Earlier this week I talked about our word of the year: Quality. The longer I sew, the more I come to value this idea in all my sewing projects (and life in general). Approaching your sewing projects with an intention of quality ensures you are making beautiful garments that will last for years to come, and that feel as good to wear as they do to create. A large reason this has become such a focus for me of late is due to my discovery of couture sewing, and for that I have Susan Khalje to thank. I was privileged to spend quality time with Susan last year (see what I did there?) at a couture sewing workshop in March and on a couture tour of Paris in November, and those experiences sparked an utterly renewed love and appreciation of sewing for me, deepening my relationship to the things I make.
Over the course of her sewing career, Susan has run her own custom couture business, worked as an editor at Threads (which continues to be a must-read for us in the studio) and taught couture sewing around the world in addition to her online courses. She is one of the preeminent educators in our community about the art of couture, and learning from her has been a long-time goal realized. She is an endlessly patient teacher with a truly deep understanding of elevated sewing construction and fit, and I highly recommend taking a workshop with her if you want a meaningful sewing escape. I'll be talking more about my experiences with her later this month, but for now I'm excited for you to get to know this educator, mentor and sewing Jedi.
You've had a fascinating life and career. How did you come to sewing and couture?
Sort of in an unusual way. I’d had a previous career as a classical pianist, and lived a long time in London doing that, but at a certain point I was eager to return home, plus I’d injured my wrist, plus a couple of girlfriends were moving back to New York….so for all of those reasons, I decided to follow them. As it happened, the grandmother of a girlfriend was a client of a small couture house and my friend knew that the elder partner was retiring, and that they need someone. I’d sewn for friends on a casual basis for years, but the idea of sewing as a profession had never, ever occurred to me. But - I thought, why not give it a try - so I went along with a blouse I’d made for my girlfriend as a birthday present - and I was hired. And I fell in love with the whole idea of couture sewing immediately. It made perfect sense - and I thought, wow, this is the way to sew. So I was hooked. It was the perfect mesh of form and function - beautiful to look at, and so cleverly realized. And I always think it was awfully lucky for me, but it was lucky for them, too - I could do whatever was shown to me, and it went from there. At some point, it became obvious that I was the heir apparent, but I wanted to go off on my own (as you do when you’re young). Shortly after I left, and was in the process of setting up my own business out of my apartment, I was asked to be part of a ready-to-wear business. We had a showroom on Seventh Avenue, and manufactured abroad. It was interesting to be involved in another side of the business, but I much, much, much preferred couture. So, eventually, that's the direction I took. And one thing leads to another, so here we are!
There is a lot of confusion about the difference between couture sewing and haute couture fashion. How do you define couture?
I get asked that a lot, doing what I do. I say that couture sewing is sewing the way your grandmother sewed; it’s sewing without shortcuts; it’s sewing’s equivalent of gourmet cooking… And haute couture garments are made the same way as those made by a couture sewist: a muslin is made, the fit is perfected, then the muslin is used for the pattern, and the process begins. There’s almost always an underlining, there’s lots of hand stitching and fittings along the way, and careful finishing details.
(Ed note: In France "Haute Couture" is a protected term and can only be used by companies that meet defined national standards, but elsewhere in the world it can mean any highly custom garment made to exactly fit a person using couture techniques and fabrics).
What are the hallmarks of a beautiful couture garment?
I think there are 5 elements that have to combine for a garment to work:
- The design has to say something special.
- The fabric(s) have to be pretty amazing.
- Fit and proportion have to be perfect.
- The garment has to be properly engineered.
- And of course, it has to be beautifully constructed.
So, if any of those elements are lacking, then the garment falls short.
Many people are intimidated by couture sewing. What are some easy techniques to start with to integrate couture into a sewing practice?
I think it’s pretty important to realize that you have to start with a muslin (sometimes referred to as a “toile”). It’s your laboratory. In the first place, it tells you if it’s worth pursuing the project or not, it helps you get the fit and proportions just right, it allows you go get familiar with new sewing techniques - you can work things out on something other than the fashion fabric. It does take a bit of time, but careful work on the muslin goes a long way towards guaranteeing a successful garment.
(Ed note: If you have a Threads subscription, you can see Susan's guide to constructing a proper muslin here).
What is the best type of garment to start with for the aspiring couture sewist?
Everyone always wants to do something spectacular, but honestly, I think a beautifully made simple dress is a wonderful way to start.
What draws you to a sewing pattern? What kind of details or features do you look for when you're planning a couture project?
Well, we all love those incredible vintage patterns. I could sit and read those instructions all day long - so they’re fun - but the designs are, necessarily, dated. I like interesting details, a bit of movement, a bit of drama. I can purchase regular stuff - shirts, pants, and so on, so if I’m going to take the time to sew something, I want it to be special. I made your Cielo blouse the other day as an evening blouse. I found some gorgeous semi-sheer white cotton/silk at Mulberry Fabrics awhile ago and I thought it would be perfect for that blouse. Those big white sleeves get a fantastic response. It was my holiday blouse, worn with black velvet pants and a big, modern pearl necklace. And I added some interesting touches. The fabric was sort of transparent, with a strong horizontal weave, and I doubled it for those lower sleeves, using the layered fabric two different ways, so that it gave a criss-cross effect. And I added a bias band along the hemline (with straight-of-grain silk organza inside to keep the bias from ever stretching out of shape). I love it.
What resources and tools do you recommend?
I’m pretty low tech - but - good pins and needles (for all that hand-sewing). I’m amazed at the awful pins I see - hard to push into the fabric, bent, short……what you want are really sharp pins that pierce the fabric readily, without shifting it. Same for hand-sewing needles. And good scissors: 4” embroidery scissors with large thumbholes (easier to slip off and on your hand, which you’re doing constantly), 5” craft scissors (they have a really thick spine, so they can go through anything) and 8” shears (my current favorites are by Kai, which cut like a dream). And a good marker - I like the Chakoner rolling markers, which mark accurately without shifting the fabric around, which is important. And a tracing wheel and old-fashioned tracing paper, for making muslins and underlinings. And cotton basting thread and basting needles - there's lots of basting in the world of couture sewing. And a good steam iron. And a silk organza pressing cloth. And good lighting. And a good basic machine (I sew on a Bernina 1120, which I adore). That should get you started!
So many sewers are self-taught (in fact, the overwhelming majority are), so they need confidence-building, which comes from experience and education. Happily, we have lots of options these days, thanks to online resources. So, there is all kinds of stuff out there, but you do have to be careful that you're connecting with someone first-rate. As a teacher, that's something I'm really careful about - disseminating first-rate information: through my Craftsy/Bluprint classes, through what we offer in Threads Magazine, through my own classes, and of course, through my online Susan Khalje Couture Sewing Club.
Who are your favourite designers?
From the past, Valentino, for the decades and decades of beauty….I find his work endlessly inspiring. And for now, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. Her work continues to be absolutely amazing in its depth and creativity. It’s always stunning; it takes your breath away.
Personally, what are your favourite couture details or techniques to sew? What do you dislike doing?
I love every bit of the process, actually…….I really do. I have to say there’s not any part of it that I dislike - I find it all fascinating, I think because the logic and beauty and every bit of it resonates with me.
I hope this has piqued your interest in couture sewing! Next week I'll be sharing the couture evening gown I made in New Orleans with Susan, in addition to a summary of our trip to Paris. Be sure to check out Susan's patterns, couture sewing supply shop, online classes and in-person workshops if you'd like to learn about this art form for a true master.