For the record, I won.
But whoooa was it a battle! Comparable to Jasika vs. the Ginger Jeans! But I learned so, so much in this process, and I am incredibly happy with how it has turned out, warts and all.
I first got the idea for this coat about a year ago. Last fall I attended a red carpet event in a memade gown that I sewed from a vintage Vogue pattern (I have yet to blog this dress, but I swear I will one day!). The dress was a silver-hued chartreuse with a very simple silhouette and it’s stunning, but I didn’t have any outwerwear appropriate to wear with it. It wasn’t cold enough in LA to frantically search for something suitable to wear over the dress and I ended up being fine for the most part, but it got me thinking about how nice it would be to have a long dressy coat to wear over fancy red carpet attire. I started scouring the internet for different coat patterns and ultimately focused on vintage designs because they were simpler in style but still packed a lot of drama. I thought that a simpler design would work with a bigger variety of garments underneath.
It took me weeks to settle on the vintage vogue coat pattern that I ultimately chose, but I was immediately drawn to it. In the illustration it kind of looked like a big blanket draped over the figure wearing it, but it didn’t look baggy, and it had enough lovely design details to keep the look interesting and feminine. I loved the peter pan collar and the roominess inside the coat- it would work well with anything from bulky sweaters to dresses with shoulder pads. I loved the long length and the patch pockets (although I ended up omitting the flaps of said pockets- I wanted to stuff my hands into them easily), and the way the coat draped down the back on account of it’s center-panel. Shortly after the pattern arrived, I went to The Fabric Store and chose a beautiful thick wool coating (they have the most impressive wools at this store!) that stood out for me. It looked cozy and warm, and was made of neutral colors- black with grey and white herringbone- that would pair well with lots of looks. I also chose a shiny and silky-smooth gray charmeuse to line the coat with. My lining fabric seemed extravagant at the time, but I wanted this coat to feel as nice as I hoped it would look, and after making plenty of garments over the years with cheap polyester linings, I knew that splurging on it would make me incredibly happy when it was all over (spoiler alert: it totally does!).
Okay, so now fast forward almost a whole year, in which time my gigantic swath of fabric sat in a brown paper bag in a corner of my craft room with cedar wood blocks inside of it to keep the moths at bay. I can’t remember exactly what sparked me to pick this project up again and finally start on construction, but around a month ago I suddenly felt very inspired to get ‘her done, as Coach Taylor would say. I was probably motivated in part by the realization that we would be spending our Christmas in the northeast this year (we alternate our holidays in increments of three- one with her folks, one with mine, and one just us, usually on a fun trip). At this point, my dramatic fancy coat project morphed from something mainly aesthetically pleasing to one that was more functional and would keep me warm in a blustery city in the winter.
In my whole adulthood, I have never before had a dressy coat that was actually warm. My current outerwear wardrobe consists mostly of sporty Patagonia gear that I collected from my years fighting off chilly rain in Vancouver, a couple of leather jackets, and a nice wool JCrew coat that is only suitable for mild winters. And back when I lived in NYC in my early 20’s, I couldn’t afford a nice warm coat, so most of my years were spent in cheap wool pea coats from H&M with so many layers stacked underneath that I could barely move my arms. I’ve always thought that legitimately warm winter coats came in 2 categories: sporty parkas, or furs. Design-wise there just isn’t that much in between. Which is one of the best things about making your own clothes: filling in the gaps! But how to make a regular dress coat comparably warm without majorly changing the design elements? Queue: THINSULATE FABRIC!!!!!!!!!
Ahhh, thinsulate fabric. Surely you know of it, and I imagine that lots of you have worked with it before. I had only heard it’s name because it’s a material that companies like JCrew rely on to beef up the warmth in their wool coats, but I had never seen it in raw form before. When a big box of it arrived at my house, I was pretty shocked to find that it is strikingly similar to a diaper; it’s got a thin white layer of soft, papery thin cloth on one side with an airy cottony filling on the other. I bought the 4 oz weight of Thinsulate fabric for my coat because I didn’t want to add additional bulk to an already heavy coat, but because the product is so lightweight, it wasn’t very thin. It is very pliable and can smoosh down pretty easily, though. You use Thinsulate like an interlining, and most people simply baste it to their lining pieces and then sew their patterns accordingly, but hold up- I am getting ahead of myself.
Before I got to the lining and interlining portion of my coat, I had to construct the shell. Let me remind you that I was using a vintage Vogue pattern from 1948, probably the oldest pattern I have ever actually used before. And it really showed. The instructions were printed on one large folded piece of paper with very tiny lettering that was literally falling apart every time I touched it. I read over the instructions several times to try and get a good idea of how the coat would come together, but I kept getting stuck in the same places, and I figured that I just needed to GET to that part with the actual pieces in front of me to better understand how to proceed. Then I pulled out the pattern pieces.
OH MY GOD. Those pattern pieces.
I had never before worked with a pattern that had no actual writing on its pieces before, so I didn’t know that, before printing pattern pieces with words, the pattern companies used an elaborate hole-punch method to put all the information on the pieces. The name of the piece would be written out in a series of hole punches, for example, the word “COLLAR” was spelled in tiny formatted holes, but they also used holes on the perimeters of all the pieces to show the 5/8 seam allowance, holes to map out darts and pleats, holes to signify where certain pattern pieces needed to meet, hole-punched triangles and squares to show where button holes and waist lines were located, etc. So picture a tiny cut out collar pattern piece made of THE MOST DELICATE paper known to man, which begins to disintegrate if you so much as sneeze near it, folded up very tightly, and covered in holes that at first glance appear to be some kind of cipher. Just keeping the pattern pieces intact was a feat requiring the utmost patience (which I lost about halfway through), but luckily I am a trace-the-pieces-to-preserve-the-original-pattern kind of girl, so now I have a replica of the pattern on more solid paper, should I ever attempt to make this pattern again (YEEEAH RIGHT).
As you can see from the design, the coat is not complicated at all, and this is probably the only reason I was able to get through it, because the instructions were a bit…shall we say V(A)GUE? And on top of that, they used certain materials and techniques that are just outdated now. Not to mention that there was so much more hand sewing involved on garments made back in the day, and although I am happy to do a fair amount of hand sewing for super nice, ambitious projects like this one, I DID want it to be complete in time for me to take it with me to MD. Queue: Tailoring: Singer Sewing Reference book! I saw this book recommendation on Cashmerette’s blog a while ago and decided to get it when planning for this coat. Best decision I ever made. The book is slightly dated in it’s style and possibly some of it’s techniques (there was no mention of how to bag a lining in this book, so I had to use my dear google for that part- perhaps there is a newer version of it?), but it’s still filled with super excellent information and beautifully photographed pictures showing each step of certain procedures. I don’t think I would have been able to get through this coat without the aid of this book, and I feel indebted to it. It mainly helped me get through the bound buttonholes on the coat front (I had never made them before and they are totally easy but just have a LOT of steps!) and pad stitching the collar (which was actually not too tricky since I didn’t have a proper collar stand but I did it anyways because LEARNING!), but it also taught me lots of random tidbits of information like which kind of lining to use and the anatomy of a collar.
Once my shell was completed with beautiful bound buttonholes, I tried it on and saw that the shoulder seams were built for a line backer- they were HUGE! The pattern I used was sized a couple of inches bigger than my measurements but I had no idea it would be THIS off. Thankfully, due to the simple design of the coat, I was able to remove the sleeves, slice off a couple of inches of width at the shoulders which I carried down just a bit under the arms, and then re-attach the sleeves. I inserted some store-bought shoulder pads which gave my coat just the right amount of stability and structure at the shoulders, and then I got to work on my lining and interlining.
This part was really tricky, only because none of my sources on construction and instruction had information on using Thinsulate as an interlining, which is certainly thicker than the flannel-type material the original pattern called for. Because the Thinsulate is thick, I didn’t want it to create too much bulk at the seams, so instead of basting the lining to all the interlining pieces, I constructed the sides of the lining and interlining separately and merely overlapped the Thinsulate’s edges instead of sewing them using a seam allowance. Then I connected the sides at the back center piece with regular seam allowances. I probably didn’t explain that very well? Sorry! Photos would be helpful here but I didn’t take pictures because at this point of the coat making process I wasn’t even convinced I could successfully finish it! Anyways, the point is that I assembled my lining and interlining while trying to eliminate as much bulk at the seams as possible. Next I had to read up on how to bag a lining. The process seemed simple enough, but there were a few details that I wanted to make sure I got right, and an article I found on Thread’s website got me through it, although not without a lot of head scratching and cussing (this article, too, was extremely vague and lacking in details but was the only tutorial I could find that wasn’t connected to a specific sew-along. I wanted my information to be general so that I could easily apply it to a variety of coat designs).
The bagging part was easy, but I had a lot of trouble with the hems of my lining and interlining and had to un-bag the coat several times to trim off a bit more of the Thinsulate, which was too bulky in some places, causing the hem to sag or be uneven. It took a while, but eventually I figured it out enough to tack the bottom of my lining down onto my coat, which I am not even sure is a step that is done with most coats, but mine needed it. Sewing the lining to the sleeves was another source of frustration for me because I understood how they needed to look, I just couldn’t figure out how to get there, and the Threads article seemed intent on using as few words as possible to describe this procedure. But I eventually figure this out, too. So far the most prevalent theme in my sewing life is to cuss and yell out loud for 20 minutes and then, magically, the solution will just fall into my brain.
It was interesting to see and feel the differences in how the coat fit with and without the Thinsulate material underneath; without the interlining, the coat draped in a dramatic fall from the nape of my neck to the floor and swung around beautifully when I moved, but with it, the coat was much stiffer and had a more structured silhouette. I missed the floatiness of the un-interlined coat, but I really like the way it looks with Thinsulate too- it looks a bit more regal, and its definitely going to be warmer. But now I’ve got a seed planted in my head to make ANOTHER long wool coat, this time for California winters, which wont need to be underlined at all and can maintain that swooshiness factor that I liked so much about the un-interlined version.
After the coat was bagged and I pressed the hems a million more times to keep them crisp and even-looking, all I had left to do was slash the facings behind my bound buttonholes, sew the edges down, then choose my buttons. I had planned to buy some large buttons in black or gray at Michael Levine’s, but when I got there, the lovely person behind the counter convinced me that covered buttons were the way to go. They complimented my coat a bunch and made the case that a covered button would allow the coat to easily transition from casual to dressy. They were totally right, and I feel so thankful that they offered their expertise- I can’t even imagine what this coat would look like with a different set of buttons.
So, here we are, at the end of my blog post, which is already WAY too long. And I left out so many things! Like how I accidentally ripped a tear in almost every single original pattern piece at some point while handling it! Like how Thinsulate burns really easily and there are most definitely a few places deep inside this coat with singed holes of diaper material hidden by lining! Like how you can see some of my “invisible” hand stitching at the bottom of the coat if you look closely enough! Like how I sewed an entire pocket onto my coat inside out! But I know that stuff isn’t important- this project was ambitious because I had to do so much research on my own since the instructions weren’t mapped out and handed to me on a platter. I take for granted how simple and accommodating so many modern sewing patterns are, and it was a real eye-opener to feel forced back into a beginner-level again. But it was worth it, and I am TOTALLY PROUD OF MYSELF! I took it one step at a time, I refused to let the project defeat me, I trusted my instincts, and I came out with a coat that I am hoping will keep me toasty warm during my holiday adventures! Thanks to everyone on instagram who went on this journey with me and sent me encouraging words- I feel like we did this together! Consider yourself stylishly warmed by this coat, too 🙂