Considered as one of the oldest kinds of textile arts, hand sewing started during the Paleolithic Age, when Stone Age people made clothes out of fur and skin. We published an article recently tracing the origins of sewing back over 25,000 years to the very beginning. In another of our recent articles examined the sewing revolution and how sewing has changed since the invention of the sewing machine and the ready-to-wear clothing market to the present day.
In this article we look at the time in between, when complex and beautiful garments we constructed by hand often over weeks and months of painstaking effort and what of that art still exists today in the form of the Haute Couture fashion industry.
Hand sewing became a popular art and craft for thousands of years largely until the invention of the sewing machine in the 1900’s. The late part of the 20th century witnessed the mass production of machine sewn objects and consequently there was a decline in the production of hand sewn garments. Today, hand sewing is mostly done only for high-quality tailoring and Haute Couture fashion. It is also still alive among textile artists and hobbyists who express their art through hand sewing. And it is Haute Couture that is considered as a truly fine art.
Literally, Haute Couture in French translates to “sewing at a high level”. Charles Frederick Worth, the Father of Haute Couture lived during the reign of Napoleon III in the 19th Century, and the Empress Eugenie was one of his high end clients. He used only the finest fabrics like muslin or toile, which are mostly made of natural fiber. Tailored fit to individual customers, Worth’s garments used fabrics pieced for design and they were mostly sewn by hand.
Because fabrics were prohibitively expensive in the old days, garments were pieced together to economize. Labor, on the other hand was cheap, so every bit of fabric was used and practically nothing was wasted. Collars for gentlemen’s coats were pieced at the corner and sleeves and trims were pieced to the ladies’ gowns. The construction of garments also involved piecing where stripes were cut, rearranged or re-seamed, and small pieces added to produce a new look. The result is a unique and pleasing aesthetic that is characteristic of the Old World fashion style.
Although hand sewing garments is no where near as popular as ages ago, a select group of fashion designers invite fashion editors, celebrities and members of the super-rich to a week-long fashion show in Paris to showcase their Haute Couture collections. These clothes cost from $25,000 to a million and can take as long as 700 hours of hand sewing, embellishing, bedecking and embroidering to create. Characterized by lavish fabrics, historic dressmaking and precise tailoring, the presentation of Haute Couture collections are important events in the fashion industry. And it is the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris that gives permission to label collections as such.
Haute Couture, however, suffers from a diminishing clientele largely because of its exorbitant prices. Over the past century, the number of couture houses has already declined significantly. Does this mean that we are losing the art of hand sewing? There is a small group of hand sewists who are giving the art a revival of sorts and hopefully, their tribe will increase. And because of them, we cannot definitely say that hand sewing is a lost art.
Do you still practice hand sewing? Please share your experiences in the comments below.