Haute Couture & Knitwear

posted April 8th, 2017

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All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017

HAUTE COUTURE & KNITWEAR

A prospective student called me this morning inquiring about classes. She wanted to know if I could teach her haute couture techniques on the machine.

The question threw me. I had to ask her what she meant by haute couture. I was fairly sure I knew what it meant, but I wasn’t sure what it meant with regards to knitwear. Or what it meant to her.

This??

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Yves Saint Laurent Wedding Dress 1965

My old Collins English Dictionary defines Haute Couture enigmatically as “high fashion” and then as a literal translation of the french “high dress-making”.

Wikipedia is much more expansive on the subject. Here is an excerpt that resonates with me “Haute couture is high-end fashion that is constructed by hand from start to finish, made from high quality, expensive, often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable sewers, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques.” The French have a legal definition of Haute Couture, but there is also the generally understood definition which may be closer to the Collins English Dictionary. Here, I am giving my interpretation as it relates to knitwear.

If we think of couture as being the opposite side of the coin to pret-a-porter, by definition each piece is unique, made to fit a particular person and may or may not include hand-work such as beading and embroidery, it would be hard to think of teaching those techniques in machine knitting. What would they be? There are no parameters for teaching couture. It is more of an artistic expression, like the YSL wedding dress (which, by the way is hand-knit). On the other hand, we could look at the difference between a high-end piece of quality knitwear (for example, a Chanel cardigan) and compare it to a high street garment.

Knitwear, by its nature and history is not typically considered couture. The rise of the sweater as a garment other than a work garment (think fisherman’s sweaters rich with lanolin to keep out the cold and water) came from sportswear, especially golf.  Remember that painting of the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII in his fair-isle golf vest in 1936? – that was the birth of knitwear as we know it.  Was that a couture garment? It was hand-knit on a little island off the coast of Scotland, probably using the local Shetland wool. You can still purchase similar pieces today made in the same way, using the same yarn.Prince of Wales

 

Portrait of HRH the Prince of Wales by John St. Helier Lander

It is true that Chanel and Shiaparelli introduced knitwear into their collections in the 1920’s. Were they couture? The first goods had reportedly been purchased from factories that made underwear in the British midlands. Once in France, the pieces were doctored with different trims and turned into outerwear pieces such as cardigans.
Here is a later piece that was clearly specially commissioned.

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A silk pullover made in the UK by Allen, Solly & Co in 1924 and reportedly supplied to a Paris couturier. More details and all credits here

Looking further back, before anyone would consider wearing a knitted item “out”, hand-knit hosiery was the leg covering of choice for royalty and the upper classes. The higher quality pieces were silk and very finely knit. Initially they were imported from Spain and France, but soon they were being made by man, woman and child in rural England out of wool, silk and cotton. The fashion for knitted hosiery spanned centuries and spurred the invention of the first knitting machine in the late 1500’s.

All through the 1600’s and 1700’s knitting machines, or frames, were producing hosiery in cottage industry settings alongside hand-knitters who were producing the same. You can visit a frame knitters museum in Ruddington outside Nottingham, UK and get a sense of the hard life the “stockinger’ had – working long hours for little pay.

I think you could say that the garments that were produced were fine enough to be called couture. The yarn was of superior quality, the skill needed to make them was extremely high and the goods that were produced would be “fit for a king” and definitely out of the reach of common folk. However, the fact that the labor force was being exploited by hosiers who owned the rented the frames to the knitters and set the price for the goods made, means that the situation is little different from the situation found in many factories around the world today.

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Red silk stockings with green wool embroidery 1760 – 1800. More info and all credits here

But were the machine made pieces of a poorer quality to the hand-knit pieces? That is a tricky question.

Just as today there can be exquisite machine-knits and hand-knits – there can also be poor quality, badly made machine and hand-knits. Just because it is made by hand does not mean it is better than machine-made. I have heard that so often from hand-knitters (Don’t get me started!).

The pieces made on the machine were probably finer gauge and lighter weight and more evenly knit. The hand-knit pieces were possibly coarser knit just because the time needed to make a piece by hand that has 12-20 stitches to the inch would take too long. There is skill and knowledge in both crafts.

Fast forward to 1950’s Europe. There are two main types of knitting machine now – fully fashioned flat-beds like the Bentley Cottons I mentioned in The Fashioned Back Shoulder article and more automated v-bed machines like Dubieds and Stoll. The fully fashioned machines had limited capabilities – they could knit jersey and some pointelle and they could fashion (move needles in and out of work to increase and decrease the width of the garment), but not much else. The V-beds, on the other hand, could make single jacquard (fairisle), double jacquard, links-links (knit and purl combos), pointelle, cables, tuck and miss stitches but….they couldn’t shape the pieces.

So, if you wanted to make a sweater out of a high quality yarn (cashmere, sea island cotton, merino – or botany, as it used to be called) you would make it on a fully fashioned machine. Why? Because you would probably want to keep the garment as lightweight as possible (cost) and jersey is as light as it gets, and you wouldn’t want to be cutting out and throwing away some your expensive yarn in the process of making the garment (cost!).

The v-bed machinery was used for more fashion-driven pieces and the yarns were more likely to be less expensive -  wool/synthetic, cotton/synthetic or just 100% synthetic.

So, does that mean the fully fashioned pieces were superior and the cut and sew were a lesser garment? I personally don’t think so. I think what made the fully fashioned pieces higher quality was the yarn only. If a cut and sewn piece is made well it is a perfectly fine garment, as good as any fashioned piece.  By being made well, I mean that the tension was good (not sloppy or too tight), that the fit was good and that the seams were double needle overlocked (serged) and sewn without distortion to the fabric, the neck trim was linked and of course, the yarn was of good quality.

Today, machinery has advanced to the extent that most machines can fully fashion as well as perform fancy stitches. It is very, very rare to see a commercial sweater that is cut and sewn. I think the last time I saw one was about 20 years ago in Barneys New York.  It was a Dries Van Noten Sweater and cost hundreds of dollars. No, wait – a very nattily dressed male student came to class wearing a sweater that caught my attention. It was a gorgeous sweater, clearly well made but I couldn’t believe the construction, because it was new and cut and sewn. Then he told me where he bought it. You can tell, by looking at Dehen’s website, that they have enormous pride in their work and are producing high quality garments.

Apart from the out-liers, there is still this idea that fully-fashioning is superior just because it is fully fashioned. I don’t subscribe to that. The advantage I see in fully-fashioned garments is the reduction in waste – that is definitely a good thing! But even a cut and sewn sweater (depending on the design) has minimal waste since the body panels were knit to exact width requiring a small J shape cut out of the top on each side for the armhole and scoop cut out for the neck. The sleeves would have slightly more wastage.

So what is the real difference between say, a Chanel cardigan that costs $2000+ and a cardigan from Old Navy or Target at $19.99? In techniques used and possibly machinery used – nothing. Both would be fully fashioned on power machinery and the neck trim would be linked on. The most obvious difference would be in the yarn used. There is even a big difference between high quality cashmere and cheap cashmere. Both labels say 100% cashmere but most of us have experienced the pilling on a poor quality cashmere sweater after only a few hours of wear. The other big difference is where in the world it was made, how much the labor force is paid, how much their skills and knowledge are respected and honored. Scotland, England and Italy are still the places where the best knitwear is made and this is down to 100’s of years of skill and experience and a respect for the both the workers and the finished product. I feel honored to have worked in factories in all three countries either as a student, a designer or a sample knitter and I have the highest regard for every single person who works in the shop floor whether they are standing at a steam bed, linking on a neck-trim or coaxing a recalcitrant knitting machine to produce the goods.

So, that is a long way round of saying that yes, I suppose I do teach couture methods and the common-or-garden techniques too – because they are the same

Here is a little knitting porn – The Making of a Chanel Cardigan – look at them cutting out the neck opening and placket!

 

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