Interested in couture sewing? Susan Khalje teaches the class The Couture Dress on Craftsy and it might be what you’re after. Couture techniques can make exquisite results, and everyone should be able to make beautiful high-quality clothing. A good fitting garment can make us feel so much better in ourselves. What is couture? According to Susan it’s “sewing’s equivalent of gourmet cooking”.
Sorry in advance, for such a long review: I have tried to cover what is done in each lesson, and with over 7.5 hours of content the review is bound to be quite long!
Lesson 1 – Introduction
Susan starts off the introduction discussing who she is and how she found herself involved with couture clothing, if you are interested.
There are five core elements of couture that she plans to teach in this course:
- Fit and proportion,
- Engineering, and
Lesson 2 – Muslin 1: Pinning and Cutting
You are going to fit patterns directly on a model.
Susan shows you the notes she has already made on her fabric muslin, such as cutting the waistband on the bias.
When making couture clothing you should use your stitching lines, not your cutting lines, as your reference when planning and altering your pattern. I agree with working with the stitching line, not the cutting line. When fitting your garments, such as in Fast Track Fitting (read my Fast Track Fitting review), it’s important to take accurate measurements and the true seams will be found on the stitching lines.
You can use your rulers to measure all the way around, but Susan teaches a really quick and helpful tip: did you know that the metal bar at the end of those tape rulers is 5/8″? I certainly didn’t. Go on, check it out for yourself! Just line that end up with the edges of your cutting lines and mark your stitching lines. Just don’t forget that areas like the hem of a skirt or dress might be 2″ or 3″, and thus your stitching line is larger than 5/8″.
By working in this depth with your pattern pieces you can really get an understanding of how the pattern fits together – really helpful for making your own garments, or even something as simple as adjusting the fit.
Preparing the material
When trying to get an accurate fit – important with couture work – you will need to iron your fabric prior to working with it. Personally so far I have never really bothered ironing fabric prior, however I am lucky that my material is stored well and is not drastically wrinkled or distorted on the grain. If you can’t buy muslin fabric by the yard (or meter) from the fabric store, consider buying cheap bed sheets and cutting them to size. You don’t necessarily have to work in muslin specifically, if your fashion piece will be in a really light weight, then use a light weight material for your test garment.
Pinning the material
Unlike most sewers, Susan prefers pinning her material and pattern pieces compared to using weights. This was a bit of a shock to me, as professional sewers highly suggest using weights as it doesn’t poke holes into the material and makes the process go faster.
Pin all your pattern pieces to your material prior to cutting; the last thing you want to do is run out of fabric for that last piece or two and have to run off to the store to buy more. This is especially true in my situation, where it will be practically impossible to buy the same fabric twice…
Working with bias pieces
If you are working with material with a pattern, make sure you clearly mark your grain lines. You absolutely want to make sure that your pattern is cut on grain – this is especially important when working with patterns like lines. Whilst this might not be needed for working with muslin material (as it generally has no patterns on it), it’s still good practice to cut your pattern on the grain which you plan to end up using – even if it’s just to see how the dress will look when finished.
Do consider what pattern pieces are cut on the bias or not – it can have its advantages. For example, a sleeve will have more movement applied to it compared to the torso, and thus will benefit from being cut on the bias for that extra stretch the fabric provides.
Lesson 3 – Muslin 2: Assembly
Susan uses wax paper to then transfer markings onto the underlining material. Trust me, wax paper is really helpful. She does point out one important tip: there is a newer wax paper on the market that actually uses a powder instead of pressed wax. This wax paper can “shed” the dust everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Unfortunately this is what I ended up buying, and if you aren’t very careful with it you will get a fine coating on your fashion material. If your working with colours this isn’t too much of an issue, but when you work with white fabric for example, it can be quite noticeable. Just make sure that your material is washable if you plan to use this newer powder-wax paper.
What to mark when transferring your pattern pieces:
- Stitching lines,
- Hem line,
- Grain line, and
- Pattern piece name or number.
You obviously don’t need to transfer all markings onto your final fashion fabric, however when making a muslin it’s important that everything drapes as planned. If making any changes in your pattern , such as adjusting length, it can be an idea to mark the original locations for reference.
What is thread tracing? It’s stitching along your marked lines to transfer information from one side of the muslin pattern piece to the other. You don’t want to pry up your material to see information such as grain lines on the wrong side of the fabric – especially when your model is wearing the muslin! It also helps strengthens your muslin to help stop it from distorting during the handling of pinning, and in many cases re-pinning. Use a dark colour thread, in large stitch size (such as basting stitch). Mark areas like darts with two separate pieces of thread instead of pivoting at the point, and remember that the point of tread tracing is to make information visible to you – dart stitching doesn’t need to be hidden, instead you will want to know exactly where the dart ends. If you have some cheap thread to spare, and are wanting to do the proper muslin stage, then definitely consider thread tracing.
Lesson 4 – Muslin 3: Fitting
Finally the test garment is put together and put onto the model, Emily! It felt like forever to get to this point. Susan shows you examples of where there should be ease and where you can add “dead darts”. At about 15 minutes in Susan lowers the waistband and adds the sleeves which also needs adjustment. This is a good example as to why fitting on a model really can pay off.
Susan does suggest that you shouldn’t make too many alterations at your centre front or centre back seams. This is the first time I have heard this mentioned; I’m assuming this is to make sure your seams are perfectly straight. She calls these seams the “foundations” of a garment.
Lesson 5 – Muslin 4: Finishing
Fitting on yourself, and not someone else? Well Susan is the first in Craftsy history to recommend the cheap “duct tape” dress form. Good on her! She also recommends some other sources for dress forms if you want something a bit more professional. I think this information would have been a bit more relevant in the last lesson…
Measure and make note of any adjustments you have made to your muslin, such as hem lengths.
Lesson 6 – Underlining 1: Pin and Cut
Underlining examples! Helpful if this is one of your first attempts at underlining garments. Using underlining, as Susan explains with an embroidered lace skirt, can be useful to help hold your fashion fabric in place – in this example she tacks the lace onto the underlining to stop it from drooping over time. If you are interested in learning more about underlining, you should check out Underneath It All by Linda Lee.
Most of this lesson Susan pins the pattern pieces to the underlining, explaining why she is placing the parts on the grain or bias as she goes. This step would be beneficial to beginners. One notable point to make is that she uses her muslin to pin and cut the fabric as opposed to transferring the changes to paper. I suppose if you are making only one copy of the garment this is ok, although I prefer to have a paper/digital version of all my patterns for future replication.
Lesson 7 – Underlining 2: Fashion Fabric
Here’s a lesson that might help a lot of people; pinning and cutting fashion fabric that has patterns such as lines on it. I’ve always been a bit scared of cutting patterned material in case it won’t line up at the seams. Susan goes in-depth on how she pins and cuts the material for her pattern pieces, showing just how she lines up her plaid. In fact, most of this lesson is about how to line up any patterns at your seams. A 44 minute lesson might be a bit long for the process, but at least you have plenty of examples and an in-depth walk-through.
Cutting and Pressing
Tug on the bias lines to square your fabric up if the grain lines have distorted a bit. Pin in the seam allowance. Cut your seam allowances as large as possible; in the next lesson you will be using this extra allowance to match up the patterns at the seams.
In this step you will hand baste all your stitching lines and markings onto your material. This will used as a reference when constructing the garment later on.
I just can’t agree with Susan here; I don’t think that the most enjoyable thing of couture is hand basting your material. I can’t stand hand basting, or hand stitching. If it can be done with my sewing machine, I will personally always attempt it. Even against advice. If you want a good suggestion on quality thread to use, she shows gives a number of examples of basting silk thread (many of which is vintage and might be difficult to buy).
Lesson 8 – Construction 1: Basting
Spend the time matching your pattern at all seams. It’s a time-consuming process, but it can really make the difference between an everyday garment and a couture garment. Even Susan mentions the highs and lows of couture design; the excitement at buying all your material, getting bogged down when crafting the muslin and hand basting, happiness at seeing it all come together…
Once everything is basted together, go ahead and throw it on your model (ok maybe ask them to wear it instead of throwing it directly on them). Now is your chance to really see how its coming together. Go ahead and fix any little areas of concern by repining, then later re-basting.
Lesson 9 – Construction 2: Assembly
Slippery material? Try Clover Fork Block Quilting Pins. Apparently they work miracles when lining up slippery fabrics.
Use standard stitching length to sew on your marked stitching lines, doing your best to keep your pattern aligned.
Remove your basting. If you’ve been following the same steps as the course, you will have three basting lines to remove. Just be careful to clip the corner-basting when removing your basting – to avoid removing any bits you don’t want to remove yet.
Press your seams flat, using a ham whenever you need to. When pressing curves, rather than clipping and then pressing, instead you should press, clip and then press again; it creates a much smoother curve.
Trim your seams and sew them down by using catch stitches. Stay stitch, and add stay tape where necessary.
Lesson 10 – Construction 3: Seams and Stitches
Finish stitching all your seams together following the idea of basting to get perfect placement, then more permanently stitching via the sewing machine.
Press your seams open with steam. Hold the seam flat for a few seconds – you can use a professional wooden tool here, or whatever you have on hand as Susan suggests. What I personally don’t understand is why the seam allowances aren’t trimmed down? Can anyone explain that for me? This lesson covers quite nicely how folding seam allowances certain direction can create bulges in the material, and of course what you should do to avoid that.
Lesson 11 – Sleeves
Many people hate doing sleeves, so it makes sense adding a whole lesson based them. The sleeve should ideally be 1.25 to 1.5 inches bigger than the arm scythe (or arm hole) to create enough ease for movement. Since a lot of your sleeve is off grain, you can ease the fabric back and forth along the stitching line to fit where you need it to.
A lot of people would have heard of shoulder pads, but maybe not so many have heard of sleeve heads. It will smooth the drape from shoulder to sleeve. Use bias cut lambs wool, or flannel, and stitch in place.
Lesson 12 – Zippers
Couture zippers aren’t applied by machines, but are hand stitched. You should know the back-stitch and the prick stitch – both are taught if you don’t. When pinning your fabric to the zipper, pin on the far size of the coil; you want to overlap to hide the zipper when the garment is worn; although this will be different if you choose the lapped zipper style. Let the zipper tape arc outwards to compensate for the zipper pull.
Lesson 13 – Hems
Just fold it up and sew it, right? Wrong. You can have a number of variations. You can have folds, or cones, draping at even spacing; created by using horse hair (a modern plastic mesh) in which folds can be gathered. You can hong kong finish your hem with a bit of bias and have the lining hang free. What about a hem with a facing. Add slashes to your hems if they are thick. They can be padded. There can be darts folding a wider hem into a smaller length – using hem lace to make it look quite pretty. They can be weighted, with various techniques… and the list really does go on.
In the case of Emily’s dress, you will do a hem with a jump pleat using a fell stitch.
Lesson 14 – Lining
Make sure if you made any changes to your pattern, you include them in this step!
Suggested fabrics (in order):
- crêpe de chine,
- silk charmeuse, and
- China silk or habotai.
Again use wax paper to transfer markings. Stay stitch where necessary. Use fell stitching in places such as the zipper. Loosely tack the lining and the dress armholes together at the seams. Under stitch with the prick stitch, catching every layer except for your fashion fabric.
Lesson 15 – Finishing Touches
Learn how to attach bra carriers, a girl’s best friend to stop sleeves from slipping off the shoulders. Fix any puckering around the zipper, one of the most common places for puckering to occur, by correctly applying a hook and eye. Using Petersham grosgrain ribbon to add a waist stay which is particularly useful for strapless dresses.
The best thing about The Couture Dress class? Well, first of all, the lessons aren’t short; you really get your money’s worth of tips and examples. A rough calculation of length, and there is just over 7.5 hours of material to follow; it really makes the class feel worth the value.
I love how the model, Emily – Susan’s daughter, actually smiles and talks back. In several other Craftsy videos they just stand there silent and sullen-faced. The model’s interaction makes the process seem much more realistic and enjoyable to watch. Susan will give examples to the audience and Emily will even lean around her to see what is being shown and ask relevant questions. Again it makes the class feel just that bit more interactive than watching one person talk the whole time. Though next time it would be nice if the model had a microphone on when asking questions…
Susan explains each step, such as why she is adding stay tape, in such a clear way that it makes sense for every sewer to be careful of not skipping this step. Furthermore, by understanding steps such as adding stay tapes, it will make it so much easier to understand where and when to use it when not mentioned in pattern instructions.
It’s amazing how fast Susan can talk and give examples! When writing this review I had to keep rewinding the video just to keep up. You will need to be watching closely. This is definitely not a class to be sewing along-side. Thankfully the Craftsy platform has the 30 seconds rewind feature – you are going to need it.
- A metric conversion chart on PDF, as provided with every Craftsy class.
- Supplies and Resources PDF. It covers recommended patterns similar to what is used in the class, recommended fabric and tools, and list of books and articles that Susan has published.
- Vogue Pattern 8648, shipped. Retail $27.50, but regularly on sale for $16.50. With a ClubBMV account you can buy the pattern for $3.99.
- A nine page PDF covering the techniques taught in the class, and instructions for each step.
Wow this course is long!
The Couture Dress class is quite good, however it felt a bit like a combination of several other classes. In fact if you have the class Sew the Perfect Fit, I feel like you can probably skip the first five lessons as that class covers all the content covered. From lesson six onwards will be more helpful for you – especially if you know how to properly fit garments – focus is upon the little details; lining up patterns for example.
I wouldn’t recommend the class to a beginner sewer, however there is quite a lot of information here that they will benefit from. Unless you are already doing couture techniques for a while, this class is worth the purchase.