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Couture Sewing, Learning New Skills

June 29, 2020

I was so lucky to get into Susan Khalje’s couture sewing class, a class I have been longing to attend for at least 10 years, but life and geography worked against it. I was so excited to see the announcement of her class in Redmond this past August. I immediately went to the website, but was disappointed to see it was already sold out in April. I immediately wrote to Susan to ask if she had a waiting list and if I could be put on the list. To my delight, I received an email the first of August telling me I had a spot in the class if I wanted it. Luckily, it fit into my schedule….Now, I began the process of thinking about what I would sew.

My finished couture dress, a copy of a Dior dress from the 1950s. The fabric is a wool crepe that has a subtle slate blue and brown check. The buttons are vintage plastic buttons likely from the 1970s.

If you haven’t heard of Susan Khalje, she has become one of the most sought after teachers in the sewing world. She began her career in sewing after an injury that prevented her continuing her professional piano career. She first trained at the New York couture salon Chez Cez et Bez. She later started her own wedding dress and evening wear company, and then The Couture Sewing School, which is the company she runs today. She travels around the world teaching others the ways of couture sewing. To learn more about her, hear her thoughts on sewing and more about her life, there are a couple of podcasts you can listen to….Thread Cult, a podcast with loads of interviews from around the sewing world, and the Love to Sew podcast. She is also a Threads contributor and you can find her writings in that magazine.

After reading Susan’s introductory letter on what to expect in the class, and what types of projects her students have made in the past, I started looking through my books and looking through the web. I wanted to make a dress that could be part of my everyday life, not just something I would wear every year or so. I am a big fan of Dior, and as I was searching through the web, this photo of a dress worn by won of Dior’s favorite models, Dovima, caught my eye. I don’t know for sure if this is a Dior dress, but…

I took a moulage class from Kenneth King last year where I developed a sloper. (Moulage: very tight hip length bodice that is fitted to a person’s body precisely. Sloper: custom fitted basic pattern from which many other styles can be developed.). Using this sloper, I made a pattern for a fitted dress with back shoulder darts, front darts, bust darts, back darts, and sleeves. Then, I sewed a muslin to take to the class for fitting by Susan Khalje.

With the other 11 students in class, on the first day we patiently waited our turns for fitting while the rest of us looked on and learned more about fitting muslins from a master of fitting. Susan decided to move the bust dart down to be a French dart that would be hidden under the front waist pieces. Then, she also formed the front waist pieces using bias cut pieces of muslin.

Front of muslin with changes marked.

Side view of the muslin showing the left sleeve pinned on for fit.

Now that the muslin has been fitted and adjusted, the changes are marked clearly on the muslin, then marked and changed on the paper pattern. Next, the muslin is used as a pattern to mark onto silk organza with waxed paper marking all the notches, darts and seemliness. The silk organza will be used as an underlining and pattern to cut the fashion fabric. The silk organza and fashion fabric will then be treated as a single piece of fabric. In my reading of my Dior book from the Royal Ontario Museum (a fabulous gift for any fashion sewist), Dior was supposedly the first to use this method in couture sewing.

After cutting out the fashion fabric using my silk organza, the silk organza and the fashion fabric are joined together using cotton Japanese basting thread (all pieces are stitched together using this method). Next, the pieces are basted together as a garment for another fitting. In this fitting, I learned that my left and right sides are quite different. We had to let the right side out by 3/4” at the side seam, let out the right back shoulder seam by 1 1/2”. Who knew my body was so different left and right?

Seam lines are basted, these basting stitches also hold the silk underlining to the fashion fabric.

The garment is basted together with silk organza for fitting. Fashion fabric treated as one.

Another fitting, getting ready to fit the sleeve.

All the fitting changes were marked on my paper pattern, and on the muslin which will be used as a lining pattern. Next, I sewed the dress together by machine with the waist pieces sewn into the side seams; inserted the sleeves, and got ready for the final fitting. In the final fitting I had some issues with the right front dart, so it took a couple more tries to get it sewn just right. I got the sleeves on, and in the last final, final fitting we marked the hem and the sleeve length. I cut out and sewed the lining together, except for adding sleeves to the lining. At that point, my six day class was at an end. This class was well worth the time and money. I loved meeting the other women and made friends with this group of dedicated sewists. Many, if not all of us spent evenings sewing such as securing all the seam allowances by hand using a catch stitch to attach it to the silk underlining. Spending 6 days of dedicated sewing was great (I watched the PBS show Country Music, really lovely documentary by Ken Burns) at night while I stitched seam allowances.

After returning home, I sewed in the lining in by hand. Put a hook on the back, and hand sewed the sleeve lining into the dress, then sewed the main lining on to the sleeve lining. This is a long slow stitching process. But this dress, a classic design, will certainly last the rest of my life and can be passed on to someone else. I left wide seam allowances (1+inches) to anticipate later alterations. I learned quite a bit about fitting, various sewing techniques and fabrics in this class. I will not use this technique for all of my clothes, but for special jackets or dresses that I want to last forever, I will use these techniques again. If you are interested in taking a Susan Khalje class, she has several online classes on her website including the boatneck top, the couture skirt, the cocktail dress, and the French jacket.

I would love to take another class with Susan, but her classes fill fast, all the 2020 classes seem to be sold out already. Here are the photos of my finished dress….Also, if you have more questions, just email me or come by the store.

Happy Sewing, Now it is back to quilting with the anniversary quilt.


A final photo, a parting shot of the back of the dress.

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