Claire Shaeffer and her husband Charlie are collectors. When you enter their spacious Palm Springs home, their many passions are everywhere on display. The walls are filled bits and pieces they have collected through the years. When you look more closely, Claire’s love of sewing comes into view, with displays of thimbles and historic sewing implements. The cupboards are packed with books on fashion history, art history, and sewing techniques.
I spent a morning in August talking with Claire in Palm Springs, the high point of a trip to visit family members in the area. It was fascinating to learn what made her into the renowned expert on couture sewing techniques that she is today. As a young wife with two associate degrees in industrial sewing and fashion design, she set up high school sewing programs in Virginia while her husband worked as a navy cardiologist. When the family moved to Palm Springs in 1974, she took a part time job at the local community college. Over the course of 22 years, she ended up teaching every class offered. In 2000, she began offering her intensive Sewfari workshops near her home, focusing primarily on couture techniques.
Claire is not only a hands on teacher, she also instructs through her many books and DVDs. She started writing in the late 1970s when recovering from a severe car accident. Her first trade book was a collection of industry techniques adapted for home sewers, which stayed in print for thirty years. She continued writing for the home sewing market, including two volumes on pockets (favorites of mine). Then she branched out to reach college level sewing programs. Sewing for the Apparel Industry, which offers detailed instructions on how to sew for different clothing price points, is now in its second edition.
Best known as an expert on couture sewing, Claire has received both a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals and a Hall of Fame Award from the American Sewing Guild. Ever the teacher, she shares her knowledge through workshops, books, and articles in magazines like Threads. Claire also teaches through her patterns. In 2001, she began working with Vogue Patterns. These days she puts out two patterns a year for the company. She writes the instructions herself, with detailed advice on couture construction. I know people who buy her patterns for the instructions alone. A recent Chanel inspired cardigan jacket pattern, Vogue 8804, has 94 construction steps.
Claire’s passion for collecting has enriched her knowledge of couture techniques. She buys vintage clothes to wear, but also as a way to learn how these beautiful clothes are made. On my visit, she showed me a small sample of the over 2000 vintage garments she has assembled. Most of them are carefully documented. One day she plans to give her collection to a college with a strong fashion program. You can see many of her finds, especially her large collection of Chanel suits, in her books and DVDs. Her most recent publication is a DVD on Chanel style trims, published by Taunton.
Over the years, Claire has developed good relations with museums and couture workshops. She approaches couture clothing as a historian, carefully documenting construction details. If you have ever taken a class from her, you know that one of her favorite tools is a magnifying glass. Her latest magnifier attaches to the computer and magnifies up to 100 times. This allows her to look at the individual fibers in the yarns.
These days Claire spends her time writing, speaking to professional groups, teaching workshops, and traveling. What does she wear in her busy life? Although she claims to have shorts, t-shirts, and yoga pants in her closets, I have never seen them. When she met with me, and when she teaches, she relies on black. It doesn’t distract listeners, she says, and makes a good backdrop when she tries on clothes from her collection.
Claire says that she might stop teaching sewing workshops in the next few years. But even if she does, you can always become a Shaeffer student by picking up her patterns, DVDs, and books.