How to Alter a Dress to Make it Your Own

I don’t consider myself an expert sewer, so I didn’t feel confident sewing a design from a pretty pattern (If I did, I would attempted something from The Colette Sewing Handbook), but I was undaunted to tackle the challenge of altering a dress. This is a short story of how I made my experience special by crafting my own unconventional wedding dress, and I hope I can inspire you to try reverse appliqué, stenciling, hand-stitching and even dyeing to make something special of your own, even if it’s not a wedding dress.

I was open to letting the design develop as I went a long and I wasn’t wedded (no pun intended) to any particular style. I knew that however it turned out, it would be meaningful and special because I had made it.

beginning altered dress

I searched Etsy for cotton dresses that were simple in cut and which I knew wouldn’t be too difficult to alter. I found the perfect “blank canvas”—a natural cotton dress that had lovely raw edges and was very simple in design. The dress came from Etsy seller SavoyFaire and the first step I took was to dye it. I used Dharma Fiber Reactive Dye and selected Marigold as my color. (Yellow holds personal meaning for me, and my beloved, so dyeing was my first step in personalizing—and altering—my dress.)

At the same time I dyed the dress, I also dyed a linen shirt for my groom, some natural cotton fabric I bought off the bolt (which I planned to use to make gores for the dress) and also some white jersey fabric to use for the reverse appliqué work.

Like Ricë (who is always creating her own altered wardrobe), I’ve been enamored with the reverse appliqué look I see in all of the Alababma Chanin books, and decided it was a look I wanted for this altered dress because I have come to really love hand stitching. I also wanted a very full skirt (and a sort of Empire, or high waist), so completing reverse appliqué on a series of six gores made the most sense. Wanting the skirt/gores to begin just below the bust, I measured how long the triangles needed to be, made them wide enough to do a decent amount of hand stitching on and then cut them out of the extra dyed fabric.

make stencils and hand stitching

Inspired by the reverse appliqué technique Natalie Chanin uses in her books—a technique of stenciling onto fabric before cutting shapes out of it—my first step was to decide on a stencil. Since I was personalizing my dress each step of the way, I wanted to create my own stencil but I could have easily used a premade stencil (I have many Stencil Girl stencils in my collection.) Butterflies symbolize great change to me, so I created my own stencil design, featuring two butterflies that would fit into the triangular shape of a gore.

Mixing together black and white Neopaque fabric paint by Jacquard, I then stenciled all six gores using the same stencil.

It was at this stage that decided to incorporate a third color into my dress, to complement the yellow and grey. Fuchsia was perfect! After that decision, I dyed additional white jersey fabric fuchsia, so that I could alternate the back fabric on the gores. With the jersey on the backside of each gore, I hand stitched a backstitch around each stenciled shape, to secure the two fabrics together. (Natalie explains how to best do this in her books.)

reverse applique on altered dress

After all the hand stitching was done (whew! that took awhile), I used sharp detail scissors to cut out the shapes, leaving a border of paint. Then it was time to sew the gores into the skirt! I measured out six evenly-spaced points around the perimeter of the hem of the dress and made a straight cut, perpendicular to the line of the hem. I then used a sewing machine to the gores into the gaps left by the cuts. I also wanted the skirt to be just slightly longer, so after the gores were sewn in, I added a two-inch strip of the dyed fabric (several “scraps” pieced together for interest) to the bottom of the skirt to increase the hem length.

hand stitching embroidery

I wanted narrower straps, so I folded in the fabric along both sides of the existing straps to create more of a tank effect, but I didn’t want to lose the rough edge of the neckline, so I didn’t carry the fold over along the front or back—just the straps and around the armholes. Finally, I added a series of French knots along the neckline and at the tops of four of the gores, which I really loved stitching! When painting, I love spatter and I love making little dots when I doodle, so this was the sewn version. (Note: After this project was complete, I missed my daily stitching practice, so I ordered The Stitch Bible and I can’t wait to see what new projects it inspires!)

altered wedding dress

Wearing this dress on my wedding day gave me such joy, and made me feel as unique and connected to what I was doing as the day was special. I was happy with how easy it was to alter a dress in a way that made it truly my own.




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