A Femme’s Guide to Improvement: Couture Hacks

by L M

One of my biggest bugbears is when things that are not couture are labeled as such. (See: Juicy, Alexis, Xtreme, Wildfox.) Yes, the word just means “sewing” or “dressmaking” in French, but it’s come to be understood as shorthand for haute couture over the years. And something is not technically haute couture unless the person who designed it is a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the clothing is made to order, the label has a workshop of at least 15 employees in Paris, and the label presents a collection to the public twice annually at the Paris shows.

So much for your lesson in rules governing super-expensive clothing that none of us will ever be able to afford. Now let’s steal some of their tricks and make our clothes a little nicer!

1. Add some strategic hooks-and-eyes
There’s a bit in one of my favorite books, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, where Sally Jay, the hapless, safety-pinned, pink-haired American-in-1958-Paris twenty-something heroine, goes for cocktails among the sophisticates at the Ritz, and describes herself thusly:

Very jeune fille I was, jewelless and all (the pearl necklace that I’d lost had been given to me, as a matter of fact, by Uncle Roger), and as full of safety pins as ever. I probably had one safety pin to every two of those gorgeous creatures’ tiny, gleaming, well-sewn, well-hidden hooks-and-eyes.

I always imagine that all the elegant hooked-and-eyed ladies look like Audrey Hepburn, also at the Ritz, in How to Steal a Million. Anyway, sewing on a hook-and-eye is neither hard nor time consuming, and isn’t just handy for finishing the tops of zippers.

My favorite way to use them is between buttons on fitted shirts, as it keeps them from gaping open. Sure, you can use disposable stays or double-sided tape, but this is a more permanent solution that costs less and, once done, is faster when you’re already 20 minutes late for work and trying to peel the backing off a tiny piece of tape. I’ve used a contrasting thread here to make it easier to see, but you’ll probably want to use a thread that matches your fabric. Sewing them on isn’t tricky: Put a couple stitches in each loop of the hook and the eye, and then sew the back of the hook down (to keep it flush against the fabric). You want the hook on the outer part of the shirt, where the buttonholes are, and the eye between the buttons.

2. Cover those hooks-and-eyes
This is an awesome finishing touch for bigger hooks-and-eyes, the type used for fastening coats, jackets, and blazers.

You can either add one yourself to an open jacket, or cover ones already on a piece of clothing. First, attach it, as instructed above. Then, using a blanket stitch, cover it in the thread of your choice! Start with a long thread — about two yards — doubled on the needle. (For the first-timers, this just means pulling the ends of the thread even once it’s on the needle, and knotting it off so you’re left with an extra-thick “thread.”) Now watch the video:

3. Chain hems
This is a trick invented by one Mme. Coco Chanel. You may have heard of her. The chain that’s now seen all over Chanel handbags is a slightly larger version of the same chain that Coco started sewing onto the hems of her jackets and skirts, and that are still found there today. Chains are what make hems on the runway drape and swing just so. (I used to think there was a secret extra-swingy walk that only couture models know how to do, but no. The clothes do it for you.) You can get a lightweight chain at a hardware store if you don’t have access to a notions (a.k.a. sewing) store that carries chains and weights. Make sure you get something that won’t tarnish too much — ask your hardware store guys — double up your thread again, and get to work.

Push the lining back, anchor the first link tightly, and then, every three or four links, stitch it in place. (Every single link wouldn’t just be overkill: It would stiffen the hem too much and make it bulky instead of swingy.) Wanna be a little different? Use a double length of ball chain, as pictured, instead of a link one. Now you fancy!

Previously: The Multi-Purpose Wooden Pallet.

Lucia Martinez reads too many old poems and tries to be a lady.