by Elena Tran
September 23, 2020
How closely do you look at the seam finishes, top stitching and the inside of all the garment pieces you created? In the world of bespoke couture, the inside fabrics and finishes are as important as what you see on the outside.
A great story my husband told be comes to mind. He was painting a bathroom for one of his clients, the very demanding and formidable Mrs. O. After he was done, Mrs. O came in to inspect her new and improved bathroom. She was very particular about her expectations, so to check the quality of his work she bent down to check if the toe kick on her cabinet was not overlooked. In the process, she noticed that not only the toe kick was painted, but behind the cabinet was painted as well. Mrs. O looked at him and said: “Anyone who is so meticulous to even paint the places that would not be seen is a master of his trade.”
The same goes for any art or craft. The hallmark of bespoke sewing is excellent fit and finish. Inside construction details, like correct underlining, lining and interfacing, are all parts of that. If you are just starting in sewing, you may overlook these important details or think that since no one can see them, they don’t matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. They play a crucial role in the look and feel of the finished garment. Let me explain the differences between these materials, their uses and little tips from the haute couture masters of the past that can teach even old dogs like me new tricks.
Facings are used to finish garment’s raw edges, such as neck, sleeve and pocket edges, and even jacket hemline. Facings can be cut as extensions of the garment or as separate pieces. Dior ateliers frequently created self-facings by extending the edge of the pattern piece and then folding it back which eliminated a bulky seam and created a soft and gentle roll. (Palmer) If the facings are cut separately, they either duplicate the garment edges or cut as bias strips and molded to the shape of the edge.
An important consideration when you see facings in your pattern pieces is the weight of your chosen fabric to make sure there are no bulky seams. When I started sewing vintage clothes, I got a cute Givenchy dress pattern which I planned to make from medium weight linen. The pattern had very complicated facings, as is typical of earlier Givenchy designs. I soon discovered that it added too much bulk to the neckline even after pressing. I had to scrap my unfinished dress and get a lightweight silk fabric instead.
The fabrics used for facings are typically self or contrasting fabric. Just make sure that the care instructions match. As I was working on this article, I discovered a great idea to use a lightweight lining fabric as facing which was Chanel’s favorite technique. (Shaeffer, Couture Sewing Techniques)
Interfacing is basically additional fabric used for support in between a facing and a garment to prevent stretching in necklines, buttonholes, waistbands, and pocket edging and to control the shape of the collars, cuffs, waistbands, lapels, plackets, sleeve caps so they don’t collapse during wear. (Nudelman) Have you ever made a shirt that looked great before the first wash and got a misshaped collar stand and a curled or wrinkled collar after? This is because you didn’t select the correct interfacing to support the fabric. I usually get the samples of the face fabric and different interfacings I have in my collection and I feel them with my hands to compare them for thickness.
Keep in mind that the interfacing fabric can be crisper than the fashion fabric you chose, but it can never be heavier than your fashion fabric. (Khalje)
Another important trick of the trade is to use different interfacing for different parts of the garment. For example, the interfacing for a shirt collar stand or a sleeve cap of a tailored suit is usually crisper than interfacing for a pocket. I use muslin, cotton batiste, handkerchief linen and lightweight, medium weight and heavy weight hair canvas as interfacing.
Chanel was very creative in using lining fabrics for interfacing. (Shaeffer, Couture Sewing Techniques) You can also use silk organza, silk habotai, organdy, cotton flannel, lamb’s wool, net, tulle, crinoline, Egyptian cotton, faille, silk taffeta, charmeuse, chiffon, and even self-fabric. There are many choices here. It is important to make sure that the care instructions of all fabrics match. With practice, you will know right away which interfacing to use for your project. A word of advice: keep all the bigger scraps of interfacing to use in your next projects.
The interfacing is usually cut on a bias, especially for a collar, a bodice front or a cuff to avoid it being stiff. But you can cut interfacing on lengthwise or crosswise grain if you don’t have enough fabric.
Underlining, also called backing or mounting, is used to reinforce very fine delicate fabrics, such as lace, chiffon, organza, raw silk. It also makes sense to support loosely woven tweeds so these fabrics don’t lose their shape after construction.
The difference between interfacing and underlining is that interfacing is attached to just a part of the garment, like a collar, a pocket or just the facing part of the bodice, with seam allowances of the interfacing usually trimmed off. Underlining is attached to all pattern pieces. Each underlining piece is cut as a copy of the main pattern piece. They are attached to each other and treated as one thereafter with seam allowances finished together by overcasting.
You often see the underlining instructions on designer patterns from the 50s and 60s. For example, Givenchy liked to underline all pattern pieces on his dresses and blouses not only for fabric support reasons but also to provide a layer to which the complicated facings can be inconspicuously attached.
Another strong reason to use underlining is in bridal couture. For example, before you apply lace or beading to silk, it should be strengthened with underlining fabric to withstand all that additional weight.
Fabrics often used for underlining are silk organza, handkerchief linen, muslin, flannel, cotton batiste, or even self-fabric.
It is typical to have all pattern pieces underlined but it is fine to use different underlining for different pattern pieces. For example, on wedding dresses, you may want to choose a slightly firmer (not thicker!) underlining fabric for the bodice to support the beading work, the weight of the skirt and the sleeves and to cover the boning. (Khalje)
As if it wasn’t confusing enough, interlining is another layer which is also sandwiched between the lining and the fashion fabric but it is mostly used to add warmth to the garment without adding too much bulk. (Nudelman) Horsehair canvas, domette or flannel fabrics can be used for interlining the chest panels and backs of tailored jackets and coats. Interlining can be attached by hand or machine-quilted right over the interfacing.
Lining is the material you are most familiar with. After you finish the jacket of a skirt, you usually (not always) attach a lining and it is that final couture finish to cover up all the ‘guts’ of the garment that you don’t want to see, like unfinished seams, any clips or darts, and pieces of interfacing and/or underlining. Think of lining as another luxury detail which feels fantastic next to your skin when you wear it and makes your garment last longer.
Christian Dior never used cheap fabrics as linings and he wrote in his memoires that “everything that does not show or shows very little should be made of just as good - if not better - materials than what is apparent”. Linings were a Dior signature. His designs frequently included transparent linings so you could see the skilled workmanship of finished seams and the excellent pressing of the darts. (Palmer)
Another great master couturier, Cristobal Balenciaga, liked to use luxurious linings in his designs as well. (Miller) He was a perfectionist and a master craftsman who paid very close attention to details like that.
The fabrics used for lining are silk organza, silk habotai, silk charmeuse, polyester, light weight cotton, acetate, rayon, and crepe. The lining fabric can match the fashion fabric or not if you want to achieve a special effect. Whatever fabric you use, it is important to match the care instructions of the lining fabric and the rest of the garment. In the haute couture world, the lining is skillfully attached by hand, but in ready-to-wear it is machine stitched to cut on labour costs.
What you may not know is that the lining fabric can also be used as a trim on couture cuffs and collars for a special effect. Chanel designs often had such interesting trims. (Shaeffer, Couture Sewing: Making Designer Trims)
The great Mademoiselle Chanel liked to line the jackets and skirts with the same beautiful and expensive fabrics as the blouses that were worn with them. It’s quite an haute couture touch, don’t you think?
You can see now how all of the layers I explained have their roles to play in the final look of the bespoke clothing. Use only what you need to achieve the perfect fit and look, but make sure to choose the best materials, match their thickness and pay attention to care instructions.
Clive Hallett, Amanda Johnston. Fabric for Fashion: The Complete Guide. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2014.
Khalje, Susan. Bridal Couture: Fine Techniques for Wedding Gowns and Evening Wear. Iola: Krause Publications, 1997.
Miller, Lesley Ellis. Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. London: V & A Publishing, 2017.
Nudelman, Zoya. The Art of Couture Sewing. New York: Fairchild Books, 2016.
Palmer, Alexandra. Christian Dior: History & Modernity | 1947-1957. 45-46. Royal Ontario Museum and Hirmer Publishers, 2018.
Shaeffer, Claire B. Couture Sewing Techniques. Newtown: The Taunton Press, 2011.
—. Couture Sewing: Making Designer Trims. Newtown: The Taunton Press, 2016.
—. Couture Sewing: Tailoring Techniques. Newtown: The Taunton Press, 2013.
Amy De La Haye, Shelley Tobin. Chanel: The Couturiere At Work. New York: The Overlook Press, 1996