The Savvy Sage of Sewing Stimulation

Mother of Bride Gown – A Teaching Moment

Sometimes I get a great opportunity to show off my ingenuity and I really love it.  This requires a lot from a client because while I’m working on accomplishing all the puzzles involved in executing a specific design, my client can be totally taken aback by all the various solutions that are occurring.  This can be very confusing and disheartening for the client unless she is very confident in what I’m doing.  I try to be as encouraging and comforting as possible, but many times the clients are scared or otherwise put-off by the process.  I lay this directly at the feet of RTW which has successfully programmed most consumers into believing that there is no such thing as a comfortable, elegant, fitted and yet flattering gown to wear.  Most of the time the client comes to me saying they want something flattering, but are willing to have something uncomfortable.  When I say that it’s possible to have something comfortable and flattering, they look at me as if I have just said that they can have free candy for the rest of their lives and not have to pay for it later — either with calories or money!

Then I get the client who totally trusts me and boom we’re off to the races.  On top of that, I get a client that’s really beautiful and has a great figure – pretty much the trifecta!

The first step is always the fabric.  This is the most variable component I deal with.  I’m so used to creating what I want with fabric, that it’s hard to describe the problems that can come from choosing the right fabric.  Yeah, it’s a pretty color and has a pretty finish (shine, glossy, pearlized, soft).  But what about flow, drape, and body.  These are as important as the color and the finish of the fabric.  Since my client wanted a fairly structured style, she chose exactly the right fabric to do this garment.  She chose a beautiful purple peau de soie.  Peau is a beautiful, fairly stiff, not excessively shiny, but has a gloss to the finish type fabric.  Then I was lucky enough to find some gorgeous lace that toned with the fabric very well.  My client also wanted a little 3-d effect on portions of the gown, and once again I was lucky enough to find some silk flower petals to tone with the purple color of the fabric.

Teaching Moment #1 – Get the Right Fabric

Get the right fabric for your project.  I know a lot of you have problems with this but think through this very carefully.  If your garment has drape and is flowing, a stiff fabric will not work.  If your garment has structure and is more tailored and fitted, then a stiff fabric or a fabric with body will work.  What’s the difference?  A flowing fabric is usually thinner, and the fabric with body is usually thicker – but not always.  Think of the difference between tissue paper and printer paper.  The printer paperweight would make a tailored garment very well, but not a very flowing garment, while the thin tissue paper would be really difficult to tailor and drape or flow better.  Fabrics like chiffon, crepe, crepe de chine, charmeuse, rayon challis, wool challis,  handkerchief linen, Pima cotton, gauze, jersey, activewear knits (like swimsuit knits) are all draping, flowing type fabrics. Wool tweed, gabardine (although it can come in very light weights it’s still got body), scuba, neoprene, double knit, Ponte di Roma or ponte, cotton canvas, heavy-weight cotton, heavy-weight linen, cotton pique,

This is the reason you see these scrunched up photos of the fabric online.  Notice how the one on the left is really a pretty tight scrunch or twist, while the one on the right is hardly scrunched or twisted at all?  The left is a cotton lawn – very draping and flowing while the one on the right is a cotton pique and very stiff and hard to scrunch up.  Therefore the left would make a flowing waterfall type top, while the one on the right would make an excellent tailored jacket.  In the case of the peau de soie, it is more like the right scrunch and therefore does have a lot of body and is excellent for a more fitted, structured garment.

The Body of Fabric in Formal Garments

Almost always a formal garment has a lot of structure.  This is the nature of these garments.  They are not constructed nor designed to do exercise or jumping jacks in.  They are designed for a certain purpose and almost always fit closer to the body.  I have my clients do wedding calisthenics in their garments (hugging, waving to the peons [ha ha!], dancing and that sort of thing), but that’s about all they should need to do.  They will not be moving furniture, reaching up high for storage boxes or jumping around to avoid chairs or tables – or at least hopefully not!  You can almost never go wrong in getting a stiff fabric or a fabric with a lot of body for a formal garment.  There are degrees of formality and for something less formal you can certainly use something that has more drape.

The other reason you might choose a lighter, flowing fabric is for an older figure that needs to have a lot of ease or comfort.  Most often there is a shrug or waterfall type jacket with a long chiffon skirt.  My problem with this is that this is merely a cover-up and not really a design.  In RTW, it’s hard to find something that fits the shoulders and hangs well from the shoulders, and therefore anything below that doesn’t get any better and usually gets worse.  This means that it’s always hanging wrong, drooping usually and a drooping or sloppily hanging garment is never attractive.  It is, unfortunately, the only option in RTW for a larger figure.    Making the effort at a fit, even a modest effort, can be so rewarded in this figure and suddenly the figure looks neat and well-groomed, together and much more attractive, even if there is a modicum effort at a fit.

Teaching Moment #2 – Color

Color is important here as my client has coloring that goes very well with the cool side of the color wheel.  She originally wanted a green dress, and green with her coloring would have greyed her out.  As a matter of fact, the mother of the groom did wear green and had similar coloring to the mother of the bride.  It was an OK color, as it had a lot of blue and black in the green, but it was still green.  That yellow in the green though can be deadly for the cool side of the color wheel.  

Here’s a perfect example.  The Princess of Windsor has coloring that is dynamite with the cool side of the color wheel, however, when she wears those colors on the warm side, she gets into trouble – even when they have a lot of blue and/or black to those colors.  Specifically above, the green and yellow dresses are not her best colors.  Move from one picture of her face to another and you will see that the yellow especially greys her out and she seems to lose the rosiness in her cheeks and color of her skin.  In the blue dress, she looks radiant.  In the green dress a little less so, and in the yellow almost colorless as the yellow bleeds out all her natural color.

The best design, fit and execution cannot overcome a bad color – EVER!  Know your colors, and know that this is not a time to experiment with something different or new!  This is an important event – go with a color you know looks good on you and you can’t go wrong.  In this case, when my client said purple after I nixed green, I was elated.  I found some purple samples and the purple peau de soie was perfect which is what she chose.

Teaching Moment #3 – The Style and Design

Yeah, I know this sounds like a huge hunk to throw at you in one block, but in this case, I had basically a very easy shape to work with.  My client is tiny and in one word that describes her, except for her personality which was very strong.  So here’s a dramatic sophisticated personality in a tiny cute body.  The one thing I had to be careful of was proportion.  I could not get too big on her or it would swallow her up, no matter how dramatic or strong she was.  However, she is sophisticated, and that required some drama in the dress.  This isn’t all that hard.  There are rules and guidelines that designers and artists are taught in school that help even the most uninitiated and novice of designers get a good grip on proportion and design.  I have a great resource for this in the Resource Center.  Working with the client, and pictures she showed me, helped me understand what she wanted.   She showed me a 3-d embroidery Marchesa gown and several off-the-shoulder gowns.  It was obvious that she wanted something off-the-shoulder and when I get this request I immediately want to test the client to understand if they know what they are getting into.

On the human figure, there are three anchoring points on the bodice:  1. left shoulder, 2. right shoulder, and 3. waist.  If one of those is taken away then you lose 30% of your support for the garment.  This gets into Newton’s gravity theory and I don’t do Jessica Rabbit dresses – they are a cartoon and do not represent the real world of gravity!  When you lose 2 of those anchoring points, then you lose 60% of your support for the bodice of the dress.  Add a large heavy skirt onto that, and you’ve usually got up to 20 pounds of weight with a 60% loss of support, so something has to give.  Usually, that means a corset type undergarment and some very good fitting of the bodice that’s left.  With an off-the-shoulder style tested and I felt very comfortable that the client knew what she was getting into, off we went into the fitting.

Teaching Moment #4 – The Muslin

How many times have you heard that “You hafta do a muslin or you will die!”  And then think, “Gee, do I really need one – all that time, and fabric only to tear it apart and sew it all up again.  That will take decades and decades of time!”  Well, no it won’t take decades, but it will take time.  When I first started out, my price points were such that I wanted to get folks in the door.  I went out and undercut the RTW garments in my neck of the woods just a little.  But this made it almost impossible for me to afford the muslins.  What I did instead was make the muslin out of the lining (which I was going to need anyway) and if there were seams that came in and out, it might show a little, but it would be on the inside of the garment.  This is how I got around not doing muslins, but I actually was doing a muslin.  Today, now that I’m established, and people know they can come to me and get what they want and that I’m the best in this area, I can charge a fair price (still undercutting the RTW local prices), which allows me the luxury of the muslin – and believe me, it IS a luxury.

For you sewists who aren’t making a formal gown, muslins are still a great luxury, and worth every minute you spend on them.  A couple of really handy guidelines:

  1. Make your muslin from the same weight fabric that you are going to use in your fashion fabric
  2. If you are doing a stretch fabric muslin, use the same percentage stretch (using a stretch percentage chart) that is the same stretch as your fashion fabric
  3. Don’t be afraid to make 2 or 3 muslins if you need
  4. Don’t think that you can solve this or that prob in the fashion fabric – solve all your problems in the muslin
  5. You will have a few tweaks to make in the fashion garment, so a muslin won’t solve all your fitting issues perfectly – don’t expect that a muslin will.
  6. Making a muslin is like taking the final exam the night before the real final exam and getting all the answers – who wouldn’t want to do that?!

There’s much more to this, and I’ll cover all of that in this week’s guide.  If you’re not signed up for it, it’s free and there’s always something newsy in my guide about sewing.  If you don’t like it you can always unsubscribe, but you won’t want to cause it will be so interesting and fun!  Click here to sign up for the guide (or Free Sign Up on the menu above).


  1. Wonderful advice! Thank you!

  2. I loved reading about your process in creating this beautiful dress. I was really wishing I could see the grabby elastic and the inside of the collar though — I’m not always able to visualize from the written description. You didn’t happen to take pictures of that part, did you?

    Lovely, lovely dress!

  3. Great post! I’m excited to read your guide. I am starting on my Easter dress, and decided to do the bodice lining first as a muslin. I was wondering why I’ve never read about that method on a blog!

  4. What a beautiful article! Instructional and so kind at the same time.
    Thank you.

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