"You got this. You know what to do, you just have to do it. Homestretch. Buckle down. Follow your heart. Be yourself. Do your best."
I am talking movie-cliché nonsense to myself at 3:09 a.m. on a Friday, staring at Gia's mostly finished wedding dress, which needs to be done by morning, because her wedding is Saturday. No pressure.
I started sewing two years ago after receiving a basic Janome sewing machine from my parents for my 28th birthday. If you'd told me then that I'd be making a wedding dress one day, I probably would have laughed in your face, but it was love at first stitch. I have been a knitter for years, but sewing opened up a world of possibility I hadn't imagined. Being able to dream up a garment (or a bag, or a quilt, etc.) and make it just the way I want it, from the fit to the fabric, is intensely gratifying. And, yes, I do enjoy being able to say "I made it!" when someone comments on my outfit.
I cut fabric on the floor of my apartment and sewed at the kitchen table late into the night. After about a year of putzing around on zippered pouches, simple skirts, and tees, I buckled down and got serious about learning the fundamentals of garment construction. I was determined to make quality ready-to-wear pieces: dresses, pencil skirts, pants, even a rain jacket. Every wearable, well-made addition to my wardrobe fueled my enthusiasm, and I started engaging with the sewing community on Instagram on a daily basis. There's a world of sewists out there making beautiful clothing (search #isew or #memade), sharing tips and tricks, and uncovering fashion-forward patterns by independent designers, and I quickly fell in with the crowd by simply commenting on their posts.
I started to become more confident in my skills, with a never-ending list of projects to take on, but I was not at all prepared for the email that arrived in my inbox with the subject line "a dress" from Gia, my uncle's fiancée, asking if I would make her a dress. Except not just a dress, but THE dress, her wedding dress. I figured she had just asked on a whim, as a backup for a better option, and would surely reconsider. So despite knowing better, I said "yes," but not without giving full disclosure regarding my skill level. I was genuinely surprised when, unfazed by my disclaimer, Gia began discussing design. She was looking for a dress with a V-neck, a banded waist, and kimono sleeves, that hit just above the knee. To be done in six weeks.
"OK, so it's not a gown-gown. You can do this!"I said to myself.
We met right away to talk more about the design and take her measurements. I knew I'd need to make a muslin (essentially a rough draft of the dress made with inexpensive cotton fabric), and I was going to create a pattern mixing patterns from other dresses and making some from scratch. Gia had arranged to get fabric from her friend Kara who owned a boutique in town, so that was our next stop a few days later.
At Kara's dress shop, Gia was instantly drawn to a very lightweight, silky rayon in blush pink, with small navy blossoms and branches printed on it. She also chose an off-white silk-chiffon overlay to slightly diffuse the print and give the dress a more formal feel. After we picked fabrics, Kara pulled out a few photo albums and began flipping through page after page of beautiful gowns she'd designed and sewn for clients in the past. They were all impeccably executed dresses. I felt myself breaking into a cold sweat.
As we left the store, I panicked. "What the hell are you doing?!" I asked myself. "You can't make a wedding dress! You're gonna blow it!"
A few inner-voice-suppressing glasses of wine later, I shook off my panic and got down to business, cutting the pattern pieces and getting the fabric ready to sew. From one dress pattern I took the pieces for the bodice, from another I tweaked the skirt shape until it was right. I took the sleeves from a blouse pattern and drafted a waistband from scratch. If it all worked out, it would be a beautifully fitting "Frankendress."
There's something uniquely exhilarating and scary about cutting into a brand-new piece of fabric for the first time. Even more so when it's destined to become a wedding dress. The fabrics Gia chose were different from anything I'd ever worked with, so I used every tip and trick I could find, including sewing the slippery rayon directly on top of tissue paper to keep it from stretching and sliding around (you just rip away the tissue paper once the seam is done). Getting the dress sewn took what felt like years compared to sewing up the muslin — it was three layers of fabric in the bodice (including a lining) and two everywhere else. I set aside weekends, worked nights on it, and finally got the dress done, except for the hem, which I would adjust to the exact length once we'd had our final fitting. I had actually pulled this off, and with a week to spare!
There's something uniquely exhilarating and scary about cutting into a brand-new piece of fabric for the first time. Even more so when it's destined to become a wedding dress.
"You killed it! You're unstoppable! You can do anything!" I high-fived myself right on out the door to her house for the final fitting.
I held my breath as I zipped Gia into the dress. She was grinning ear to ear and radiating excitement — and she looked incredible.
Still, there was some work to be done: take it in about an inch on either side; fix the bust, which was gaping at the armpits. I would also need to take out the sleeves and reset them.
Which brings us back to 3:09 a.m., Friday morning, the day before the wedding. I had taken in the sides and I had reset the sleeves. Now I had two layers of extremely slippery hems left to sew, and I was starting to lose my marbles. I was counting the hours by episodes of Gilmore Girls and whisper-yelling at Lorelai while trying to keep my eyes open. The homestretch felt like anything but.
I powered through the next hour of sewing and pressing and made it to bed as the sky was going from pitch black to slightly less than. I couldn't concentrate at all the next day, waiting for Gia to try on the dress, waiting to find out whether I had ruined her wedding or had actually managed to make her dreams come true. She picked up the dress from my office around 10 a.m. and texted an hour or two later: "It fits beautifully!!! I can't believe how it turned out ... I love it, and you are so amazing and thank you!"
It was like a dozen tiny angel Justin Biebers breaking into song above my cubicle. I had never felt so relieved. I had somehow, miraculously pulled it off. I made a freaking wedding dress! The next day, I couldn't wait to see Gia fully dolled up. She looked even better than I could have imagined — she was absolutely glowing, and the dress was a wonderful realization of her vision. I don't think it was until that moment that I knew I could put my skills toward making something for someone other than myself, and it was more fulfilling than I had expected it would be. The stressful days, late nights, and stress-releasing glasses of wine were totally worth it to see how happy Gia was. Maybe I'll even make a gown-gown next time.
Emily Kropp is a sewist and fabric hoarder living in Portland, Oregon.