• Wedding

    Planning our Backyard, DIY Wedding Reception During COVID-19

    diy backyard wedding

    Welcome to “Wedding Week”! You’ve read about my dress but I wanted to share some more details about the day, the ceremony, and the party. Today is the logistics of it all: planning our backyard wedding reception. Wednesday is all emotions: my play-by-play of the big day. And Friday is all about flowers! Next week we’ll be back to the regularly scheduled sewing and making.

    My family was absolutely stellar at putting this wedding together. With the small guest count, and our desire for an outdoor venue to reduce COVID spread, we decided on a backyard reception at my parents’ house. Our initial wedding reception was set to take place at a beautiful botanical garden, and the caterers plus the venue staff would have taken care of pretty much everything. With a backyard DIY wedding reception – it was all on us! And suddenly there were dozens of tiny details that we needed to think about.

    David and I arrived in Virginia on the Wednesday before the wedding. My parents had already done a lot of work to get ready, from tidying the inside of the house to trimming trees in the backyard. My mom had ordered a big box of white roses from Costco and put them in vases all around the house… it felt so special to come home for my wedding!

    wedding planning - backyard wedding during COVID-19

    We had already done most of the planning and ordering, but in those 2.5 days it was time to get to work. I built bouquets, my mom assembled charcuterie plates, Andy charged speakers, my dad and David hung lights. Then my brother Ben and his wife Olivia arrived, and they jumped right in. Everybody rallied to get tables and chairs set up before the ceremony, then tablecloths and place settings set after the ceremony as the guests arrived. David and I arrived to the party last, after we finished our couple photos, and everything was perfect. I know my family did a ton of work to make it all happen so seamlessly, and I’m so very grateful to have them.

    That’s lesson 1. Have help. Ask for help. If your helpers are as awesome as mine, you’re super lucky. If they’re not, make them a really good list so that you don’t have to worry about it on your wedding day. I worried constantly every day until the wedding day, but on the day itself? I didn’t care about any of it. Even better? I didn’t have to, because my family was busy being awesome.

    Here’s what we did and how we did it. I love reading about how other people plan things, so I wanted to share.

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    My dad loves speakers. And the wedding proved no exception. I asked if we should rent two of the big standing amp speakers from the rental company, but in order for them to send sound to the edges of the party, they’re always deafening when you’re close. My dad had a much better idea. He said, “you know how at Disneyland, it just feels like the music is coming from everywhere?” For my wedding, he wanted to turn our backyard into a magical, musical Disneyland. So he bought ten wireless, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, and placed them in the bushes all around our seating area. Ambient sound, rather than directional sound. The speakers were the Anker Soundcore Flare 2, and we all agreed they sounded fantastic especially considering the relatively low price. My parents also emailed the neighbors to tell them about the wedding and give a heads up about the noise, and everyone was gracious and congratulatory and happy to let us play our music.

    We made Spotify playlists for our music (and obviously we upgraded to Premium for the wedding). Managing the playlist sounded easy enough, and I considered just handling it myself from my phone. This is where we say, “No! Bad Sam! You’re the bride. Ask for help.” So I did. I asked my brother Andy if he’d be our DJ and he agreed, and he did a fantastic job. He started the music for the cocktail hour, which was extra perfect since we were taking photos and arrived after all of our guests (as planned). He played our entrance song when we arrived, which was the song from the Disney World parade that was going on when David proposed – the key line for us? “Let’s get it started, ’cause we just can’t wait.

    For dinner, we just let it play. Here’s our playlist. A lot of Disney parks ambient music, some of our favorite special songs, and a few very cheesy romantic songs. I know Hannah was just shocked that I included Taylor Swift on my wedding playlist… I was too! But something about, you know, getting married made me feel a lot cheesier and more romantic than usual.

    Having a dedicated DJ was crucial. There was some troubleshooting, I remember Andy running up and down the deck stairs to the “DJ stand”. He was also the one to hit pause for the toasts by the best man and matron of honor, and my dad’s prayer before dinner. He changed the playlists for our dances, and then changed it again when we invited everyone to the dance floor. And while we had a playlist, we weren’t tethered to it, and I’ll never forget when Hannah said, “WAIT – is Andy taking requests?!?!” and ran up to request the song that we girls sang all weekend at my bachelorette party. Good music, and a great music manager, was key to our party.

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    diy backyard wedding

    Our ceremony was at 2 at the church, and that was about 40 minutes from my parents’ house. I knew that by the time we got back from church and pictures, it would be around 5pm and starting to get dark. Luckily, my dad had this one under control, too.

    The Thursday before the wedding, my hair stylist came to the house to do my hair trial, and David and my dad went on a tour of the local Home Depots. They bought out multiple stores’ worth of patio lights, plus some 1×2″ boards. My dad doesn’t do anything halfway. We could have strung the lights along the fence, but that would have only been around waist level. So my dad and my groom bolted boards to every-other fence post, so that the lights could be strung 10-12 feet in the air to bathe the whole backyard in a soft glow.

    Andy brought a spool of color changing LED lights with him because he figured they might come in handy. My mom had draped white tulle along the edge of the deck, and Andy tucked his lights along the tulle. He programmed the lights to rainbow and it was awesome to have some color to add to our dance floor!

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    We rented the mandatory stuff: tables, chairs, and tablecloths. I loved how the chairs and tablecloths looked – those Chiavari chairs are just so “wedding-y” to me, and it was the small details like that that helped me feel like my DIY wedding was a Real Wedding.

    We also rented all of our tableware. The number of table items we needed added up fast! Plates, forks, knives; water glasses, beer glasses, champagne flutes (we decided to give each guest 1 wine glass and 1 beer glass, assuming they could put water in one and their drink of choice in the other); cloth napkins; water pitchers. Renting the tableware was awesome because we didn’t have to wash any dishes – just scraped off the extra food and then they were all picked up the next day. And, of course, no waste from single-use plates. Our rentals came from Sammy’s Rental (DC area), they were fantastic to work with and very, very organized.

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    Planning the food was a tough decision because we were trying to avoid the dense gathering of a buffet line or similar. Fortunately, with our small number of guests, we were able to order individual meals for each table. We ordered our food from Maggiano’s catering, and they were extremely helpful and willing to work with us. They packed each table’s order in a separate bag. Our tables were set up to respect household “pods”, so each couple sat at its own table. The food was ordered “family style” but for couples, with a shared salad and two large entrees to share. When the food arrived, it was just a matter of distributing the bags (with the men of the party executed very graciously). We were even able to customize orders so that most of us could order salads without blue cheese (thank goodness).

    For snacking during the cocktail hour, my mom put together charcuterie plates for each table. This was also great because she arranged the plates the day before, then just wrapped them in plastic wrap in the fridge. Slices of cheese, prosciutto, salami, crackers, and grapes for everyone to nibble on before the food arrived.

    DIY wedding favors - eco-friendly

    We also gave everyone stacks of Ritter Sport mini chocolates as favors. I was adamant that I would not have wedding favors that created a bunch of waste, so no elaborate boxes or personalized bottle openers or whatever else. Just a stack of yummy, special chocolates, that my mom wrapped in a stripe of pretty cactus wrapping paper.

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    wedding planning - backyard wedding during COVID-19
    the proud brewmaster!

    This was a big highlight of the DIY Wedding. Our original venue had us tied to a caterer who was tied to an alcohol distributor. This was both expensive and prohibited us from featuring something awesome: Papa’s beer. My dad had brewed all the beer for my brother’s wedding the year prior, and to dispense the beer, he built a beautiful wooden bar that hid four small kegs and the carbonation apparatus. It hadn’t had an opportunity to come out of hiding again… until now!

    We had four different beers on tap, all brewed by my dad. We also had wine and soda available, but of course the beer was the most popular! Each table also had its own pitcher of water. For toasts, my sister-in-law went around to each table offering pours of champagne or sparkling apple cider, and of course we had more of each of those in case people wanted more bubbly. I love my dad’s beer, but it was my wedding day, and champagne was definitely my drink of choice!

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    lego wedding cake topper with cheesecake wedding cake
    complete with Lego cake “topper”

    Our wedding cake was another item where we were able to embrace our small guest count. We requested Papa’s cheesecake as our dessert. You may be noticing a theme here – my dad loves to make food and share it with people! He made cheesecakes for years, trying to “crack the code” to make perfect, tall, not-too-dense but not-too-fluffy cheesecake. He cracked the code years ago and his cheesecakes are really amazing and special, and now that he’s got the science down he’s always experimenting with new flavors.

    We wanted enough cheesecake to go around, and that called for a cheesecake sampler. We narrowed it down to three varieties:

    • Bride’s cake: Oreo crust, amaretto cheesecake layer, chocolate cheesecake layer, chocolate ganache top
    • Groom’s cake: brownie crust, vanilla cheesecake, chocolate ganache top
    • For the Neutral, we chose seasonal Pumpkin: spiced cookie crust, pumpkin cheesecake, white chocolate drizzle

    David had bought this Lego wedding set soon after we got engaged ( 🙂 ) and we modified it by adding a few of our own pieces and a lot more Lego plants. That was our cake “topper” but it sat off to the side so as to not mar the perfect ganache finish on the cheesecake. My mom surprised me with this plate, it’s my own version of the “Special Day” plate that we always used on birthdays growing up.

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    DIY wedding flowers

    Yes, we DIY’ed the flowers. I’m planning a whole post about flowers because I was just obsessed with how they came out (edit: here’s the DIY wedding flowers post!). I made the bouquets and my mom made the boutonnieres and corsages. It was a lot more work than I expected, but it was also so fun to choose all my own flowers and make exactly what I wanted.

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    wedding bridal hair with white flowers and braid
    have I mentioned that I made my wedding dress…?

    I did my own makeup, but I had my hair done professionally and I am so, so glad that I did. I’ve never been one to do much with my hair and it would have been extremely stressful for me to have to do my own hair on my wedding day. It came out better than I could have imagined and I was just thrilled. I had considered wearing some sort of flower crown, but I never quite figured out what I wanted. I ended up just trimming the top end of some Stock (the flower) that was leftover from the bouquets, and the stylist pinned that into my hair. It. Was. Perfect.

    Since we live in Florida, and the wedding was in Virginia, I had my hair trial on Thursday for the Saturday wedding. I suppose there was potential for disaster if I hated the trial, but it worked out very nicely. My stylist really enjoyed doing the trial and the event so close together, because she could remember what worked and came up with even better ways to do the final hairdo. If you’re in northern VA, I highly recommend Stephanie from Bridal Artistry.

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    wedding photography - DIY backyard wedding

    Photography was our biggest splurge. This was one day, and a big day, and I was not about to risk having mediocre photos. I also really wanted two photographers. Anna and Liz of Anna Liz Photography are a sister team, and we loved that they were able to capture our day from two different perspectives. I most wanted two shooters so that there would be pictures of me walking down the aisle AND pictures of David’s face as I walked down the aisle, because I expected him to cry. Of course, he was just grinning ear to ear while I was the one doing weird squeaky sobs.

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    COVID Planning Details

    COVID-19 wedding planning - bride and groom masks

    If you followed along with my wedding dress sewing series, you know that we didn’t plan to have an October wedding. We were all set for a wedding on May 9, 2020, and with only 6 weeks to go (almost exactly one year ago now), COVID-19 shut down the world and took our wedding with it. We waited in limbo for months. I couldn’t bear the thought of planning a second wedding, only to have to cancel that one too, so we were waiting until we could be sure that our event could go on.

    Finally, in August, we decided it was time to plan the new wedding. No more waiting! We had every intention of getting married in 2020 and we weren’t going to let 2020 stop us.

    wedding planning - backyard wedding during COVID-19

    Our number one priority was simple: nobody would get sick from our wedding. We didn’t go into this with a “it will probably be fine” attitude. It’s clear now that none of our guests, or ourselves, had COVID-19 at our wedding, so maybe we could have “gotten away with” more. But that wasn’t our game to play. We designed our celebration to prevent any transmission that could occur, and while it definitely made for some compromises, I’m still very proud of this decision and glad that we and our guests were able to relax and mingle relatively safely and respectfully.

    wedding planning - backyard wedding during COVID-19

    The only indoor activity was the ceremony inside the church. Everyone was seated with their household pods and the pods were spaced out across the front half of the church. Our priest allowed David and me to remove our masks for the ceremony, which was much appreciated, especially for the pictures! We were close to the altar and secluded from the rest of the congregation so our lack of masks did not create much risk for others.

    The remainder of the day’s events were held outdoors. We were so fortunate to have good weather! It was very cloudy all day but it wasn’t cold and there was no rain. Plus, the overcast sky made for much better pictures than bright sun! For our posed photos with our families and the wedding party, everyone did remove their masks, so this was the one time of day when different households interacted without masks. But it was in short bursts and we were outdoors.

    DIY backyard wedding - samanthasews blog

    The rule for the reception was essentially “masks unless you’re eating”. Each couple had its own table, and the tables were spaced out across the backyard, so that everyone could eat and drink comfortably at their own table without worrying about a mask. I think everyone had a good time, too, because it was like a special date night. It’s always fun to mingle with other guests at your table at a big wedding, but I think our wedding was fun in its own way, with each couple in their own little bubble.

    When it came time to dance, we all donned our masks and danced our hearts out. Would it have been better without masks? Sure. But it was awesome anyway.

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    Guest List and Digital Celebrations

    The biggest compromise, and the hardest part of planning the new wedding, was the guest list. Our original guest list was close to 100 people, with many relatives and my dozens of cousins. But our new guest list had to be much, much smaller. We wanted to make sure everyone would be able to socially distance at each of the locations, especially during dinner, and we also focused on keeping guest travel to a minimum.

    Our final decision was a very, very small number of people: just our parents, my siblings, and our wedding party plus their dates. Sadly, two of David’s groomsmen were unable to attend because they would have been flying from California and Europe, which both felt like the other side of the globe in October 2020. So we ended up with 17 guests, plus the two of us, for a cozy 19-person total.

    Catholic wedding live streaming over facebook

    It was such a hard decision to make. It was sad to have our day of celebration without our extended families, and I was so disappointed to miss out on my aunts cooing over my dress! But it also meant we could get married now, instead of later, while keeping everyone safe. So we did three things to help include our extended families:

    1. We broadcast the wedding live over Facebook. We made a new Facebook account for this, and sent the link to our extended families. (make sure to make the account well in advance – we had to add some friends to our account before we could share video so Facebook would decide we weren’t spammers). We were extremely fortunate in that our church had been live streaming services throughout the pandemic, and the church’s videographer was available for our wedding. He was familiar with the church setup and network, and he already had mics set up with the priest and at the lecterns, so that was really seamless for us.
    2. I emailed everyone a program for the ceremony. We didn’t do printed programs, but I thought it would be nice for our families to be able to follow along from home. I listed the readings so that everyone had the option to read along in case the video stream was hard to hear. I also wrote our own personalized petitions, the “prayers of the faithful”, and shared those in the program as well.
    3. We hosted what I called a “virtual receiving line” the day after the wedding. On Sunday afternoon, we hosted 4 Zoom calls, all in a row, with all of our relatives: my mom’s side, my dad’s side, David’s mom’s side, David’s dad’s side. This was David’s idea, and it worked out so well. We were able to talk with our families in small groups, and tell them more about how the day and evening went. And yes, my aunts cooed over my wedding dress. 🙂 Even though none of them could be there in person, it was wonderful to get to see them all.

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    I’m hopeful that within a few months, my “Pandemic Wedding Tips” will be obsolete! We’re almost to the end. But this was a real challenge for us, and 2020 was a truly noteworthy time in history (besides the fact that Nobody Went Anywhere). We’ll always remember the weirdness that surrounded our wedding, and the unusual questions we’ll face in the future (“mama, why are you wearing a mask in your wedding dress?”), but it was all part of our day. And it was a glorious day.

  • Painting

    A Watercolor Car Portrait for David

    painting a watercolor car portrait for my husband's birthday gift

    In 2018, I decided to teach myself to draw and paint. I practiced drawing every day as part of the 100 day project and shared the posts on Instagram as #100daysofdrawandplay. One of my proudest paintings came toward the end of the project (of course), when I felt that I was ready to tackle something big: a portrait of my first car (whose name was Car).

    I framed my car painting, and it’s currently on the wall of our entryway, next to where we keep our keys. I love having it there. It’s in a simple, square white frame, and I’ve always thought it would be fun to expand the collection. I had the idea to paint David’s car for him ages ago, but it wasn’t until his birthday month arrived that I decided to finally go for it.

    watercolor painting of a red convertible
    almost done… can you find what’s missing?
    miami convertible view of palm trees
    I mean, can you blame him?

    Meet Scoot. Formally known as a Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, Scoot is David’s Miami-mobile. When we finalized our plans to move to the land of palm trees and sunshine, David decided that his Florida lifestyle couldn’t be confined by things like “roofs”. A few years without winter mean this is the ideal time to own a convertible, and David loves this car. He drives with the roof down every trip, settling for coverage only during hurricane downpours or traffic jams in summer sun. So I knew he’d love an homage to Scoot.

    When I made my first car portrait, I learned that painting a car is challenging in many ways. The body lines, shadows, highlights, reflections – cars are such an inorganic object and so purposefully designed that tiny flaws in the drawing or painting are extremely noticeable. The slightest difference in angle can make the car look wonky, and something just looks “off”. My 2018 drawing of Car took HOURS, but that was all part of the exercise – I was training my brain to draw and, more importantly, to see. I’m really proud of that drawing because I remember how challenging it was. But this time, I was just making a painting, not giving my brain a workout.

    So I cheated. I printed a photo of the car, and transferred the outlines of the image by covering the back of the printout with graphite, then tracing the car on the front side. This saved me a lot of time and a lot of error, but honestly? It wasn’t cheating at all. There was still so much “artistic work” involved to make this painting, especially fine tuning all the various shadows and subtle color shifts, and I know that tracing made me no less of an artist. I started this habit with the wedding watercolor for my brother and sister-in-law, and it’s a trick I expect I’ll continue to use.

    The painting took many focused hours, stretched over about a week. It’s hard to hide a watercolor because you don’t want to disturb it while it’s wet! But I managed to keep the secret safe.

    watercolor painting of a fiat 124 spider abarth

    I put the painting in a white, square frame to match my original painting of Car, and gave it to David for his birthday. It was actually David’s idea to add the black mat and it is the perfect artistic touch.

    watercolor car portrait as husband birthday gift

    I was not the only one who thought to give David a car-related present… it was fun that both his parents and his (new!) in-laws gifted him car themed items as well!

    watercolor car portrait as husband birthday gift

    I added a matching mat to my existing portrait, and now they make a lovely pair that will soon be hanging together in the entryway. It’s also fun for me to see how my skills have developed. I still love my first car painting, but it’s clear that I’ve become a better painter and artist in the three years since then. It’s hard to remember, but so much of this skill is just about practice.

  • Garment Sewing,  Sewing,  Wedding

    I Made My Wedding Dress, Part 4: The Big Reveal!

    handmade wedding dress sewn with lace fabric

    Ta da!

    Here she is: my finished wedding dress.

    handmade wedding dress sewn with lace fabric

    A labor of love, crafted over many, many months of work.

    handmade lace wedding dress

    But the absolute best part was that I got to wear it for this day.

    To close the back of the dress, I added two pearl buttons. I tacked a little piece of ribbon behind the lace when I sewed them on, for extra strength. For the button loops, I used thin corded elastic, tied it into loops, and sewed the loops to the ends of two of the “leaf” lace strands.

    These buttons weren’t really bearing any weight, they were just making sure the lace overlapped in the right place.

    Even if the buttons had no other purpose besides getting these photos of me and my mama, they’d be worth it. We’re so cute.

    handmade lace wedding dress Catholic wedding

    Of course, David said he barely NOTICED my dress until after the ceremony, after the family photos, after the bridal party photos – not until it was time for our couple photos. Up until that point, he hadn’t really thought about my dress because he’d been too busy looking at ME. How sweet is that.

    handmade lace wedding dress

    And it’s true, the couple pictures were a wonderful time that day because we got to take a moment to breathe, and hug, and be together.

    handmade wedding masks, lace wedding face mask

    I ended up finishing the dress with a whole week to spare. It wasn’t perfect, but it was exactly what it needed to be. I made myself a matching mask with a little bit of lace detailing. My mom made masks for the bridesmaids and groomsmen, to coordinate with their dresses and suits.

    handmade wedding dress sewn with lace fabric

    To hem the neckline and sleeves, I simply trimmed the mesh, carefully outlining any motifs. No sewing here. I wanted to maintain the “illusion neckline” and stitches would have been too visible. Plus, this is what the pros do, and if they’re allowed to do it, so am I.

    back of handmade wedding dress sewn with lace fabric, showing pearl buttons
    love how you can see the little buttons on my dress in this picture

    Knowing what I know now, would I still make my dress? Absolutely. Like I said at the beginning, it’s what I do. I’m so glad I was able to wear handmade on my wedding day.

    I’m also 100% thrilled I never have to make a wedding dress ever again. I said that to someone who asked, “what about your daughter’s dress?” and I replied, “She can make her own.”

    twirling in a handmade lace wedding dress

    The dress was great for twirling…

    i made my wedding dress - handmade lace wedding dress

    And more twirling.

    (also how dashing is David in his vest?!)

    The dress was also perfect for our backyard wedding reception. I had toyed with the idea of including a train, maybe even something detachable, but that didn’t happen and that’s okay. This dress was perfect for our casual day.

    handmade wedding masks, lace wedding face mask

    Our wedding day was so different than we had planned it. There were lots of compromises and certainly many people we missed. But we are so glad we went for it on 10/10/2020 and aren’t waiting in engaged limbo anymore! It’s so great to be married to this guy.

    Thank you to Anna Liz Photography for these beautiful photos.

    This is the fourth and final post in my “I Made My Wedding Dress” series.

  • Garment Sewing,  Sewing,  Wedding

    I Made My Wedding Dress, Part 3: The Final Countdown

    sewing a wedding dress with lace fabric

    Part 2 concluded with my wedding dress being unceremoniously stuffed in a drawer. Our scheduled wedding day came and went. It’s been almost a year since that time, and it’s still so weird to think about. When we cancelled our May wedding, the venue offered us an alternate date in August 2020, because that seemed safe at the time – whole MONTHS for everything to return to normal.

    Everything was so unpredictable, and rules and contagion guidance were both changing rapidly. All I knew was that I didn’t want to plan a wedding a second time and have to cancel that, too. So I decided, and David agreed, that we wouldn’t plan a new date until things were stable. At the time, I meant “over”, but sometimes stable is the most you can ask for.

    I had a quiet but good summer, sewing quilts and clothes, missing friends and Disney, hanging out with my fiancé and nobody else. Every so often we’d say to each other, “man, I wish we were married already,” but we also knew that it would happen eventually. So waiting was tough – and definitely didn’t make pandemic time pass any faster! – but at least we still had each other and were able to build our relationship during that extra time together.

    David had the idea to revisit our plan once per month. Every month on the 9th, the date of our “almost-iversary”, we’d check in with each other a little more formally and see how we were feeling about the wedding. Did we still want to wait? Or was it time?

    By August, it was clear that COVID wasn’t going to disappear on its own. At our August 9 check-in, we started to revisit our options. Our number one priority: Nobody would get COVID from our wedding. We also didn’t want to encourage people to travel. How could we make this happen?

    We checked with the church – they’d allow guests as long as people wore masks and sat with distance. And they had a few Saturdays in October still open, including 10/10/2020. David’s and my nerdy engineer hearts fluttered at the thought. What a cool number!

    We talked with the priest and our parents, and started a plan. Mid-August, I emailed my bridesmaids with the subject line TEN TEN TWENTY TWENTY?!?!?! And pulled my dress out of its drawer, with 6 weeks to make the rest of the dress AND plan this brand new wedding.

    Step 1, of course, was to catch up with myself. I hadn’t looked at the dress in 5 months. And I had stopped at a bad time, when I was stuck and wasn’t sure what to do next with the bodice. Spoiler alert: those 5 months of “not thinking about it” didn’t help me figure it out.

    So I had a mostly finished lining and a half-finished lace overlay, but I still needed to craft the exterior white layer of my dress, the layer everyone would see under the lace. Really, a dress with a lace overlay is like making two dresses.

    Choosing the fabric for this was really hard. I bought one formal, satiny-satin. It felt soft, not crunchy, but it had substance to it. I sewed it up, tried it on, and hated it. It was too rigid, too formal, too old. I didn’t take any pictures of it so you don’t get to see.

    The second round was this drapey stuff, I think it’s a viscose. It’s not quite as drapey as the lining fabric, which has some stretch to it, but it’s very light. This was so much better. In the photo above you can see my very advanced method for making sure I liked the way the white dress looked under the lace. It passed.

    wedding dress sewing
    yes, this will do.

    This fabric was semi-translucent so I ended up using 2 layers of it, with one of the layers ending just above my knees. This means the “white dress” was 3 layers: outer layer (full length); interlining (knee length); and inner lining (full length).

    wedding dress sewing
    lace along top edge of bodice to prevent stretch (this ends up in between the layers)

    I used sew-in boning on the bodice top. I tried the standard plastic cased boning, but it was way too stiff for this fabric and application. The sew in boning was awesome. I had worked really hard on the fit of the dress from the beginning, and felt that this strapless bodice fit me better than any I’ve ever made (or worn).

    I harvested the boning from the blue dress that my dressform wore – that dress ended up helping with so many things! While ripping the boning out, I noticed that the blue dress had a layer of nylon horsehair braid sewn into the top seam. This keeps the seam from stretching out and also helps the fabric make a softer edge. I used some lace I had on hand to do the same on my dress, and I think it made a nice difference in how the top edge of the bodice laid against my body. This lace is in between the lining and interlining layers, so it did not touch my skin.

    I also continued forth with lace piecing, working my way up the bodice. Now that it’s over, it seems so simple, but at the time it was just nonstop decisions to be made and it all felt very important. Like, “what if that flower ends up too close to my neck?!?” important. I was scared of ruining it. But I just kept making it up as I went along.

    After the triumph of completing what I’m calling “the white underdress”, and trying it on a dozen times as I finalized fit… my zipper broke. This. Was. Crushing. I was 3 weeks into my 6 week deadline and couldn’t fathom completing my dress in time. In the end, though, I’m so grateful my zipper broke then. I had been using a regular, dressmaking invisible zipper, and it could have broken at much less opportune times: a week before the wedding, when the dress was ACTUALLY almost done; or even the day OF the wedding!

    So it was a big wake-up call and I learned about heavy-duty invisible zippers. For formalwear, and… bridal gowns. I ordered a YKK heavy duty zipper off Amazon and kept appliqueing my lace.

    sewing a wedding dress in secret
    secret wedding dress work station

    I got this question a lot, and YES, I did keep the dress a secret from David the whole time! He never even saw the lace. My sewing room is on the 3rd floor and his office is on the ground floor. The only other room on the 3rd floor is our bedroom. So I could sew away safely while he was in his office, the kitchen, or the living room, and then if he came upstairs he’d knock on the wall or warn me somehow before coming in the room.

    With the zipper incident, I had a LOT of seam ripping ahead of me and I didn’t want to stay secluded for it. So I carried the ironing board downstairs and set up the enclave you see above. I sat in a comfy chair with my sheet-curtain protecting my work, and David sat on the couch. We were able to sit and watch something together, which gave me some much needed emotional space from my project. And after a few hours of movies I was ready to install my new zipper.

    The final zipper installation meant the merging of the lace layer and the white underdress. I sewed that layer by machine, then basted the lining in, then sewed the lining on with a topstitch that went through everything. The topstitch definitely made the zipper more noticeable on the finished dress, but it was worth it to me for the added strength. I did not want ANY extra stress on that zipper – or that lace.

    To help the lace drape and keep it from sagging under its own weight, I did some more of the lace-applique stitching to attach it to the bodice in a more organic way. I also did this to attach the lace along the bodice top, but only on the back side of the dress. On the front side of the dress, the lace is not attached to the dress bodice at all, it just hangs freely. If I had attached it, I wouldn’t have been able to lift my arms!

    sewing a wedding dress with lace fabric

    Finally. Finally I had sculpted my shoulders – the hardest part of the whole dress in my opinion – and I was able to try on the whole dress as one unit. It looked like a dress, and it looked like a dress I liked. We were gonna make it.

    I finished my last big lace seam and attached the two pieces of lace underneath the zipper the same way as I had done the other skirt sections. I felt like a GENIUS when I realized I could set up my ironing board over the table, so the table held the weight of the dress while the ironing board let me deal with just the one layer.

    As you can see, I still had some final trimming to do on the shoulders and neckline but, like I said, that was scary, stressful, and confusing. So it came last. My next big task was Hemming By Myself.

    My mom had always planned to visit sometime to help with my dress, even for a weekend. I think that was my plan for hemming, and it also would have helped a lot with deciding what to do on the back of the dress. But of course, pandemic! I didn’t want her to travel anyway, but especially so close to the wedding.

    It was really hard to do a lot of these steps, especially final fitting things, when the only other person around was the one person who wasn’t allowed to see the dress!

    I think I ended up stepping on the hem with my toe so I could crouch down and put a pin in it. Then I trimmed the lining layer first, because if that ended up too short, it wouldn’t be a big deal. The lining layer looked okay… so I did the same thing to the outer layer. And it was fine.

    I hemmed the lining layer with a rolled hem on my serger because I didn’t really care what it looked like. I used a rolled edge foot on my regular machine for the outer layer. I also think floor-length hems can be very forgiving, especially in terms of stitch quality. The rolled-edge foot always gives me a few hiccups but in the end it looked fine.

    Part of the process of making a dress in solitude is endless mirror pictures. Thank goodness for my dressform, but I also needed to know how the lace looked on ME. Where was a good spot to stop for the neckline? How far down did I want the sleeves to go?

    Here is the lace piecing on the back. Like I said, it was so hard to decide what to do for a lot of this. Here, I almost sewed the whole back closed and then realized I might not be able to get into the dress! (especially with my hair done!) It was far too late for a row of buttons, and that didn’t really go with my seamless lace anyway. So what did I do?! I have to leave at least one surprise for next week!

    This is the third post in my “I Made My Wedding Dress” series. This is the last construction post – next week is the big reveal!

  • Garment Sewing,  Sewing,  Wedding

    I Made My Wedding Dress, Part 2: Lace Couture Techniques

    how to sew lace for a wedding dress

    In Part 1, I talked about the fun parts of making my wedding dress: brainstorming designs and choosing a lace (aka fabric shopping). Welcome to Part 2: this is where the WORK happens. But first, let’s talk timeline.

    We got engaged in February 2019. I’ve actually always wanted a fall wedding, so we considered a wedding in Fall 2019, but that would have been pretty tight – especially with long-distance planning and, you know, making my dress. So we scheduled our wedding for May 2020. 

    Somehow, February through December 2019 went by with very little dress progress. I know my mom was getting nervous! There were always more urgent wedding planning tasks to do, like finding and reserving vendors while they still had our date available, and our marriage preparation classes and retreat with the church. (Catholic marriage preparation is AWESOME, by the way. It’s mandatory, so it sounds like a chore to some people, but it was hugely beneficial for us to answer some tough questions before combining our lives.) We also moved! I had wanted to wait until we were married to move in together, but once we were engaged for a few months it was the right time for us – especially because, with a combined household, we could afford to live at the beach. Can’t pass that up.

    By the time I had made my muslin and had my lace in hand, it was January 2020: four months to go.

    sewing my wedding dress

    Of course – spoilers! – we all know what 2020 would hold. But it sure felt like nothing could get in the way of our May wedding, and I had a lot of dress to make. I spent most of my free time in January-March 2020 sewing away on my lace overlay. I used what I call a “lace invisible seam”. It’s a couture technique to sew lace seams without straight line seam allowances, because any seam allowance will show through the translucent fabric. Was it necessary? No. Was it worth it? I really think so. But it did, absolutely, take a lot more time and effort.

    This post on Instructables (Step 10) explained the invisible seams in a way that I could wrap my head around. First, you mark the pattern lines on the lace by running a contrast-color basting stitch along each stitch line. Then you line up the stitching lines, overlapping the pieces. Finally, you cut along the edge of the lace motif and stitch it in place.

    handmade diy wedding dress
    Laying out the skirt fabric to sew it together using the lace invisible seam method, then marking the seam lines with blue thread

    Of course, I immediately made this more difficult for myself because my lace had a border, and I wanted to use that border as the bottom hem of my dress. I took my skirt pattern pieces and stitched them together at the hem, then laid them out on the table, above. Next, I placed my lace on top, and lined up the lace border with the bottom hem edge of the pattern pieces. Then I started the invisible lace method by marking each seam line with a line of blue thread. This just marks the lace, it doesn’t actually sew anything together.

    Once each seam line was basted, I cut between the panels, taking a meandering path around the motifs. Then I overlapped my blue thread seam lines and had to decide what motifs to sew down, and what to trim away.

    Illustration: pink is cutting path, yellow arrows show direction of overlap. Click for larger image.

    Here’s a maybe helpful, but still confusing, picture of how this worked. The pink squiggly lines are an approximation of where I cut. And then the yellow arrows show which direction I overlapped the fabrics. Once I overlapped them, I sewed on top of the motifs that followed the pink squiggly line, and trimmed away any excess material on the back so the lace was back to being just one layer thick.

    how to sew lace for a wedding dress
    Lace cut around motifs, pinned in place with purple marker to indicate stitch path

    It’s hard to show in a photo, but above you can see one example. I’d already trimmed around the leaves of the overlapping piece. Then I pinned them in place, with the blue threads overlapping, and then I marked with the purple marker (disappearing ink! of course) everywhere I wanted to sew. That way, when I sat at the machine, I wouldn’t get lost in a sea of lace… I just had to follow my purple marker.

    Here are the things I found to be essential for sewing the invisible lace seam.

    1. Disappearing ink marking pen: Dritz Mark-B-Gone. I use this pen all the time. It has two ends: the blue end disappears in water, but the purple end disappears magically with AIR. The one downside is that sometimes I mark something with the purple ink, and then don’t work on it right away… and it disappears so I have to mark it again. It usually lasts a few days, but sometimes depending on the humidity or the fabric type, it will disappear in a few hours. Of course, ALWAYS test something like this before marking your fabric. But I found that it disappeared from the lace without issue, so I was able to pin my fabric and then mark the path through the lace that I wanted to sew. Otherwise I would have gotten lost every time I took my fabric over to the machine.
    2. Free-Motion Quilting foot that jumps: I bought this 3-pack. My machine came with an FMQ foot, but it doesn’t jump. The jumping FMQ foot has a little bar that rests on the needle bar, so when the needle is up, the foot is up, but when the needle is down, the foot is down. This makes the fabric easy to manipulate, especially since the lace varies so much in thickness. With the “jump”, the presser foot is only applying pressure when you need it, and it leaves you to move the fabric freely in between stitches.
    3. Small, sharp needle. I don’t change needles nearly as often as I should, but for sewing the lace I changed my needle often. Since I was sewing through thick layers of embroidered thread, my needle would snag occasionally and cause my thread to get all looped up, and then I had to stop and deal with the tangled thread. It was much smoother when I changed my needle more regularly – I probably still only used 4 needles.
    4. Sharp, skinny pins: Dritz Glasshead Pins. I love these glass head pins, they’re extra long and they’re very sharp and narrow. Just like with the needle, their sharp point and narrow shaft was able to pin the lace in places where a different pin may have snagged. I also used my Clover Flower Head Pins, especially to pin the lace to my dressform.
    5. Sharp, tiny scissors. You may be noticing a trend with this list. Sharp tools were KEY, because the fabric was delicate, so a dull tool would have caused awful snags. I used my Gingher thread snips for trimming all of the lace contours. I tried my small Kai snips, which I love for everything else, but they have a square end and weren’t as effective at maneuvering in the tight spaces.

    Here’s a video I made of sewing the lace layers. You can see how my Free Motion Quilting foot is jumping up and down. You can also see that I pinned like CRAZY, and I was sewing over my disappearing purple-pen lines. The video is at 8x speed, so you can imagine that each seam took… a while.

    It was tedious but it was also satisfying. Especially since my lace was just an embroidered mesh, my stitching lines blended in easily. I had a few sections on the skirt where there were no motifs, so I couldn’t avoid sewing just mesh-to-mesh. This means I do have a few tiny segments that have a visible seam with a seam allowance, but they are not noticeable.

    Six slow seams later, I had a skirt. I left the center back seam open until later. But this was a big moment. I could finally tell that I really liked my lace, and I really liked the direction my dress was headed. It was a slow project, with so much uncertainty and so much pressure. So this moment was a beautiful chance for me to step back and acknowledge that yes: I was making the dress I wanted to make.

    Let me give a quick shoutout here to my dressform’s dress: this is the bridesmaid dress I wore in my Matron of Honor’s wedding. It was the perfect under-layer for my dressform because it fit me very well, and it wasn’t white so I could see the overlaps in my white mesh fabric as I worked. I sewed a marking knot at the belly button of the blue dress, and a corresponding marking knot on the belly button of my lace piece, to make sure I lined up the fabric in the same way every time.

    As you saw above, I had used my skirt pattern as the guideline for the lace seams on the skirt. But once I got to the bodice, I didn’t use the pattern anymore – I think that would have been more difficult and less reliable. I was sufficiently comfortable with the “seams anywhere” approach that I realized I’d rather drape the fabric directly over my dressform for a perfect fit. Plus, that way I could make sure all the motifs were where I wanted them. I wanted a lot of leaves and the smaller flowers around my neckline.

    • how to sew lace for a wedding dress
    • how to sew lace for a wedding dress
    • how to sew lace for a wedding dress
    • how to sew lace for a wedding dress

    Here’s an example. I held up the lace to figure out approximate motif placement, then pinned it in place just like before: lots and lots of pins, with purple marking my stitch path. Obviously the fitted bodice curves were a lot tighter than the relatively straight lines of the skirt, so this was harder to contour and sew.

    And then… March 2020 arrived. In mid-March I sent an email to my bridesmaids saying, “it sounds like this Coronavirus thing is getting to be a big deal. We’ll see what happens, but right now we’re planning to get married as long as they’ll let us.”

    Literally hours later, our venue cancelled the reception and the church said they would only allow ceremonies with 10 total people inside the church. So unless one of my brothers was ready to take our pictures, and the other could binge a 6-week organist crash course, we’d have a very quiet, undocumented ceremony. Without my matron of honor, without David’s best man, without a party.

    It was hard. We were so ready to get married. But at the time, COVID-19 felt like such a temporary problem. I couldn’t bear the thought of going forward with a slapdash ceremony just to “get it over with”. I was still so hopeful that we could have a wedding with “our people” there, and that was worth waiting for.

    So we waited.

    We cancelled what we could, and we were very fortunate compared to many other wedding planning couples I’ve talked to. Our venue returned our full deposit, and we kept most of our vendors on hold and on alert.

    Maybe I should have kept working on my dress. But I had no deadline, and I wasn’t even sure what kind of wedding to look forward to. So I put the dress in a drawer, and took a big break, and made a big, gorgeous quilt.

    Don’t worry, I won’t make you wait months like my dress did. I’ll be back later this week with plenty more dress construction photos!

    This is the second post in my “I Made My Wedding Dress” series.