How to plan a wedding: from someone who has

I had been creating invitations and wedding day stationery for other couples for eight years before I got married myself. So naturally I had researched and learned a lot about weddings along the way. While my own specialism is designing wedding stationery, I've also loved meeting lots of other talented wedding suppliers through fairs and events.

But there's no experience quite like doing it yourself. In December 2019 I married my man at Kew Gardens, London. We had 80 guests during the day and 100 in the evening. It was a wonderful day and everyone came away saying what a relaxed and love-filled occasion it was, full of close friends and thoughtful details. It appeared to go effortlessly! But the secret of course was a year of pretty thorough planning. I won't pretend it's easy (it felt like a third job as I already have two; running my business and freelancing for other brands!).

I realised I was very lucky that I began the process with a lot of prior knowledge. I have worked on the creative side of many other big events through my career. But for a lot of couples who perhaps are less comfortable with creative tasks or unfamiliar with event planing - it can be fairly daunting! If you're feeling like that, I’ve created this easy to follow post to help get you up to speed. I really hope you find this useful as you make plans and please do get in touch with any questions. Ok, here goes - grab yourself a tea (or wine) and your notebook, and I'll begin... (Oh and yes, that's me in the picture).

Setting a date

The best events are planned backwards. And that means start by setting an approximate date! A year is probably the average time couples spend planning a wedding but of course it could be anything from two years to six months. We found a year just right. I could imagine nine months at a push but any less could be stressful unless you're going for a very low key day. So, start by getting a general season in mind, such as spring the following year. Don't worry too much about specific dates yet as you may find venues have limited availability anyway so it's best to stay a bit flexible. Once you have the month or season in mind, I've laid out all the next steps for planning your wedding day roughly in the order you should think about them. These are the key components to a fairly classic wedding. Of course traditions can (and should be!) twisted to suit you but the following will be a great starting point to get you thinking what you do or don't want to include and how you might do things differently. So learn the ropes and then make it your day, your way!

Time of year

A few helpful pointers before you lock down the season for your wedding. Remember that each season has it's pros and cons and it's about finding the right match for you. Of course the weather depends on the location - but if you're getting married in the UK or Europe...

Autumn/Winter - Can feel very cosy and festive but remember to arrange your photographs while it's light, before the early dusk. The good news is you don't really need an outdoor area at your venue, or a plan for extreme heat! But you might need brollies and blankets.

Spring - A beautiful time of fresh newness but remember weather is truly unpredictable at this time so you'll need both cold and hot strategies.

Summer - Glorious! The only watch-out here is people overheating. Ensure you find a very cool fabric for your wedding dress and that your venue offers some shade or breeze. Did you know wearing suncream can make your face appear bleached out in photos too? As per Spring, be sure to have a plan in case of unexpected rain.

Budget

There's little chance you haven't thought about this yet, because you can't really start planning anything without working out how much budget you have. However, once you've got a figure in mind I recommend allocating an amount for each of the key components of your wedding day. Typically these would be: venue/s, catering, cake, drinks, music, decorations, floristry, photographer, transport (if moving guests between venues), your dress, other clothing for bridesmaids and groom, wedding rings and stationery (invites and wedding day stationery such as order-of-ceremony booklets or a seating plan. I have lots more inspiration for these here!) If you already have some plans in mind you may have more to add to this list, for example some couples provide accommodation for certain guests. If you're getting married away from home you and your partner will need a place to stay too!

So, that's the maths bit done! Almost...

Guest numbers

The next big question is what are you approximate guest numbers going to be? This determines the size and cost of your venue and the scale of catering you will require. Keeping within budget will depend a lot on how many people you invite. So, at this stage it's a good idea for both you and your partner to make a list of guests you'd like to invite. It sounds brutal but it can help to create tiers of importance! For example 'essential close family and friends' (the ones you wouldn't consider getting married without) followed by 'would really like to have' and then perhaps a wider group of friends or more distant relatives who you'll invite if you have capacity. Some couples set a rule such as 'only guests we've both met' or 'only people we've seen in the last 3 years' to help simplify the process and make it fair. It's not necessarily easy and you may find one of you has a much larger list than the other. But I promise this is the last bit of really numerical admin for some months... and once you crack it you can really focus on the creative stuff!

The location and venue

Hooray! This IS the fun part - location scouting. You've probably already discussed where to get married. For some people there's an obvious choice like the place where one of you grew up, the place you met or where you live now. There are lots of reasons why a certain place might have hold a special meaning for you - or you may simply want to get married somewhere your guests can reach easily. There's even more to consider if you're going for an overseas wedding but I won't cover this because it's not something I know much about. For our own wedding, we kept it simple with a London venue - the city we live in and somewhere that would be convenient for most of our friends and family.

Next think about your ideal type of venue. Do you like historic buildings or modern clean spaces? Do you want a private outdoor area? Do you want an outdoor ceremony? Do you want to keep all the guests together in one room as much as possible? How much moving around between venues or rooms do you plan on? Some venues are reception only which are fine if you're planning to get married in a nearby church or registry office. Other venues are licensed to marry you and let you party all in one place.

If you're getting married in a smaller town or village you may not have many choices. However if you go for a bigger city or widen your general search area, you'll have lots of choice and plenty research to do! The main elements to compare are capacity, price, what is included and any limitations (many venues specify a list of caterers and suppliers that you cannot deviate from - so check you like them too!). Every venue explains their pricing in a different way and so at first it can be difficult to really see what the total might be, especially with hidden add ons. You may need to ask a lot of questions to get to the bottom of this and don't be afraid to. In the end we felt happier trusting venues with truly transparent pricing.

No is the time to really start trying to visualise your day. It goes without saying you should visit your shortlist of venues! Make an appointment to be shown around as this will help really get a feel for how your day would look and feel in the space. It also means you can ask lots of questions and get ideas directly form staff.

We reached this stage about nine months before our wedding and we had narrowed it down to two choices. We knew we wanted a historic building surrounded by a bit of greenery. We would have from 60-100 guests. We loved Clissold House in Stoke Newington which can host both ceremony and reception but also offer the option to have the ceremony next-door at Stoke Newington Town Hall. And then we fell for Cambridge Cottage, Kew Gardens (Pictured). Since it had slightly larger capacity this is the one we went for. We're both very drawn to nature and so I looked into various greenhouse weddings. If this is your bag too, some other London wedding venues I think are amazing include Petersham Nurseries, The Horniman Museum's conservatory and the Hackney Curve Garden.

Save the dates

Hooray! You've done it! You've nailed the key elements to get this party on the road. You have a venue, a date and a guest list. That's all you need in order to lock that date in everyone's diaries. Don't delay if you want maximum attendance. Many people save the date simply by email. But I'm an old soul and naturally a stationery lover, so I sent our guests a simple postcard. It's always nice to receive snail mail and to have something to keep - prop on the mantelpiece or pin to the fringe. A physical save the date keeps you in peoples minds and acts as a reminder for guests to organise themselves - to send their RSVP, clear the calendar and book up accommodation.

The wedding party

If you haven't already, now is the time to confirm your wedding party. Will you have bridesmaids and groomsmen? A best man? Those are the traditional roles but we've all come a long way form there and if you're a same sex couple or you just want to throw tradition on it's head then I suggest simply focusing on who you'd like to give a special role to and do it your own way. But now is the best time to tell them so there's plenty time to think about outfits and readings and anything else you'd like them to take on (such as a hen party, stag do or combined celebration!)

Your wedding dress

How have you even waited this long? You probably haven't. Wedding dress shopping is a highlight of the process for most of us though it can be equal parts thrilling and overwhelming with the amount of choice out there. Keeping your venue and the season in mind are a good start. For example a rural summer wedding will want something floaty but if you're getting married in a stately home you may want to go grand. I always knew I wanted a slightly bohemian, informal feeling to our day. The venue we choose at Kew is also a gallery of botanical art and so any nod to history and nature in my dress would suit this. The next question is, how well do you fit standard sizes? If you sometimes struggle to find a good fit then a dressmaker or designer who offers custom tailoring will be the way to go. If you're a perfect ten then there often good offers on sample pieces so look out for designer sales. Wedding dress shops I personally loved were Kindling Bridal, Luna Bride, Dana Boulton, Cherry Williams, Story of My Dress and eventually the one I went with - Mews who are based in both Notting Hill and my hometown Bristol and stock my favourite French designer Laure du Sagazan. (Yup that's a snippet of my dress pictured).

Catering

Tickle those tastebuds! What would you like to eat? Catering is probably the biggest part of the day in terms of organisation and spend. At this stage in your planning (Perhaps around 6 months to go) it's a good idea to hash out plans with your caterer. If you're still choosing between a few, go for a tasting. In fact, go for a tasting anyway because it's so delicious and fun! The reason for finalising a caterer now is because it's the final puzzle piece you need before sending out your full invitations. It's also the part that will most impact on budget so you want to avoid leaving it too late and having unexpected surprises.

Our caterer were Create Food who were fantastic and were suggested by our venue. Another caterer we loved (and would have chosen if we'd got married at Clissold House) are Canababes.

If you are buying your own alcohol, remember this will be a bit more work and you should start to look at the logistics of this now too. If you want an easy life go for a caterer who covers everything but it can be nice too have more control over some elements. We sourced our own wine in France and choose our own cake baker locally too.

Timings

Talking to your caterer and venue will help you work out the most suitable timings for your day. The idea of a schedule can sound pretty nerdy to the wedmin novice. However with so many people to usher around and lots to fit into to one afternoon, it's pretty much essential. Every wedding day is different but to help you get started, here's what we did:

2pm Ceremony; 2.30pm Canapés, fizz and photos; 4.30pm Speeches; 5pm Dinner; 7pm Evening guests arrived, we cut the cake and the band began at 8pm. Around 10pm Evening snacks were served. 12pm was home time.

We did a few things differently like speeches before dinner and cake as a late dessert, to share with evening guests. Do it your way but always allow more time than you think for everything! It goes so fast.

Music

One last thing before you send out those invitations. You might like to mention to guests the sort of entertainment you'll be having? In which case look into this now. Not to mention that the best bands get booked up. We booked ours almost as soon as we'd booked the venue, just to make sure we got our first choice - a Jazz band.

Invitations

At last you've arrived at my favourite part! Think of this as your event advertising! What sort of design will most reflect you and the sort of event you want to have? All your prior plans will have helped you get to this point. Believe it or not your style is coming together. You've chosen a season, a venue, a wedding dress, a cuisine and music.

Things are really shaping up and you can convey the true spirit of the day with the invites you choose. Jotting down some keywords might help you before you dive into looking at wedding stationers. For example, is your vibe rustic, contemporary, romantic, minimalist, traditional, urban, rural, relaxed, trendy, sophisticated, etc...

When to send invitations (no later than 6 months) and what to write will be covered in a future post. Meanwhile you can see pretty pictures of my customisable designs here or get in touch about bespoke ideas and any questions.

Florist and Photographer

If you've not looked into these key suppliers yet then you certainly should now. I wouldn't leave it any less than six months before the big day to book them - but you don't need to have them in place before sending invites. Both creative elements will add a great deal to the mood of your day and how you remember it. I recommend really looking for people who share your style and ethos. For example our florist, Shelena at Bloaum had a very free and wild style that I loved. she also valued the environment, avoiding florists' foam and using naturally dyed ribbons. (Our flowers are pictured on the right). Likewise our lovely photographer, Sara Dalrymple was described as 'the natural wedding photographer'. She is known for capturing couples looking relaxed and natural and putting people at ease in front of the camera. This was important to us as we're not particularly used to the limelight!

You may start to think about your wedding decorations at this stage too. We wanted flowers to rule the day but there's plenty other things you can do. For example a large space or high ceiling such as in a marquee can benefit from balloons or lanterns which bring lots of colour without costing the earth.

Wedding day stationery

Now you're getting nearer to the big day, perhaps 3 months away. It's time to think about the finishing touches that will help to guide your guests through the occasion. The key stationery for your wedding day includes: order-of-ceremony booklets, a seating plan sign, table names, place names and menus. There's also plenty other fun and unusual things you could add to make your day feel different and personalised. But for now it's good to focus on the essentials. For example, if you'd like a booklet for your service or ceremony, you'll need to clarify the exact wording for this before you can brief a designer. This may include lyrics and readings.

For more ideas on the stationery you might like, check out our wedding stationery hub.

Accessories

The devil is in the details... If you're having final wedding dress fittings around now, it's a good idea to take along any underwear, shoes and other accessories with you - so that you can try it all together ahead of the day. One of my absolute favourite parts of planning our wedding was working with accessories designer Clare Lloyd who made a bespoke hairpiece for me. It was such a delight to visit her studio - a treasure chest of beads in every colour and mountains of her sparkling creations. Together we concocted my dream hairpiece, of glowing golden acorn cups and freshwater pearl drops, perfectly echoing the natural theme of our day. I had terracotta silk shoes that I adored but at the eleventh hour realised they were simply too uncomfortable and I bought some lovely gold scalloped edge shoes from Sezane.

Cake

The joy of ordering your cake is that you may be able to book this one a bit further down the line than some other suppliers. Although if you have an especially well known baker in mind they might get booked up too. I'd dreamt of a Violet Bakery wedding cake for years but unfortunately a certain Meghan Markle got in there first and after the royal wedding, Clare Ptak's pricing and schedule went off the charts. But it worked out wonderfully as I had just discovered a brilliantly creative local baker Isobel Bakes who's creations are also more than fit for a princess. If you're getting hitched in London I really recommend Isobel, our cake was everything I wanted and more - a bohemian chocolatey beauty as delicious as it was stunning.

So that's literally the icing on the cake! I hope you found this useful and please do get in touch if you have any questions. Sophie x

Photographs from our wedding by Sara Dalrymple. All other images by Carmel King.

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