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.


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