Sarah Harbour, aka The Bridal Seamstress, first picked up a needle when she was five and by 14 knew she wanted to work in bridal. Today she is Mrs Fixit of the industry and keeps us in stitches
Sarah’s first bridal collection was created while she was college studying fashion and design. It was made from pure white cotton chintz with hand-dyed, hand-made blood red roses – big squishy flowers – that were all the rage back in the ’90s. From college she went to work in a couture bridal shop and learned not only the real craft of bridal construction but also, on the shop floor, how to deal best with brides – and, of course, mums.
Today, as a freelance seamstress, based in the Derbyshire Dales, Sarah works independently with a number of shops and has set time slots when she meets the brides to discuss their varying alterations.
“Understanding the production method of both couture and manufactured dresses allows me to be efficient and super-fast at alterations,” she says, adding, “but shh, don’t tell the brides this!”
A stitch in time
Not many bridal shops can justify having a dressmaker on their books today, so out-sourcing alterations is a sensible option. Retailers book fittings for their brides, allocate a changing room and then take a small commission from the seamstress.
“It works well for all parties,” explains Sarah. “The brides have a trusted dressmaker, the shop can offer a professional add-on service and we wielders of the mighty pin cushion have a steady source of income with quality garments.
“Over the years I’ve built up a great relationship with the shops I work with, and I’m very blessed that I can offer my knowledge of fitting frocks when they have a bride who needs to know a little more in the way of what is possible for a specific dress. One of the most overlooked parts of selling, fitting and altering bridal gowns is ensuring the bride knows how to be a bride. A good deal of my fitting time is dedicated to giving the brides and their entourage lessons on how to sit, how to stand, how to hold the bouquet. It’s not easy being a bride in a posh frock.”
Sarah does few private alterations, having found that many of the dresses in need of serious help have been purchased from the internet and those – as we all know – can be more trouble than they are worth.
But does she often get customers who expect her to turn an inferior garment into something magical?
“That’s a loaded question,” is her initial response. “You would think that the stock carried by reputable bridal shops would be of a superior quality every time, but sadly, over the past few years, the quality and content – even from some of the top labels – has declined.
“Popular styles, too, especially the easy-going ones, have reduced foundation fabrics – the thing that gives them ‘body’. But my pet hate are elasticated loops to fasten tightly-fitted dresses (Come on… By its very nature elastic will stretch!).
“I have to replace all of them with proper handmade rouleaux loops. No question, there are customers who are expecting far more from their gown than it is capable of delivering, but this isn’t just the fault of the customer. I find talking through what is and what isn’t possible at the beginning of the fitting process will alleviate most headaches though.
“But then there are always the mothers who are expecting far too much from the dress, or the bride who brings the entire bridal party to the fitting and then there is always one who ‘does a bit of sewing’, or perhaps the bride who arrives with three pairs of shoes and expects me to make the hem length right for all three heel heights. I could go on…
“But needless to say, it has often been discussed with retailers that there could be a lucrative line in voodoo dolls specific to the bridal industry.”
Nothing is too much
Sarah works as a solo operator, confessing that she is something of a control freak who could never pass her work over to someone else.
“Yes, it does limit my earning potential, but equally the buck stops with me. It only takes a slip of the un-picker and I’d be left with a lot of explaining,” she says.
So passionate is she about her work, it is all-consuming. Her diary is booked up all year, so no, she doesn’t have time to turn up curtains or replace the zip on jeans.
“Hell, my son’s blazer has tacking stitches holding up the sleeves!” she laughs. “My friends and relatives have long stopped asking me to sew on the odd button here and there!”
Like everyone, we enjoy a good coming-to-the-rescue story. Sarah didn’t let us down in that department. “I once had a panicked shop owner contact me,” she starts. “A gown had arrived for a customer and the owner left it hanging in its plastic bag – next to a fan heater. The bag melted onto the skirt and the bride was due to try on her size 14 dress the following day. The shop had an identical sample dress that was a size 12. I collected both dresses, swapped the skirt panels over, made them fit and returned the bride’s dress back to the shop just before the bride arrived. I had to get extra polish that week, to buff up my halo!”
It’s top-and-tail work (taking in and taking up, with bustles and bust cups) that’s most in demand. These sound like simple and straight-forward tasks, but there’s always a lot of un-picking, measuring, hand sewing and tea-drinking involved. And that’s what makes the big difference between standard alterations, and couture quality refits.
Sarah is spreading the word about techniques and home-grown secrets; to help others, she has produced a book on bridal alterations.
“It’s such a specialised area of sewing and there really is nothing out there specific until now, not just for the sewing aspect, but also on how to work with brides. I advise others to organise paperwork with their own T&Cs, so that the customer – the bride – knows she is entering into a contract, and understands what is expected of her as well as what she can expect from you.
“If she loses or gains weight, or if she decides the skyscraper heels are just too uncomfortable and she wants to go for flip flops, she needs to know in advance that she’ll have to pay extra for the additional work involved.
“I also include a disclaimer for my brides to sign. This ensures that they fully understand that bridal gowns are specialised garments and not suitable for those planning a plane jump. Needless to say we have a bit of a giggle about this… But you never know what folks have planned.”
Sarah often finds herself picking up on trends that brides want. Right now, it’s clean-cut shapes with without fuss, and much less detail such as lace, but with just a sprinkling of bling.
In addition to alterations, she produces a couture collection for one local bridal shop, working with them and their brides and from her samples to create a bespoke gown.
“It means a shop can offer an exclusive service, and that is so important,” she says. “I’ve never wanted to have my own bridal boutique; I’ve always enjoyed the technical side of bridal wear – the pattern drafting, designing and construction. In spite of the plethora of gowns on the market, sometimes a bride has a specific ideal, and we can deliver just that.”
We had one last question for Sarah, and it’s a question that has been raised many times. How do you deal with pregnant brides? How many times might they need an alteration, or do you suggest they leave it till as close to the wedding as possible?
“Pregnant brides are never normally a problem,” is Sarah’s view. “But it is quite a sensitive area. Sometimes I’m privy to such information long before the family knows, so clandestine conversations behind the changing room curtain are more frequent that you might think.
“I will discuss the options with the bride. These will usually involve gussets, extra panels or the interminable corset, and lots of last-minute work as the ever-growing bump can dramatically alter the hem length. Each mum-to-be is different – as is the weight gain – but getting it right is part of the real pleasure.”