A Beginner’s Guide to Couture Techniques

couture jacket 268bWhile working on my jacket I have used lots of tips and tutorials online (and in print). Here is my list of the best resources for learning to sew couture techniques.

  • Susan Khalje’s Craftsy Couture Dress course. I made my Peacock Dress using this course, and used lots of the techniques again for this jacket. I would definitely recommend the course as it is full of lots of tips that can be applied to most projects; eg. use the stitch-lines not cutting lines for accuracy when sewing, and never baste in space (keep work flat so layers stay together and don’t bubble)underlining
  • Kenneth D King’s Couture Techniques. I borrowed this from the library but will buy my own copy when I have to return it. He covers lots of techniques and tips and has a great approach to sewing; save your perfectionism for when/where it counts (said much more eloquently  on this podcast)
  • Gertie (blog and book) cover lots of classic techniques in an accessible way.details
  • Seamstress: PoppyKettle I was googling for sleeve-head tips and discovered this new-to-me blog and ended up staying and reading lots of other posts.
  • BurdaStyle has a great article about making a couture Chanel jacket, and the discussions make an interesting read.
  • Linking from BurdaStyle is Frabjous Couture’s day-by-day account of her couture jacket course with Susan Khalje. The course sounds amazing, and again I kept clicking through to different posts on her blog.welt pockets b
  • Welt-pockets – Lastwear tutorial
  • Welt-pockets – Colletterie’s Sew-Along post
  • My archive of Threads magazines always has useful tips and tricks. The recent special issue about fitting has been referred to a lot over the past few weeks. I can’t work out whether my subscription entitles me to free Insider access or not.couture
  • Finally, it isn’t specifically a couture book but if one of the marks of a great couture garment is a great fit then I have to include the brilliant Fit for Real People.

Have you sewn using couture techniques? If so, what tips and resources do you recommend? If you haven’t, I hope these books and blogs give you some inspiration.


Constructing a couture-style jacket

You may remember that one of my Sewlutions this year, inspired by the lovely Karen, was

I am going to try to make less but make those things better (with more focus on fitting, finishing and doing things properly).

Well I think my next almost-finished garment should certainly meet the goal; my Burda Style jacket has taken almost 3 months to plan and make, so I hope all the extra time invested has made it a better make. Since the jacket will be fully-lined, I remembered to take some pictures of the couture style techniques I have been using, before they get hidden from sight. You might call it a behind the seams (geddit?!) look at my most recent sewing project.

I spent a few weeks making a muslin of the pattern, doing a Full Bust Adjustment on the princess seams, and then used the muslin as my pattern. I underlined the whole piece in silk organza (to give the loosely-woven cotton bouclé some structure), so transferred all the markings onto the organza before using this to cut out the main fabric. All the pattern pieces were then hand-basted along the stitching lines before I then hand-basted them together.

organza b

Despite having made a muslin I was happy with, the fit around the bust took a lot of tweaking to get right. I remember spending 2-3hours one night unpicking and re-basting the same 4″ of seam to get it right, and it took a week from cutting before I felt confident to sew on my machine.seams b

One of the main benefits of using a silk organza underlining is that it is so easy to catch-stitch the seam allowances to it, without touching the main fashion fabric at all. All the seams (I mean ALL, not just the important ones) were pressed flat then open, over a rolled up towel (my makeshift tailor’s ham) where necessary. Seams were clipped or notched before I sewed them flat against the jacket.

Once I had sewn the jacket together I had the next panic – welt pockets. Having never made them before, I did a practise on some scraps and found it wasn’t as tricky as I imagined. I measured the markings a million times before I sewed the welts in place, and then sat staring at the pockets for ages before I was brave enough to cut holes in my jacket. I finished the welts by hand, and fortunately the texture of the bouclé camouflaged any minor imperfections.
welt pockets bI read that a couture jacket takes 70-80 hours to construct, including 17 hours to set-in the sleeves by hand, so the sleeves went in surprisingly smoothly. I basted the underarm and fitted the sleeve cap (must remember, fit left sleeve if right-handed!) in the mirror, before transferring the markings to the other sleeve. I took a bit off the height of the sleeve cap, which meant it fitted well with just a little easing by hand needed. I added a sleeve head after sewing the seam to be sure of the seam accuracy; the sleeve head made such a difference to my lumpy shoulders and I almost considered omitting the shoulder pads, but decided they gave a slightly better silhouette. The shoulder pads are raglan pads and were pad-stitched in place, again just to the underlining of the jacket.shoulders bWith the shoulders in place I could add the lining. The lining was cut the same as the jacket, except with an extra couple of inches at the centre back for movement ease and slightly lowered shoulders/sleeve cap to accommodate the shoulder pads. It is joined to the jacket at the contrast band; first I hand basted the lining in place to the jacket seam allowances, then I pressed and stitched the band over the lining.
hand sewing b

This has been a lot of work, more than I would normally go into, but the jacket should hopefully be worn for many years. I got rather frustrated with the time needed to hand-baste the seams and hand sew all the seam-allowances, but yesterday I was rather glad of the hand-sewing as it meant I could work on my jacket AND enjoy the rare sunshine. I took my jacket and a sewing kit to the park near my house and sat sewing while tourists wandered past. It was a much nicer environment than my living room, which is currently covered in a million little threads; if you haven’t used it before, I should warn you that bouclé can fray.pros and cons b

All that is left to do is decide on the sleeve length and finish the sleeve/lining hems, and attach the poppers/press-studs. Hopefully there will be a finished outfit post before the week is over…


Peacock progress

Work on the peacock dress is moving at a good pace, despite the ridiculous amount of hand sewing and preparation to get a couture finish.

So far I am enjoying the techniques as I can see how they will provide a finer finished item, although I am looking forward to rustling up a couple of cheap-and-cheerful unfinished garments.

I am interlining the dress in organza, and the organza layer serves as a pattern so there is no need to mark the fashion fabric. I cut out all the organza pieces (with generous seam allowances) and marked all the pattern info on them. Then it was time to lay them out.

Blocking the hallway with my fabric

I had to go outside and use the landing outside my flat, and I am so glad I could play with the layout as there was only just enough fabric. I adjusted the pattern as it had a seam down the centre of the front skirt – the fabric was too narrow to cut this on the fold, so I created panels at the front.

I spent at least an hour fine-tuning the placement of the pattern pieces, measuring the distance from the grain-lines to the selvedge to the nearest millimetre, resulting in a rather sore back the next day! However the bonus of this careful preparation was that it took less than five minutes to cut up all the fabric. One of Susan Khalje’s key techniques is to ignore 5/8″ seam allowances and cutting lines, and just focus on the stitching lines (which are transferred and basted everywhere). This means, as long as the stitching lines are clearly marked, you can cut the fabric however you want, leaving generous seam allowances = super speedy cutting as you don’t have to be mega accurate.

Once all the pieces were cut out it is time to carefully hand baste the interlining to the fashion fabric. This takes time. A lot of time. Especially when you have to re-baste the same line four times because it isn’t quite smooth. (I must confess I have only done the bodice and midriff pieces so far, as there was only so much I could take at once).

Next, more basting, but this time actually attaching pattern pieces together, before finally getting the sewing machine out to sew some seams. The seams are all carefully pressed and catch-stitched to the interlining, without a mark appearing on the right-side of the garment.

Hand-basting, pressed seams and catch-stitching

Due to the cross-over detail of the bodice I had to attach the lining to this section and finished it using my new best friends…

My couture best friends

When I made this dress before, I top-stitched around the bodice neckline to keep the lining in place, but it really wouldn’t look right on this dress. I am wondering about hand-stitching some seed beads every few centimetres to keep the layers in place – is that too much detail?

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I have also sewn 879 beads and 462 sequins on the midriff band so it is now ready to attach to the bodice. I have left a little space until I know exactly where the zipper will go, if I ever find one in an acceptable colour!