Wedding dress: design, pattern and muslin

This is the first post in a series about making my sister’s wedding separates, and covers planning and design. The next posts will cover construction, the final look and resources.

When I first started working on my sister’s dress, I had hoped to find a single pattern to suit my sister’s exacting tastes. She was sending me tons of gorgeous Pinterest images, and I was sending her links to patterns, and boy, was there a big divide in aesthetics. None of the patterns ended up appealing to her even though what she wanted – a sweetheart bodice with some kind of flattering shoulder and armpit coverage, and a floor-length skirt – wasn’t too outlandish.

So we put down our phones and laptops and did some field research at a boutique where my sis could try on a dress by her favorite bridal designer, Monique Lhullier. She fell in love with this dress bodice, which gave us something more solid to work from.

Image credit:
Image credit:

She also fell in love with a-line skirts with chiffon overlays, like this one:

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

My diagnosis was that we’d need a strapless bodice – and all accompanying structure – with an overlay of lace, and a skirt that was shaped at the top with a full hem.

With some basic design decisions made, I found myself cobbling together patterns. The skirt I chose – Sewaholic’s Gabriola – was an instant hit with Bee and fit with only minor de-hipping. After a false start with Simplicity 1606, I made some flat pattern alterations to an unlikely candidate, McCall’s 6325 (a bustier top pattern with a button placket, which I’d sewn as designed here and here), by eliminating the front closure, removing the peplum, and extending the cups both horizontally and vertically. I documented three muslins (there were probably more): | making a wedding dress
Muslin 1: utterly unwearable but good enough to prove the concept | making a wedding dress
Muslin 2: with boning and batting, shown on yours truly | making a wedding dress
Muslin 3, with minor fit and design tweaks and what passes for straps at Crab & Bee Bridal

I won’t delve into the muslin construction too much, but I will mention that Susan Khalje’s Bridal Couture book has a section muslin-making that I benefitted from immensely. I used quite a few of her techniques, like thread tracing the muslin pieces, wide seam allowances and marking the natural waistline with elastic. I also added boning and a simulated waist stay to the muslin –  techniques I would have assumed were for the final bodice – and stabilized the neckline with twill tape, which was necessary for keeping the shape during fitting.

After the struggle of finding a pattern, fitting was the next major challenge.  Part of it was a lack of experience on my part; I rarely make or wear close-fitting garments, and when I do, I prefer a low-profile look through the bust. Bee wanted this bodice to fit like a bustier and support like a bra. Getting a good fit through the bust, especially as we wavered on undergarments, was something I had to really focus on.

As I mentioned above, I wanted the bodice support itself as strapless to reduce stress on the lace. My sister and I share the same shape, which is broad through the shoulders, no difference between upper and full bust and a fairly narrow ribcage. I can’t imagine a shape less conducive to holding up a strapless bodice! Tightening the upper edge created the dreaded back overhang and the whole bodice would eventually creep down anyway. Adding the boning and waist stay to the muslin were critical to proving the bodice could stay up. | longline bra in progress

The same fit issues with the strapless bodice applied to RTW undergarments that Bee was trying out. I ended up making a bra for Bee based on the bodice, thinking it would be easier/faster than waiting for her to find a product that may not exist. Even if it ended up getting abandoned, making the bra was what allowed us to move on from the muslin phase.

So, because I love a good summary, here’s a list of what this phase entailed:

  1. Search for dress patterns
  2. Fail at finding dress patterns
  3. Try on real dresses
  4. Start searching for skirt and bodice patterns to match favorite real dress
  5. Try Simplicity 1606 for bodice pattern
  6. Reject Simplicity 1606
  7. Choose Sewaholic Gabriola for skirt pattern
  8. Alter McCall’s 6325 for design
  9. Muslin McCall’s 6325 for fit and design, adding boning and padding
  10. Try to find strapless bra
  11. Fail to find bra, and make one myself
  12. Graduate from muslin phase

I’ll be back soon with more posts! For now, I’ll leave you with an image that captures the turning point of the messy, amorphous muslin process, when both Bee and I started to feel more confident and excited. Seeing the bodice and skirt come together, even in muslin, was magical. | making a wedding dress


44 thoughts on “Wedding dress: design, pattern and muslin

  1. this is so exciting! love what you have come up with and I am so glad that you are going to be sharing the process with us. cant wait to see more!

    1. Thank you, Kelli! I’m so excited to finally share with you guys. (I got a bit of writer’s block because I’ve never written about a project this large!)

    1. Thank you, Laurie! I probably should have mentioned that the dress is all wrapped up as of June and I’m finally getting around to writing about it 😉

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write these posts, I’m so interested in hearing about how you tackled this!

  3. This is such an impressive undertaking! It’s really great to hear the “behind the scenes” details. Love what you did with muslin #1, bringing wedding separates to a whole new level, lol. Can’t wait to see the finished dress!

  4. Oh my gosh, you really stepped up to the plate! Making a strapeless bra as a side project? Wow. I can’t wait to read the next installment!

  5. Thanks so much for posting this, can’t wait to read the rest of your wedding sewing learnings! I’m between steps three and four right now, going to try on dresses in a few weeks because I’m not really sure what I like – I keep wavering between different styles. But it looks like your sister and I have the same ideas about wedding dresses! I’ll be looking into those patterns, and am patiently waiting to take that Susan Khalje book out at the library.

    1. How exciting! Trying on dresses helped make it real. Also, since you’re actually making a wedding dress, I’ll tell you about some of my pattern regrets that I’m addressing in my next posts. If you do end up needing a bustier-style bodice, you might take a look at Burda’s bustier dresses. It could’ve saved me a bit of work! And for the skirt, I think a flared, gored skirt might have been a better choice since my sis didn’t actually like the yoke and it ended up causing some mischief .

  6. Oooohhhhh! I’m so glad you started the wedding dress series. I know I got a sneak peek at the dress already, but I can’t wait to read more about it! Wedding dresses are such a wonderful labor of love!

  7. Oh my gosh Morgan! This is looking incredible. What a gift of love and patience you gave your sister. Can’t wait for the rest of the series.

  8. This is so interesting to read about the process. I can’t imagine doing something so involved and technical but I love reading about it, and it looks like a beautiful dress – can’t wait to read, and see, more!

  9. How exciting! This was such an epic undertaking, and I’m really enjoying reading about the process. Thanks for sharing the ups and downs. Looking forward to the rest of the series! (P.S. – If they give trophies for sewing, I think you’ve earned one with this project.) 🙂

  10. This looks like such an enormous amount of work. I can see why you would be a bit burned out on sewing at the moment. It is gorgeous, though, even in muslin form.

    1. It was a tremendous amount of work, although I took the muslin phase pretty slowly (perhaps too slowly, in retrospect?) and was sewing all kinds of palate-cleanser projects at the same time. Now that my math skirt is done I’ve been picking away at a quilting cotton shift for a couple of weeks – I just don’t seem to want to binge on sewing like I used to! The Something Elses are definitely calling my name right now.

      1. Maybe – they’re no owl embroidery though! I’ll see if I can make a good post out of veggie gardening, finishing my Marie Kondo purging and watching Star Trek…

  11. Wow Morgan! Quite a process, and I’m loving hearing about it. I think it’s so cool to hear how people come up with designs and finished garments. I can’t imagine how much you have learned – you must feel like now you can conquer any project. I know I would. I’m really excited to see what’s next!

    1. Ya know, I actually have that weird feeling of not knowing anything right now – like I learned a lot in a short period and I haven’t digested it all. I do kind of want to sew another formal dress to solidify everything but I have very few formal occasions to dress for!

  12. Can’t wait to see how it comes out! So interesting to learn about a branch of sewing I’ve never tried before – a wedding dress (especially one for someone else) has to be the ultimate example of slow sewing!

  13. The last picture actually gave me goose bumps….you make this feel like a magical process indeed. Can’t wait to see more!

  14. Oooh – Crab & Bee Bridal has rather a lovely ring to it! 😉 I adore your sisters aethestic – both those inspiration dresses are divine. I find myself pleasantly surprised at just how nicely the gabriola skirt goes with the style in your final muslin – I especially love the pleat at the centre – I love full formal skirts with a bit of something different like this! I know exactly what that whole bustier episode felt like… struggle town until you get to that point and you’re like – this is actually going to work. I’m clicking onto your next post right now!!

    1. I was surprised how beautiful the skirt went with the bodice too! I actually missed the crispness of the muslin when I made the final skirt. There was something epic about the way it fell. I never really gave much thought to formal skirts before, but I think they’re genius now!

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