When Heather Baldridge was 18 years old, she sewed all of her cousin’s bridesmaids’ dresses—from scratch. That was the start of her “over 30 years” of experience in weddings, but her education started even earlier.
“When I was a child, my mother was a sewing instructor at a school,” Baldridge says. “So she taught my sister and me the basics.” Baldridge did a lot of sewing from scratch from there on out, she says, because clothing stores weren’t as common at the time. If you wanted a certain shirt or dress, you made it.
She didn’t turn her skills into a business until her oldest child, her now-36-year-old daughter, was about to enter day care and Baldridge was about to go back to work. That’s when she realized she didn’t want to go back, and wanted to keep her daughter at home with her. But “I needed to make money, and I also wanted to do something” to keep busy, Baldridge says. So she turned her sewing into a business. “And it didn’t even start with alterations because I didn’t know how to do alterations,” she says.
For those skills, she offered a trade to a family friend who knew alterations, but not how to sew from scratch. “I said to her, ‘If you show me how to do alterations, I’ll show you how to sew from scratch,’” she recalls.
Similarly, Baldridge didn’t know how to tailor men’s suits. Then a friend went to buy a suit but needed it altered, and the store owner didn’t sew. So the owner said, “I’ll show you how they should fit; you alter them.”
So Baldridge collected skills along the way. But the turning point in her wedding career began about nine years ago, when her daughter moved into Woodbury’s City Walk apartments and Bella Bridal Boutique was preparing to open next door.
“We’d go see [our daughter] and I saw this bridal shop getting set up and I [thought], ‘This is so cool—a bridal shop in Woodbury!’” So Baldridge walked in one day and introduced herself. She told them, “I have a sewing business in Woodbury … you probably already have somebody that’s set up for your alterations, and I don’t want to take business away from anybody, but I know how to do wedding dresses. Here’s my card.’”
It turned out that Bella Bridal didn’t have a seamstress set up, so Baldridge was hired after they opened their doors. “So most of what I do is through them,” she says. She gains business in many ways; her name is on several wedding shop seamstress lists, some people stumble upon her website or Facebook page, and sometimes it’s just word of mouth.
At some point throughout the years, Baldridge transitioned from simply doing dress alterations to custom designs, and finally to transformations. Many brides want to wear their mother’s wedding dress, but they want the dress to also be their own. So Baldridge, along with the brides and mothers, comes up with ways to redesign the dress.
Baldridge’s first redesign took place in 2009. It involved a bride whose mother passed away, and she wanted to wear her dress. Like many 1980s dresses, the sleeves were poufy, and the bride and Baldridge decided it could be modernized by getting rid of the sleeves altogether. But she didn’t just toss out the fabric. “I took the poufy sleeves and made a flower [out of the material],” to place on the sash along the waist.
Danielle Chollett chose Baldridge for the redesign of her mother Tammy Rieck’s dress after stumbling upon her name online. “It was a gown from the 1980s, and it had a high neck with puffy sleeves,” Rieck says. So she took out the high neck, lowered the back, and took off the sleeves to create a wide-strap tank-style top. But “she kept all the lace,” Rieck says, and then the florist wrapped all the bouquets in the saved lace.
“One thing that I really loved,” Chollett says, “is that it was my mom’s dress, but it was my own dress. It didn’t change all that much, considering. It was just really fun to see the transformation.” And for both mother and daughter, Baldridge made them feel comfortable about the changes, they say. “She was just as enthusiastic about plans for the dress as we were. … You feel confident that your dress is in good hands,” says Chollett.
Not every mom is ready to have her old dress transformed though, Baldridge says. It’s happened more than once where the mother and daughter come in, “and I would say, ‘Well we can take this off and do this … I could tell from the look on the mom’s face [saying], ‘I’m not sure I want to do this!’” And within a week or so Baldridge will get a call saying the daughter decided to go with a new dress.
And for some that’s their first choice.
When Courtney Brocker got engaged, it was a no-brainer to call Baldridge. Brocker, who married husband John in June 2015, has used Baldridge for alterations since her sophomore year of high school when she had a prom dress emergency. “I had my dress altered by someone else, picked it up the day before prom, tried it on and it was 4 inches too small,” Brocker recalls. She and her mom called Bella Bridal and they said, “If anyone can do it, Heather Baldridge can.”
They brought all the extra fabric to Baldridge, and Brocker recalls her 16-year-old self sobbing in the living room, and Baldridge told her it would be ok. “She stood in front of me with a pair of scissors and said, ‘You just have to trust me.’”
Baldridge worked through the night, and Brocker picked it up an hour before photos. “It fit perfectly,” she says. Baldridge worked on all three of Brocker’s prom dresses, three bridesmaids’ dresses, her sister’s wedding dress, her dad’s suit for that wedding, and her own wedding dress.
Brocker’s wedding dress was a ball gown that broke every hanger they tried to put it on, she says. After making the alterations to fit Brocker’s barely-5-feet-tall frame, Baldridge sewed family heirlooms into the dress hem for her, “and taught my sisters how to do the French bustle” for after the ceremony. “She would never do anything that wasn’t above and beyond someone’s expectations,” Brocker says. “It’s her sincerity that’s continued to draw me to her.”
That sincerity is backed by long days and hard work. Baldridge’s typical day starts at 5 a.m. and she works on sewing until the afternoon, when she has half-hour appointments with clients. Those appointments can go until the last slot, at 9:30 p.m. During her busy season, which is mid-February to mid-December, she usually works 14-hour days. “I did 341 dresses last year,” she says, adding that was a record number. “Each year I get more and more efficient, more and more organized.”
But don’t think that busy schedule has left her jaded. “To me it’s very rewarding,” she says. Oftentimes, brides will tell her, “I’ve been to all these different vendors for all these different things for my wedding planning, and it’s been fun every time I come here.’ And I love that.”
“Not only did I make the girl’s dress fit her like a glove,” Baldridge says, “but I also made her happy and helped her to enjoy the process.”