This month on the blog we’ve been talking about couture sewing. After Heather’s couture sewing workshop and trip to Paris with Susan Khalje this fall, she has been trying her hand at a bunch of new techniques. Well… new to her. The funny thing about all of these incredibly revered and mysterious applications is that in reality, they are very basic. Most couture and bespoke tailoring techniques actually use some of our oldest and simplest skills, and most can be accomplished with nothing more than a hand sewing needle and spool of thread.
In this post, we will be doing an overview of the stitches and seam finishes that are typically used in couture sewing. As Susan explained in our interview with her last month, “Couture sewing is sewing the way your grandmother sewed; it’s sewing without shortcuts. It’s the sewing equivalent of gourmet cooking”. From our point of view, the main difference between “regular” and “couture” sewing is speed and time. From underlining to the muslin making process (more on that next week), to sewing seams, finishing hems and buttonholes, there is nothing quick about couture sewing. It’s all about slowing down, taking your time, and using a lot of hand stitches, from basting to handrolled hems, to give you the kind of control you just can’t get from sewing exclusively with a machine.
That said, you don’t have to choose one style over the other, and they are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason your jacket can’t have serged seams AND a hand-sewn hem or lining. You could try finishing the seams of an unlined dress with Hong Kong seams, or add a special hand-sewn buttonhole on your next skirt. You are free to pick and choose where to invest your time: which details or techniques would elevate your garment? What can be done with less time and effort by machine? The more you practice a lot of these finishes the easier they become, and you might even find yourself enjoying a small lap project in front of the TV rather than being tied behind the machine the entire time.
So with the spirit of choosing your own adventure in mind, let’s look at some of these details…in detail! Make sure you watch the video we made at the end of the post, since I demonstrate how to actually sew all these stitches!
COUTURE SEAM FINISHES
When I started researching all these fancy techniques in all the couture books we have around the studio, I was instantly transported to my grandma’s sewing room (the pool table in her basement) and the way she showed me how to hand sew while we watched Dallas (I’M SO OLD.) I thought I had no idea what all these stitches referred to, but it turns out I just didn’t know the name for them! The basics are easy and with a little practice, you will be a master. If this is truly your first attempt at hand sewing then we have a helpful getting-started tutorial here, with all the tips and tools to make this a pleasant experience for you and your thread tails. Use good needles, wax your thread and then make a little sampler of all these stitches like it’s 1849 and it’s your only possible job as a woman. Just kidding (kind of).
We are total converts to hand basting around here and suggest using these stitches anytime you have a tricky area that needs to be sewn very precisely (ie. inset panels, welts etc) and for inserting sleeves. It feels counterintuitive, but hand basting can save you a lot of time, since it gives you a lot of control and will almost always save you from ripping out machine stitches if you make a mistake. They are also easier to pull out that machine basting, and since you’re not dealing with fabric feeding unevenly through the feed dogs, you can really make sure everything is exactly where it needs to be.
Diagonal basting stitches: You can work these stitches in either direction depending on whether you’re a lefty or righty, or how you want to hold the fabric. This is a useful stitch for fabrics that shift (velvet for example), or for areas of gathers or pleats.
Running basting stitches: This is the fastest stitch to sew and the best stitch to use for quickly basting layers together or matching complicated sections. If you use a nice long needle you can usually load up a few stitches at once.
Slip or fell stitch basting: This is a handy basting stitch for matching patterns like stripes or plaids, or any time you want to hold something in places like a lining or zipper tape.
These hand stitches are not meant to be removed like the basting stitches above and can be used as actual construction stitches. Theoretically, you could sew an entire garment using these stitches, but unless you feel like doing some truly slow sewing, you may instead find these helpful for small areas of your garment that are tricky to sew well by machine, or if you want that couture/vintage look on the finished garment.
Running stitch: The same as a running basting stitch but with smaller stitches. In this example ther are a little farther apart than you would use on a finished garment, I just wanted to show they were evenly spaced.
Backstitch: This is a good stitch for locking things in place, and the closest hand stitch to machine sewing.
Fell stitch: This stitch is used to sew a raw or folded edge flat against the layer of fabric beneath it (to set a waistband or sleeve for example.) This is also a great stitch for anchoring applique or band details and is the stitch Heather used to secure all those curved bands in place on her couture gown. You also can use this stitch in hemming, but more on that next week!
Pick stitch: This is a useful stitch for sewing bound buttonholes, pockets, setting shoulder pads, or doing a lovely handpicked vintage-style zipper. From the right side, you create tiny pick stitches, using longer stitches on the wrong side. In a matching thread, this stitch is just barely visible on the outside of the garment.
HONG KONG & BIAS BOUND SEAMS
These are two great seam finishes if you are sewing a fairly sturdy fabric that won’t reveal the bulk of the seam on the right side. Jackets, non-floaty dresses or something like this jumpsuit Heather made can stand up to a little weight being added to the seams, and it creates a beautiful detail when you peek inside the garment. In the case of this jumpsuit, Heather made pretty silk double-fold bias tape and finished all the seams for a super durable and aesthetically-pleasing finish.
You can finish the seams separately on places where you want the bulk evenly distributed (ie. a center back or side seam) or finish them together if it makes more sense to do so (ie. a dart or pocket). That’s also the fun of being the designer! You decide!
We have tutorials on making bias tape and sewing both Hong Kong and bias bound seams (two different ways) with ready-made bias tape. We also have a tutorial on finishing neck holes or armscyes with bias tape, with two different methods. If you are already familiar with those ideas and looking to level up, you could try installing double fold bias tape by machine for the first pass of stitching and then slipstitch the final edge in place to achieve a nearly invisible finish.
HAND OVERCAST SEAMS OR WHIPPED SEAMS
For finishing seams on a fluid garment where you don’t want any bulk in the seams, or for a gown that you only plan on wearing rarely, you could hand overcast the seams as Heather did here on her silk charmeuse gown. Machine serging adds a lot of bulk and can show through fine fabrics, so this stitch is enough to ensure the fabric won’t unravel without weighing it down with a bunch of bulky seams. It’s also quite soothing and surprisingly fast to do, the perfect project to tackle in front of an HGTV marathon (literally all we’ve been watching around here is Fixer Upper and Home Town).
Overcast seams: This is also called a whipstitch if you are sewing two layers together. It is helpful to hold your last stitch with your thumb, working the stitch bottom to top. It secures the angle of the stitch and helps you to measure your stitch length. You don’t want a lot of tension on this stitch or it could distort the fabric, so try and find a balance between loose and secure.
SELF BOUND SEAM OR STANDING FLAT FELL
This is a cool way of enclosing a raw seam edge that you can do by hand and makes for no visible stitches. It might be a little bulky depending on the thickness of your fabric, but I love how clean it is and I found it a very enjoyable and meditative stitch. Unlike a machine flat fell seam like the one we show in this tutorial, rather than machine stitching the wrapped seam allowance in place you use a fell stitch to sew the seam to itself. After trimming one of the seam allowances you press the longer seam allowance in and then over the trimmed seam.
From there you do a tiny fell stitch but only catching a few threads of the first layer of the seam allowance. The thread is concealed in the channel and is not even visible from the other side. Pretty cool!
In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing more couture techniques and ideas that you can apply to your own sewing, a little bit at a time. In the meantime, here is a handy video of all these stitches!
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