Our focus this year is on quality, so I guess it’s appropriate that I share some of my own projects exploring this theme. Discovering couture sewing was a big part of my process last year, which started when I flew to New Orlean last March for a couture sewing workshop with Susan Khalje (read our interview with her here!) This has been a bucket list dream for many years, and I can’t tell you how excited I was when I finally committed to going. The workshop I chose was 6 full days, with the option to sew any garment except her French jacket (this has a unique workshop I hope to take in the future). I knew going in I wanted to make a gown since I had a possible wedding to attend and had never tackled eveningwear before. The wedding never happened but it’s oddly reassuring to know I have a black-tie gown in my back pocket if I ever need to pull out alllll the stops.
The 1930s are hands all the way down my favorite era for evening wear, so it made sense to start there. Perhaps it’s due to my love of 30s Hollywood movies, but there is something about the modern glamour of those fluid, elegant dresses that really gets my heart racing. In a death match between the structured New Look silhouettes of the 50s and the sleek, body-skimming columns of the 30s, the 30s will win every time. Thankfully there are a lot of pattern options out there and I spent a lot of time researching options. Etsy is a gold mine; there are lots of pattern reproductions out there (I’m assuming because copyrights have run out?) and I spent hours digging around trying to find something that hit my wishlist: floor-length, form-skimming without being too tight, with interesting design details that would be challenging to sew. In the end, I went with McCalls 7154, a reissued vintage pattern. I decided I wanted the comfort of modern sizing and decent instructions so I wouldn’t waste too much time trying to modify the pattern or puzzling through construction. The design itself is lovely: a blouson style bodice with intricate cutouts and curved neck bands, with a sweeping godet skirt with curved panels inserted at the waist, along with a pleated section at the back.
This is not a perfect garment by any stretch of the imagination. My instinct is to focus on each flaw rather than enjoying the sum until I remind myself, “Damn girl! You made a freaking 30s evening gown!” That said, I learned a tremendous amount working on it (silk charmeuse you slippery devil) and would happily tackle another project like this knowing what I do now.
Before the workshop starts, you’re required to assemble a full muslin so you can jump into fitting as soon as you arrive. This muslin making process is very specific and quite a bit different than what you’re probably used to. Before you stitch anything together, you must sew along all the stitch lines first. This takes quite a bit of time, but the benefit is that it makes it much easier to make adjustments since you have a concrete line to measure from, and it helps stabilize the muslin fabric so you can use it as your final pattern piece (we have a blog post coming about this process in more depth if you’re interested to learn more!) I made a size 14 graded to a 16 at the hip, and modified it by removing the ruching at the lower back. The dress had so much going on I thought it felt like overkill, so I figured out how to remove the excess through center back.
I had no idea what fabric I was going to use, but thankfully I met up with the group at Promenade Fabrics as soon as I got off the plane. This is one of my favourite fabric stores ever, and I highly suggest making a pit stop if you ever find yourself in New Orleans. They specialize in fine couture fabrics, and have an amazing selection of silk to choose from. I’ve never sewn with charmeuse before, but figured if I was going to go for it I might as well go all the way and chose this breathtaking coral 4 ply charmeuse. It is much heavier than a traditional charmeuse, giving it a lovely weight and heft that is a bit easier to work with since it’s more stable.
In my fit session with Susan we didn’t change much. If memory serves, we added some width through the hip and narrowed the shoulders since the muslin was a bit wide on me. In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time fiddling with the shoulder width. Since we only moved the bands in, I find the back doesn’t lie as flat as it should.
Most couture garments are underlined with silk organza or something similar to beef up the structure and stability of the fabric, but this wasn’t an option with such a drapey design, and while the bodice was lined the skirt was not. In hindsight, I wish I had drafted a skirt lining since I think the interior of the dress would be much prettier. I had my heart set on bias bound seams, but after doing some tests, Susan convinced me to skip it since it would make the seams too visible on the right side. As you can tell in these images, charmeuse shows EVERYTHING so Susan compelled me to hand overcast each seam instead. This is basically the couture version of serging; it wraps the raw ends to prevent fraying, but it is much softer and less obvious from the right side. I’m sure if I had I serged the edges you would see the profile along the seams. I learned that a lot of couture sewing is detective work, experimenting to find the best solution for the specific fabric and garment you are sewing. There is rarely a one size fits all solution, and each time you approach a project you have to figure out what your particular solution is. Sometimes the answer is to leave seams raw! Someone commented on Instagram that Susan convinced them to leave the seam allowances on their wedding dress unfinished since they would only wear it once. That sort of logical thinking is really at the crux of couture sewing.
Six full days seems like a long time, but I didn’t finish this gown while I was in New Orleans. I cannot tell you how much frustration the bodice gave me. The construction was incredibly complicated; not only do you have the pointed cutouts to deal with, but sewing those curved bands and attaching them to the top at front and back was very, very tricky. At one point I was basically in tears after ripping a section out for the third time, terrified I was ruining the silk, and Susan calmly took over and showed me how to use a fell stitch to attach the ends of the bands. The skirt was another exercise in humility; inserting those curved panels required a ton of hand basting and hand stitching, and I spent hours trying to get everything properly lined up. The silk was surprisingly bulky so it was difficult to get perfectly mitered corners and seams. My biggest regret was not bringing my own iron. We were mainly using irons with crappy steam from the hotel and I didn’t feel like they gave me the best press. One trick I discovered from one of my fellow students was a new wood pressing tool. It’s essentially a dowel cut in half, allowing you to press seams on it without the seam showing up on the right side. I need to find a carpenter to make one for me, but for now we’re using the wood handle from a (new!) plunger when I need to be very, very precise pressing seams.
During the workshop, I managed to get most of the garment assembled (I spent many nights in my hotel bed watching reality TV and hand overcasting my seams) but it took a few months before I finally finished it with an invisible zipper and tiny baby hem (not easy to do on such beefy silk!) It ended up a touch on the short side, so I can’t wear it with super high heels. I am also not happy with how it looks at the top of the zipper, but I think this is because I didn’t properly adjust the back bodice after we took in the shoulders.
Want a peek of the inside? You can see the waist stay (which I managed to finish with a hong kong seam) and the hand overcasting along all the exposed seams.
It’s funny because I think it looks pretty messy on the insides, but believe it or not, this is probably how it would be finished in a professional couture setting, although I would hope their hand overcasting would be tidier than mine. I really wish I had taken the time to properly line the skirt so I could hide all this messy construction. Ah well, live and learn!
One of the best parts of this experience was getting to spend so much time working and learning with people as obsessed with sewing as I am. We spent so much time comparing notes, sharing resources and tips, and I loved getting to watch everyone’s projects take shape over the week (while silently hovering around Susan every time she gave fit feedback, a skill I can never learn enough about). The scope of projects was huge, from mother of the bride gowns to a smart, wool shift and it was fascinating to see the variety of fabrics and techniques everyone was working with. If you can swing it, I highly recommend taking a workshop with Susan if you ever have the opportunity – I came back filled with SO many ideas and plans for elevating my sewing practice. In fact, I started my next couture project almost immediately after I got home using fabric I had picked up at Promenade. This time I got to use a lot of the techniques I had observed in class, and while it turned out to be not quite right for my style, I learned a lot I can use going forward (more on that later!)
As for the gown, it has been worn once, thank god. I ended up wearing it to the ballet while I was in Paris with Susan on her couture tour, something I’ll be talking about later this week. I was absolutely the most overdressed person there (also: picture me taking the bus with this bad boy on) but it felt so good to have an opportunity to wear something I had laboured so heavily over. Now it hangs in my closet, waiting for the right occasion when I need to make a swooshy, charmeusey entrance. Send me your gala and black-tie wedding invites please!
Have you ever made an evening gown? What was your experience like?!