Hands-On With Kleibacker: Lessons for Working with a Bias
In honor of the late Charles Kleibacker, here is another article from the pages of Threads about this masterful designer.
by David Page Coffin
excerpted from Threads #99, p. 71
Last summer, I spent a fascinating weekend in Columbus, Ohio, visiting designer, educator, and costume collector Charles Kleibacker. On the second floor of his garment- and memorabilia-packed townhouse, we cleared a small work space, and I settled in behind the camera to record an extraordinary and all-too-fleeting demonstration: the distillation of more than 30 years of professional experience in the creation of couture-quality, bias-cut garments. Drawing from an apparently endless series of overstuffed garment racks, Charles led me through the discoveries and techniques that formed the cornerstones of his technical career, encompassing both the behavior of fabric cut on the bias and the core procedures that he and his workroom staff employed to control and exploit it to such expressive and practical ends. In the following collection of photos and commentary, I'll share with you what I learned.
Lesson 1 - Fabric cut on the bias is not symmetrical.
No matter how balanced or similar the vertical and horizontal threads look on any fabric, they always drape differently because they were each subjected to different tensions during the weaving process. To demonstrate the effect of this difference on bias draping, Charles pins a single piece of muslin on true bias (the 45-degree diagonal) to the center front of a dress form. As a result, one side hangs from the lengthwise grain, and the other hangs from the crosswise grain. You can see how the folds on each side of center front fall differently. For Kleibacker, if the object is symmetrical bias draping, a center-front seam is needed to create identical draped folds on both halves (he omits a center-front seam only if he wants to create an asymmetrical bias garment). The process starts with draping in muslin on one side of the form only, up to the central seam. This half-muslin is traced and duplicated to create a wearable muslin for fine-tuning on a live model before creating a pattern. The pattern is then laid out and marked on two layers of fashion fabric, pinned face to face, and thus mirrored for perfect symmetry.
Lesson 2 - Pin and slip-baste from the garment's right side.
Right-side pinning ensures absolute accuracy, as all seams are prepared and can hang just as they will when worn. Careful pinning distributes ease and allows precise matching of design lines. Once pinned, Kleibacker slip-bastes seams by hand and then permanently machine-stitches them from the wrong side. Slip-bastings are removed before the seam is pressed.
In the sleeveless muslin prototype for this garment, you can clearly see the painstakingly pinned easing typical of a draped, bias-cut Kleibacker garment beneath the bustline seam and the neckline, which has been simply pinched on the right-hand side to show the exact amount of excess length. The eased fabric is not steamed flat in the muslin but will be carefully steamed and pressed to lie perfectly smooth in the fashion fabric.
Kleibacker is particularly fastidious about easing away any hint of gaping in a neckline. He recommends that this be done to improve patterns that don't include it. Here, on his 1970s designer pattern for a wrapped dress, he has added both a seam and easing to the left-hand bodice to eliminate the gaping in the unaltered right-hand neckline.
Lesson 3 - Fabrics cut on the bias either have "drag" or "lift."
Fabrics such as crêpe, jersey, and charmeuse are among the fabrics that can be said to "drag" or "drip" on the bias. Fabrics such as taffeta, chiffon, broadcloth, and organza float or "lift" on the bias. Either type can be adapted to create a beautiful garment, but drag is better suited to revealing the form underneath, and lift is better suited to conceal it.
Soft fabrics (left) and crisp fabrics (right) drape quite differently.
Lesson 4 - Ease a neckline by pinning it to a length of seam tape.
No matter how plunging the necklines on his dresses, Charles always wanted to be sure the wearer would be comfortable in the dress without the neckline gaping. The technique for easing away a gaping neckline is tedious but not especially challenging. It requires the seam allowance of the neckline to be used as a hand-overcast self-facing (so the neckline edge is a fold, not a seam) with the fabric eased into thin, stable rayon seam tape. To determine the length of the tape, pinch the excess fabric at the neckline into a small fold, measure the adjusted neckline, and then mask this measurement on the tape. Pin the tape at each end of the neckline, and ease the fabric to the tape with closely spaced pins.
Next, make a row of tiny, permanent running stitches just to the inside of the neckline fold, using a very short needle and a single strand of size-A, matching silk thread.
Carefully press from the inside of the garment to render the easing invisible.
In the Kleibacker studio, all neckline (and top back edges to many designs) were eased with seam tape to reinforce them and prevent any possibility of stretching. For the muslin, the seamline at the bust was eased differently. Here, a tiny hand-sewn running stitch was made both at the seamline and just above it in the seam allowance. These two threads were pulled to the desired measurement. The fabric was carefully pressed on the wrong side and then pinned to the corresponding seamline for slip-basting.
To Slip-Baste A Right-Side Pinned Seam
Lesson 5 - Baste some bias seams before cutting, and stretch them while machine-stitching.
After transferring the seamlines from the pattern to the layers of fabric positioned right sides together as described in lesson 1, the bias seams were always hand-basted while still flat on the cutting table and before the pieces were cut because bias edges tend to stretch once cut. Certain bias seams, typically center-front and center-back seams, edges of sashes and bands, and the narrow cording often called "spaghetti straps" were also stretched during the machine-stitching process, ensuring the seams would never break. (Bias seams joining asymmetrical pieces were usually not stretched.) To allow for this intense stretching, such seams must first be hand-basted with short, overlapping running stitches. To do this, start at the seam end with a knot, baste about 6 inches, and cut the thread. Then, without knotting the end, baste another 6 inches, overlapping the last few stitches of the preceding basting. Repeat about every 6 inches, tightly securing the basting at the very end. To make spaghetti straps, cut true bias strips 3/4 inch wide, fold them in half lengthwise, hand-baste with overlapping running stitches, and then stretch as strongly as possibly while machine-stitching along the center of the strip. Turn without trimming the seam allowances, allowing them to fill the turned tube. For maximum skinniness, stretch the straps on the ironing board, pinning the ends. Steam heavily by holding the iron closely above them, restretch, and let them dry.