Enjoying the chill in the air and dreaming up designs in velvet and wool.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wedding Dress Alchemy

It appears to be a growing trend for brides to alter/shorten/dye/otherwise change their bridal gown after their wedding day so that they can wear it again for other functions. I've done this before - for a wedding gown I'd created, actually, which got shortened to knee-length and fiber-dyed sage green.

But today's post concerns a wedding gown I didn't make. Hear the tale of the Taming of the Poly Duchess Satin Dress.

The young husband contacted me; he and his wife were moving to Europe, and were paring down their belongings to the bare minimum. She did not have any deep attachment to her wedding gown, and it had had some water damage while being stored since they got married a few years ago. They asked me to see what I could do with it to turn it into a party dress and pretty much gave me free reign on the design aspect.

I told them from the beginning that I wasn't sure if I could do much with it. I've worked a little with dyes before, but always on natural fabrics - which are ever so much easier to dye than synthetics. I knew that this thick polyester satin was going to be unpredictable and perhaps un-dyeable, but since their other option was to give the gown to Goodwill, I went ahead.

First, I cut off several feet of train and a good twenty-four inches off the front hem of the dress, and removed a bajillion layers of tulle from underneath. I left one small layer in for a bit of a swing.

I hemmed it, using a poly/cotton blend thread, and after doing a bit of research, bought my dyes.

Polyester fibers are not like natural fibers at a molecular level, and you can't dye them the same way. I won't go into the whole explanation here, but if you're a geek or a fabric fiend, it IS kind of fascinating (try this article). The more I researched it, the more intimidated I became (because of articles like this one) and also the more determined I was to make it work. As I gathered information, two main pieces of advice kept surfacing - #1. Don't dye polyester. It won't work. #2. If you must dye polyester, use iDye Poly.

So I picked up some iDye Poly in red and violet from my local craft supply place. I wanted to dye the dress a deep wine color, along with a little extra fabric from the train to make into a belt. The plan was to remove the bow from the bodice, move some of the buttons from the back of the dress (they went all the way down the train) and put them where the bow was, and maybe add straps for a nice, simple, little retro swing dress.

It occurred to me that I'd better remove the beaded trim around the collar, because it probably wouldn't take the dye either...which meant ripping it out and then turning the dress inside out to sew the collar back onto the bodice. Not complicated, but tedious and a little nitpicky. (This is the kind of work where you call up a friend and make her come over and have tea and talk to you while you go to town with your seam ripper.)

I washed the dress (gleefully ignoring the "dry clean only" label), which took the rusty water stains right out and ostensibly removed oils and other residue to make the dye job even. Then it was time to dye! I have a cheap soup pot, twice the size it needs to be for any big batch of chili, that has now become my dyeing vat. It was *barely* big enough to hold the dress and the small bit of extra fabric that I threw in with it. I remembered about the extra buttons just in time and tossed some in, worrying a little that they'd stay at the bottom of the pot and melt as I simmered and stirred the dress on my stovetop for an hour.

See how the tulle is dyeing too? I wasn't sure whether to expect that or not. Nice surprise.

It all appeared to be turning a nice reddish plum. When the hour was up, I took it down to our basement where we have a big utility sink and began the rinsing process. It takes FOR. EV. ER. to rinse this stuff out. And I almost lost all the loose buttons down the drain in the process. And I did splash some of the dye ten feet across the room onto one of my roommate's nice white unmentionables, which I ended up dying completely so now she's got nice deep wine-colored unmentionables instead of weird purple-Dalmation-spot ones.

However, as I rinsed the dress, it became patently obvious that not only was the fabric not deep wine colored but actually an alarmingly bright fuchsia, but it was also blotchy. In weird places. There were two spots on the back - at the waist and just under the shoulder blade - that I realized must have been where the groom put his hand as they took pictures together and posed and danced. My pre-wash hadn't been able to get those oils off, and they affected the way the polyester took the dye. There were also random other blotches here and there, noticeable, and not evenly-spread enough to look like impressionistic watercolors. 

Fuchsia. One of the more commonly misspelled colors in the English language.
After careful consideration, I tossed out the ideas of a) creating a lace overlay for the entire dress, b) covering it all with bunchy tulle ruffles, c) re-dyeing it (I had no reason to expect that the dye wouldn't darken/deepen the blotches, too) and d) just telling the couple that the dye ate the dress and burying the poor thing in my trashcan. I hung the dress to dry (it looked worse when it dried completely) and left it for several days while I dealt with other work.

While gathering some materials for another project, I saw small cans of fabric spray-paint and thought, "Well, I've got nothing to lose at this point." I brought home two of them - a bright violet and a deeper purple - and tested them on the extra piece of fabric I'd dyed. Remembering an art technique from my middle school watercolor class, I wet half of the piece of fabric and sprinkled rock salt liberally over it, and then sprayed the paint lightly over the whole thing to see the difference in how the paint worked with the different preparations. Even thought the can says it gives "even application," it most certainly doesn't, but in this case, I was going for MORE blotchiness than I had, so that was all right. After shaking off the salt, letting the fabric dry, and inspecting the result, I decided to go for the wet fabric, with salt, using the violet paint only. I did about three rounds of that on the whole dress, and when I was done, it looked...different. Not quite the watercolor effect I was going for, and still overwhelmingly fuchsia. My roommates took to calling it the Late 80's Barbie Dress, with the electric pink Jackson Pollock thing going on.

So after a few more days of trying not to think about it, I finally went to my fabric scrap bin for inspiration. I had some silky gray ribbon lying next to some gold silk...and the thought struck me. Back to the craft supply store I went, and got a couple of spools of satin cord in shades of gray, and lengths of the same old-gold ribbon in both satin and grosgrain weave.

After lots of cutting and pinning and zigzag topstitching, I had a nice little asymmetrically-cascading garden all over half of the dress. I took the corners of the collar center and folded them open and tacked them in place. I didn't have time to put it on my mannequin or take another photo after I pressed it, because the customer was on his way over to collect it, but you can get the general idea of the finished product! Since it still fits the owner so well, and she looks good in this palette, I'm tickled...fuchsia...with how it turned out.

...But I don't know if I'll ever try to dye polyester again!

p.s. the couple "loved it." No matter how confident I am in my work, that is always a huge relief to hear =).


Sarah R. September 29, 2011 at 12:20 PM  

you are a rock star! i guess i shouldn't ask you to try and do something with my dress then? :-)

Libby September 29, 2011 at 2:23 PM  

I love reading about your process! Kudos for not telling your customers that the dye "ate the dress." I would have been very very tempted.

Joy Tuggy October 6, 2011 at 11:25 AM  

Loved reading this post! I continue to be amazed at my very creative and persistent niece!!! The dress looked and looks beautiful!!!

Aaron July 1, 2012 at 1:39 PM  

Helen was excited that someone asked who she was wearing!

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