Edel Phaneuf, 64, knows how to expertly take a wedding dress apart; remove or add sleeves; lengthen or shorten the hem; cut a new neckline, sew it, add beads, sequins or lace; re-size it, and then hand it to an awaiting bride to wear on her wedding day.
“I’m self-taught,” says the proficient seamstress, who has been assisting brides with transforming dresses for more than two decades. Phaneuf, currently employed at Swartz Creek’s Expressions in Silk Bridal and Prom, is most content when she’s working at a sewing machine with fabric between her hands.
The bridal shop owner, Patti Ruhala, is more than pleased to have Phaneuf on board. “Every bride who has worked with Edel is pleased with her seamstress abilities,” says Ruhala, who operates her business with a strong belief in personalizing every customer’s experience. She says every bride, no matter their size or preferred style, deserves to be treated in an exceptional manner as they prepare for their special day.
“I fell in love with the whole dress-making process.
I’m a naturally creative person at heart.”
“We really focus and make every effort to help everyone – from flower girls to prom-goers, to bridesmaids, brides and mothers-of-the-bride to feel taken care of and appreciated,” says Ruhala. She’s even known to allow brides to reserve a table at the shop for champagne toasts, hors d’oeuvres and a small, festive celebration. “After bridesmaids have their fittings, some brides like to give them special gifts, or have time to chat about the upcoming wedding,” she says.
Ruhala adds that having Phaneuf as an in-house seamstress is an advantage for customers. “Edel is creative,” says Ruhala. “She has an eye for improving a dress to make it more flattering for each bride.”
Phaneuf’s reputation, skill and talent with transforming and converting formalwear into unique, exclusive pieces are unrivaled. “Recently, one bride wanted to combine parts of her mother’s and grandmother’s dresses into one dress,” says Phaneuf. “We had to clean and whiten them first, and then, we figured out what pieces from each one we’d use to create a new gown. The bride was very pleased with the results.”
Pleasing brides wasn’t always how Phaneuf used her handiness at sewing. Her passion began out of necessity. “I was a military wife towing three kids around, and had to help stretch a $500 monthly income,” she recalls. Her first exposure to sewing, however, was a home economics class in school. “I liked it from the beginning,” says Phaneuf.
Her parents, German immigrants, brought Edel and her siblings to America in 1955 – she turned three years old on the ship. The family settled in New York. After high school graduation, to help finance her goal to become a licensed cosmetologist, Phaneuf’s father told her he’d pay for half a beauty shop and some property. She was motivated and joined the Navy to help earn her portion. Soon after, she met her future husband, Dave, while in the military. In 1973, she received her first sewing machine from her folks as a wedding gift – a Singer Zig Zag. “I don’t actually sew on it anymore, but my oldest daughter has it now. It still works,” she shares.
Her sewing skills blossomed as a young mother. “I expanded on it when my children came along,” she says. “I made Easter outfits, frilly dresses, rompers, things like that.”
Phaneuf’s work with formalwear began 25 years ago, when her own daughter announced her wedding plans. “I only had a couple of months, but I made her gown, dresses for two bridesmaids, and my own dress,” she says. Her daughter’s gown was completely custom-designed and sewn by Phaneuf. After looking at sales-rack dresses, her daughter knew what features she wanted in her own. “I designed a dress, typical for the early 1990s, with everything she wanted – a high neckline, puffy sleeves, a keyhole back with floating strands of pearls, a layer of appliqué, beadwork and a detachable train,” says Phaneuf. “I fell in love with the whole dress-making process. I’m a naturally creative person at heart. There is no predictable way to re-vamp a gown; you just take it step by step.”
For example, she likes to begin by asking a bride a simple question: “Do you have a theme?” Depending on the answer, Phaneuf begins to envision the dress, the bride, the theme and what can be done with the fabric. Next, she invites the bride to try on the chosen dress. “I need to see how it fits,” she explains. “On the first visit, I visualize if it needs to be let out, taken in, re-cut or whatever might be best to get a good fit.” On average, three to four visits are needed when she works with a bride.
Phaneuf’s calling to create custom wedding gowns reigned from 1992 to 2008. Brides fortunate enough during those years received a high-quality, one-of-a-kind heirloom dress. Today, at Expressions in Silk Bridal and Prom, she works with brides one-on-one. She provides alterations, consults, and makes suggestions for how to achieve the most flattering style. “I really try to help them get the look they want,” she says.
She also loves experimenting. “I like looking at a dress and seeing what I might be able to do to it,” says Phaneuf, who showed off a bridal gown in which she created a two-piece style by undoing layers of the dress up to the waist, gave it more form, added tulle fabric underneath to give it more fullness, and removed the lace from the bottom.
Making memories to last a lifetime isn’t all Phaneuf is clever at doing. She knows the secret behind every dress is a good sewing machine. “It’s got a motor in it, so it needs to be serviced,” she says, adding that she upgraded her own machine years ago. “I bought a used Viking,” says Phaneuf, who believes today’s plastic machines are cheaply made and unreliable. “I like the heavy, old metal style machines. I’ve been using it ever since.”
Whether she’s taking care of her sewing machine or a bridal customer at Expressions in Silk Bridal and Prom, Phaneuf knows her business and can be counted on to provide specialized, unique service to both.
Photography by Eric Dutro