Wedding dress: constructing the bodice

This is the third post in a series about making my sister’s wedding separates, which were completed in mid-June. The next posts will cover lace, the final dress and resources. The posts on construction won’t be strictly chronological; I bounced back and forth between bodice and skirt, depending on which piece was giving me more grief.

I complained a lot about that skirt, but let’s be honest – it was nothing compared to the bodice. I tried so many new-to-me techniques on the bodice that the whole process lives under a thick fog in my memory. Or perhaps I Kon-Maried my brain and I’m trying to access data I discarded a month ago. The most solid evidence I have of what I did is this blob of to-do lists I started in May. | wedding separates to-do-list

Given all those caveats, I’ll share my best guesses about how the bodice came together.

Once we’d decided to do separates, I knew the bodice had to be extended. No amount of hugging and celebrating should cause the bodice and skirt to part each other’s company! I went back to the original pattern (McCall’s 6325), which is longer and has a waist seam, and combined my waist-length bodice pattern with the longer bodice pieces with Bee’s measurements in mind. The dotted lines in the image below mark the waistline. | sewing wedding separates

After the lower bodice was fitted, I cut it out in silk duchesse with a silk organza underlining. Earlier, I’d thrown caution to the wind and washed the duchesse. It emerged a different, much softer fabric with interesting striations. Bee liked it better – it looked kind of vintage and the sheen was gone – but it ended up being much floppier than I’d planned for. Given all that floppiness, I don’t think silk organza was the right underlining choice, but I forged ahead. (I think a light muslin would have provided more bulk and more opacity.)

After hand-basting the underlining to the lining for all the pieces, I machine-sewed them together. I used 1″ seam allowances for all the seams except for where the cups met the bodice, which were 1/2″. This gave me some flexibility for fit and allowed me to make my boning casing by felling one side of the seam. | sewing wedding separates | sewing wedding separates

Since Bee wanted the back to be uninterrupted lace with a high neck, we decided on a side closure. I ended up taking too much width out of the side without the closure and had to let out the closure side. The only other fit change I made was taking in the center cup seam a little more; they looked poofier in the underlined duchesse than they had in muslin.

Through the many fittings we had, I began to see that the bra I’d made Bee liked to peak over the edge of the dress. Even though the bra had been based off the bodice pattern and I’d made sure to remove a good inch from the top edge, the negative ease had a way of compressing the body and allowed the dress to slide down. I’d begun to frantically cook up ways to secure it to the dress, like snaps and ties (there may have been a particularly low moment when velcro entered my mind), when I had the idea of inserting sew-in cups to the dress itself without the bra. | sewing wedding separates | sewing wedding separates

It worked beautifully and no velcro would sully the dress. After cutting the cups down and serging the edges to flatten the cut edges, I secured them into the bodice by – what else – catch-stitching. Goodbye, bra. | sewing wedding separates

I had originally wanted to add boning to the seamlines only, using folded and slip-stitched seam allowances as the channels, but it became clear that more support was needed. I ended up machine-sewing a channel of the duchesse down the front and catch-stitching the excess to the organza. I added diagonal boning from the CF bottom towards the top edge of the princess seam, which you can see below. I also added a boning channel underneath the hook and eye tape closure. I had assumed the tape would add enough rigidity to the closure but I was wrong. I guess it’s not surprising that cotton tape with tiny bits of metal in it can’t hold a candle to 6mm spiral steel boning. Spiral steel boning is fantastically flexible and strong – so strong, in fact, I had to buy “high leverage diagonal-cutting pliers” as my jewelry-grade cutters weren’t even making a dent. | sewing wedding separates
You can see the right side and center panels collapsing a bit before I added more boning | sewing wedding separates
The final pre-lace bodice incarnation, with additional front and side boning

My sis said she would have been satisfied to walk down the aisle in this and the skirt, which made me feel better about some of the flaws. The cups look a little bumpy (one on the top and one on the bottom), there was lots of visible machine-stitching, and even with the extra boning there were some wrinkles. I was tempted to care more but everything disappeared beautifully under the thick alençon lace.

I added a lining after I had finished the lace overlay. I wasn’t sure I was going to add one, but the temperatures kept rising and silk isn’t the most fun fabric to sweat into. I bought some cotton lawn and inserted a last-minute lining by hand, making sure to leave openings for the waist stay on the princess seams nearest the closure.

Based on my compromised memory, my to-do-lists and my phone pics, this is the order of operations (mistakes included) as best I can tell:

  1. Lengthen bodice pattern to function as a separate piece
  2. Cut out fabric and underlining for bodice
  3. Baste the fabric and underlining by hand for all piece
  4. Machine-sew the front pieces together
  5. Create boning channels from seam allowances for bodice front
  6. Cut out batting for cups, removing all seam allowance
  7. Sew cup batting pieces together with abutted seams
  8. Sew cup seams, grading, notching and catch-stitching seams
  9. Machine-sew cups to front pieces
  10. Stay-stitch top of cups
  11. Baste twill tape to cup seam allowance
  12. Machine-sew the back pieces together
  13. Machine thread-trace the neckline and hemline seam allowances in white
  14. Machine-baste the right side together
  15. Sew dress shields
  16. Evaluate fit (with dress shields and cup batting pinned in place!) and position of waist stay together
  17. Take out too much ease from the right side
  18. Remove some ease from the center cup seams
  19. Notch and catch-stitch cup center seams open
  20. Secure cup batting pieces to cups with catch-stitch
  21. Make boning channels on back seams and right side seam
  22. Trim and catch-stitch all remaining seam allowances open
  23. Cut and add tips to all boning pieces, and insert into channels
  24. Test position of hook and eye closure on the left side
  25. Reduce the seam allowance on left side to compensate for overfitting right
  26. Sew hook and eye tape along left-side closure
  27. Decide to sew cups directly into bodice instead of using the strapless bra
  28. Catch-stitch cups into bodice
  29. Machine-sew 3 more front boning channels
  30. Add boning channel behind hook and eye tape (the left side was buckling without it)
  31. Cut and add tips to all additional boning pieces, and insert into channels
  32. Catch-stitch top edge, bottom hem, left-side closure seam allowance to organza underlining
  33. Secure waist-stay to front, back and left side
  34. DRAPE AND SEW LACE (to be covered in the next post)
  35. Cut a lining from cotton voile (this would have been easier to do before lace)
  36. Machine-sew lining pieces together, leaving a slot for the waist stay at the front and back right-side princess seams
  37. Hand-sew lining into place
  38. Secure dress shields

This list is so long it barely makes sense to me (Jodie was wise to make a video of her wedding dress process), but if you’ve made it all the way through and ended up with questions, please feel free to ask. You may give my memory a jolt! | sewing wedding separates

I’ll be back soon with my final construction post – LACE! I started working with the lace in the week before the wedding – which I’d wisely taken off work – but I’d been dreading it for months. Though time-consuming, the lace turned out to be fun, flexible, and much easier than the bodice construction… who’d have thought?


42 thoughts on “Wedding dress: constructing the bodice

  1. The bodice turned out great! I think the flaws you can see are the kind of mistakes that nobody else would notice if they weren’t pointed out. And I mean not even those who sew themselves, and would know where to look for mistakes. It fits your sister really well! I can’t wait to see that beautiful lace on the dress!

    1. Thank you, Etemi! It’s easy to get too close to a project and lose perspective on a big project. The lace ended up being one of my favorite parts of the dress so I’m excited to share!

  2. This is absolutely fascinating. I only understand about half of what it is you’re talking about (due to my lack of knowledge- nothing else) but still I can’t stop reading! Am awaiting your lace ‘episode’ as eagerly as I am the next Sherlock one…

    1. I almost can’t understand this post and I wrote it! Doing something complicated for the first time is really confusing. If you are interested in learning more, I found that Susan Khalje’s book explained bridal/formal sewing clearly in a surprisingly short book.

  3. You did such a fantastic and thorough job of fitting! It’s such a difficult process to get the fit just right when doing it custom, that it’s amazing a bride could get away with a regular mass-produced dress. Then again, I’ve seen some horrifically fitting wedding dresses… Can’t wait to read about the lace!

    1. Aw thanks Lisa! When my sis was trying on dresses, some of the expensive bustier-style bodices had stretch – stretch lace, stretch corset, etc. Kind of surprising, but it would definitely make fitting easier. I think the fitting was especially difficult for me because I don’t usually make close-fitting garments and hadn’t made any formal dresses before this one. The great news is that I can use my sister’s bodice pattern for myself!

  4. The amount of time you spent on this project still blows my mind. You should definitely learn to knit now, it will seem so fast and easy! 😉 And yeah, the bodice looks great on you, so I hope you get to use it again!

  5. I am making a very similar dress for my wedding in 2 months’ time. And the bodice is exactly the same as your sister’s! This is so helpful to see the process, although a bit scary too, looking ahead at what awaits me… How long did it take you to construct this part?
    Well done, it looks really great!

    1. Hey Alex, that’s awesome! I started the bodice about a month before the wedding. I was running a couple of weeks late because of the bra I’d ended up making, and I could have been done faster if I’d put enough boning into it the first time around. I also didn’t want to close it up too soon in case my sister’s figure changed; a friend who worked in bridal told me that closing up the bodice 2 weeks before the wedding date is standard. It was a bit of a balancing act between getting as much done as possible and making sure it would fit on the wedding. I hope that helps! Good luck!

  6. Your fitting skills are fantastic! It all seems such a huge learning curve, but you’ve mastered it so beautifully. Your sister must be thrilled – what a gift. Looking forward to reading about the lace; it looks sublime!

    1. Haha, sorry for the suspense! I thought I’d better share the construction before I forgot what I did (too late, apparently), and I knew if I shared the final dress first I would get lazy. Soon!!

  7. I do a lot of free-lance sewing, mostly making wedding dresses, and so I’ve really enjoyed reading your process– which is very similar to mine. (Especially all the list-making!) Each dress is a different challenge, but getting the fit just right is always the trickiest bit for me too. And after that, it’s puzzling through the most efficient method of construction. But you’re right, there are many tasks that you learn to streamline after having tried them before.
    I just wanted to share a method I used recently for keeping a strapless bra safely tucked inside of a strapless bodice, since you said you might use this pattern for yourself one day. I cut six 2″ pieces of rigilene boning, and covered them in casings I made from satin ribbon. When I stitched the facing to finish the top edge of the bodice, I caught these pieces of rigilene into the seam allowance at SF, SS, and SB, and also secured them in the understitching so that they formed flat tabs that fell to the inside of the bodice. When you’re wearing your bodice, you can slip these tabs down inside your undergarment, thus ensuring that your bra can’t come creeping up, and your bodice won’t go sliding down past the top edge of your bra. As long as your undergarment fits securely, you can use this method to rely more heavily on the undergarment (as opposed to the fit/tightness of the bodice) to keep your bodice in place. I hope that makes sense and that it could be helpful to you.
    I’m really looking forward to seeing how your sister’s dress turns out–I agree with you that sewing lace (while intimidating to start cutting into) is fun to sew and very satisfying!

  8. Oh my gosh! Fabulous series! The bodice really is remarkable on its own. And, I can’t believe how many steps there were! I’m holding my breath for the lace post…

    1. I feel a little crazy looking at that page of lists, but it’s probably the image that represents the process the most! And thanks for the compliment 🙂

  9. I have nothing but admiration for you – you have done an amazing job on this dress! I’m so glad you took notes and can share the whole process!

  10. I have been stalking these posts for months now, as I am making my own wedding separates. Wedding tops are hard to find, in my price range at least, so I’ve been scouring the Internet to find tips on constructing my own. Thank you for posting all of this, it’s been extremely educational for me.

    I do have a question about your hook and eye tape closure. Were the hooks visible or did you leave a little extra fabric on the hook side to cover them? Or did you rely on the lace to hide them? I have a top in the works that is similar to yours with a center back closure, and I’m uncertain how to make the closure look neat. Once it’s hooked up and there is some tension put on the fabric, the extra fabric I left to cover the hooks kinda flops up because of the strain. I also saw that the eye tape was on the right side of the fabric, correct? Did you just count on the lace to cover it up?

    Hope that makes sense. I’ve been puzzling over this for a while, and figured I’d just ask someone who did it successfully. Thanks!

    1. Hi Doreen! Congratulations on your wedding and making your dress! I ended up putting a boning channel in the bodice under the hook tape because it was collapsing. I added a short extension on the bodice behind the eye tape side for comfort; the hook tape goes right up to the edge but some of the lace goes a little over the edge. I was worried about that getting ratty while my sis wore it but it wasn’t much and held up. It didn’t fully cover the eye tape, though. Are you using lace? Extending it out a bit at your CB closure could look really nice.

      1. I am using lace, and planned on extending it a bit over the closure but wasn’t sure if it’d cover things up, especially since I figured that a back closure would be more visible, or at least more easy to scrutinize, than a side closure. My hook/eye tape is also much whiter than my fabric, so I’m trying to make sure it’s as hidden as possible. But I do think a boning channel will help smooth things out, and will give that a try.

        I haven’t found many resources online that talk about hook and eye tape on the fashion fabric layer, as it seems to typically be installed on inner layers and corselettes. Maybe there is a reason for that… Anyway, thanks for your input!

      2. Oh that’s a thought, putting it on the inside! Then you could just use a weaker closure on the fashion fabric just to keep it in place. You might be able to tea dye the tape if you do end up attaching it to the fashion fabric.

  11. I love your detailed description even though I can’t understand almost everything. My sister will be making my wedding dress and I want it to be perfect, so am trying to help as much as I can. I really wish I can get a video tutorial.
    Good job, I love this bodice.

    1. Congratulations on your wedding! If you’re looking for a video tutorial and your sister wants to go the couture route, you could try Susan Khalje’s Couture Dress course on Craftsy. I learned a lot from it!

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