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Choosing a Custom Wedding Gown: Advice From Dressmakers

April 11, 2012 in handmade and vintage goods

Photo by TerraVision

Alison Feldmann
Alison Feldmann

Alison is Editor in Chief of the Etsy Blog. When she's not trawling Etsy for pottery, folk art, and vintage oddities, she enjoys exploring New York, historical nonfiction and thrifting. She loves a good cat video.

Choosing a wedding dress is one of the most exhilarating and stressful choices a bride makes, and deciding on a custom gown raises the stakes. We’ve asked three dressmakers to share their tips and tricks for getting the gown of your dreams.

Brides feel a lot of pressure to find the perfect dress. Do you have any tips or suggestions for finding “the one”?
Elizabeth Dye of The English Dept: There is a lot of lore out there about how “you just know” when you find your dress, but every bride makes her decision differently, and that’s ok! I recommend taking a peek in your closet and thinking about what you already own that fits and flatters you, what makes you feel pretty. Your “regular” clothes can be a touchstone for finding your wedding dress. 

Your wedding dress shouldn’t be a costume — it should be an extra-special version of you.

Also, the word “perfect” can be dangerous; don’t try to cram every good idea you ever had into one dress. That wouldn’t be a pretty dress! Pursue one strong design concept, one statement, and go with it.

Megan of Grace Loves Lace: Stick with your first image of what you wanted to look as a bride. Don’t get too caught up in all the glitz; you don’t have to spend a fortune. The most important thing is to wear a dress that suits your body and that you feel comfortable in; there is nothing worse than an uncomfortable bride. If you love a dress, that usually means you should buy it — don’t think about it for too long. Bridal brain can get you confused very easily.

Katie Walker of kt jean designs: Keep an inspiration board of images you are drawn to, whether you can afford them or not. You will start seeing trends in your photos, like if you love lots of lace or favor a dropped waist. Take time to try on dresses at a local bridal store. Even if you don’t love a dress, it is important to try on a style to see if it looks good on you. For instance, I love the look of a high empire waist, but I usually look best in dresses that are fitted down to the natural waist. Take photos (if the shop allows) and take notes! It’s helpful to know these things, especially when working with a dressmaker.

Circa Wedding Gown The English Dept.
"There is a lot of lore out there about how 'you just know' when you find your dress, but every bride makes her decision differently, and that's ok! " —Elizabeth Dye
Tea/Blush Wedding Gown The English Dept.
Oysters and Pearls Full Length Gown The English Dept.
Miss Bianca Lace Wedding Dress The English Department

What’s your process for working with a bride-to-be?
The English Dept: I like to start the conversation by asking the bride to assemble a scrapbook of everything she likes, even if she thinks it doesn’t add up to a coherent design. There are usually more common threads than she realizes. It’s my job to tease out the dominant ideas and start to build a “story” that will ultimately be the dress design.

Grace Loves Lace: If a bride is wearing one of our designs, we take all of her size measurements (most of the time our designs only need height, bust size, and dress size) and wedding date, and then production begins. Each bride is different; some would like little changes here and there, and others are happy just the way it is pictured. We also send fabric swatches to brides that request it.

kt jean designs: I begin by finding out what they have in mind for their dress. They usually send photos and descriptions, then I work with my assistant to create a sketch of my interpretation of what I think they are looking for. Once we decide on a style and price, we can create a muslin sample for the bride to try on, have fitted and return to me to use as a pattern for their dress. This is a great way to feel confident that the style works on your body and make any necessary changes before I start on the actual dress.

What’s the one question brides should ask prospective dressmakers?
The English Dept: Any question they’re afraid to ask! There should be a very open dialogue between designer and client. I recognize that most brides have never shopped for a wedding dress before, and they may feel a bit bewildered and intimidated by the process. It’s my job as a designer to be as helpful as possible and share the experience I’ve gained by doing this for years.

It’s the bride’s job to share her questions, thoughts and hopes — good communication on both sides leads to the best dress.

Grace Loves Lace: Check the fabric and fit! Lace can come in all sorts of terrible qualities, and the fit has to be excellent. Check for zips, boning, buttons as this can all affect the fit.

kt jean designs: I think it’s great to read their feedback and be sure you feel comfortable when emailing or talking to them. It’s also great to ask if they have either samples to try on or if they would consider making a muslin sample for you. As I mentioned before, I make them for my clients as a trial. They are an added cost, but it is great way to try your dress on in advance. Some girls decide to go a different direction after trying the muslin sample, which works out great for both of us. They get just what they want and we don’t have to create the fully finished version for them to figure it out.

Elizabeth Dye

Is it easier if the bride has a clear idea of what she wants in a dress, or do you think it’s better to be flexible? How much should you trust your dressmaker?
The English Dept: I think a bride often comes to the process from the perspective of, “How would I like to look and feel in my dress?” As a designer, I start with, “How will this dress be designed and built?” Both perspectives are equally important — the bride is the expert on her own vision and taste, I am the expert on solving the practical issues of design and construction. I’m happy to offer advice and suggestions, but the design process should never be a guessing game. Before scissors touch fabric, client and designer should be on the same page.

Grace Loves Lace: I think brides that love our dresses are generally on the same wave-length as me and my team, so all of our brides have been fantastic in wanting our opinion. I am very honest. If a bride says to me “I am thinking of this dress with this,” we only do it if it 100% works and looks good. Brides trust us and know we have good taste.

kt jean designs: It’s good to have an idea of what you want, but flexibility is very important. I have had a few clients who thought they knew exactly what they wanted, were very picky about every detail, and when we shipped the dress, they didn’t like it. That is frustrating for everyone involved! Flexibility is good because the dressmaker is likely either professionally trained or has made enough dresses to know what may or may not work for your dress. If you read all of their feedback, love everything in their shop, and like their style, you should try to give them the overall look you want and let them add their designer touch.

"Stick with your first image of what you wanted to look as a bride. Don't get too caught up in all the glitz. You don't have to spend a fortune." — Megan, Grace Loves Lace
Whimsical White French Lace Wedding Dress
Romantic French Lace Bohemian Vintage style Wedding Dress Grace Loves Lace
Ivory Silk Chiffon French Lace High-Neck Wedding Dress Grace Loves Lace
Elegant Ivory Silk and French Lace Wedding Gown Grace Loves Lace

How much time and money should a bride budget for a custom dress?
The English Dept: Custom design is based on time and materials, so that can vary widely depending on the fabrics and the complexity of the dress. Having something made for you is a luxurious process, and my custom gowns are typically made over a 3-6 month period with multiple fittings. A custom dress is not a budget dress, and if the design you’re seeking is available ready-made, it’s definitely more cost effective to buy, rather than make, a dress. But if you have a unique idea and you think it’s worth it to splurge on bringing it to life, you are a great candidate for custom.

Grace Loves Lace: We really try to keep our prices affordable. For our own designs (all made-to-order), we are under $1000. A new design is generally around the $1400 mark.

When you order a dress from a vendor online, how does the fitting and alterations process work?
The English Dept: My collection dresses are made to standard sizes based on measurements. I don’t do fittings or alterations for those, because it’s very difficult to guarantee a perfect fit without in-person fittings. Beware of any designer who promises that! If you buy a dress made to a standard size, it’s best to schedule alterations with a local seamstress who can see you in the dress, so you can supervise the fitting process. It’s reasonable to expect a higher standard of fit with your wedding dress than with everyday clothes, and for that reason, you should be personally involved in the fitting process.

Grace Loves Lace: Our dresses are all designed to fit easily (we have limited or no boning, buttons, zips and use a lot of stretch laces), and we make each dress to the bride’s size specifications.

kt jean designs: Accurate measurements are probably the one most important thing. I don’t require professional measurements, but I do recommend them. If you can’t or don’t want to go to a professional, you should ask for a measurement guide and have someone to help you. Although your fiance is the greatest guy in the world, before asking for his help, think about if he is good with details and being thorough. If not, you should find someone who is. Muslin samples are a great part of a fitting process, so ask if they will consider doing that for you. It is helpful to the designer as well, since they can use it as a pattern after you mark any changes that need to be made. I offer alterations for a fee unless I made a mistake with the measurements, then I do them for free. Small alterations are best done locally so the seamstress can see the dress on and alter it perfectly to you.

The Frances Dress katie jean designs
The Lucy In The Sky Gown katie jean designs
The Elaine Gown katie jean designs
The Asterea Gown katie jean designs
"I think it's good to have an idea what you want, but flexibility is very important." —Katie Walker

What should brides bring to a fitting?
The English Dept: Undergarments, in particular, can really affect how a dress fits. The heel height of your shoes will change where the hemline hits. If you have accessories you intend to wear and you want to see how they work with the dress, bring those as well. It can be helpful to bring a camera so you can look at photos of yourself in the dress to make sure you like the fit.

Grace Loves Lace: A smile — it should be a fun process!

kt jean designs: When getting your measurements and for any fittings, it’s great to have any undergarments you plan to wear on your wedding day as well as the shoes you plan to wear. If you are meeting with the designer in person, write down any questions you have before you get there . As you start talking, conversation can distract you from the questions you planned to ask. You can also ask for a swatch of the fabrics so you can shop for accessories and jewelry.

Do you have any tips for brides on a budget who are dreaming of a custom look? What about brides on a tight timeline?
The English Dept: 

I think adding custom details to a simple dress — some vintage lace, silk flowers, hand beading, buttons down the back — can really set a dress apart without too much time and expense.

Adding or changing straps is a simple alteration that can contribute a lot of custom flair. No matter what your budget, it’s really worth it to invest in a skilled alterations seamstress. A dress that fits you beautifully will always look dynamite.

Grace Loves Lace: If you want a custom design, come to us with loads of images or a very clear description of what you want and an open mind. If you don’t know what you want, we can discuss it with you and throw around ideas. We will always keep our pricing reasonable. Brides on a tight timeline are also welcome. We always go out of our way to keep everyone happy.

kt jean designs: Designers carefully price their dresses based on the fabrics, the time it takes to create the piece, and the communication time. I sometimes have 50 emails back and forth with a client, spend time sketching 1-4 drafts of their dress, and travel to different stores and vintage shops collecting fabrics. You have to think about how much time that takes, and that isn’t even actually sewing the dress! I am very understanding when brides say they are on a budget, but some designers may be offended if you ask them to lower their prices. I try to list dresses in my shop at different prices to appeal to brides with all budgets. When girls ask me for a discount, I can’t always help them, but I do try to refer them to my more inexpensive styles if I don’t have samples to sell or another way to accommodate them.

If you have a tight timeline, you should expect to pay a rush fee; be pleasantly surprised if you aren’t charged one! Most great designers and dressmakers are busy and they have full schedules. As with anything, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Just be sweet and understanding if they aren’t able to accommodate you.

What’s the most memorable dress you’ve worked on?
The English Dept: 

I’m currently working on a custom gown made from the most incredible 150 year old tambour lace — it gives me shivers just to think about it.

So maybe the most memorable dresses are still ahead of me!

Grace Loves Lace: Our Emme and Grace dresses are always a thrill to make. They are just stunning — if you saw them in real life you would just die! Pictures never quite translate the beauty of our French laces. I love it when girls visit us; their jaws drop when they see the dresses.

  • studiolara316

    Lara Harris from studiolara316 says:

    There are so many beautiful dresses here on etsy it makes me want to get married again!

    1 year ago


    Harper from SEAMS says:

    Excellent article!

    1 year ago

  • IkvothaMashiach70

    Gabrielle Knight from RuffleNBustle says:

    Great advice! Good communication IS the key to happiness and ultimate satisfaction with your dress.

    1 year ago

  • tessaratner

    Tessa Ratner from tessarenae says:

    I just got my gorgeous dress from KT Jean designs(YESTERDAY!)! It was so fantastic to have a dress maker so involved and open to communicate with! She was completely on board to make a custom design for me within my budget! Ladies, purchasing your dress on the internet doesn't have to be a terrible experience. I think this article is very relevant! Thanks for sharing! And, I cannot wait to wear my BEAUTIFUL custom design! A dress, custom made for me! It is so perfect.

    1 year ago

  • TanjaDesign

    Tatjana from TanjaDesign says:

    I enjoyed reading this! I've been thinking about designing and making wedding dreses (besides bridesmaids dresses I already design and make) for a while and now feel so inspired to try! Thank you!

    1 year ago