Something from nothing

There's a book my parents used to read to me when I was small. It was a Jewish folklore story about a grandfather who made a blanket for his grandson when he was born. As the boy grew up, his blanket grew ragged and he outgrew it. So his grandfather transformed the blanket into a jacket, and then, as that wore out,  a vest, then a tie, a handkerchief, then a button, each time the material started to ruin. Eventually, the button falls off, but the boy writes a beautiful story to capture the evolution of his clothing.

This story was front of mind this past year, when I decided to use my mother's wedding dress to create a new one all my own. I'll admit though - when I first went down this path, it was more out of a dread of buying an expensive dress I would only wear once, and trying to up-cycle something. However, as the process evolved, it became much more than that. It became a bonding experience with my mom. Even though I planned a wedding 3,000 miles away, flying home every few months and driving up I-95 together to the dress studio was something I will always cherish as a way we could bond during the wedding process. We were able to build something beautiful together with the help of Sheryl Kelm and her seamstress skills.

Read on to hear the full story and learn how wedding dresses are truly made!

Let's start at the beginning...

 Isn't she lovely? My mom on her wedding day, August 7th, 1982. Of interest, my aunt also wore the same dress in April of 1984 at her wedding. It's quite an heirloom at this point!

Isn't she lovely? My mom on her wedding day, August 7th, 1982. Of interest, my aunt also wore the same dress in April of 1984 at her wedding. It's quite an heirloom at this point!

I thought I would just wear my mom's dress as it was. Unfortunately, it didn't fit. 

 Trying on my mom's old dress!

Trying on my mom's old dress!

That would have been the end of the story, but then we found out about a dressmaker in Maryland, who also happened to be a family friend. Enter Sheryl Kelm, the seamstress who saved the day.

We took my mom's dress to Sheryl, just to see what she could do with it. I tried to convince her to just expand the chest so I could wear it as it was, but she very kindly informed me that dress styles from the 1980s weren’t really in vogue anymore. I didn’t really care what was in vogue or not, but she had a point. The look didn’t suit me quite right. She sent me home with instructions on finding dress inspiration so we could build a new dress.

I came back a few months later when I was home for Thanksgiving, and this is what we came up with:

 Original dress design.

Original dress design.

She drew the design by hand, we studied fabrics (who knew there were so many options!), and examined which parts of my mother’s dress were worth salvaging. We decided to maximize all of the lace, since it was such a pretty and unique material. Plus, this would add to a more vintage look. This meant cutting out the lace from the bodice, ends of the sleeves, and along the bottom of the train. After a bittersweet goodbye to the old dress, we left Sheryl to her own devices.

 Mom and I, kissing the old dress goodbye!

Mom and I, kissing the old dress goodbye!

Then… the waiting began. The only problem with building a dress from scratch is that you have to be patient. And you have to have a little faith, because you don’t actually know for sure what it will look like.

When I returned over President’s Day Weekend a few months later, the first layers were complete:

We tinkered with the design a bit more. I needed to  make executive decisions about how much crinoline I wanted (this is the stuff that makes wedding dresses become poofy). I needed to commit to my netting - did I want the invisible netting on top or something off skin color? Did I want to cut the bodice shape in any way?

Sheryl kept at it and I returned over Passover. The dress now had the underlayer complete as well as the built in bodice. The netting had been finished and just needed to be fitted so the rest could be cut away. The dress was unhemmed, and the next time I came back I would need to commit to my shoe height so I wouldn't trip over myself. 

 Swimming in netting.

Swimming in netting.

At this point, Sheryl had cut out the pieces of lace and was trying to figure out exactly which pieces would go where, kind of like a puzzle. We discussed other design elements, like beading and sparkle.  I didn't want any of it. Sheryl, always a voice of reason and actual design savvy, convinced me otherwise. We settled on some simple mirrored and reflector beads.

Sheryl continued her work and I return about 2 months later when I was back on the east coast. Sheryl and I moved the pieces of lace around to try and find the optimal configuration. There were a lot of pins. She added a belt. We did final measurements of the dress length.

We discovered that we would need to supplement the lace for the train, because my mom's dress didn't have enough. However, trying to find a lace pattern from 35 years ago isn’t easy. Good thing Sheryl has a designer's eye! She found a scalloped pattern that was similar enough and complimented the rest of the lace. She later dyed the lace ivory to match the rest of the dress.

 Train configuring. Notice the extra lace at the bottom, slightly more white than the ivory dress.

Train configuring. Notice the extra lace at the bottom, slightly more white than the ivory dress.

Finally, the end was near. I would return in about a month to pick up the dress in its final stage. I hoped it would fit, and that I could get it back on a cross country flight to California!

And... it did!

 Sheryl hard at work, making some last minute adjustments.

Sheryl hard at work, making some last minute adjustments.

The final product below on my wedding day, August 20th, 2017.

Another huge thank you to my mom, for donating her dress, time, and patience to this year long experiment. And to Sheryl, for making just a drawing on paper come to life so beautifully! 

Many thanks also to the gracious flight attendant on United who made sure my dress had overhead bin space all it's own on the 6 hour journey back to San Francisco. 

Dress making is a long process, but a meaningful one.  I enjoyed learning the in's and out's of how clothing is developed - what kinds of stitching can be used on certain materials, and the methodical manner of cutting, measuring, and pinning.  It is very much a lost art, at least in the United States. Watching Sheryl build a dress from scratch helped add a personal touch and piece of family history to the big day. Now I have a family heirloom to keep passing on, maybe for someone else to make something from nothing.

Wedding day photos taken by Gina Petersen Photography.