DIY wedding-dress alterations

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It’s officially Wedding Season and I am flooded with questions about alterations for the wedding gown as well as dresses for the bridesmaids, mothers of the bride and groom, and even guests. I’ll try to answer one or two more of them and then we’ll move on to other topics.

My daughter is getting married in June and we are on a real tight budget. We have her dress and it fits except that it’s a strapless gown and it’s a bit too big around the bust. I have sewn all my life but never attempted to work on a wedding gown. It’s satin with a little bit of beading to accentuate the embroidery. Can you guide me through this project, or is it best left to the professionals? June C., Culver City, Calif..

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I will gladly tell you how to do the alteration, but whether or not you will feel comfortable doing it, I can’t say. The most difficult part of altering a wedding gown is the sheer weight and volume of fabric to manipulate. I always feel as if I’ve had my aerobic workout when I’m done. So you need a pretty good-sized, clean workspace. Make sure your hands are clean to the point of being dry. Oils on the skin can accumulate on the satin and attract lint and dust.

I’ll give directions for a simple strapless gown, made with one layer of satin and underlining and one layer of lining and underlining. If there are more layers, each one will have to be altered individually.

First, let’s talk about the exact fit. Is it loose just at the top of the dress (which is called, by the way, the neckline)? How about the waist and hips? First, you must decide how much fabric you are taking out of the dress and make sure the proportions make sense. For instance, are you taking in 4 inches at the neckline but nothing at the waist? If so, you may be over-fitting. There should have no more than one size (2 inches) difference between bust, waist and hips in order for the dress to lie correctly. Otherwise, the dress will look out of balance. For instance, in the above example, if you were to take in 4 inches at the bust and taper to nothing at the waist, the waist may then look too big. And of course, you have to watch the “spill-over” along the top of a strapless dress. If the dress is too tight, that will be emphasized and we don’t want that.

Next, you must remove the beads closest to the new seam. Machines will stitch over sequins but not glass beads. Make a mark where the new seam will be either with chalk or disappearing ink. Removing the beads can be done with a seam ripper if you need to save the beads or a pair of pliers if you don’t. If you use pliers, be careful not to break the threads along with the beads because then you will have to re-stitch the loose beads. I carefully grasp each individual bead with the corner of my pliers and gently break them. Most of them break pretty easily. Be sure to wear protective goggles for this job because the glass will fly.

After removing the beads, you must separate the layers of the neckline seam of the dress. I use a razor blade because that is what I’m used to. You may want to use a seam ripper. Carefully remove the understitching along the inside facing or lining of the dress. Flip the dress inside out and remove the stitching along the top of the dress, past where you are taking it in. You may have to remove boning. Sometimes it’s in the side seam and sometimes not.

Stitch the new seams approximating the stitch length used by the manufacturer. They have already figured the best kind of stitch for the dress, so why guess.  Remove the old seams. If you are taking the dress in more than 1/2 inch, you will have to trim the seam allowance, keeping the original amount. Make sure you re-stitch the underlining or interfacing first. If you are taking in the dress less than 1/2 inch, you can usually leave the seam allowance alone. It’s best to leave it if you can in case a bigger person wants to use the dress in the future. Usually the seams are pressed open.

Time now for the fitting. Have the bride try the dress on again and check the fit. Make adjustments if necessary and continue.

Stitch the neckline seam, making sure to keep the seam allowances flat and remembering to re-insert the hanging ribbons. There may be a discrepancy where the front and back of the dress meet at the side seam. Sometimes you can blend it at the side seam; sometimes you will have to make the side front of the dress a little lower to meet the back and blend the seam further towards the bust darts. It helps to draw the new seam with disappearing ink to get a nice line.

Flip the dress right side out and press, using lots of steam and pressure to get a nice flat seam. Pin through all layers at the side seam and turn inside out again. Stitch the seam allowances together back and forth a couple of times just below the top seam to keep the layers in place. Sometimes this has to be done by hand. Flip right side out again.

OK, the hard part is done. Now for the fun part: the re-beading. Using a beading needle, I usually start the stitching a couple of beads back to lock any loose ones. Then use the extra beads to fill in the pattern. Look at the rest of the dress to get a feel for the beading patterns. But remember this part is under the arm and as long as it sparkles, it’ll be fine.

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Barbara Stone
Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Road, Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or bstonedesigns@sbcglobal.net.
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