Last month I attended Susan Khalje’s Couture Sewing School. I first heard about Susan’s classes when Melanie (a.k.a. Poppykettle) took her classes and blogged about them back in 2013. I’ve been fantasizing about taking one ever since. Though Susan is perhaps best know for her French Jacket classes (where each person sews a Chanel style jacket), her Couture Sewing School is a much more flexible class where each sewist brings her own, unique project and works on it over the course of the week.
Since the description of the class is pretty much “show up and sew something” I thought it might interest others to hear a personal account of what the week was like. The first day we all had our muslins fit. It was quite interesting to see as each woman brought a very different project though a bit hard to learn by observing since there were so many variables – different bodies and different projects. Additionally, Susan made some fitting changes with amazing precision and some she ignored since a garment is first basted together with massive seam allowances (1″ or more!) so there’s plenty of wiggle room for adjustments during construction. I think one might learn even more about fit during a French Jacket Class when you can see the same garment fit on a variety of different bodies.
The first day was supposed to end with a trip to Britex to get whatever fabric or notions people still needed for their projects, though a power outage caused us to go there midday and then return to finish muslins which made the day a little discombobulating. Shopping at Britex with a group of passionate women was quite a treat. I was quickly given the nickname of “magpie” as I flitted from one woman’s shopping to another, always excited to help with decisions or just admire the pretty goods. I had already purchased everything I needed for my jacket but I did still manage to walk out with a bag full of fabric and ideas for future sewing projects :)
The rest of the days were all pretty similar. People would trickle in in the morning and Susan would talk over what their next step on their project should be. She would alternate sitting and letting people come to her with questions with making her way through the room to check up on sewists’ progress. At the end of the day she would do one final lap to talk through what people could choose to do that evening if they wanted to sew on their own back in their hotel rooms. I took my sewing home every night but many women (especially locals returning to their home and not a hotel) opted not to. There was a grocery store with a nice deli a block away so we ended up eating together every day in small (or large) groups.
There were quite a variety of projects and I spent a lot of time flitting between desks (again, ever the magpie) so I could learn from the differences and similarities between the constructions of the various garments. Just in my class there was my tuxedo jacket, a wool crepe cocktail dress with exposed darts and embellished collar, a high-waist pencil skirt built over a corselette, a mens style overcoat, a casual cotton jacket, an embellished boucle sheath dress, a silk blouse, a silk sheath dress, a strapless gown with lace overlay, a paneled lace skirt, and a lace cocktail dress. So many pretty things!
Susan has definitely developed quite a following as many of the women there had been to her classes many times – in fact one woman (Joann) had been attending since the 90’s! Amazingly, Susan could remember the garments that Joann had sewn over the years even better than she could! It was immediately clear to me why Susan has such a following as she greeted every attendee with a hug and brought a thoughtful focus to each discussion. She asked and seemed to genuinely care about each woman’s life and story.
One thing I would have wished was just a bit more guidance about what to bring (or not) to the class since I stressed about packing and just about couldn’t carry my luggage myself. It was nice to have my own machine and its accoutrement. I was laughed at (in a friendly way) for bringing pattern weights (since I flew down) but many people did borrow them, so I felt justified :) Having my own chalk and tracing supplies was important. The studio had plenty of irons and hams and other pressing equipment to share (though that may be different in other locations). Susan brings a case full of supplies that she recommends so I bought her recommended basting needles and basting thread. It would have been nice to know not to bother to bring my own organza (since Susan brings a bolt and none of the organza that any students brought was deemed up to snuff). I was laughed at for bringing hair canvas (Susan’s version of couture tailoring never uses it as it’s too sharp for women to wear) and forbidden from using my tracing paper (since all pattern adjustments are made on muslin) (again, friendly laughter. There was lots of laughing over the week!). Other things were my own fault – I brought a couple books on tailoring thinking I might read the in the evenings (nope, just more hand sewing and binging on Netflix). I also brought the supplies for a second project just in case I finished my first (ha ha ha! That so totally didn’t happen).
The only other thing I would have wished from the class was a more direct statement from Susan on what she wanted to give us of herself. On the last day I wanted to talk through the order of operations for sewing a matching skirt for my jacket out of the rest of the wool I had left. Susan kind of brushed me off – perhaps it’s because it was the last day and everybody was scrambling for one last bit of Susan’s attention. Perhaps it was because she only wanted to offer help on a single project per person (another woman told me that she had hoped for fit advice on a different work-in-progress that she brought into the class but Susan wouldn’t help). I can imagine that it would be exhausting to be “on” all day (for long days) every day for a week so it’s understandable that Susan would set limits – it would just have been nice for them to be clearly communicated to us before the class.
That being said, it really was an amazing experience. I learned a ton about couture sewing, but the most magical part was being immersed in sewing with a group of other women just as nuts about it as I am. I got to geek out with women from all around the world, of very different ages and shapes and backgrounds but all with the same passion. I would recommend the class for anyone that wants to sample a new set of skills (since it’s quite different from most home sewing) or if you have a fancy garment you want help with or if you just want the chance to immerse yourself in sewing and make some new friends.
Finally, I have to thank my husband for his role in the class. Stepping away from “real life” for a whole week is not easy and without his encouragement I wouldn’t have been able to make it happen. Adam took much of the week off also so that he could take care of Evie and keep our house running while I was gone and I greatly appreciate him for it.
(I have quite a bit of work left to do on my jacket, so I’ll share all about it when it’s finally done.)