I’ve been a fan of the couture sewing expert Susan Khalje ever since I found her book Bridal Couture, at a used book store a few years ago. Soon after that I was approached to make a custom wedding gown and foolishly said yes, even though I had never made anything remotely close to in difficulty as a wedding gown. I used Susan’s book throughout the whole process. It was a stressful couple of months making it, that’s for sure. I faithfully followed Susan’s instructions for lace applique sewing methods, hand stitched zippers, hand sewn linings, and making bustles from the book. I read her articles in Threads magazine as well. She is a contributing editor. It was a crash course in couture sewing and I was a convert.
Since then, I’ve followed a few other bloggers’ experiences at Susan Khalje’s various week long Couture Sewing Classes throughout the country, as well as her Parisian Couture trip she hosts every year, I read about bloggers like Frabjous Couture, Poppykettle, and Goodbye Valentino, who took her classes and all had great experiences. These are seamstresses who sew on a much higher level than anything I generally do, and I wanted to improve my sewing methods. So I decided to go to Susan’s next Couture Sewing Class being held in Houston Texas to improve my skills.
Things got off to a bit of a rough start. My flight was canceled the day I was leaving but the airline was able to get me onto another flight but I wouldn’t get into Houston until after midnight. The shuttle arrived and the driver informed me that I would be the last stop, as the class wasn’t actually in Houston , but in a suburb called Katy, way on the other side of Houston. The drive would be an hour and a half. I started to worry a little as I hate to be stranded places, and I knew not renting a car was an iffy thing for me to do. A scary looking tattooed guy squeezed in next to me in the freezing van, I didn’t have a sweater, and we politely chatted about Houston. Except for him getting out at every stop to smoke a cigarette and then get back next to me reeking, he seemed to be nice enough. I was relieved when the driver stopped at a questionable looking motel on the road to let him out though. “The owners here are a nice little Indian couple” , he told me.” I’m here to try to talk them into selling out to me and my partners”. Hmmm??” Um well, good luck.”, I told him, as I imagined the whole unsavory situation that might occurring at this place.
Finally the driver stopped at my hotel. The Best Western looked to be around the corner from The Hilton Garden Inn on the internet, so I booked it because I wanted a free breakfast and it was a little cheaper then the Hilton. Duh!!. The surroundings were a little spooky to me to be honest. There was a gigantic raised highway next to the hotel, way bigger than any of our freeways in LA, a gigantic Wal- Mart across the road, and a Chuck E Cheese and Tire Shop next door, nestled in between the Best Western and the Hilton Garden Inn. The area seemed deserted as suburban areas tend to be at night. I could tell this was going to be an interesting week. As I switched off the flourescent lighting in my hotel room and listened to the drone of the highway outside my window, I tried to sleep but was feeling very anxious. I felt completely out of my element. I finally fell asleep at about 4 AM and woke up late for the first day of class.
When I arrived at class everyone was already deep into their fittings. We were supposed to have prepared muslins of our individual projects at home, and thread trace all the seam lines and style lines, leaving one inch seam allowances so Ms. Khalje could fit our projects perfectly to our figures. I wanted to learn how to make a boned, strapless gown and had prepared my foundation for the bustier at home but hadn’t gotten to the skirt and had only just started draping the top. I was designing my own dress and not using a pattern,so I figured I would just drape it at the class since I was told someone would be nicely lending me their dress form. I spent the rest of the morning cutting out my skirt and thread tracing everything as I could see it would be awhile before we would get to my fitting anyway. I was glad to have something to occupy me.
Most of the women except Carrie, who had driven from Oklahoma, were involved with a local ASG Couture Sewing Club. They meet every year at this hotel to take Susan Khalje’s class and seemed to be a close group of friends. They also have meetings through out the year and many had traveled together to places like Paris and New York on fabric buying excursions. Paying homage to the Chanel lace.
I was a bit envious of their community. I need some real life sewing friends! I was the only one who had flown in as well as being the only sewing blogger. They were a friendly and nice group of ladies and seemed to have super advanced sewing skills. They were couture sewing aficionados and I learned something from almost every person there. For me, it was the first time I had ever sewn in a group, and it was really fun to be able to talk sewing with other people. I have a group of friends online I chat with , but none in real life. After this trip, I’ve realized I want to reach out to my own community more, and will be joining a garment sewing club that meets once a month in the LA/ Ventura area.
I really enjoyed learning about fine sewing from Susan over the week and I found her to be so patient and easygoing. I was a little intimidated to meet her at first. I think I was expecting her to be more formal and serious. But she was so friendly and interesting. From her, I learned how she had once been a professional pianist, but found herself in New York after working as a piano accompanist to opera singers in Europe. She suffered a hand injury, and wasn’t going to be able to play anymore. A friend who knew she also sewed, offered her a job in a well known couture dressmaker’s studio. Susan worked there making gowns for New York society women and then went on to start her own custom dressmaking company and custom bridal shop in Baltimore.
That first day,we went to lunch at a delicious Vietnamese place in Houston and then went next door to a shop called High Fashion Fabrics to pick up any last minute fabric or notions we might need for our projects. You should have seen the amazing fabrics these women had brought to class! One woman had spent hundreds, OK more like a thousand, on some amazing Guipuire lace from Chanel bought in New York City . Another woman had brought some Valentino embroidered lace from a shop in New Orleans. I learned about the small exclusive boutiques were people who want the same stuff as the Parisian Couturiers can find what they are looking for.
And here I was thinking I had splurged on my forty dollar a yard silk stretch satin I brought! Tsk,tsk. I was humbled by my fabric and learned that I wouldn’t be able to underline or even line the skirt because of the stretch in the fabric.
After lunch we stopped Maria’s apartment. Maria is a fashion designer in Houston and had signed up for Susan’s class but couldn’t make it for personal reasons. She was the one who graciously had agreed to let me borrow her dress form. She lived in a very cool loft right in downtown Houston, which seemed like a fun place, from the brief and only glimpse I got of it that day. But how would we get it back to the hotel, over an hour away? We laid it in the back seat of Eileen’s car and I sat on the floor. First priority was not to bend the cage of the form lent to me by Maria. Without it, I couldn’t make my dress since I would be draping my design directly to the form. I have Maria to thank for a successful week. I’ll be sending her my extra copy of Bridal Couture which I seem to have misplaced, but hope to find soon.
It just so turns out that it didn’t really matter that the location of the class was totally well, you know….. and there was nowhere to walk because I basically stayed inside the class working on my projects from nine in the morning until after midnight every day that week. And I still didn’t finish my project. Couture sewing is mostly done by hand and all the little steps take forever. It makes you realize why exactly those dresses cost like twenty thousand dollars. Because they take maybe hundreds of hours to make. But the results are soooo much nicer than machine sewing if done right. But we did find ourselves getting pretty silly one late night….All work and no play makes Justine a dull girl.Carrie in her almost done lace dress.Eileen owner of the Chanel lace, letting off a little steam. Couture style!
Liz was working on a silk corset.Ronnie was working on a gown made up of strips of the lovely French Chantilly lace, each row was painstakingly tacked down by hand.Diane was making a dress from this exquisite delicately appliqued fabric.
Now you are probably curious what I ended up making right? I made a strapless cocktail dress from silvery pewter silk stretch satin.
First we fit the skirt and the foundation bustier to my body.
Then I thread traced all my seamlines onto the bustier and silk satin of the skirt and sewed 15 boning channels into my bustier foundation. I had to file down all my boning pieces with an emery board so they wouldn’t poke through the bustier.
Then I draped the design straight onto to foundation on the form. It took me awhile to get going on the draping as my original pleated design was not going to work with the weight of my satin and I would have to make a new design. I was tired and feeling fried and almost burst into tears sitting there staring at my form for minutes on end. Everything I was trying to drape just looked bad. I learned from Susan that the strips of fabric needed to be on the bias to fold over properly.
I learned to install a couture hand picked zipper with thread strengthened with melted beeswax.
The I had to sew in silk lining by hand as well