The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Couture, considered II: Why by hand?

Yes, yes, it is highly ironic to have finished my last post by saying I no longer feel I can use the word "couture" , and then still using the word in the title of my next post. I just have a lot of different thoughts on this subject, and I felt I couldn't reasonably get them all in one post, so you will have to bear with the irony.

Why by hand? Is it really any better?

The first thing that comes to my mind is a chef, chopping his (or her) vegetables by hand. Are these professionals living in the dark ages? Haven't they heard of a food processor? I mean, really!

There are two things to consider. The chef, well practiced, can chop vegetables by hand much faster, easier and precisely than the rest of us mere mortals. The time saved by using a food processor is much greater for mortals than for chefs. The second is the integrity of the work. The food processor generally mauls the vegetables, and spews the flavorful vegetable juices all over the place, and often giving the vegetable a more unpleasant texture in the mouth. With chopping by hand, there is more precision (once the skill is acquired), the juices remain contained within the vegetable pieces, and the uniform pieces are more pleasing to feel in the mouth.

A small gain for the high price? For a mortal, perhaps. For the chef? No. The quality is necessary, and them time difference is much smaller.

This is not unique to the culinary realm. Machines are made to help close the gap between the unskilled and the highly skilled. The machines tend to fall to the "unskilled". The highly skilled continue to use their hands. It is no different with sewing.

Now, you will note that I said they "continue to use their hands", not "no machine can match the work of hand work." While I do actually feel that a statement like that is true, it is getting increasingly harder to defend. (Isn't it a sign of the times where once one had to defend getting rid of human workers in favor of machines, and now one has to defend working by hand instead of by machine?)

The English Cut blog comes to mind again. (Yes, I did get a lot out of it!) In this post, Mr. Mahon speaks of the difference between a fused canvas, and one that is pad-stitched by hand. In the comments, someone brings up machine pad-stitching, and asks if there it really makes a difference whether it's by hand or machine. Mr. Mahon responds with this post. He was rather forced to admit that the machine could probably do an equally good job, but argues for hand work anyway. He says:

"Strangely, this little dash of humanity is often what gives a suit that je ne sais quoi, that “I don’t know why, but I just prefer this one”. I think you know what I’m talking about."

What do you mean to say? That humans make better mistakes than machines?

In a word, yes.

If we were to accept as fact that the workmanship of hands and machine were equal (which is debatable), there would still be a reason to consider hand work. This is at first readily scoffed, but only because it is coming from people who are already strongly biased for handwork (like me). But consider. . .

. . .why are old farm houses said to have so much "character"?

. . .what draws people to old european buildings and towns, that they are considered "charming", "quaint", or any other word you wish to use?

. . .why are heirloom garments treasured?

. . .more importantly, why are homemade cookies best?

. . .and which will you save, the dress your grandmother made for you by hand, or the one she purchased that was mass made, and everyone has?

. . .what do you think when examining the seam stitched by hand? . . .what do you think when you see stitches worked by hand?

Why do you suppose people market their food as "just like Grandma's!" and "homestyle" and the like? No one believes that any "grandma" made those plastic-wrapped cookies. No one really believes the can of beans tastes like it was homemade. But they want "grandma" and "homemade"--so they are influenced to buy it.

You could say this plays off emotional need, and doesn't apply to all things handmade. But then why the awe when one sees something handmade? Why does one alway want to reach out and touch, and feel, and examine? Why do we want to run our hands over hand-hewn beams cut a 100 years ago or more? Why do we want run our fingers over hand embroidery, ancient and yellowing? Why do we wish to examine every detail made by hand?

You may call it character, charm, a connection to the past, or anything else you like. But the mass produced objects are set aside; the items made by hand are cherished. Behind the one sits cold machinery, behind the other sits a human. We see their hands. . .the character of the machine makes itself known, and the character of the human makes itself known. People are people, and are inherently drawn to things that people make.

Now, is this the only reason to work by hand? Are machines equal or superior in everyway but the sense of comfort and home that they fail to give?

Here I must remember that I'm supposed to be talking about couture, and gather myself together. Actually, maybe I should have remembered that a long time ago, but I guess I got a bit carried off. Because I am no expert (unfortunately), I turned to Claire Shaeffer's book Couture Sewing Techniques. This part here is from the beginning of Chapter two:

"When I visited the house of Christian Dior in Paris, I asked Dior's archivist Marika Genty how the construction of haute couture garments differs from that of luxury ready-to-wear. Marika immediately responded, "They're made by hand." Her comment was repeated at every couture house I visited. . ."

Taken alone, this would seem to say that machine sewing is not used in haute couture. However, in further reading, Claire Shaeffer clarifies this.

"Unlike the seams on ready-to-wear and home-sewn garments, seams in couture are often sewn by hand, with machine sewing reserved for structural seams and darts."
(Which makes me wonder what non-structural seams are. . .but that's beside the point right now.) Now, if this statement was taken by itself, it would seem that machine sewing is always best for "serious" sewing. . .however, Shaeffer talks about it more later on.
"Today most sleeves are set in by machine because the method is less expensive than hand sewing. However, at Huntsman, the most expensive bespoke tailor on London's Saville Row, the tailors prefer setting the sleeve by hand since hand sewing is always easier to control than machine stitching. They use a hand-sewn full backstitch, which is much more elastic than the machine lockstitch. I've also seen fell stitches on designs by Yves Staint Laurent and Schiaparelli, but this stitch is generally considered old-fashioned and, in any case, is not a good choice for the home sewer because it's difficult to sew invisibly. If you want to set the sleeve by hand, choose a full bascktitch."

And. . .

"The next step is to baste and sew the crotch seam. Since the crotch seam receives considerably more stress than most other seams on a garment, however, you may want to srengthen this seam as you sew it so it will not rip. In the bespoke workrooms at London tailor Gieves and Hawkes, the technique used on men's trousers relies on a hand-sewn backstitch to build stretch into the crotch seam so that it lasts for the life of the garment. I've never seen this technique used in women's couture graments, but I've seen many ripped seams on womens's trousers!"
Now, call me cynical, but from my reading of her book, I would generally say that hand sewing still seems to produce the best results, even though some people have been shifting to (cheaper, quicker, easier) machine sewing, even in structual seams. I am sure people could find exceptions to this; the more they were inclined to argue for machines the more likely they would be to find them, too. But I still feel comfortable in saying, that, as a general rule, excellent handsewing is still superior in workmanship than excellent machine sewing. (The sewing machine, of course, has it's own, different advantages.)

Better enough for mere mortals? Perhaps not. Perhaps we will stick with our food processors. . .but when preparing something truly special, maybe we ought to go the extra mile, and work by hand.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Couture, considered I: What does it mean?

This is the first of 4 parts that are sort of all inter-related. I have been frustrated in my writing of them because the only chances I get at writing is when my mind is least focused. I finally decided I just needed to get these thoughts out of my head, even if I couldn't write them as well as I wanted. For one thing, they address an issue the keeps cropping up, so I keep having very repetitive thoughts. I must drive them out! Nonetheless, let me know if you want something clarified. . .Or just general want to discuss the matters.

One of the things I (delightedly) got for Christmas was Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire Shaeffer. This was the first thing that every informed me there was such a thing as couture sewing, the book that got me interested in it, and as far as I'm currently concerned, the most authoritative book on the subject currently out there. First, of course, is my humble pie, as she does mention them using sewing machines at times. The worst part is, she mentioned it in passing, and if you hadn't happened to read that part, you would read through the rest of the book without realizing it. They do thoroughly hand baste it so that it is practically sewn before it ever gets under the machine so there is no chances of distortion or stretching.

Well, that isn't actually the worst part, the worst part is that I'm afraid I did that with Roberta car's Couture: The Art of Fine Sewing, slandering her needlessly. I remember I was very tired the day I read that book, and in hurry besides, because it was due the next day, and I could easily have missed the all important paragraph talking about thorough hand basting such that the machine couldn't eat all of your hours of hard work laying out your fabric perfectly on grain. In which case, I repent in ashes and sackcloth--except I don't know if they sell sackcloth anymore, so it might just have to be dust and burlap. (Oh, bothers, can't I just get away with skipping my shower and wearing a scratchy wool sweater?)

Anyway, since writing my posts on couture books, I have been seeing the word pop up in more and more different places. Of course, this is probably due more to an extra sensitivity, not to it actually popping up in more places, but it has gotten me thinking. That, and Roberta car's description of what couture is. (Speaking of "popping up" and "what couture is", I just saw an article in today's Wall Street Journal. It defined "Haute Couture" as "Clothes that are handsewn to order by fashion houses that use fine materials and meet other French government requirements. Ten designers now have the designation, including Chanel, down from 40 in the early 1960s." Actually the article was entitled "A Stir over 'Semi-Couture': New niche invokes high-end design, but critics call it a marketing ploy." Semi-Couture was defined as "some designers have begun using this term to describe clothes that are machine made but in limited quantities. . .sometimes using fine materials like those in haute couture clothes." But enough of this tangent, and back to our originally scheduled program. . .)

My hard-headedness in saying that a basic cornerstone of couture is sewing by hand is challenged in my own thinking. Certainly there is quite a bit of hand sewing done there, but is that a basic rule of couture sewing, or is it just a means to the end? When Charles Worth, the supposed Father of Haute Couture was opening his house, sewing machines were only just beginning to be invented. High quality sewing was in no way related to sewing machines. Hand sewing persists, but not as a rule--thou shalt only sew by hand--, but as a means to an end of highest quality in workmanship. There are yet things that must be done by hand to have the highest degree of workmanship, or even be done at all.

So what was a founding rule of the couture houses? If one remembers that couture means "sewing", and haute couture only means "high sewing", we are left with asking what the "high" refers to. I have always said it refers to workmanship, and put all of it's emphasis on that. However, a more honest appraisal might be that I want it to only refer to workmanship. The "high" sewing was sewing for "high" people--aristocrats and royalty. But of course they were opulent and extravagant--was this any less of a founding principle than workmanship? I want to say no; it doesn't matter what the style or thought, so long as the technique is of high quality. Tastes in fashion differ so much, it seems impossible to judge whether a garment has indeed a high enough level of style and opulence and extravagance to warrant being called "couture" (or "haute couture"). Nonetheless, an objective look at who the couture houses still market to, and how they are regulated, leads me to confess that yes, haute couture, high sewing, is as much about extravagance and "high" people as it is about sewing techniques. (Much to my great disappointment, and another score for Roberta Carr.)

So having felt out "haute couture" a bit more, I see that the word still does not refer to what I want to talk about. Is "couture" any better at encompassing what I mean? What does couture mean? Why, but that's irrelevant! It doesn't have to mean anything, it's just, you know, advertising.

I remember once reading a children's book, titled Frindle. Frindle?! What on earth is that supposed to mean? It means, in the book, some kid had a great grasp on the fact that a word doesn't have to mean, in and of itself, anything. It doesn't have to be related to other words, or languages, or anything. All that matters is how the word is used, and what people in general understand it to mean. In this book, the kid decided he was going to change the name of an ordinary household object, so that everyone called it by something other than what they had. He picked a ball point pen, and decided to call it a "frindle" instead. The first day he went into a drugstore and asked if he could buy a "frindle", and of course, the guy behind the counter thought the kid was nuts, but eventually sold him the pens--I mean, frindles. The kid got a bunch of his friends to do the same thing, and by the end of the week when someone asked to buy some frindles, the owner just asked "Black or blue ink?"

In the book, the word "frindle" came to mean "pen" throughout the nation. The kid picked a totally nonsensical word that meant nothing, and changed it to mean "pen". So it no longer mattered why it was called "frindle", it was simply accepted that those plastic thing-ys that you write with were frindles.

I feel like the same thing has been done with the word "couture". It no longer matters what the word is supposed to mean. It means what the common person thinks it to mean. And the first thing that pops into the common persons mind when they hear the word couture--do you really think it has anything to do with sewing, much less custom sewing? It has to do with class, with attitude, with velour track suits, with the implicit statement that it is cutting edge, hot, worthy of a high price. Here's a short-sleeved "hoody" sweater. It's made of a cotton/poly blend terry. Zip closure. Machine washable. Made in USA. Savvy. (Yes, that's part of the description.) And, of course, it has a $128 price tag. Because it's couture--Juicy Couture! Mass made, sold all over, and couture. Juicy Couture is the first hit if you Google "couture".

So regardless of what "couture" ever meant, it is no longer relevant to what I want to talk about. Even if it did mean what I mean at one point, it ceases to do so any longer. Couture is just an advertising buzz word, meant to draw the young things with lots of money to spend, and a desire to spend it on clothes.

So to me, I feel I can no longer use the word "couture", except in reference to books that have it in their titles. It's meaning has changed, if it ever held what I thought it held. I thought "couture" was a high compliment, a rare thing, and now it is a cheap splash of glitz, splashed all over products in hope of luring people in.

In fact, I can find no word that encompasses the things I want to talk about. Some people use the word "bespoke"--as in "bespoke tailoring"--, but I refuse to be part of the crowd stripping that word of all meaning. Bespoke tailoring, as I understand it, is a quite specific term and it refers to tailoring, to suits, not to any form of garment you happen to be making at the time.

I suppose, if I was clever, I'd come up with my own "frindle"--a word that means what I want it to mean, even if it just a nonsensical one. Then all I'd have to do is hold enough sway to convert everyone over to my word. But first I'd have to find people interested in even having a need for such a word--people who wanted to talk about it or practice it. And that, by itself, would be quite a trick.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

English Cut Blog

. . .can be found here. This is a blog that has something for everyone--customers, people interested in learning tailoring, and people who are interested in the cultural aspects of a tailor on Savile Row. I am mostly interested in learning tailoring, and find this site to be fascinating. Unfortunately, it isn't updated very often. This always used to drive me nuts, until, of course, I started my own blog. Suddenly, a bright light shown forth! Ah, maybe he's got a life other than spending fruitless hours writing fascinating posts in hope of enlightening the silent lurkers!

If you do check this site out, please do not be the 153,000 person to ask whether or not he tailors for women. The answer is yes, he does. (In fact, I'd almost be willing to bet that if you paid him enough money, he'd be willing to tailor for anything, up to and including your pet goat.) He has answered the question of women's suits a few times, but generally doesn't reply to the comments. If you doubt me, search on his site for "women", and you will find his post where he clearly states that he cuts for women of all sizes. While we're on the subject of ladies, I have to share this quote from his blog:

"Ladies are often asking me what opportunities there are for them in the business. Quite simply, they can and do the same as men, often a lot better. However the only real restriction which I've seen is that I'’ve never known any ladies do the actual measuring of customers.

They'll often get the measurements from a colleague, then go cut a suit as well as anyone, hidden in the back of the shop. But sadly many of the customers don'’t feel comfortable having the 4"” brass end of a tape measure thrust up between their legs by a lady.

It's not Savile Row that's against it, people have tried. It's the customers who are, and from a tailor's standpoint there's no point in digging your heels in- because as with all businesses, the customer ultimately is paying the wages;"

Yes, indeed!