Garments can be sewn in different ways. Couture sewing is at the top end, where custom fitting, intricate inner construction (the unseen details in a garment that add structure, shape, etc.) and hand-sewing techniques are used to craft one-of-a-kind garments that are made to last. Custom dressmaking is also a highly specialized way to make one-of-a-kind clothes, but the process may rely more on machine sewing and streamlined methods. Production sewing -- which is used for ready-to-wear (RTW) -- is all about speed and efficiency, as multiple garments of the same style are sewn at the same time.
Detail from Christian Dior Fall 2015 Couture. Image from here.
When I think of couture sewing, I think of intricate embroidery and beading all done by hand by skilled artisans; yards and yards of the finest fabrics sewn carefully and precisely; and attention paid to every detail on the inside of the garment to ensure a perfect fit. Buttonholes are worked by hand; zippers are installed by hand; and every button and hook is sewn by hand – couture garments require a high level of precision and perfection, which is what makes it truly a labor of love (and skill).
This is a hand-sewn zipper on a guipure lace skirt that I made a couple of years ago. A couture detail is to overlap the lace to cover the zipper and add small snaps to secure. This is such a beautiful technique that is an example of how, in couture sewing, even the smallest details are considered.
These clothes are made for each individual and are beautiful, but they don’t have the level of detail of couture clothes. For example, a couture garment will have hand-worked buttonholes, but a custom garment will likely have machine-worked buttonholes. Or a couture garment will have a bodice with beads individually attached by hand, while a custom garment will use fabric that has already been beaded by machine. However, these clothes are made with great care and are treasures in any wardrobe.
A hand-worked buttonhole is a couture sewing technique. For custom clothing, it would not be common to see this detail, as the more familiar machine-worked buttonhole is typically used. Image from here.
This lining detail from our made-to-measure Lantern Coat is an example of how a custom garment can be one-of-a-kind. The type of silk lining -- from a lightweight china silk to a heavier weight silk charmeuse -- can be chosen, as well as the color and any unique trims (such as the contrast color bias binding along the hem).
Production Sewing: Small and Large Scale
The clothes you buy in stores are all made by large-scale production sewing -- the assembly line of garment making. Large-scale production sewing is factory sewing, where it is less about details and more about efficiency. In many factories, each worker doesn’t make a garment from start to finish – one worker may just sew zippers onto 50 front pieces and then hand that stack off to another worker who sews the back pieces onto those pieces. Factories have specialized machines, such as ones that only sew buttonholes, buttons or snaps; they have streamlined methods to sew garments as fast as possible; and they press and trim to a minimum to keep the process moving (in custom and couture sewing, pressing and trimming are done extensively throughout the sewing process). The goal is speed, and every factory determines how best to make this happen.
In production sewing, heavy duty industrial sewing machines; specialized attachments that simplify sewing steps; and sewers with expertise in specific tasks help to make the process as efficient as possible.
Production sewing can also be done at a smaller scale, especially for limited edition garments. For smaller-scale production, the same industrial machines and techniques are often used, but there is more opportunity for collaboration between the designer and the sewers.