Monday, December 30, 2019

A Dangerous Coat

I used to think the 1910s and 1920s had the worst fashions, but the VPLL 1912 Project, Downton Abbey, the new Great Gatsby movie, the Fantastic Beasts movie, and Phryne Fisher have all conspired to totally change my mind about that. I now love love love these eras, so much so that when at a loss for what to do for my Cañada College fashion department classes, I've just sort of defaulted to the 1920s. I drew drop-waisted dresses for my fashion illustration classes, made a summery cloche for my millinery class, and for this past semester I've worked on making a 1920s-ish coat for my tailoring class.

This tweed+fur coat of Phryne's was my inspiration.

When McCall's started releasing updated vintage patterns as part of their Archive Collection, I immediately snatched up a copy of M7259, a (sadly now out of print) caped coat pattern, and filed it away for "someday when I have a good reason/the time and skills." Since I can only take classes at night, and tailoring was the only class I hadn't taken yet for this past fall's evening classes, that gave me the reason, and presumably I would learn the skills and make the time. Admittedly, it's not a very difficult coat to make (it's even rated as "easy" on the pattern); a shapeless boxy coat doesn't require a lot of fitting, there's no notched collar or vents anywhere, and not even a welt pocket! But I knew I would have a busy semester already, what with parenting in general, Halloween and cons, and costuming. Did I feel a little embarrassed about the simplicity (even though it's a McCall's pattern...haha sorrynotsorry) of my pattern choice when I saw my classmates making five or more muslins, making all sorts of alterations, drafting new collars and sleeves, and putting in eight welt pockets? Maybe a little. Was I grateful I kept it uncomplicated when, after finishing up the drama production I had a little over a week to put together all my coat pieces and do all the fussy hand-stitching? You bet! Besides, I know I would never wear a blazer, and I already have two perfectly serviceable RTW coats that I love, so I might as well get going on my dream of having a Phryne-esque wardrobe.

The pattern: I was definitely swayed by the brilliant red sample. 

My little compilation of scraps to give me
an idea of how things might look together.
First step was selecting fabric: I knew I only had a couple of pieces of yardage with the right length, drape, and fiber content (our professor preferred natural materials, especially wool because of its "pressability"), so it was basically between a dark green wool blend suiting material or a gray wool tweed suiting with little colored specks in it. We decided that the gray tweed would hide more sins, what with this being my first serious coat, and I did have a little more of it so as to allow me to make the cape as well.

Next step was to do a pinned-together paper mock-up, which to me seemed a little pointless, but I can see how it would be a cheaper, faster way to get a sense of major size or fit issues without the effort of making a real muslin. As it was, I only had a very minor swayback adjustment to make, but then I do realize that I am extremely fortunate that I usually fit Big-4 patterns with very few adjustments (usually only swayback, narrow back, and small bust adjustments). Then we made actual fabric mock-ups with cotton muslin, and again, not much to report here, other than that I decided to shorten the cape significantly so as to keep it from being visually overwhelming.

Without and with the cape, with dark threads marking the grainline on the sleeves and the center front line. 

I sewed my mock-up with the side seam pockets that the pattern called for, but decided later that I didn't like them; they made things hang weirdly, I didn't like the bulk of the pocket bag, and they were too far back to feel natural when I put my hands in them. I decided that I needed to make pockets on the front of the coat, but at that point I had a minor crisis about what kind of pockets to make, and proceeded to flood my IG with way too many stories debating various pocket types and placements and their historical accuracy vs. general aesthetic vs. ease of use. Since I was also in the thick of drama costuming, the pocket issue gave me an excuse to not work on my coat for a month. I did assemble the cape (but not hem it), but three weeks before the coat due date, and I had really only a bunch of fashion fabric pieces (that I had at least interfaced with soft fusible knit interfacing; since my fabric was so thin and loosely woven, it really needed some extra support) and lining pieces.

This was what I was primarily deciding between: a shield-shaped patch pocket, or a swoopy-looking patch pocket that would be sewn into the side seam. Although the swoop won by a small margin on IG, I realized that I really preferred the look (and historical accuracy) of the shield and went with that option. If you want to see all my ridiculous wibbling about the pockets (and other construction bits), you can check out my 1920s coat highlights on my IG here.

The antepenultimate week (and also the week leading up to the show, so lots of last minute decisions, fittings, and runs to various stores for accessories and such), I sewed together the facing, lining, and lining patch pockets. The lining patch pockets were hand-stitched so that I wouldn't have topstitching thread showing, per this extant 1920s coat (I did briefly consider smocking the tops of my pockets, but then dismissed that idea as that of a person with more time than I had), which looked lovely but took a long time.

Here's what the facing + lining looked like hanging on Cecily. You can also see the only dart in the entire thing where the shawl collar is. Ignore the stack of toddler clothes storage boxes in the background...

The penultimate week (and also the week after the show, i.e. all the tasks of costume striking to be completed by me, the one-person costume shop), I sewed together the fashion fabric fronts and back, and sewed the sleeves (but didn't set them in) and brought them in to class to have them hung by my professor (I put on the coat and she pinned them in place in the position that caused the least drag lines. Since many of us work on computers, we have forward sloping shoulders and lining up the shoulder seam notch and underarm/side seams may not actually be the best position for a lot of people; my sleeves needed to be rotated forward about 3/8"). I basted the sleeves in by hand in class, then brought them home to set in by machine. I also had decided on shield-shaped patch pockets as being the best compromise between historical accuracy (while there are some examples of welt pockets on coats of the era, the vast majority of them had large patch pockets...or no pockets at all, but that was a non-option for me), general aesthetic (a heckin' large square, while historical accurate, looked a little too boring to me, so I went with a slightly more interesting shield shape), and ease of use (I placed them low enough that it wouldn't be awkward to put my hands in them, even if the perfectly vertical placement is a little less ergonomic than a slanted one). Like the lining, these patch pockets were hand-stitched invisibly, and thanks to the busyness of the fabric, they don't break up the lines of the front as much as I was afraid they might.

That last week, I set the sleeves in, put in all the tailor-y bits (homemade shoulder pads, sleeve heads) attached the outer shell to the facing/lining, and then went about the tedious business of evening out my hems and catch-stitching everything down. For the hem of the cape, I catch-stitched the fashion fabric and the lining separately, then used French tacks to secure the two together at the side seams and center back. I had previously attempted to attach the lining entirely, but couldn't get it to sit right with a jump hem on the bias portions, so I opted to let it hang separately.

You can see the shape of the cape here, as well as the snaps that hold it onto the coat. 

For the coat, it took a couple of tries (and lots of staring at the coat on Cecily as a pinned, glared critically, repinned, glared again, etc.) before I got everything to hang right without pulling, but eventually I got it all sewn down (again, by hand) with a jump hem and everything! Oh, and I also tacked the lining to the coat at the neck seam allowance and the side seams so that the lining wouldn't billow out separately from the outer shell of the coat. I finished all the hemming with two days to spare, but the next day was full of frustration as I attempted to sew in the fabric-covered snaps and large button in exactly the right places and without any weird pulling anywhere. The morning the coat was due, I plopped SHB#2 in front of Sesame Street so that I could sew on all the snaps that attached the cape to the coat, and then I was finally done!

Without the cape, with nicely-blending-in pockets. 

Hello, 1920s-esque ulster coat!

Pattern: McCall's 7259, part of the archive pattern collection, circa 1927
Fabric: A little over 3.5 yards of a 60" wide, dark gray, tweed wool suiting with little flecks of ivory, burgundy, black, cornflower blue, and mauve; I originally purchased this from an antique furniture store in Berkeley seven years ago when I found a tiny little shelf in the back of the store that had some random yardage. The lady said she had got it for herself to make something fabulous, but had come to realize she likely never would, and she just wanted it to go to a good home. I paid all of $30 for it, which I now realize was an absolute steal for fabric of this quality. The 2ish yards of 55" wide lining fabric was mostly this dark burgundy floral damask polyester satin, which is on the thick side for a lining, but that just makes it feel extra luxurious. This was from my best friend Elaine's partner's stash, that they passed on to me when they moved (out of Arizona, ultimately back to the Bay Area!), so when I look at the lining I'm reminded of their generosity. It wasn't quite large enough for me to be able to cut all the lining pieces, even with the shortened cape, so I supplemented with some black Bemberg rayon for the sleeves since they wouldn't be seen.
Notions: 3 yards of 20" wide fusi-knit interfacing, which I used on every pattern piece except for the lining pieces and the back piece. I didn't have enough to do the large back piece (and actually had to piece together bits for the side edges of the front, and didn't want to wait to order more, so I just used black silk organza to underline the back piece. The organza was a fortuitous find from the free shelf in the back of the sewing classroom, and I still have yards left! I also purchased six 3/8" metal snaps for the cape attachment, a 1.5" covered button kit for the coat closure, and used a set of 1" metal snaps (covered with fashion fabric) from my stash for the inner closure. The facings on both the cape and coat are piped with black silk dupioni left over from my bustier project, and the hem of the cape lining is finished with burgundy-colored lace hem tape from an inherited stash.

I love that the inside is so secretly beautiful, even if nobody will ever see it!

Will you make it again? Unlikely, since I don't really need another coat like this. I do want to make another Phryne-inspired 1920s coat though, maybe a lighter duster in linen?
Total cost: $30 for the wool, lining was free, about $15 for the interfacing, and $5 worth of snaps/buttons = about $50! Of course, throw in the cost of the class tuition + toll + parking...and all the hours spent...
First worn: Just in class to show off and for pictures, but I'd like to wear it to go see the Phryne Fisher movie when it comes out next year!
Final thoughts: I'm really glad that I was able to make this coat almost primarily from stash/secondhand fabric, thereby keeping to my unofficial pledge to not purchase new in order to stay as green as possible in all my sewing endeavors. Things like interfacing or the exact size of snap are hard to come by secondhand, so I'm making an allowance for those things, though. I'm in love with the (detachable!) drama that the cape provides, and the instant Sherlock-y vibes of a caped coat. I have a little bit of wool leftover; maybe I should make another deerstalker? Actually, I would rather try to make it into a 1920s hat to match, so maybe if I find a suitable pattern one day. Without the cape, the coat is a little boring, but that's fine, because I decided to splurge a little and buy myself a fabulously fluffy, white faux-fur collar from Amazon that I can throw over the shawl collar of this coat to up the Phryne-ness of it!

This was taken by the fashion department's blogger. 

I'm really pleased with the whole tailoring class experience: I got a lovely coat out of it (even if I later realized that I had made myself yet another grey wool coat (aforementioned RTW coats in my wardrobe are also grey wool, so I guess I have a definite coat type...), and while mine didn't have more technically challenging bits like bound buttonholes, welt pockets, or a notched collar, at least I got to practice those skills when I made my samples, and best of all, I got a scheduled sewing time every week (and I even got to throw in the bonus of regular conversation with another adult, since my costuming friend @simply_mi was also in the class!). Even though the lead up to class is always stressful (get dinner ready! make sure the house is somewhat in order! spend some time with SHB#1 when he comes home from school! make sure my bags are all packed with all the sewing things I need!), in the end it's really nice to know that I'm guaranteed at least three hours every week to do something just for me.

Sometimes I feel guilty for taking so much time for myself every week -- it's not just the sewing class itself, but the commute there and back, the time it takes me to do my assignments for the class, and the time it takes to go out and acquire the materials I need to do my assignments -- but just recently I fell down the rabbit hole of Bernadette Banner's historical sewing videos, and she mentioned Cathy Hay's Worth peacock gown reconstruction project, which then led me to this very helpful video where she talks about how not to feel guilty about sewing when you have a family. She quotes Iyanla Vanzant: "My cup runneth over: what runneth over is for you, but what's in the cup is for me." At first, it seemed like just another variant of the "put on your own oxygen mask first" mantra that I blogged about before, but upon further rumination I realized the problem with that: oxygen masks are vital to life, so it makes sense to take care of your own basic needs first. But sewing costumes, or just giving in to my drive to make things: that's not *really* a basic need, is it?

I don't know if it's the child-of-immigrants, sacrifice-everything-for-your-family, just-work-harder rhetoric that was drummed into my head growing up, or leftovers of my childhood church's very conservative, Puritan-esque suspicion of anything that seems like too much fun, but it's very, very difficult to let go of the feeling of guilt that I should be spending all my free time doing something less frivolous. Like I said, I already have two fine coats, and there's always something more productive I could be doing with my time: research on developing children's emotional intelligence, integrating NGSS into my science teaching, or figuring out how to reduce waste in our family. I go ahead and pursue my hobbies anyway, because I'm a selfish Slytherin like that, it's just that I carry along a lot of guilt with it that prevents me from fully enjoying it. I'm not sure where to draw the line, since I know it's obviously not an either/or issue. Taking time for myself is healthy, but parenthood does inherently involve some sacrifice, and there must be a balance somewhere...and what if I just have a really, really big cup and "need" lots of replenishing time before I give the runoff to anyone else? See how I'm hesitant to even call time to create a need, I mean it's not one of those things that form the foundation of Maslow's bogus hierarchy of needs now, is it? If any other sewing moms out there have any brilliant insights, I would appreciate them!

Anyway, all this to say, it's so hard to know how to break out of societal constraints and expectations for women and undo the years of programming. A man cave is, if not expected, definitely not frowned upon for a stereotypically male breadwinner to be able to relax, get away from responsibilities, and putter around. How that translates in my mind for a non-breadwinner is trickier until I remember that I'm trying not to devalue traditional "women's work" like childcare and sewing, and I want to set an example for my kids of self-care and not self-martyrdom. So I suppose it's kind of perfect that my coat has four nice large pockets, perfect for carrying leaflets to spread sedition? Or, you know, fairness, kindness, and equality. Ladies, I guess I did take the advice of Irish poet Sharon Owens, and sewed myself a dangerous coat made of pockets and sedition (go read her fabulous poem if you aren't already familiar with it).

Pockets! (Photo courtesy of my professor, Ronda Chaney.)

[Apologies for the mostly terrible photos in this post. Most of the construction photos were taken at night, since that's when I sew, and I kept thinking I would take better finished garment photos in an atmospheric location, but let's be honest, that's probably not happening anytime soon and I'd rather get this blogged before I forget all about how I made it! Also, more about my lab garment, a 1920s-ish evening gown, in the next blog post!]


  1. I love it and I love that you are taking the time to yourself to make it! I think a lot of mothers can end up subsuming themselves in their children, and I don’t think that’s healthy. Sure, their needs are pretty intensive as babies, but after that, I think they benefit from knowing that you’re an individual with your own wants and passions (and those passions deserve time!) .... we’ll see how I do with that when I’m back at work next fall. ��

    1. I think I fell into the trap of "oh, this is just a season," but even so, martyrdom isn't sustainable even for a season. I do agree that it's good for them to learn they're not the center of the universe!

  2. And my teenagers agree with me, so I’m pretty sure my “selfishness” didn’t hurt them!

  3. That class sounds fabulous, and I don't think it's bad at all that you're doing something purely to fill yourself up. As a mom and a teacher, you're constantly pouring your energy into others, so naturally, it needs to be refilled. I'm definitely preaching to the choir here, as an oboeist friend is constantly reminding me that I don't need to feel guilty about taking a night out for myself, every time I get panicked "the baby won't eat or sleep" texts from my husband while I'm at orchestra rehearsals. (2 more months until we can start solids, sigh...)

    Also, the coat is amazing. I also have a much stronger appreciation for 1920s fashion after Downton Abbey and Fantastic Beasts. But when I think of wearing those styles myself, I always think of the scene from Thoroughly Modern Millie where everything she's using to flatten her curves pops and messes up the drape of her beaded necklace. 😂

    1. Hmm, I don't know that movie, I'll have to try to look up a clip on YouTube or something! And selfishly, I think I liked it more when I realized that 1920s is the one era where being small-busted actually works in my favor.

      See it's funny, when I read your comment I think no, you should definitely be making the most of your orchestra nights! It's so easy to give good advice to your friends, while making an exception for oneself when it comes to making time. And oh man I do not remember those panicked texts fondly! Hang in there too!

    2. Warning: TMM is full of dated racist stuff, but since it's a pastiche on the era, I guess it is ....acceptable dated racist stuff? I dunno. I loved it when it came out and didn't think about such things. And the bits about keeping a flat chest to create a suitable necklace effect will never go bad.
      Now that my kids are Really Out of the House (and one only responds in one word texts), I am grateful I kept friends and activities that did not include them. Granted, it was a challenge but it Really Was Worth It. Sanity is priceless.
      And I love this coat.

  4. Joy is where you can get it! It turned out perfectly!

  5. Love! Maybe one day I'll see you in the Advanced Tailoring class! (Although my small human is still way too small for me to go back to any classes yet...)

    1. Oh yes, that would be so much fun! And knowing how the scheduling of the advanced classes goes, we've got time for your small human to grow up a little more before that class is offered at night again. Here's to hoping!

  6. Love everything about this post. Well done on all fronts. Great coat and great musings. It can be hard to carve out some time. I made sure there was both a "woman cave" and a "man cave" in our house... naturally his is twice the size, but anyway. It's a start.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you have caves for both of you. My cave is actually way more longstanding than my husband's, since he only recently developed hobbies that require a dedicated space, but I just didn't give myself the time to use it...


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