Style Story: Ona + The Handmade Wedding Dress

Style Story: Ona & the wedding dress | This I Wear

Ona is like a pioneer woman: you leave her alone with some pine needles and you return to an expertly woven basket. She has the dual gifts of resourcefulness and a willingness to try anything that enable her to take things that seem to have no life or purpose and create something new. Ona and my brother Jonathan were married this past summer at Ona’s family home in Maine in the most impressive DIY wedding I’ve ever attended (and since I used to plan weddings, I have seen quite a lot). Ona’s dress, like most for the wedding details, had a story of its own and easily proves that great things can happen by chance and that some rules are made to be broken.

Start from the beginning please!
I have been making dresses for probably 10 years out of skirts, scraps of fabric, and all kinds of stuff I found in my mom’s sewing closet. I would turn them into fun dancing dresses for contra dancing. My favorite ones are where I basically took a skirt I didn’t like, hoisted it up, took it in so that it was more form fitting, put on straps, and I had a knee-length dress. Pretty simple.

And so my mom has her favorites [of the dresses I’ve made]. She was the first person who suggested that maybe I would want to take a dress and repurpose it for the wedding. A couple years ago, she bought an off-white silk dress from Goodwill, and [when we started planning the wedding] she gave it to me to use.

Did she have any intentions when she initially bought the dress what it might be used for?
I can’t imagine, because I think she got it a while ago. She just thought “it’s silk!” and “it’s three bucks!” so she bought it. It didn’t fit me. It’s a sheath dress, so it’s very little fabric, kind of a heavier silk, and definitely not [made of] large pieces from which I could cut out other pieces. When I looked at it, I thought that it’s going be kind of challenging, but it could be fun. So I started looking around for silk that would match the dress. I took [a swatch] up to a fabric store in Brattleboro, Vermont. The woman who runs it is totally crazy. She’s padding around the store in her socks. The store is piled high with silks and gauzes and taffetas and all kinds of fabrics.

We spend an hour and a half looking for something to match the fabric of the dress. At this point, I don’t have a pattern, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I knew I didn’t want to have a big fancy wedding dress with a big train or anything like that, although that may have been more of a cost consideration rather than style. In the end, there just happened to be a remnant of silk that matched the dress perfectly – same weight, same color –but there were only 2 ½ yards. But it felt almost like it was meant to be.

Now I have 2 ½ yards of silk and a dress. I start looking around for patterns that would take advantage of what I have. I was at Jo-Ann’s that just happened to be having a sale on their Vogue patterns and there happened to be a pattern that fit all of the criteria. I decided to go with it, but the problem was that the pattern calls for 5 ½ yards of fabric and I have 2 ½ and a dress. Then it was a matter of making a mock-up, reducing, and on top of this, I have such little experience with patterns that I bought the wrong size. I got the Large instead of the Small/Medium, so I had to take the existing pattern and extrapolate down to my size.

I made a mock-up and I was able to reduce the width of the skirt. I figured out which pieces I could cut from the existing dress and which I could fit on the new fabric. My pattern pieces were just pinned down however they could fit on the fabric, so I was hoping that no one would notice that the pieces weren’t correctly oriented [on the bias]. I was not following the rules. In the end, I had almost no fabric left after cutting out all the pieces, but I was able to get them all cut out.

Did you learn to sew from your mom?
Yes, although she said I wasn’t a very good student, because I was not interested in learning exactly what she had to say.

How did she learn to sew?
I think she probably learned from her mom. I started pretty young. I made my first quilt when I was nine. It was a very simple squares quilt for [my sister] Gaelyn. It was her baby quilt. She sews too. It’s definitely a family tradition. I think I probably sewed my first dress in the beginning of high school. I know my mom sewed her own clothes probably throughout high school.

How long did it take you to make just the dress, not including the embroidery?
I procrastinated awhile because I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to the fabric store in January, so I had the fabric. Then it was a couple weeks before I had the pattern, and then once I had the pattern and the fabric, probably another couple weeks before I sat down and did it. I cut the pieces and assembled the dress as much as I could in a matter of a week, maybe two weeks. That was the easiest part.

To what extent did you know what you wanted the end product to look like vs. being inspired by what came up along the way?
I would say the whole thing was following a series of fortunate events. From the start, I checked out the Knot and Etsy to see what dresses people were making. I got some fancy sewing books that talked about different seam types and different necklines, so that helped in starting to shape ideas of how I wanted it to look. But in the end, the pieces just fell into place and made the dress that I got. There were only 2 ½ yards, I wanted to have the embroidered panel, the pattern that I found was the only one that fit all of those things that I needed it to do, so I felt like it was meant to be. Like I didn’t have to make half of the decisions. That’s just what was presented.

Can we talk about the embroidery? What inspired the cummerbund?
When [Jon and I] were out in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we went to the International Folk Art Museum. We saw a wedding outfit from an Eastern European village and it was a guy’s outfit. It was heavily embroidered. It had a full skirt, a top hat, and it may have had a parasol. It was bizarre, very unique. And Jon looked at me and said, “I think…I think we should wear something crazy like that for the wedding.”

Did he really say he wanted to wear something “crazy” for the wedding? Was he just looking for something memorable?
I think he was entertaining for a very short period of time something that was embroidered heavily and in the style of what we saw there. It didn’t last long though. He quickly moved on to a plain linen suit. But he got the ball rolling in my head about embroidery, because it plays such a huge role in cultures around the world and is specifically present in wedding ceremonies. There’s embroidery in American wedding dresses, but it’s all done by machine or it’s very simple. There’s no meaning behind the embroidery. It’s like the last remnant of embroidery in our culture and it’s lost all of its meaning.

So I became really interested in discovering the meaning behind wedding embroidery around the world. There were a couple of really great books I got from the library. One of them was called “Embroidered Textiles” by Sheila Paine. I looked at different embroidered textiles from all these different angles and pulled out the pieces I wanted to do. I wanted to have the Tree of Life. I wanted to have the Four Directions. I wanted to have fertility symbols, because that’s what you put into wedding embroidery when it comes down to it.

But more importantly, it was a fascinating discovery of the role embroidery plays in traditional cultures. One of the more interesting things I found was that aprons in many cultures are not to keep your skirt clean but to protect. You sew protection in with every stitch to ward off evil spirits. And who knows how much of this is actually being passed down in these cultures. The mirrors reflect evilness, so by sewing them in, you reflect the Evil Eye. Not that I believe in the Evil Eye, but why not bring in a little bit of extra protection? It was fun to be able to express that.

It tells such a story. It means so much more than what it is at face value.
And I had never embroidered before, so I also had to take out that book from the library. I had to teach myself a bunch of stitches. A lot of it was made up. There was symbolism, but a lot of it was my own aesthetic.

Will you be able to reuse the dress or any of the pieces? Or do you plan on wearing or displaying it in any way?
I would like to. We’ll take it out if we ever want to get dressed up in our wedding clothes, which my family has a tradition of doing. Every year, my parents get into their wedding clothes for their anniversary and we take a family picture. We might continue that tradition. It’s pretty funny because over the years, my mom doesn’t fit into her dress anymore and my dad doesn’t fit into his suit. The part that doesn’t zip for my mom doesn’t show, but my dad stopped buttoning up his jacket. And, of course, it’s just a nice time to take a family portrait to document how we’re all growing up.

Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your stories of handmade wedding traditions and what to do with those special event garments once the big day is over.

[Photos by Mary Weyer]

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