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An Interview with Couture Sewing Educator Susan Khalje

Susan Khalje is a couture sewing educator based in New York. She has dedicated her life to teaching people the art of couture sewing. Apart from being a renowned author and contributor to Threads Magazine, today she runs the Susan Khalje Sewing Club, a members only Facebook group allowing community members to impart their skills and knowledge with one another. She also travels around the world teaching small group sewing workshops (one of her stops on her UK tour is a trip to Linton Tweeds) and has her very own website selling a range of goods which you can see here.

We were fortunate enough to steal time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for our readers!


Where did your passion for sewing begin?

I think my grandmother was an early inspiration – sewing was just a part of her life, and seeing her sew all sorts of things all the time probably planted some sort of seed. And my mother was always very chic – I remember her waiting to hear the news from Paris every year about where hemlines would be – seriously – it was very important to her. She was always beautifully dressed – often with a hat. And I started sewing in high school, back in the day, when sewing was taught there….and I seemed to have had a knack for it, for whatever reason.

So it went from there. And for me, I think it’s the craft of it that fascinates me as much as the fashion side of it….I love the engineering – getting that part figured out. And the fitting – that’s always a fun puzzle, too. So beyond a fabulous design, I really love those inner elements equally, I think. So yes, I’ll love a fabric and love a dress, but then to me the real fun is getting it all to work – fabric + design + fit + proportion + construction + engineering. So it’s got a pretty big scope.

Tell us more about the Susan Khalje Sewing Club?

Well, like any group, you’re with kindred spirits – and we’re all curious, and we want to see what’s out there, and we want to learn, and we want to share – so that’s probably what’s at the heart of it. Sewing is sort of a lonely business – it’s not like you’re in an orchestra with 50 other people. I used to joke, when I was doing custom couture for all those years, it was me, the dress form, and the radio, Which is true. You kind of do this alone. Which is why sharing all the aspects of it with like-minded people is so much fun. And maybe even more so, at the moment, when there’s just not much personal sewing-related interaction. And I’m not the only one offering input – we share all sorts of resources, too – videos, books, exhibitions – things I’d never have known about. So there’s that, too. And I comment on things, but so do lots of people – this is a very skilled group, but that said, it’s also a very encouraging group for newer sewers. We need them, and we try to encourage them.

As a couture sewer, where does your inspiration come from?

I guess the quick answer would be anywhere and everywhere, but in a practical sense, it’s probably a beautiful piece of fabric that really gets the juices flowing – because suddenly a world of possibilities opens up, and you start down the path of where that might lead, and one thing leads to another and you start getting very excited about things. You’re taken to new places, and that’s always wonderful. Sometimes you see a fabulous design, and you just have to have it – so that’s always fun – and the next step is finding the perfect fabric. And then sometimes, you have to come up with something specific – you need a dress for that event, or you need a new spring jacket – but I think you’re still pretty much focused on the fabric. So I

guess it’s a toss-up as to which comes first, design or fabric, but I think for so many of us, it’s beautiful fabric.

Do you have any funny or inspirational stories from your global travels teaching your sewing techniques?

Probably not funny, but inspirational from seeing how deeply my students love this craft, regardless of where in the world they are…and doing my small part to try to keep the tradition of couture sewing alive, in a world of faster ways of doing things. And seeing what a beautifully made garment does to the person wearing it – they’re transformed, they really are. I call it the power of clothes.

I always tell my students it’s not for nothing that people pay huge amounts of money for haute couture garments – they’re not idiots – it’s because you really do feel like a million bucks. And when it all comes together – the fabric, the design, the fit – well, then something in the person just lights up and they feel beautiful and confident and wonderful, and you see what a fabulous garment can do for them. It’s kind of magical.

What do you love about Linton Tweeds?

The history, of course – which is phenomenal – and the variety. I am absolutely stunned at what you all come up with. I always think if someone said, here, Susan, here’s a piece of paper. Now design a beautiful fabric. Good grief – I wouldn’t know where to begin in a million years. So that someone can do that, so beautifully, so well, so thoroughly, for so long, well, that’s just amazing. And I’m lucky enough to have been in the archives at Linton – again, that level of creativity and skill over so many decades is pretty unique. It’s staggering, really.

And then, if you were lucky enough to go through the factory, you’d see all the steps involved – the washing, the dying, preparing the looms, the weaving, quality control, and so on. So it’s kind of back to what I mentioned above – okay, you want to produce this beautiful fabric you’ve designed – but you have to do it perfectly, from a technical standpoint because, if you don’t, what’s the point? So that’s something I relate to: the artistic vision, but backed up with all of the engineering, literally, that it takes to get you there. It can’t be easy, but man, you do it. And you do it so incredibly beautifully.

What can clients and customers expect when they sign up to one of your sewing courses or your club?

Well, for classes, it’s a wonderfully in-depth session of couture sewing. In the couture classes, you can work on whatever you like. So – some recent projects were a beautiful tapestry redingote (a sort of a cut-away coat); an 18th century-inspired tunic (loaded with tiny vintage buttons and a vintage Chanel trim) with a matching full-sleeved light-cotton blouse with a high neck and a long tie; a fabulous silk brocade evening dress with a Watteau back; but there’s also simpler stuff, too – a beautiful wool crèpe dress, the perfect black tweed skirt, a fun Liberty linen summer dress. And while you learn from your own project, you get a bird’s-eye view of all the other projects, too, so that expands the scope of it all. And as with any couture project, we always start with a toile (the garment made up in inexpensive muslin) that the students prepare ahead of class (to save time), and the first day is devoted to fitting all of them. And that’s something that you just can’t do yourself, so being able to come to someone who can fit you is pretty rare and pretty special, I think. And the fitting thing is tricky – lots of people can fit, but I think there has to be an aesthetic element in there, too – getting the proportions just right, having ideas about the garment, maybe making a few suggestions or changes….I think that has to enter the equation, too. And students love watching the fittings – it’s pretty educational, so that’s nice – it’s not something you normally get to do.

And then there’s the Classic French Jacket class – which is where those amazing Linton tweeds come in. You need something with loft, as the fabric is quilted to the lining and those stitches have to be buried – so I think of it as a whole little subset of couture techniques – because there are things with that particular construction process that you just don’t do in other garments. We’re making a cardigan, really, an haute couture cardigan, so it’s all rather different than a lot of other sewing. But then you get something just amazing…..it’s its own little universe. And as before, they have to be fitted just right, and the sleeves have to be hung – and those are both pretty hard to do on your own, so having me do that is nice.

And the club? You’re with a lovely group of like-minded kind, encouraging sewing friends. Encouragement of the best kind! It’s the closest thing to being in a class.

What sets Susan Khalje apart from other sewing clubs?

I’m not very familiar with what else is out there, but I do think mine is unique is that our focus really is couture – which is my world – so there’s that direct link – I’m on the club every day, I answer (along with others) all the questions, I give my feedback (again, along with others) on everything – so it’s a pretty nice experience, I think. People do seem to love it, which is amazing and wonderful and encouraging.

Where do you get your beautiful trims, braids and chains?

Well, I try to have lots of options on hand – they’re not so easy to find, and I’ll probably think of combinations and placements that my students might not consider. Someone will come with pink fabric, then think they have to have pink trim and pink buttons. I always tell them, well, that’s probably the last thing you want. It’ll all disappear. And that’s probably not where you want to go. So let’s broaden the possibilities a bit. And it’s fun being able to open that up to someone – to widen their vision a bit. So, the trims are, for the most part, vintage Chanel, and I get them from a private dealer in France, whose father worked for Chanel.

But that’s not the only resource – sometimes we cook them up – they can be crocheted, braided, taken from the selvedge, combined – but lots of the time we do try to find a vintage Chanel trim that works. I shipped two big boxes of them home from Paris the last time I was there, so I’ve got a pretty good supply at the moment. The chains come from someone in New York, who sadly, has just gone out of business , but we bought all that we could from him before he closed. And I always bring the proper hooks and eyes to class, too – they’re a little different, as regular hooks and eyes would snag the fabrics. And I try to have sets of buttons on hand – they’re a special component, too. A box of them just arrived from a source in Australia – I’ll have those for an upcoming jacket class. I have 8 sets, and 9 students. Hmmmm….that might get tricky!!!

What can we look forward to from you in the future?

Oh, goodness – well, more classes, continuing on with the club, more videos, things with Threads Magazine (I’m a Contributing Editor), more patterns, and hopefully back to the UK and Paris in the late spring with groups……so more of the same, really.

We’re about to film the funnel neck coat video, and we’ve got a pair of evening coats for a future pattern in the works, inspired by vintage designs – they’re just stunning. And I’ve always felt that I have one more book to write, so I’m going to see if I can get that off the ground at some point…..so I’ll just keep doing what I do.

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If you are a keen sewer, looking to improve your skills and chat with like minded individuals, we strongly recommend taking a look at her website or joining her Facebook group.