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I decided to make a May Ball dress and here’s what happened

Ever wondered how to make a dress from scratch?

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Six months, metres of fabric, hours of ironing, endless alterations, several spools of thread, hundreds of pins and every ounce of my sanity later: I actually made a May Ball Dress.

Best laid plans

The saga of the May Ball dress begins in 2016, and in a very familiar way. I ordered a made-to-measure dress from China for my sixth form prom and (predictably) it was a disaster. It didn’t fit, the beading was tacky, and the skirt was ripped. However, in this green monstrosity I saw potential, I saw a Cinderella yearning to go to the ball. Sadly, I didn’t have the time to transform her so into the cupboard she went.

Fast forward to the summer of 2018 and it was time to take up the challenge. My general mentality to sewing is "if someone else can make it, why can’t I?" and this project was no exception. I could visualise the basic shapes I needed (but not the several obstacles I would tackle on the way) and I had a vision. My inspiration came from the dress Emma Stone wore to the Venice Film Festival in 2014; a gorgeous, ethereal Valentino gown.

However, Valentino has an atelier. I had a limited supply of fabric, my trusty sewing machine, and my imagination. So, I went to the drawing board – I needed a strategy. Next, I had to deconstruct the dress. This is the most terrifying part of any project: the point of no return. However, I can absolutely recommend ripping apart a ball gown, it’s very satisfying.

The skirt

The first part of the dress I tackled was the skirt. I deconstructed all four (yes, four) skirt layers, then I ironed all four layers (one of which was 5m wide!!). The next part was simple, gather the four skirts to my waist measurement and sew it all back together.

Then, I cut off the waterfall at the back of the original skirt, making the skirt level and leaving me with strips of fabric that would become the bodice. Sounds very technical but this was the simplest part of the process by far.

The waistband

This is the part of the story where I have an idea that I can’t execute and end up questioning the whole endeavour. I was back to the drawing board, imagining a curved waistband. Long story short, it was a nightmare to construct and looked terrible. But, this is the joy of making your own clothes, the whole process is trial and error, and you can redesign any aspect you want!

An extra challenge was aligning the waterfall skirt at the front with the central seam of the waistband and the two front pieces of the bodice. It took a good few attempts but that attention to detail really put a professional finish on the dress.

The bodice

I thought the bodice would be simple and it was, in theory. Two rectangular pieces of chiffon for the back, two chiffon pieces lined with satin for the front, gather them at the shoulder, make a casing for the shoulders and bob’s your uncle (narrator: it was not that simple). Lining the chiffon with satin was a pain, I had to teach myself a new seam technique (a French seam, for those of you that are interested) to make them.

Then, once I had constructed the bodice, it gaped at the front and back. I lost count of how many times I tried on the dress, pinned it, took it off, pinned it again and tried it on again only to see that it still wasn’t right. In the end I just took it apart and started again but eventually I got there.

For the first time I put on the dress, looked in the mirror and didn’t wonder if I had made a huge mistake: it was starting to look like my vision.

Finishing touches

The end was in sight. I drew up a design for the shoulder casings and, to my astonishment, they worked (when it comes to sewing, things rarely work first time for me) and covering my own buttons was far easier than I expected (and it involved using a hammer, always a plus).

She shall go to the ball!

Would I recommend making a May Ball dress? Absolutely. Depending on how you get the materials, it can end up being super affordable, but really give yourself enough time. Also, consider yourselves warned that chiffon is a struggle to work with, it slips and slides everywhere.

This was the most difficult project I’ve ever done but it was a really fun challenge and so rewarding! And I have a dress for May Ball that is totally unique! It was definitely worth all the seam ripping.