Custom Couture Dressmaking and Tailoring
Custom garments look and feel beautiful. Many people have never experienced the magic of clothing that fits perfectly: no matter your body type, a well proportioned garment designed just for you flatters like nothing else.
What makes a garment "couture"?
Couture is the French word for sewing, but it also means a little bit more. Couture means attention to detail, precision sewing techniques, and excellence in craftsmanship and artistry. My 30 years of sewing experience and my interest in developing the best possible techniques to construct and finish a garment mean the garment will be made impeccably and last for many years to come.
How does the design process work?
Every design begins with a consultation to discuss what the client is looking for in terms of garment occasion, color palette, fit requests, and design details. Some clients already have a very precise idea of what they are looking for, others like to "shop" a bit for inspiration. Once the client decides to move forward with a design, I will provide a simple sketch and begin a personalized muslin fitting before beginning work on the actual garment.
What is a personalized muslin fitting?
A muslin is a test garment created with muslin fabric (a simple woven cotton fabric) to check fit and accuracy of a garment before sewing it from the final fabric. While it adds time to the process, it also improves the final outcome of the garment without having as many fittings. This is especially important when sewing delicate fabrics, leather, or other fabrics that may show permanent marks from stitching lines or creases from seams.
Rather than create a test muslin for each garment, I prefer to do a general personalized muslin fitting to create master pattern pieces for each client before beginning the design process (known in the garment world as "slopers"). Essentially, a "blank canvas" pattern is created from a client's measurements for a perfect fit for a bodice, a sleeve, a pant, and a straight skirt. These are then sewn in muslin and fitting changes are marked on the original pattern to create a perfectly individualized master pattern. Once those master pattern pieces are created for an individual client, they can be used to create infinite custom designs. Want a new dress cut with a flared skirt and a cowl neck? Want tapered capri pants with a back seam? Want a classic Chanel style jacket? No problem - a few tweaks and a new garment is at the ready. This also greatly reduces the number of fittings needed to complete a garment for a client, since each pattern is made from a master pattern piece that we already know fits.
The personalized muslin fitting is an up front cost, but it reduces the cost for the client down the road because patterns do not have to be made from scratch each time. If your body shape changes at all, the muslin can be refit for a low fee, but otherwise it's a "one and done" part of the design process.
Can I create a pattern without the initial test muslin fitting? Yes, but it will cost on average $80 - $150 more per garment since more fitting is required, and those designs can't easily be adapted into other patterns in the future. In other words, it's easier to adapt a vanilla cake recipe into other fantastic variations, so we start with the simple recipe that works. If you're thinking about custom and think you may ever want more than one garment made, getting a total body fitting is the way to go.
Test muslin fitting prices
Bodice - $80
Sleeve - $40
Skirt - $40
Pant - $60
Total body fitting - $200
Total body refitting - $60
*Refitting prices are to create a new muslin when significant body changes occur such that the old pattern can no longer be used.
How is each piece priced after the personalized muslin fitting?
The price for each garment includes a patternmaking fee as well as the cost of construction and the fabric. There is no way to list prices for garment styles online, because there are so many factors to consider. But in short, the fewer alterations to the pattern, the lower the patternmaking fee. For example, a sheath dress pattern with a straight skirt and tailored bodice would be very similar to the original pattern, whereas adding tucks, pleats, flare, draping, ruching, and other style changes will be more involved and thus more costly.
Once the pattern is created, the construction costs depend to some extent on the fabric chosen, since some fabrics like cotton sateen and batiste are a breeze to work with, whereas velvet and chiffon require more careful handling.
Construction and tailoring fees start (for garments on the simpler end of the spectrum) at $100 for knit tops, $200 for tailored blouses and skirts, $300 for pants and dresses, $500 for jackets and evening dresses, $800 for coats, and $1200 for bridal gowns. Two garments made from the same pattern will cost less per garment since there is no additional patternmaking fee.
Fabric costs could range from $20 to several hundred dollars depending on how much is needed and what you want. I do not mark up prices on fabric: whatever it costs at the store is what you will pay me if I do your fabric shopping for you. You can bring your own fabric, or I can shop for you starting at $20. Prelaundering or steaming and pressing the fabric is included in the garment cost.
What fabrics can I choose? Can I bring my own fabric?
I offer fabric shopping as part of my custom dressmaking service. Many clients feel overwhelmed not knowing what to buy. If you have a particular fabric you want made into a garment, the fabric rather than the style can be a starting point for the design process. However, please keep in mind that the fabric must be a good fit for the design - sometimes a design idea needs to be altered a bit to be suitable for a particular fabric.
In general, I only work with natural fibers, except for specific reasons. The money saved on synthetic fabrics is simply not worth it in the end for the client, because synthetics are usually more difficult to achieve excellent results with, and they also can be problematic for wearing comfort. High quality fabrics made from natural fibers are a revelation to those who haven't yet worn them. Sadly, most wool or silk garments found in the store are lined in polyester - thus removing breathability and comfort from those beautiful natural fashion fabrics! Silk or rayon bemberg linings add a negligible cost to the garment while increasing the comfort dramatically. High quality fabrics last longer, wear better, and are easier to care for.
Can I keep my sewing patterns?
Yes. A custom design includes the patternmaking fee, and that pattern can be used to make the same garment again in other fabrics, or you can take it home and use if you wish to sew it yourself. In this case, I do charge a small marking and transcribing fee to make the pattern more user friendly for the home sewer, as I create my patterns using industry methods which have minimal markings and no instructions.
Why do custom garments cost more than ready to wear?
There are many issues here. First of all, ready to wear clothing is available at a wide range of price points. Most people understand that clothing from very inexpensive chain stores typically uses factory labor with unethical conditions, but it is a surprise to some that even more expensive clothing is often plagued with labor problems. Thankfully the fashion industry is beginning to change, but it is still currently based on a throwaway model in which factories compete for the lowest possible price quote for a company. It is not uncommon for workers to make the equivalent of wages like $0.64 per hour working in factories overseas. Even considering vast differences in economic prosperity between countries, that $0.64 per hour does not translate to a living wage for most garment workers, who can even be separated from their children in order to work long hours that still do not result in a sustainable life. For more information, check out the documentary "The True Cost," watch short narrative documentary films about garment industry workers' lives, identify ethical clothing brands to purchase from, or get even involved in activism to support garment industry change. Simply by searching for the topics online will generate a wealth of other websites and information.
It is disturbing that we have allowed this. The fashion industry can change, but it depends on so many factors. The biggest one is you: every person who puts in the effort to care where their clothes come from and educate others puts a bit more pressure on the garment industry to change. It only survives in its current model, after all, because of consumers. Luckily, caring is contagious.
How can I make more ethical decisions if I can't afford custom?
It is true that not everyone can afford higher end garments or custom apparel. I grew up wearing clothes from the second hand store, which I actually liked, and even my brother's hand my downs some of the time (ask me how I felt about wearing boys' clothing to school). Both my parents grew up with very little. My mother learned to sew as a child as part of the 4-H club in rural Michigan. Without a lot of resources, people tend to become resourceful themselves, and she made a beautiful hoop skirt dress to wear to her high school prom. I grew up with more ease than she did, but resourcefulness was still a big part of my upbringing, and I loved making my own clothes.
Thrift stores are an excellent solution to the problem for the most cost conscious consumers - you'd be surprised how many gems I've snapped up at my delightful local Unique Thrift Store one neighborhood away in the Bronx, including a sequined dress for $20, silk tops for $8, and the most gorgeous Italian designer pumps with the $368 price sticker still on the unscratched leather sole for a mere $10. Sometimes items need some alterations, but when you add in the cost of a good tailor, you are still getting a steal. Clothing swaps with friends are another way to freshen up your wardrobe - for free!
A step in the right direction is making even chain store purchases more thoughtfully. When I was younger, I used to be guilty of buying things on impulse and then donating my excess clothing every so often. Unfortunately, donating clothing isn't as nice as we think it is (again, check out The True Cost documentary to find out why). Consider clothing as an investment and buy for longevity. Only buy what you truly love. Tailor pieces so they fit you perfectly.
When we consider how much money we waste shopping for clothes that then get thrown away at the rate of 82 pounds per person in the U.S. (or sent in big bales overseas to places like Haiti where they then disrupt the local economy), investing a bit more in garments that last does not seem so frivolous anymore. Looking and feeling like a million bucks doesn't mean you have to spend a million bucks. Even average consumers can consider swapping out buying cheap fashion in quantity for custom pieces as an investment in their wardrobe that pay for themselves over time.