I often think that soutache is my favorite trim. Except for all of my other favorite trims, that is! What I like about soutache, though, is that you get a huge visual impact with relatively little work. You apply it to a finished, or mostly finished, project, so you’re free to put the work into the project when you're past the point of worrying whether or not your bodice (or coat, or skirt, or whatever else it is!) will fit!
In the nineteenth century, soutache was made of wool or silk. Today, most soutache is rayon or polyester. I find that the rayon makes an acceptable substitute. It’s reasonably priced, comes in a wide variety of colors, and since it’s made from natural materials, it isn’t glaringly synthetic.
When choosing your soutache, it’s important to make sure that it’s flexible and turns corners easily. Most braiding designs contain lots of corners and curves, and a too-stiff braid will only be an exercise in frustration.
Soutache is generally sold in 1/8 and 1/16 inch sizes. Which size you choose depends on taste and the scale of your project. I find that the 1/8 inch soutache works well for adult sized garments. To trim a small project, such as a cap or work bag, or something for a small child, the 1/16 inch would work well.
To figure out how much soutache you need, take a string and carefully follow your design with it. Once you’re done, measure the string. Multiply this by the number of repeats you have in your pattern and add a few yards for safety. The twisty, curvy braiding designs take a lot of soutache—I used close to fifty yards on my 1860s paletot, which I trimmed along the fronts, hem, sleeve hems and collar.
Once you’ve chosen a pattern (see below for sources), you need to get it off the Internet or out of your hundred-plus-year-old magazine and onto your garment. If you’re artistic, this isn’t much of a problem—you can just copy your design onto the tissue paper or directly on the fabric. However, if you lack one ounce of drawing talent, like I do, a copy machine or printer will do just fine.
Chances are, the pattern as-is isn’t the right size for your project. Simply adjust the scale on the copier or your printer until you’re happy with it. If you’re planning on using soutache on more than one part of your project, you’ll most likely want different scales for different parts of the project. The scale that looks good on a bodice would usually look skimpy on a skirt, while the scale that would look good on a skirt most likely wouldn’t even fit on the bodice. Smaller areas, such as sleeves, can easily be overwhelmed by a design that’s too large.
Unless you’re extremely lucky, your pattern won’t exactly fit your project. Once again, if you’re artistic and can draw, this isn’t an issue; you can just adjust the pattern as you see fit. If not, here’s a way to adjust the pattern while still tracing it.
First, to figure out about how many repeats of the pattern you’ll need, measure your pattern. Let’s say it’s five inches. Place a pin in your garment along the edge where you want the soutache. Measure five inches (or whatever your measurement is!), place another pin, measure five inches, and so on until you reach the end.
When placing these pins, it’s important to make sure any edges that meet, such as the front closures of a bodice, match. Your design element should match the same design element on either side of the bodice. The design should be a mirror image of itself. (This obviously isn’t so important on a skirt.)
If you’re lucky, your repeat measurement will divide in your garment exactly. You’re probably not that lucky, though! Here’s where you have to make a choice.
Choice one—stretch all the designs
Let’s say you ended up with 10 five inch sections and one 2 inch section. Add a little from the extra section to each of the ten sections (in the example it’d be 2/10, or 1/5, an inch) so you’d have an even ten sections. Then trace a repeat in each section. You’ll need to choose an element of the design to lengthen. Usually there’s a stem or vine that lends itself easily to this.
To keep your adjustment easy and consistent among repeats, trace your design on a new piece of paper. First, mark the length of your repeat. Then, put one edge of the design at that mark. Trace it until you reach the element you want to lengthen. Move the other edge of the design to the other mark, draw in the gap left by moving it, and continue tracing. You’ll use this version to transfer the design to your garment.
Choice one and half—shrink all the designs
Do the above, only in reverse. Instead of adding to each section, take a little away from each section to add to the small section. In the above example, the small section would need just under three more inches, or about 1/3 an inch from each section.
Mark your paper for your new design, but when you’re tracing it, overlap your design instead of spreading it. I used this method on the skirt of my yellow linen 1910s dress (right).
Choice two—stretch some of the designs
This is especially good for areas such as shoulders and other awkward angles or areas that don’t show as much. Split your leftover section into however many sections you want to stretch. For example, if you had an extra two inch section and wanted to stretch the design over the shoulders, you’d divide it in two and put a one inch section over each shoulder. Then leave the rest of your sections at five inches.
When drawing your design onto your bodice or tissue paper, you then lengthen the connecting lines between the designs.
I used this method on my aqua wool 1850s bodice. I stretched the design over the shoulders, at the center back of the basque, and at the sleeve seam. I also used it on the sleeves of the yellow linen 1910s dress.
Now it’s mostly right. Why only mostly? There will most likely still be curves to deal with. The best way to work with curves is a little trial and error. Start tracing your design with the edge of it joined to the last design you drew, and shift it slightly as you’re tracing to make best fit the area you’re filling in. It’s easiest if you start on a straight edge, then work to the curves.
There are several different ways to transfer the pattern to your project. Each is useful in different situations.
When dealing with thick fabrics or a finished, lined garment, transfer your design to tissue paper, baste it to your garment and sew the soutache through the tissue. When you’re done, you can pick the bits of tissue out. Tweezers are very helpful for this!
I used this method for both my purple paletot and aqua wool 1850s bodice. For the paletot, I sewed the soutache just to the purple layer, as the interlining and lining were sewn in separately. For the 1850's bodice (shown below), I sewed it to the finished bodice.
The first step for this method is to trace your pattern in tissue. Next, pin the tissue to the finished garment to check for fit. It won’t be exact, of course, due to darts, seam allowances, and any adjustments you’ve made for fit. Trace the edges of your garment onto the tissue. Then, trace the design onto the tissue. Baste the tissue to your garment, and you’re ready to go!
Once you’re done, just pull the tissue out. This is a time consuming process that seems never ending.
In fact, even after dry cleaning my paletot, I’m still finding bits of tissue in it!
The second way is useful when using a single layer of thin fabric. You’ll be drawing directly on the fabric, so it requires a little more confidence than the tissue paper method. I used this for my yellow linen 1910s dress.
Once you’ve marked where each design goes, just put your design under your fabric and trace. I like to use pencil to transfer designs, but washable pen would work as well.
The third way is also useful for thick fabrics. Although I’ve never done this one, it is a period technique and avoids the countless hours of picking tissue out from under your soutache.
Poke holes in your design, lay your design on your fabric, and use pounce powder—available for quilters—to transfer the design. You can then connect the dots with drawing or a running stitch to mark your path. Though more prep work than the tissue method, it would be a lot less work at the end!
Once all the prep work is done, sewing the soutache is quite easy. Use matching thread and a running stitch to sew through the center of the braid, following the lines of your design.
You don’t want to use too tight a stitch since you don’t want the fabric to pucker. You want it to look like the soutache is sitting lightly on the surface of the fabric.
Don’t bother pinning the soutache to your project. That’s what the lines you’ve drawn are for. Instead, guide the soutache as you go. Holding it an inch or so ahead of where you’re sewing is plenty.
To start the soutache, use an awl to poke a hole in your fabric. (right)
Thread the soutache through a tapestry needle, put the needle through the hole and pull the soutache through (below). Secure the end with a few stitches (below right).
I like to hold the soutache along the line of the pattern and secure it there so the stitches don’t show on the outside. This can be a little awkward to do on the wrong side, but ensures no stray stitches show on the right side.
Fasten off your soutache at the end using the same method that you started it with. About an inch before you’re done sewing, cut your soutache so it’s a few inches long. Poke your hole at the end point of your sewing, and thread the soutache through. Then finish your last inch of sewing and secure it underneath. I find it’s easier to leave that extra inch as it gives a little wiggle room for when you’re pulling the soutache to the back.
The easiest way I’ve found to turn corners and keep the points sharp is to take a small backstitch right where you want to form the point. This is more secure than the running stitches and allows you to pull the soutache in a new direction without pulling it out of place on the work you’ve just done.
Many soutache designs will require two passes. You can see this on my aqua wool bodice. I chose to do the simpler design first—it was quicker to do and I wanted the satisfaction of completing it.
Since I love soutache so much, I hope that you’ve been inspired to try it yourself. Soutache does sound like a lot of work, but once you get started and used to it, it moves rather quickly. It really is a very satisfying method of trimming that makes your costumes stand out.
The ladies' hand book of fancy and ornamental work ... (1859) by Florence Hartley. Most of the designs in this book also appear in Arthur's, Peterson's and Lady's Home Magazine from the late 1850's.
Arthur's home magazine, 1863, Many examples of patterns and projects using braid and soutache.
Peterson's Magazine 1873, (right click, chose Save As and download) Has many lovely braiding patterns all through out the year.
Ladies' Cutting Made Easy, by T.H.Holding, 1885 has several pages of braiding designs for ladies' jackets. Notice the similarity of the design at the bottom of the left hand page to the soutache on this riding habit in the V&A!
(right click, chose Save As and download)
Peterson's Magazine, October 1883