Thursday, May 21, 2015

Couture Sewing Meets 18th Century

What precisely is couture sewing? That is what I pondered when I found Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire B. Shaeffer on a sales rack.


My mom has often told me that my great aunt who lived in Manhatten, New York exquisitely sewed her own clothes for her secretarial position on Wall Street. Although my Aunt Laura taught me how to milk a goat and brush a horse while we were at my cousin's farm in Pennsylvania, I never learned much of her high end life in New York City. Sadly those moments can no longer be part of the future. Could this book teach me to sew as well as her and perhaps give me a glimpse into her life?

As I flipped through the pages of the book, my hopes soared as on numerous pages I read words like..."It may surprise some to learn that most of the techniques used in couture workrooms can be duplicated at home." (p8)

Haute couture literally means, in the French, "sewing at a high level." (p7)

The infamous Charles Frederick Worth, who established his unique style and process under the reign of Napoleon III is today known as The Father of Haute Couture. Worth combined his extensive knowledge of fabrics and skill, with bespoke methods, including showcasing seasonal fashions in Paris on live models to high end clients such as Empress Eugenie. (p12)

The author, Claire B. Shaeffer, takes the reader on a tour through haute couture. Since her credentials include an extensive knowledge base in haute couture and designing for Vogue patterns, Shaeffer's tour is explained with ease and confidence.

Haute coutre includes:
  • Fine fabrics, most of which are made of natural fiber (p9)
  • Pieced fabrics for design (p11)
  • Tailored fit to the individual (p11)
  • Use of a muslin, or toile (p11)
  • Mostly hand sewing is employed (p17)
  • Twice a year seasonal collections are designed for a public fashion show in Paris with live models (p17)
As I read Shaeffer's details on the uniqueness of haute coutre as compared to off the rack garment production, I was struck with the similarities to 18th century sewing, which I have boldfaced in the above listing.

Of course in the 18th century, only natural fiber fabrics were available. When I took my first historical sewing class with the Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center, we were taught about historical stitches and fabrics. We were given many lusciously fine fabrics from silks and damask to wool, as well as cottons and linens.  Quality fabrics assure ease in sewing, ensuring a quality look. I was hooked.

In the 18th century, many garments were pieced to economize the use of fabric. Fabric was expensive then, but labor was cheap, so every bit of what we would today call "scrap fabric" was used to complete a garment. I've seen a reproduction of Thomas Jefferson's blue great coat at Colonial Williamsburg, where the velvet collar was pieced at the corner.  I've also seen many gowns, cotton and silk, that were pieced in the sleeves and trim.  However in couture sewing, piecing occured to create a better look. Either stripes would be cut, rearranged and reseamed for a more pleasing aesthetic, or small pieces would be added to create a new look.  

Bespoke is a common word in the 18th century, which, as I understand it, meant that clothing was tailored to an individual.  Mass produced patterns were not used. Instead, mantua makers draped gowns on ladies, or used their stays for the draping. I've taken a draping class with the Colonial Williamsburg mantua maker, so I'm a believer! This draping process, which I must learn more about, is something that I now use in all of my other sewing. I am not great at it, but it has improved my sewing a bit! Tailors drafted patterns, not for mass production, but for the individual. I've taken a stay making class with the Colonial Williamsburg tailor, so I learned how to make my  own pattern, at least theoretically. To be quite humble and honest, I tend to be the dunce of these incredible Burnley and Trowbridge classes.  Nevertheless, I've at least learned the big idea and am committed to the process, even though I still have so much to learn. I have gained a huge appreciation for the craft of the tailor and mantua makers...thus I totally understand Claudia Shaeffer's details about the fine craft of couture sewing! I highly recommend the Burnley and Trowbridge classes where I'm sure that you will soar! Meanwhile I'll keep practicing, and practicing, and practicing...=) 

Muslins (some call them toiles) were often used in the 18th century before cutting into the main fabric.  This is how I have learned to do all of my 18th century sewing at Burnley and Trowbridge classes which are taught by the Colonial Williamsburg mantua maker or tailor.

Hand sewing, of course, was the standard in the 18th century since the sewing machine had not yet been invented. Despite the commonality of sewing machines, couture sewing prefers the precision and delicacy of hand work. Machines are rarely, if ever used.  Since learning from Colonial Williamsburg that I can actually sew an entire garment by hand, I have come to prefer that since I have better control of the fabric and stitches with my hand. In fact, the Colonial Williamsburg tailors, when hearing  my puzzlements over attaining a proper look with my beginning sewing (machine) efforts, have strongly encouraged me to sew by hand. I finally dared to take their challenge...and they were right! My sewing immediately improved!  My hat is off to those who can make machine sewing work, and I do believe there is a time and place for machine sewing, but for  me my love is now with hand and needle. (bliss) Many, many thanks to the Colonial Williamsburg tailors for pushing me into this direction! =)

Since  learning 18th century sewing, I've started employing more and more historic techniques to my modern sewing...muslins, hand sewing, self-fabric interfacings, and more. I never realized until I read this book, that there are some common elements between 18th century sewing and haute couture. I have much to learn in sewing  both historically, and in a contemporary way for my own wardrobe (as well as my daughter's...with a grand plan of one day sewing her wedding dress). I have been employing bits and pieces of my 18th century knowledgebase, so now I hope to add some couture techniques as well.  I'm sure this will be quite a long journey for me but, why not? This is my push so that I can learn and grow...I hope! 

Shaeffer not only thoroughly describes haute couture history and technique, she also takes us on a tour of the process a client goes through to attain her own couture garment from a Paris couture house. Since few of us could ever afford this, such a tour is dreamy. As I read her description, I was reminded of a favorite movie I saw on tv years ago with Jessica Lansbury, Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris. Set in London near the time of Princess Elizabeth's coronation (1953), Mrs. Harris is a maid to a fine lady who has recently arrived home from Paris with two Dior gowns. She asks Mrs. Harris for her opinion as to which she should wear to the coronation festivities.  While gazing upon the lovely gowns, Mrs. Harris is smitten and begins to dream of how she could possibly attain her own Dior gown. She saves every bit of money she possibly can, then goes to Paris to get her Dior gown. Of course she thinks she is going to get it off the rack, but to her surprise she finds it's a bit more complicated than that! Meanwhile she makes friends who try to help to make her dream come true, despite the  massive barriers that come her way. Each step Mrs. Harris goes through matches the process as described by Shaeffer.

  • Set the appointment
  • Attend the fashion show
  • Place the order
  • Attend fittings numerous times

Since few of us can afford a couture house experience, Shaeffer helps us home seamstresses realize our ultimate dream in another way...realizing the reachability to sew our own couture wardrobe at home. In the book Shaeffer includes many detailed helps from proper supplies to illustrated how-tos. I've already referenced the book to sew my 1912 blouse toil. Such was the beginning of my own 1912 blouse.

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