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Beyond the Pattern Instructions, Part 1

Ten Tips from a Couture Dressmaker to help you achieve
superior results on your next important sewing project . . .

By Susan Khalje, Susan Khalje Couture Sewing School

Originally published in Hancock Fabrics Home Expressions Magazine, Spring Issue 1996

A wedding gown, or any special sewing project, is very do-able. It may be lengthier than most sewing projects, and it certainly has an importance beyond that of much of what we sew, but there’s nothing in it that can’t be conquered, given enough care, time, and patience. I like to think of a big project in sections -- I break it down into its components (the obvious ones are the bodice, the sleeves and the skirt, and there may be others ). This way, I have a feeling of accomplishment as I go along; the whole gown may not be done, but parts of it are, and I feel that I am making steady, if not spectacular progress.

I love the challenge that a special project gives: I love to do what I’ve not done before; I love to find, fall in love with and use wonderful fabrics that may be new to me; and I love having to use my head and my hands to create something wonderful. A wedding gown, a formal gown, a special party dress - they all give us a perfect opportunity to grow as dressmakers, creating something wonderful as we learn.

1. Give yourself plenty of time for any sewing project which goes above and beyond what you’ve done before. There will be challenges within the project itself, and all the emotions which swirl around any big event will have to be dealt with. Feeling rushed to finish an important sewing project needn’t add to the pressure. Establish a generous timetable, allowing time for finding just the right pattern, searching out wonderful and inspiring fabrics, mastering new techniques, doing more than usual number of fittings, and tracking down just the right accessories and undergarments.

2. Do the project in your head. There shouldn’t be any mysteries or grey areas before you start sewing. Know what lies ahead -- read and reread the instructions, examine the pattern pieces and how they’ll fit together. Plan what section you’ll tackle first, second, and beyond.

Photo 1 -- Fabrics3. Special clothes for special occasions require something extraordinary in the way of fabrication. (Photo #1) An enormous amount of time, concern and work are going to go into this gown -- and sewing with beautiful, quality fabrics will not only inspire you, you’ll be guaranteed a better result. Seek out fabric stores that specialize in bridal and special occasion fabrics -- not only will they have a wide selection from which to choose, their staff is likely to be well-trained and familiar with the merchandise. There is nothing more wonderful than marrying a design you adore with a fabric that you’ve fallen in love with. The inspiration that you’ve fallen in love with. The inspiration that the combination inspires will fuel you form beginning to end -- your creativity will be sparked, and you will be challenged to do wonderful work. At the fabric store, be sure to take the fabrics you are considering over to the window (hopefully the store will have a window); if not, ask if you can step outside with your fabric choices for a minute. Fabrics look different under the fluorescent lights of a shop than they do in natural light. There are endless shades of white, off-white, ivory, candlelight, ecru, etc. -- be sure the color you’re buying is the color you want, and that the fabrics you’ve chosen match in the way you want them to.

4. Keep your work area clean. It is practically impossible to keep certain projects spotless for the entire time that they’re being worked on, but avoiding trouble in the first place is the way to start. Be sure that your machine is free from any kind of surface oil or lint, and consider covering the area under your worktable and ironing board with old sheets. Be sure there’s nothing rough for a gown to catch on. My favorite ironing board has one pitfall: a slightly protruding piece of metal near the base of the front legs that has to do with moving the board up and down. I finally had to cover it; the last thing I wanted to do was to catch a long skirt in it -- ripping it or snagging it or soiling it in the process.

When your day’s work is done, consider storing your project in a garment bag. You will probably store it in one when it’s finished, so why not get one early and use it as you go along? I often store big silk satin skirts, in progress, inside out in a garment bag. That way I know they’re protected -- no household pet can wander into my studio in the middle of the night and camp on that soft satin, spreading out on my worktable (I used to have a cat who did that), no water can leak from my iron or spray bottle and mysteriously find its way onto the dress), no interested party can come into my work space with muddy tennis shoes which I don’t notice until it’s too late . . .

5. Good tools are essential. Not only will they save you time, they will help you produce a superior result. You and your project deserve nothing less. I like to use colored glass-headed pins; the glass heads won’t melt during pressing like plastic heads do and the colors show up well when I’m working with lace (a very three-dimensional fabric in which metal pins sink and disappear). Quality thread is essential -- there is a lot of hand sewing in a detailed, complicated project, and good thread is a must. Not only is it strong, it won’t kink or break the way inferior threads do. My favorite is a long staple polyester, which has a very silky feel to it. A first rate assortment of scissors and shears is another necessity: something small (for clipping threads and for trimming lace); something medium (for trimming seams and hems) and something large (for cutting out the fabric evenly and steadily). Look for serrated-edge scissors (available in medium and large sizes); they’re incomparable for cutting silk and any soft, silky fabric. Never again will silk slip out of your grasp (and out of your scissors) as you try to cut it!

6. Measuring and fitting must be done with the correct undergarments and shoes of the height that will be eventually worn with the gown. Some dressmakers refuse to fit clients who come to a fitting without the proper undergarments and shoes -- and with good reason! These accessories make an enormous difference. The obvious areas like the waist and bust are affected by a long line bra, or a push-up bustier, and not only the height but the posture is affected by high heels. Trying to save money by using cheap undergarments is a mistake -- an uncomfortable , ill-fitting bra won’t enhance the wearer’s figure, nor will it lend much assistance to the gown. The same goes for shoes. With all of the expenses involved with any sort of formal event, it seems that the shoe budget is usually the one that gets the chop -- I’ve had brides in agony after wearing their shoes for 20 minutes during a fitting -- what will they feel like after wearing them for hours? Style doesn’t have to be sacrificed for comfort either -- there are plenty of comfortable shoes that are gorgeous, too.

Photo 2 -- Muslin7. Make a muslin copy of the gown first, or at least of the bodice and sleeves. (Photo #2) This is standard operating procedure in the world of couture. It’s a dry run, in effect, allowing you the chance to practice putting the gown together, to make mistakes on something other than the fashion fabric, to see what you want to change before you’ve cut into the real thing and it's too late. In addition, it will keep the fashion fabric clean and keep it from being over-handled. And it will make you feel, once you start on the real thing, like you know exactly what you doing.

It’s important to mark the muslin carefully: mark the neckline (turn down the seam allowances so you get a clear picture of where the neckline will be on the actual gown), turn up the sleeve hems, experiment with different fullness of sleeve heads, raise or lower the waistline, tighten or loosen the sleeves, adjust the tightness and position of the elastic, see where you want the boning to go , etc. The muslin is the dressmaker’s laboratory. If you've made extensive adjustments, you may want to make a second muslin; couture dressmakers often do. They want to perfect the pattern, the design and the proportions while the project is in the muslin phase. Once it’s in the fashion fabric stage, it’s a little late to make major changes. After you’ve fitted and marked the muslin, you can either use the muslin itself as your pattern (which is what is done in the couture), or you can incorporate the changes onto the paper pattern.

8. Test all the fabrics(s) you’ll use for your project. Can they take moisture? Can you steam them? Should they be pre-shrunk? What setting on your iron should you use? Will they shine if pressed on the right side? Can you use dry-cleaning solvents on them without fear? Now is the time to learn all you can about the fabric you’ll be working with. This will take a lot of the guesswork out of the work ahead, and your results will be superior once you know the best way to treat the fabrics.

9. Underlinings are used extensively in fine sewing projects. An underlining, which basically doubles the fashion fabric, strengthens the fabric without changing its outward appearance. The underlining is cut exactly as the fashion fabric, and the two are joined pretty much from the start and treated thereafter as one. Some underlinings are fused to the fashion fabric; the traditional couture method of joining the fashion fabric with the underlining is to hand-baste the layers together around the perimeter of each piece, on the seam line (or very, very slightly outside).

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The advantages of underlinings are numerous: they help provide a firm base for ornamentation, they help the fashion fabric resist wrinkling, they give an internal layer of fabric to which boning channels can be sewn, they allow internal stitches to be sewn to something other than the fashion fabric (hem stitches, for example). There are many options for underlinings, from stiff silk organzas to soft cotton batistes; in the couture, underlinings range from the soft (silk chiffon) to the sturdy (double-napped flannel or even wool), and everything in between. It is the dressmaker's job to find which works best.

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10. Practicing tricky techniques on scraps of fashion fabric is invaluable. If you’re rusty on any of the techniques you’ll be called upon to use, practice them. Not only do you need to be sure your sewing machine is up to snuff (with the right size needle and the proper tension), but your skills will improve with practice (as will your confidence), and when it comes time to do the real thing, you’ll be prepared.

Look for TEN MORE TIPS in Beyond the Pattern Instructions, Part 2

More information on Susan Khalje Couture Sewing School


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