The Wedding Gown: Creating the Understructure

Although wedding gowns can look complicated, the basic lines are often fairly simple. For this dress McCall’s M4776 (not sure if it’s still in print but there are loads of similar patterns) provided a starting point.

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I find it easier to create the understructure of the gown first. That way you can have it on the dress form and get a clear idea of how the dress will actually look. The fullness also dramatically affects the hem length. I used only the four main pieces and created the boned corslet and petticoat from them.
Master Pattern
Here is an illustration of the basic pattern with my additions. The corslet pattern is shown in red. It extends 4 inches down from the waist and will be sewn with slightly (about 1/16 inch) larger seams as it needs to be skin tight. For fitting I copied the corslet shape in cotton drill fabric and padded a dress form ( the junky adjustable kind) to mimic the bride’s shape. Since this dress is only fitted through the upper bodice, no need for a fully fitted custom shape.

I used white cotton coutil. If you’ve never used this before it works wonderfully for a tight fitting support garment. It presses easily and flexes just enough to mold to the body. It’s sturdy and heavy enough to support the boning which will be added to each seam. The cotton fiber is also cooler to wear than a synthetic. The boning channels are sewn along each seam and at center front. Flexible steel bones will be inserted into the back and side seams; spiral steel into the princess seams over the bust and center front. The gown flares out below the waist so I decided to end the boning at the waist. Since this bride is not full busted, I’ll decide whether or not the bodice needs additional boning after a fitting. The waist has been thread traced to use as a reference during fitting and also as a guide for the ribbon waistband which will hold this whole thing up.
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Rather than make or buy a separate petticoat I chose to integrate one into the dress so it could hang from below the waist. The pattern for this was drafted 4 inches lower than the waist (it will ultimately be stitched to the bottom of the corslet) and two inches narrower at the bottom than the outer skirt. It is about 5 inches shorter than the finished hem. The petticoat is shown in green. By removing two inches from each skirt seam I decreased the circumference 28 inches to allow for the petticoat ruffles.

The petticoat skirt was cut from satin faced silk organza. It’s stiff enough to hold the shape without being heavy. Two lower layers of stiff nylon netting were gathered and sewn to the petticoat base. I cut the netting 30 inches wide and folded it lengthwise (no scratchy exposed edges) and gathered it  4:1. An easy way to keep the gathering even is to mark every 18 inches on the netting. Zigzag over a length of heavy thread and pull up gathers so every mark is 4.5 inches apart. The two ruffles were attached along the dotted purple lines.

To soften the outer petticoat layer I used soft nylon tulle and gathered it 10:1. It was attached along the uppermost purple line. Two inch wide nylon horsehair braid keeps the hem of the organza layer full.  3/4 inch horsehair braid is topstitched along the top edges of the lower ruffles. If you want to keep your sanity while sewing this, leave the center back seam open so the piece can lay flat. Close it and lap the ends of the tulle and braid as a last step.

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A closer view of the underskirt layers.
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Here is the muslin toile draped over the underlayer. Notice how I’ve made a slight adjustment to the side seams under the arm. The neckline has also been shaped. Having a muslin also allows me to determine a final hem length, play with bustling options and minimizes handling the silk outer fabrics.

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I keep the corslet and petticoat separate as long as possible. The corslet will be sewn into the finished gown first. The petticoat layer will be hand sewn into the dress once all else is complete; SO much easier than wrestling with mountains of poufy fabric at the machine.

Next step is construction of the outer silk gown!

29 Comments

Filed under Wedding Gowns

29 responses to “The Wedding Gown: Creating the Understructure

  1. I’ve been waiting for your wedding gown posts! Thank you for explaining the process in an uncomplicated narrative and with photos 😉 I’ve watched women make corsets in Susan Khalje’s classes but never attached to a petticoat for a ballgown. This is fascinating, Mary!

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  2. Sally Bussey

    Thank you for sharing your amazing sewing skills in such detail. I am a realitivly new follower so went back to read all your past posts. I have learned so much! Thanks again for the valuable information.

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  3. The lines of this dress are so graceful and will provide the perfect showcase for that lace. Such a dress needs its own set of good bones – thanks so much for showing us the underneath story!

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  4. If only all gowns were made this way…simple yet perfectly suited to what the job is. I am always amazed at the layers of netting all balled up under dresses from shops. I tell the brides that each layer of netting has a job to do and they must be steamed flat and crisp to hold the dress in a certain shape. I’m looking forward to seeing the base of the dress evolve and sitting on the bride…will you have some live model shots? Hand sewing…such the perfect solution to trying to cram everything under the presser foot…even later alterations can skip machine sewing for understitching that top edge. If only more seamstresses would know these things…thanks so much for starting us on this journey with you, Mary!

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  5. Wow! This is a perfect start. I’m always amazed by the number of layers, etc., underneath it all. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole process.

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  6. Glad you enjoyed this. It would be nice if commercial patterns gave some clue as to the importance of the under layers.

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  7. jmaduke

    I was wondering where you were; now I know what’s been keeping you busy. This is fantastic! Did you have to do much research or were you trained in this sort of thing? Thank you so much for sharing your valuable knowledge. I may never make a petticoat like this but I’ll use the corselet ideas! (I keep thinking about the blue dress Lily James wears in Cinderella!)

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    • I’ve done custom wedding and formal gowns for years and am totally self taught. I’ve read every couture sewing book I can find and experimented loads on my own. Taking apart RTW gowns is also great education. There isn’t much written on the details of this type of construction so I hope to share what I’ve learned.

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  8. Pingback: Make My Dream Dress | fit for a queen

  9. I love this serie, thank you very much for sharing your process!!

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  10. tizmehr

    I’m about to start making my daughter’s wedding gown. I’ve been wondering how the petticoat should be done. It’s marvelous to have your wonderful step by step to show me how. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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    • Have fun with your daughter’s gown. It’s an exciting project to sew. If you need any further tips please let me know and I’ll try and help. Would love to see your finished creation.

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  11. this is so amazing, thank you for sharing! Your underpinnings are absolutely gorgeous; I love it when the unseen things are as lovely as the outer bits ^__^

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  12. What a lovely, understated post. And what a gorgeous set of layers. I agree with symondezyn that it is pretty enough to wear already. Most of all I appreciate the information you are sharing, and the concern for the absolute comfort of the bride. Thank you Mary.

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  13. Linda Craig

    The muslin lays beautifully so I can only imagine how magnificent the dress will be. Beautiful couture work. Thank you for taking the time to share.

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  14. I just discovered and followed your blog. What a gold mine of information! I am just returning to sewing and have completed one (!) project. Can only dream of having the skills you and so many others have. Beautiful work!

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  15. smroyal63

    Thank you so much for this posting…I am anxiously awaiting the next one. I will be/am making my daughter’s wedding dress and your post inspired some new ideas! Thanks! Love the details and the explanations! Fabulous!

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    • The next installment should be up in the next couple of days. We did a fitting so I now have photos of a partially completed gown. Enjoy making your daughter’s dress. Even though the style of hers I’m sure will be different, much of what I’m showing applies to every gown. I’m always happy to try and help if you want another opinion as your work progresses.

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