Create Couture Lingerie
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by Alexandra Armillas
from Threads #135, pp. 34-39
The intricate beauty and delicacy of fine lace and lingerie have been great inspirations to me. Sewn by machine or by hand, couture lingerie is cut to fit and combines hand-selected and balanced lace with luxurious fabrics and delicately executed buttons and fittings.
Here, I describe how I learned about couture lingerie and how you can make your own. I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) and interned at Christian Dior Lingerie during my senior year. When I graduated, Dior offered me a full-time position, and I received wonderful training in couture lingerie. The experience of working with extraordinary French laces-especially Alençon lace-and the finest cottons, silks, and novelty fabrics only reinforced my deep love of exquisite lingerie.
Later, after I worked for an innovative, contemporary company for several years and ran a small business that produced one-of-a-kind, couture lingerie from antique embroideries and silks, I again came to the attention of Christian Dior Lingerie-and a twenty-year stint as their head designer ensued. It was thrilling to create the concept of a lingerie collection-something that did not exist in the industry when I returned to Dior.
Use buttons like jewelry. They are carefully selected to enhance the garment’s overall feminine aura.
Evolving with Dior
Over time, the Dior line evolved to two-hundred-piece per year collections for each of its five markets. The fabrics and silhouettes covered an extensive variety of techniques that included tailored, yarn-dyed, striped pajamas with embroidered emblems accompanied by Savoy Row quality tailored robes; christening gowns in the finest cotton lawn or silk; and silk bridal sets with French lace appliqué accompanied by luxurious silk, velvet, or brocade robes. An even more opulent collection called “Dior Le Connoisseur” allowed me to create truly couture, extraordinarily complex originals, using many imported and gossamer components.
Designing for Dior required biannual visits to the House of Dior in Paris, which was always inspiring. My deep love of France and its culture, people, and decorative arts, grew on every trip. I also had the honor of designing and launching the Oscar de la Renta Sleepwear Collection and of working with one of the finest people in the fashion industry-a true icon.
Couture lingerie is always worth the price. What is priceless is the sense of beauty and serenity an exquisite piece can impart to one’s sense of self, well being, and happiness. With loving care, a couture piece can last a very long time.
The average lingerie sold today is serviceable and readily replaced. Most pieces do the job of providing something to sleep in, which is quite different from creating an heirloom that inspires a transcendent state and sweet dreams. I have always believed the private, inner world of a woman is where her life should begin and that couture lingerie is an important part of this world.
A couture camisole is a truly versatile addition to any woman’s wardrobe. You can wear it to bed with a matching bikini, tap pants, or long pants for 1930s glamour. You can wear it to work under a suit or with a pair of jeans for an evening out with friends.
The techniques I demonstrate here are essentially the same as ones you would use to create a chemise, ballerinalength gown, or long gown. You can use some of the lace steps to create other lingerie pieces such as matching robes or bodysuits.
Photocopy your lace. It simplifies the designing steps and conserves the real lace.
Drape your pattern. Use silk charmeuse to drape your original pattern or to test your commercial pattern.
Let silk and lace take form
The camisole shown here features French lace appliquéd on silk charmeuse with hidden bust darts. Once I have conceived the original design and chosen the lace, I photocopy the lace. This enables me to experiment with the design to get a preliminary feel for how I want the lace to come together without needlessly cutting up this expensive, precious commodity.
Every well-designed lace offers many design possibilities. Throughout my career, this has enabled me to use a favorite lace many times with completely different results.
In couture lingerie, the original garment is almost always draped in the actual fabric. Pure silk charmeuse drapes differently than polyester charmeuse. Time is better spent creating a good drape in a quality fabric than correcting an ill-fitting drape in a lesser fabric. Unless, of course, you’re using a $300-per-yard silk velvet or brocade.
As this camisole will be silk, the drape should be executed in silk. Allow at least 1-inch seam allowances at the side seams, to accommodate fitting.
Use narrow galloon lace. It provides mirror images of edges and motifs.
Make an original design with lace
This beautiful French Alençon lace has a wonderful heirloom feel. I almost always work with a 3- to 6-inch-wide lace “galloon.” Galloon lace has scalloped edges on both sides and mirrored right and left motifs. Galloon enables me to create a design with symmetrical right and left sides.
Always allow 1 inch or so of extra lace at the side seams. Once you have used the photocopies to determine the composition you want to use, you can proceed to cut the actual lace.
Use delicate scissors to divide the scallops and motifs from the galloon. Cut along the corded edges of the motifs (called “gimps” or “liners”), and trim away the excess netting.
Cut the fabric and lace
Once you’re satisfied with the drape and the lace placement, transfer the draped silk shapes to paper, and trace your new custom-designed pattern. Next, cut out the camisole from the pattern.
Divide the lace. Fine curved appliqué scissors trim around lace motifs effortlessly.
Even if the lace is appliquéd to the front and back separately, at this stage, it is best to baste the cups and side seams together and then confirm the fit on a dress form.
If you must adjust the fit, now is the time to correct the pattern. Proceed if it looks beautiful on the form. The side seams must be exactly at the side seam. The camisole and lace are now ready to sew with your sewing machine or elegant hand stitches.
Position your lace. Stitch it by machine with the right side up.
Position the lace
First, sew the darts in the cups, and close the center-front seam if your design has one. There is no need to finish these seams because after the lace is appliquéd over the seam and darts, the fabric backing is cut away.
Return the camisole bodice to the dress form, and pin the lace over the darts. Make sure that the left and right lace motifs are mirror images.
Stitch the appliqué
I use either a machine-sewn baby zigzag stitch or tiny hand-sewn blanket stitches to appliqué the lace to the charmeuse. Either way, use fine thread that matches the lace, and sew from the right side.
On your machine, set a narrow zigzag stitch about 1.5mm wide, drop the feed dogs, and use a free-motion presser foot. This will enable you to hand-guide the stitching, so it accurately follows the edges of the lace. Move the work slowly to get a short stitch length. Free-motion stitch the zigzag so it’s contained within the boundaries of the lace.
To hand-sew the tiny blanket stitch, form minuscule stitches over the lace edge.
Or stitch by hand. The hand-sewn blanket stitch is shown here in contrasting thread.
Assemble the front body
Appliqué the lace over the darts. Then, with curved appliqué scissors, cut the fabric from behind the lace, leaving 1/8-inch seam allowances all around.
Next, pin the lace around the neckline and arm edges on the front. Align the high point of the scallop with the raw fabric edge. At this stage, it is a good idea to pin the side seams together to check for fit again, as pinning the lace may have changed the fit. If all is well, continue to appliqué the lace on the right side of the camisole, and cut away the base fabric from the wrong side.
Next, pin the lace to the top of the front body. Align the highest point on the scallop with the raw fabric edge, and lap the front body over the bodice at the empire seam. Then, appliqué the lace, and trim away the fabric from behind it.
Sew the lace over the dart.
Cut away the fabric from behind the lace.
Finish the front lower edge
Pin the lace to the front hem. Next, pin the lace to the back body at the back neckline and hem. At this stage, re-pin the side seams to ensure that the lace matches perfectly at the side seams before you appliqué. Here’s where the galloon lace’s mirror-image design always enhances your creation. I adjust the lace so that it matches exactly at the side seam, which may make the join in the lace different at the center front and center back.
Construct the camisole
After you have appliquéd all of the lace as described but before you have closed the side seams, determine if you need loops and buttons, and attach them as described below. They are always on the left side. French seams are well suited to camisoles, as they produce a clean finish. As it is a short side seam, there is little risk of distortion.
Beautiful lingerie can enhance a woman’s quality of life and contribute a great sense of beauty and refinement. It is my wish that you will be inspired to create this couture camisole and experience a great sense of accomplishment and pride in your achievement.
The final details are my passion. Couture lingerie is defined by an extraordinary attention to detail.
Treat buttons as “jewelry” for your piece. They should subtly enhance your creation.
Shape and stitch loops to paper. Sew through the paper, and then tear it away. Face a finished edge. To create the loops, cut bias strips 1-1/2 inch wide. With right sides together, fold the strips, and start to stitch a funnel shape that tapers to 1/8 inch from the fold. To make the loops even, draw the seamline, loop height, and spacing onto paper. Then use these marks to get proper spacing as you sew the loops to the paper. Pin the paper-backed loops face down to the edge where the loops are required. Make sure that the cut ends sit in the seam allowance. Stitch again along the stitching line, and then tear away the paper. Trim the loop ends to 1/4 inch. With right sides together, pin a bias facing to the edge, and sew again along the stitching line. Grade your seam allowances, trim the corner, turn, and press.
Adjustable straps keep your camisole fit flexible for subtle daily figure changes. Diminutive notions keep the look in character with the fine garment.
Rings and slides
Stitch the strap in two places.
Make your straps adjustable, by using rings and slides. Allow 2-1/2 inches extra length for adjustability. Attach each strap end to the lace in two places-at the edge of the lace and again about 1/2 to 1 inch down. This protects the strap from straining and ripping the lace. Attach with the same baby zigzag stitch that you used to appliqué the lace to the fabric.
Some Helpful Hints
Use a 100-percent silk organza pressing cloth, preferably in white or ivory. At no time should your iron ever directly touch your fabric or lace. Always place the organza between the iron and your fabric. The sheerness of the organza will allow you to see what you’re doing.
If you decide to elongate this camisole, a French seam can distort after about 36 inches in length, especially if the garment is on the bias. The inside seam allowance can be serged or stitched back 1/8 inch on either side. I love pinked seams that recall the classic finish of 1930s lingerie.
Alexandra Armillas brings her couture expertise and acclaimed design experience to teaching at F.I.T. in New York City.
Photos; (model) Jack Deutsch, hair and makeup: Christy McCabe using tarte cosmetics, stylist: Jessica Saal; all others, Kenneth D. King
Elegant couture camisole