Couture sewing encompasses a very specific way of constructing a garment. As with tailoring, attention to fit, hand-sewing techniques and inner construction -- the stitching, padding, shaping, etc. -- required in making a couture garment not only results in a beautiful finish, but is also critical for its long-lasting quality. Every detail is considered.
Details from my Soutache Lace Trench Coat, constructed using couture sewing techniques.
But couture goes further in that there is a wider range of techniques that can go into the garment, such as working with different types of lace; adding embellishments such as beading and embroidery; and manipulating fabric using pleating, origami folding, etc. Much of the construction is done by hand: thread-tracing using long basting stitches; tiny overcast stitches to finish the seams; sleeves set in using hand stitches; and hand-sewn zippers, buttons and other closures. These skills require years and years to perfect.
As inspiration, below are images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has hosted a number of wonderful fashion-related exhibits in recent years. For more information about haute couture and its history, here is a brief article on their site.
Christian Dior Couture from Fall/Winter 1949/1950. Image from here.
Givenchy 1971. Image from here.
Cristobal Balenciaga 1973. Image from here.
Here is one of my favorite couture pieces from Chanel 2006. I love the Napoleon collar and the exquisite embellishments, made even more stunning by being all in white.
From Chanel Spring 2006. Image from here.
As part of my journey into dressmaking and design, I have been fortunate enough to learn some couture sewing techniques -- just enough to scratch the surface. I am by no means an expert, but I have learned enough to have an appreciation of what goes into constructing a couture garment and why they are so special.
A perfect fit and a perfect fabric. It starts with the muslin or toile -- a sample of the design made in a basic cotton fabric used for fitting and refining details such as the collar width; sleeve length; closure placement, etc. All fitting changes are carefully marked on the toile, as it will then be taken apart so each toile piece can be used as the guide for cutting the fabric. Selecting the right fabric is also important to make sure it is compatible with the design.
Precise placement and marking. The toile is then carefully taken apart, pressed and all markings are checked for clarity and accuracy. The markings and stitching lines are transferred and thread-traced using contrast thread and long hand-basting stitches. The seam allowances are kept wide for subsequent fittings.
Attention to even the smallest details. The sleeve toile is carefully pinned to the armhole to make sure the fit is perfect. Pencil lines mark the placement of the grid pattern of the fabric, to make sure the pattern will match once the sleeve is set in by hand.
The sleeve is carefully shaped and pinned to the armhole to prepare for hand sewing.
While machine stitching is used in places, most of the details are sewn by hand. Here, the lining seam is hand-basted closed before being sewn by hand using a fell stitch.
When working with a delicate piece of lace, such as this wool guipure lace, pins become your friend. The lace is carefully placed and smoothed over a base fabric (in this case it is a silk charmeuse), pinned to hold in place, and then tacked together by hand.
The small details make couture special. To cover the zipper on this guipure lace skirt, the lace was trimmed to create a decorative overlap. Small snap closures were sewn in strategic places to hold the overlap in place, thereby completely covering the zipper while maintaining the lace pattern.
Here are a few of the garments I've made using couture techniques. All labors of love!
Wool guipure lace skirt, backed and lined with silk charmeuse.
Soutache lace trench coat backed with silk taffeta and unlined.
Classic French Jacket made of Linton Tweed and lined with silk charmeuse.
If you are interested in learning more about couture sewing, Susan Khalje is an amazing instructor who conducts workshops in the US. There are also a number of reference books that I recommend -- Bridal Couture by Susan Khalje is especially recommended both as a technical and inspirational resource.