The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Carr Couture

Couture. . .the Art of Fine Sewing”, by Roberta Carr, is the second of two “couture” books I got out of the library. (The other having been previously discussed.) At the time I got these books out, I hadn’t realized quite so well how large of a difference there is between different versions of “couture”. My definition–or, at any rate, what I was looking for in couture–is a high level of technical skill, and a very specific skill. “Couture” sewing is not sewing used in every day garments; nor is it’s sole goal to be sturdy and withstand abuse. “Couture” sewing is supposed to be about not disturbing the fabric as it is made into garments–the sewing should not effect the drape or hand of the fabric, where ever possible the seams should be matched perfectly. There are no “short-cuts” in “couture” because couture is the long way. “Couture” always has impeccable details of the finest quality.

One time I read somewhere–and, alas, I do not remember where, or I would tell you—that one should never take the description “couture” to one’s self, but wait until it is given by someone else. If one has to say that one is the leader, than obviously one’s position as a leader is already in jeopardy. If you’re truly the leader, you don’t need to say it, and no one needs to ask. Couture sewing doesn’t say “Look at me! I’m couture!” But it doesn’t need too.

This is how I view “couture”. It is sewing of the highest level of workmanship. Just as there is fine furniture, miles and away above the typical furniture one can buy, there is also a higher level of sewing. Although the styles of work may change upon taste, the level of construction, precision and technique remain as high as possible. Wether it is an ornate, highly decorated chair, or a chair of sleek, modern design, huge amounts of time and skill are invested in it to make sure that it is without flaw. No one would expect a Joe Handyman with a set of power tools to make the finest level of furniture, and especially not in just a few hours. In the same way, wether it is a simple sheath dress, or an ornate ball gown with a long train, skill and time must be invested to make sure they are perfect.

As a less-than Jane Handyman, I don’t expect to start cranking out couture sewing after reading a few books. But I would expect my “couture” books to talk about things that are more difficult, more detailed, and harder to achieve than what would be found in a typical sewing book.

Happily, this book did a better job of fulfilling those expectations than the first couture book I’ve talked about. Unhappily (but not unexpectedly), the author and I still seem to have different ideas of what “couture” means.

For those of you who don’t care two beans what “couture” means, I shall first just talk about the book.

This book does address some “couture” details, such as Doir roses, which she shows you how to make, step by step. It is also more thorough (and thicker, at 200 pages), and organized well. My favorite chapter was the sleeve chapter, which has the perhaps one of the most complete chapters I’ve ever seen on sleeve styles. A particularly interesting style was where you make a center front seam in a sleeve (it runs down the length of your arm on the side, as though you have just cut the sleeve pattern in half lengthwise), and insert 3-D geometric shapes into that sleeves. I say 3-D, but it’s hard to give an accurate picture using words. If you placed circles in the sleeve, you wouldn’t wind up with several spheres sticking out of the side of your arm, but several flat disks–round, but flat. These shapes aren’t inset into the sleeve, as though a hole had been cut out and a different piece of fabric put in it’s place. The are raised, above the surface, and distinct from the sleeve, but still connected. It looks more as though the sleeve has sprouted shapes.

The good news is that, even if my words don’t bring the proper image to your mind, this book was well illustrated. It also has several pages of full color photographs, but unfortunately, the photographs didn’t do near so well at showing details. Many of the garments were made out of black, and we all know how hard it is to see details in pictures of black garments.

The instructions were thorough throughout the book; Carr made every effort to make the book accessible and encouraging. This is a good book to introduce someone to the world of “couture”, and it includes several pages giving brief descriptions of past couturiers.

And now, everyone who dislikes negativity of any form, please plug your ears, avert your eyes, hum loudly, or leave the room. Because here is the part where I disagree with the author. She not only has a different idea of what “couture” means, but she is also very inconsistent.

The book opens by saying:

“Couture! Just the sound of the word conjures up glamour–the finest–the best–fanasty. Yes! Couture is fanasty in so many ways. It’s a dream, a vision, all those beautiful people in exotic places celebrating the happiness of life. . .”

Obviously, this is very far from what I hold “couture” to mean! Shortly thereafter, however, she began talking about “perfection” in construction, so I forged on. She went on to talk about cutting out bodice pieces one side at a time, on a single layer of fabric, already cut down to a smaller and more managable size. This made it easier to block the pieces of fabric so that they were perfectly on grain. She made a point of telling you not to smooth out wrinkles to the side after pinning it on grain–those wrinkles indicated that those places in the fabric were out of grain–and had you steam them out instead.

All well and good. This sounds like a terrible amount of work, but it makes sense.

Then she goes on and has you use a sewing machine.

No, I am not a luddite (but close!). But even I, Jane Handyman, can see my sewing machine stretch out seams, pull things out of alignment, and leave twists and puckers. Why, after spending hours and hours on arranging my fabric so that it was perfectly on grain, would I stick it under the machine needle? If that small amount of stretch doesn’t matter in “couture”–why go through all the work of carefully blocking out each individual piece and steaming out off grain places? Why not just fold the fabric in half and cut it out that way? There wouldn’t be too much off grainness that way–some, but enough for her “couture” to worry about?

Part of me wonders if perhaps she was told to make sure that any home sewing could take home her book and learn to sew the “couture” way, and she realized that very few home sewers will put up with much hand sewing with their fancy new sewing machines sitting right next to them. “Couture is Judgement!” she says, encouraging you to make the call yourself as different issues come up. Perhaps she just used her “judgement” to decided that machine sewing everything wouldn’t make much difference. She makes many and repeated claims to perfection being a necessary part of couture, but can’t seem to bring herself to actually hold to it. She even says

“My field is couture. Oh, you know what that means–structure, hand-stitching, shaping, attitude, and beautiful fabric.”

But for her, it seems that attitude and beautiful fabric trump structure, hand-stitching, and shaping. For her, attitude and beautiful fabric is the heart of couture; the rest is a nice after-thought, but not overly important. In her epilogue, she tells this story:

“On a trip back to Rhode Island to my cousin’s 25th wedding anniversary, I needed a fancy dress. Very few of my family had seen me since I opened my fabric store and sewing school. I wanted a prosperity dress. Mary Margaret, a modern couturier, and I teamed up. I designed and she masterfully executed a black chiffon with satin and gold stripes dress. She would surely tell you of the hours it took to perfect the miles of double bias ruffles that fluttered around the neck and down the back. . . It’s the kind of dress that never asks the question “How are you doing?” The answer is revealed in the dress.”

To her, this is the epitome of couture–to parade wealth, stature, honor. To me, this story was the epitome of how we are different. To me, the construction is what makes it couture; to her, the attitude and appearance. I also felt sad for her that she felt the need to wear a “prosperity” dress to visit with her family. I can more understand the desire for a “prosperity” dress when one is amongst strangers, but family is where you are supposed to be loved and accepted regardless of how much “prosperity” one has, or what kind of clothes you are wearing. (I do, however, believe in dressing for the occasion. If anniversary party was formal or fancy, it would have been rather disrespectful to the whole event to show up in jeans and a t-shirt.)

When one who is learning how to play the piano watches a master pianist, who has practiced for years on end and refined their skill continually, the beginner will not be instantly assured that playing the piano perfectly is easy and accessible to all. But they will be challenged to improve, to continue to practice, to strive for a greater level of skill. In the same way, I would rather see a “couture” book that challenged me, that showed me what to strive for, even though I could not reach out and take it right away.

I found this book to be interesting, and even inspiring at some points. But I didn’t find it to be very challenging. She wishes to make couture easy and accessible to all, but as with all things in life, the more you are willing to put in, the more you will get out. Exclusiveness cannot be had by all, or it is no longer exclusive. Couture cannot become easy and accessible to all without ceasing to be couture. As the saying goes, “Remember, you’re special. . .just like everyone else.”


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