress--an indigo silk organza piece with a fitted bodice and long layered skirt-- and feeling like a different person altogether.


By the time I started thinking about my own wedding dress, I had been making garments for a year or so, and had made two dresses (see the Patchwork dress and the Handkerchief dress) both based somewhat loosely on patterns from a Japanese book of Madeliene Vionnet-inspired dress patterns (you can find it on Etsy here). I had an idea of what I wanted, a bias cut 1930s style evening gown that I would sew up in silk and dye with fresh indigo from my garden. Simple, but I also imagined printing the silk with a resist paste before dyeing to create a subtle design. It's interesting now thinking back on my original idea, because, while I played with a lot of different ideas in between, in the end I essentially ended up with exactly what I'd originally imagined. I can be a little stubborn that way.



Inspired by the above image (a Madeleine Vionnet design), I originally planned on using a shiny silk charmeuse. Instead, I ended up buying wholesale from Exotic Silks, and went with the somewhat more budget-friendly silk crepe de chine, which I planned to use for three bridesmaids dresses as well (I only ended up making one of them). I was inspired by slinky 1930s evening gowns, and spent many hours looking through images and patterns online.



I hadn't found anything quite right in the Japanese Vionnet book, and none of the patterns online seemed perfect, but I tried this pattern anyway. The pattern was fairly straight-forward (though I very much struggled with those acute angles in the skirt), but I sewed it up in a cheap, slinky fabric and it was a total disaster. I realized I needed to create a garment exactly to my measurements.





Then I stumbled on this tutorial from Charlotta's Patterncutting School (really great videos for understanding garment construction, pattern cutting, etc). The mini tutorial was really just an idea of how one might begin thinking about drafting a pattern for this dress below, from merely studying the photo. As someone fairly new to making clothing and not formally trained, my mind was completely blown by the way the instructor could look at these photos and puzzle out what the pieces might look like flat.

This dress, a Madeleine Vionnet design, was probably a nightgown in it's time and is in the collection at the Chicago Museum of Art.

I was really taken in by the simplicity of this dress, and how the volume in the skirt is concentrated in a really stunning way. The top was actually fairly simple to create, though it was my first attempt at draping. I added padding to my dress form to match my measurements as much as possible, then began draping a deep cowl neck top from the left shoulder. (I watched many a Youtube tutorial for this, including this one that I watched over and over.)


The twist in the back was tricky! I was also able to figure this out by draping, simply pinning the fabric in place on my dress form. My version did not look so seamless, however, as the pieces met near the bottom of the shoulder blades instead of higher up on the strap.

After draping and cutting the fabric on my dress form, I unpinned the cut fabric and traced it onto a piece of paper. I corrected the pattern by making it symmetrical side to side, then the entire piece was cut out of a square of fabric folded on the diagonal (the bias), creating two layers. I really like the way the deep cowl almost forms a V neck.


I sewed up the pattern I'd created twice in a cheap synthetic fabric, making it a little bigger after trying it on the second time and working out the kinks. A relatively simple process, especially after sewing it up a few times.


The top looked like this (the white piece on the left) once sewn up. I really liked the deep and almost angular arm holes of the original dress, which I tried to emulate. The top fold is the deep cowl neck.

The skirt was much more challenging. I began (like Charlotta suggested in the tutorial), by creating miniature paper pieces from quarter circles to start thinking about how the skirt might be put together. I started from a basic body measurement between the hips, the two right angles on the front of the skirt, and based the other measurements on that. This had to be adjusted, however, as the fabric was cut on the diagonal (bias) and thus had much more natural stretch (additionally, the crepe de chine has a slight stretch in it's weave). I made what I thought were some pretty good guesses at measurements, then drafted the skirt pieces onto paper.


Creating the half circle, it was hard to find enough space in my apartment!
Cutting out a trial skirt pattern in a cheap fabric

An early rough draft of the skirt, not quite right. Also on display, the complete disaster my sewing room was at the time.

I ended up making about 4 trial skirts, some of them short like this one, just to get the design right

These acute seams in the back were the most challenging part, each measurement had to be so exact, which is especially difficult in a silk fabric.

The final pattern pieces!

The diamond shape connects the skirt to the top in the back and meets with interlocking seams at the front waistline

Once I had the pieces cut out of my silk fabric (which I did as precisely as possible on large sewing tables at the makerspace in my town), I stay-stitched ALL edges of the pattern pieces. Since my next steps involved printing and dyeing the pieces, I needed them to stay as true as possible to their original shape.


I felt so much relief having completed the pattern draping, drafting and cutting and was thrilled to get on to the dyeing! This is much more my comfort zone, but the stakes were still pretty high (silk is expensive!) so I did some print and dye testing. I made a stencil out of yupo paper, a synthetic, paper-like product that holds up to lots of washing, and attached it to a screen with acrylic paint to hold everything together.

I don't have a photo of the stencil I used, but it looked something like this

I made a test print on a scrap of my silk fabric, this is dried rice paste that will resist the indigo leaf mash

I cut the printed fabric into strips, covered it with leaf mash, then rinsed off each piece at a different time (the lightest piece at to top only sat for 30 seconds)

The pattern was one I'd been imagining for awhile. I love dendritic patterns, and as I was cutting the yupo paper my knife made a natural node at the end of the branch. It's roots, branches, waterways, seaweed, blood vessels, mycelium, cervical mucus ferning, it's alive!


Test print with just indigo leaf mash

test prints comparing time of dye exposure (top to bottom) and lemon juice (left) vs alum (right) additives to the leaf mash

Because the wet indigo leaf mash breaks down the rice paste, it can only sit for so long on the surface of the fabric before seeping through. The test print on the left sat for only about 5 minutes. I wanted to dye my dress with fresh indigo, but I also wanted a subtle print, so I did a comparison of dye time (how long the leaf mash sat on the fabric). I also tested adding alum and lemon juice to the leaf mash, which seems to limit the amount of indigo that is able to bond with the fiber, shifting the color toward teal. I liked this effect a lot for my dress.


After getting an idea of how dyeing time and leaf mash additives would affect the print, I was ready to print all the dress pieces. This was done over the course of a few days, with lots of drying time between printings, and using more rice paste then I've ever made at once!

The printed top

printed skirt piece

Japanese indigo ready to harvest at the farm

Making the leaf mash!

I was nervous for the next step, but luckily I had Jon there to help me spread the leaf mash out on the prepared fabric as quickly and evenly as possible, and then hose it all down when the time was up!

dyeing the top

spreading the leaf mash, thank you, Jon!

After rinsing (a lot), curing with soy milk, and more rinsing I sewed the pieces together! It turns out this was the easiest part. I also added a lining to the skirt which I appreciated as it added weight as well as opacity. All in all, I was pretty thrilled with the result.

The photos below are taken by my friend Kelsey Kobik, check out her work here !


Fresh leaf indigo dyed dress and veil. Due to inexperience and thriftiness, I used a lighter weight fabric than most formal wear likely would be made of, but I love seeing the architecture of the garment in it's seams.













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