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Game of Threads

by Callie TeinModern Trousseau Atelier. Made in the USA by Modern Trousseau.

         I make bridal gowns the old-fashioned way, it’s the way I was taught. The word “couture” gets bandied about these days like peach taffeta at an eighty’s prom. Its true meaning is often misunderstood, except in France where the fashion Industry still takes couture very seriously. The Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture as it is formally known, keeps a list of all official couture houses that adhere to its strict guidelines. It is the holy grail of high-end fashion and only those named on the list can use the term Haute Couture. While l don’t expect to have my name added to the list anytime soon, I do adhere to the basic principles of couture such as making a gown to a client’s specific measurements and requirements. This requires at least two fittings and most likely a toile, a prototype of the dress made in a plain cotton fabric. In America it’s also known as a muslin, but I prefer to use the French term; toile. Toile’s are fun. As a designer I get to play with my design, suddenly a two-dimensional sketch is now a three-dimensional creation that can be worn. 

         Whether it’s on a form or a real model, l can see how the design lines come together. I can also see what’s not working, which is just as important. If the seams are at war with each other, if the fabric is pulling, puckering or behaving badly, all will be revealed. Remember a toile is the stage where the issues and problems are worked out. At this stage I often feel like I’m drawing up a truce between two waring enemies. On one side is my creative imagination where I can see the gown down to the finest detail, versus the ever practical and tirelessly stubborn toile which takes great pleasure in pulling me back to reality. This too and fro tug of war is exhausting and thrilling. At the end of the battle the sewing room floor is littered with pins that lie where they have fallen. Piles of cut up fabric, once beautiful and expensive are now discarded, destined for the bin. If we have been successful and the hard work and sacrifice has paid off, then something wonderful has emerged, as visionary as any art form.

         If at all possible, I like to have a live model wear the toile, it’s the best way to see how the gown moves. Each gown has its own rhythm and flow and I need to see how it responds on the body. Is it so tight that the bride can only shuffle along? Will she be able to sit in the dress without the seams bursting? Will the fitted sleeve let her raise her arms above her shoulders or will she have dinosaur arms? These are important questions.

            It is vital to listen to what the gown is telling you. Gowns have a lot to say. Some gowns will literally scream for a fuller skirt or more beading, while others will stubbornly insist, I make them more dramatic to show off their curves. Of course it’s a two-way conversation, and I have final say, but I’ve learned through trial and error to respect my gowns and listen to their suggestions. Gowns can be very stubborn, and nothing is more soul destroying than working on a gown that at the end of the day, looks like it was thrown together by an apprentice seamstress on her first day.

            I’m sad to say that some of my ideas did in fact turn into unmitigated disasters. I’ve had French seams turn nasty, tulle fibers break under a hot iron, and a fitted organza skirt wrinkle and carry on like a two-year-old who missed a nap. If there is one thing I have learnt it is this; never fight with your fabric. The fabric always wins. These are words to live by if you want to survive in fashion. You can’t tailor organza, nor should you want to. You can’t make a preppy bow out of chiffon and you can’t make a ball gown out of Italian crepe. Every fabric has its own personality, and some are trickier than others; a few may bend to your will, but others will break you.

            Fabric doesn’t care if I’m just having a bad day or I’m close to a complete nervous breakdown. I once had a terrible argument with a very stubborn piece of French lace. Things did not go in my favor. French lace is extremely delicate. It often suffers from anxiety and gets all worked up over the smallest detail; unpick it, one too many times and it basically falls apart.          

       But lace can be your friend. Extremely versatile in the right hands it loves to show up in unexpected places. Sweet or sexy, traditional or modern, fine French lace has a rich history dating back hundreds of years. Use it wisely and with respect, treat your lace gently and it will never go out of style.

            Be very careful when combining fabrics. There are many factors to consider: not just personality but wants and desires. All fabrics have needs and for a relationship to work fabrics must bond and entwine naturally; otherwise, there will be friction resulting in discomfort to the wearer and possibly a rash.

             Lace paired with chiffon is at first glance very romantic, but like the story of Romeo and Juliet it can often end in tragedy. Chiffon is a moody fabric. Moody combined with delicate can create tension which ultimately leads to puckering. Puckering is never good. Once puckering has occurred you will need to take out every last stitch and start again. Though seemingly fragile, remember, silk threads can turn against you in a heartbeat.

            Organza is the party girl of fabrics. Where chiffon falls organza floats. It cannot be tamed, nor should it be. Instead let it do what comes naturally. Full gathered skirts, oversized blouses with voluminous sleeves, frills, flounces and bows are its specialty. Organza defies gravity, skipping through life without a care in the world but it can cause you grief and must be handled gently. If it gets bruised or is mistreated in any way, chances are it cannot be saved. Trying to repair organza is like having your spleen removed. All you will have left is a nasty scar.

            Duchess silk satin is a close relative to organza she is the older sister in the relationship. Like organza, duchess thrives on social events, but is far more sophisticated and glamorous. It loves to be pleated or gathered into enormous ball gowns where its true luster can really be appreciated. Like any Royal it must be treated with respect. Trying to remove any stain on its surface will be like trying to stop your drunk uncle from giving a toast at a wedding — almost impossible without everyone noticing.

            For fitted gowns I love a good crepe. Crepe is incredibly versatile; however, it needs to be the right thickness to drape and curve around the body. If your crepe is too thin it will reveal every lump and bump, and any carbohydrate that you’ve ever eaten. Not even a full body Spanx will be able to help you. Sultry, sexy and frequently unforgiving, crepe moves with the body. Where it takes you, is up to you.

       Stretch fabrics may seem like the answer to your prayers. But beware they can be difficult and sometimes require special equipment to handle them properly. Like crepe, stretch fabrics can be unforgiving. In a perfect world we would all wear Lycra bodysuits because they would be so comfortable. But Lycra keeps no secrets and in my experience we all have something to hide. Imagine riding to work on the subway and everyone is in skintight lycra body suits. I’m sorry if I’m creating a horrifying mental picture that you will never be able to unsee, but honestly, you wouldn’t know where to look.

            Now let’s talk about tulle. Tulle is soft and floaty and is used to make bridal veils and tutus. It was popular in 1950’s prom dresses and today it lends a vintage feel to gowns. There is a distinctive feminine quality about it but, make no mistake, tulle has a dark side. Wear a ripped tulle skirt with a biker jacket and tulle becomes something else entirely. All of a sudden, it’s making a comment on women’s role within society —traditional femininity vs female strength. Tulle can be a wonderful juxtaposition once the two of you have come to an understanding. A split personality often arises from a cruel or difficult childhood, as is the case here. In the 1800’s when tulle was a mere child, it was worn by countless ballerinas who went up in flames when their tulle skirts tragically caught fire on the candles lighting the stage.

            On a brighter note, there is one fabric that seems to get along with everybody and that’s cotton. Thinking of cotton reminds me of the “It’s a small world” ride at Disneyland and the adorable sound of children singing. Cotton feels natural, fresh and comfortable. It is easy to sew and versatile. Its first-grade report card was probably full of teacher’s comments such as “plays nicely with others, joins in with all class activities and shares well.” You can gather it, pleat it, and top stitch it to your hearts content. If you do make a mistake, don’t worry cotton very rarely holds a grudge. In short it is the baby bear’s porridge of fabric… just right.

            If cotton is a sweet child, denim is the volatile teenager. Everything you say and do with denim will be wrong. It has a mind of its own and will not listen to reason. It can appear cool and edgy when used well, but it is a heavy fabric, and many sewing machine needles will perish in its wake. Proceed with caution and keep a good Chardonnay handy.

            The truth is I love to sew. While sewing has a practical purpose for things you need, it also fulfills a creative desire. Learn to talk to your fabrics as I have. They have plenty to say about themselves and how best to use them. As with all creative endeavors you must be patient and flexible, never force a fabric into a corner. It will always come out punching.

          My love of fabrics has taken me from the suburbs of Melbourne Australia to the Fashion shows of Paris, the streets of New York’s garment district and the high-end showrooms in Tokyo, Japan. It has been a wonderful journey and I continue to listen to, and learn from, the fabrics I adore.

Just the other day I had a lovely conversation with a beautiful warm and cozy cashmere. Just between you and me, cashmere can be a little uppity. It’s a result of her upbringing. Cashmere is rare, expensive and always in demand. But just like a high-end model who won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day, she’s worth it.

            Finally, remember, it’s important to show no fear. All fabrics are very sensitive to tension, and like a badly wound bobbin, once it senses tension nothing good can be achieved. Take your time, don’t rush, let the fabric fall through your fingers and hear it whisper to you. Coax it, tease it gently and let it tell you it’s story. If the two of you are soulmates, then like a perfectly tailored Italian wool suit, it will be a match made in heaven.

XOXO, Callie Tein

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