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Do NOT Fear the Coat

For a lot of home sewers, making a coat takes on this aspect of climbing Mt. Everest: Too big, too hard, can’t possibly do this. Fear of ‘the coat’ is a very big deal.

Part of it is the price of the materials. I won’t be delusional about it. Good coating costs real money – and it’s not something you can find at your local ‘national craft store masquerading as a fabric store’ chain place. A lot of people who sew love beautiful fabric but don’t want to cut into it for fear of making a mistake. That’s why making a muslin is so important – if the muslin fits, then the item you make in the ‘real stuff’ will fit too. That is what it is for – to work out all the bugs before you cut into the coat fabric.

There’s also the ‘Oh, how can I handle this big, heavy thing’ aspect. When you work with wool (or any of the animal based fibers), you are looking for weight. Let’s not fool ourselves – when it comes to animal based fibers (wool, mohair, cashmere etc.), weight equals warmth. And the reason for that is because the reason this stuff is warm is that the fibers have scales (they are hair, after all) and those scales trap warm air next to us and help to keep us warm. The more scales you’ve got surrounding you, the warmer you are. To get a lot of scales, you need lots and lots of fiber — and that means weight. I realize that there are people out there that are devoted to wearing goose down coats – bless you for giving new homes to all those feathers and undercoats of birds. But I look like Bibendum (which is the name of the mascot of the Michelin Tire Company) wearing a down coat. Down is really not something you can actually tailor close to your body without losing a lot of the benefits. Down provides warmth through puffiness — Aunt Toby does not DO puffiness.

And then there is the whole ‘good wool coat’ thing – which is emotional, really. I was brought up with them and tried to foist them onto my kids as well. I’ve tried to get the DH to buy himself a black topcoat for 30+ years; the best I could arrange was a lined trench. Sigh.

From a plain old ordinary ‘sew the seams together’ aspect, if you can sew a dress or a shirt and get the sleeves in properly, you can make a coat. They basically require the same technical proficiency at the sewing machine. Take a look at two different diagrams. One is a dress and one is a coat.

Both of these have common elements: set in sleeves, seams, buttons up the front. The only difference, really is that one of them is made with thicker fabric and is going to use different weights of interfacing on the lapels and fronts. If you don’t want to use sew-in interfacing on the coat, there are really good fusibles now on the market that you can use.

Another thing about animal based fibers like wool – you cannot burn them. It’s not like making a dress or blouse out of petroleum based fabrics like polyester or something like silk, where the wrong temperature on the iron and you are looking at basically a total loss. Wool is actually fire-resistent (which is why hotels and other public places use it in upholstery and rugs – even if you threw a can of gasoline and match out there, the fibers would smoulder for a very long time and would not catch fire). So, as long as you press with a moist cloth, all that is going to happen is that you will steam the heck out of it (which is a great thing for shrinking stuff into spots that they might not want to go into smoothly) and raise a smell like a wet dog.

No problems there.

So, how to conquer your Fear of the Coat?
1) Look at your skills at the cutting and sewing. If you can make a button down the front shirt and do a good job putting on a collar and setting in the sleeves, a coat is no issue for you. If you can do the sleeves, but the collar is not so good – then look for a coat with no lapels like this one, Vogue 8520: A coat such as this one is going to depend on good heavy coating. There are not even buttonholes to drive you nuts, either. A great first coat and in a good basic color like black, grey, tan, brown, dark blue, or dark grey, you can jazz it up with long leather gloves, scarves, and even do a little Michelle Obama thing and put a brooch at the neck.

2) If you have or can find an old coat at the Salvation Army or Goodwill, take it apart and see what they did. They’ve interfaced the edges of the front, the bottom hem and the bottoms of the sleeves. With iron-on interfacing, you can do that too. They put shoulder pads in – that’s not a hard thing (fold ’em in half, line up the half-way marks on the shoulder seams, pin them in so the non-curved edges extend out about a 1/2 inch from the shoulder seam and baste them in through the shoulder seam with thread to match the coat fabri)c.

3) Lining. Is it Fear of the Coat? Or is it “How the heck do I put in a lining?” Ah — there are as many techniques on putting in a lining as there are sewists, I think. There are books on putting in linings. There are classes on putting in linings. Aunt Toby was taught how to bag a lining in her high school sewing course, lo these many years ago…and I still end up making the entire lining (which is basically like making the coat over again, only in lining fabric), sticking the lining sleeves into the coat sleeves, tacking it in in spots, trying the coat on, twitching it a bit, and then sewing the lining into the facings with her teeny tiny annoying hand stitches. Invest in a good tailoring book. Here is a great list of books for a sewing library: Erica Bunker’s Sewing Library
Here is also a complete site devoted to a coat sew-a-long: Coat Sew-a-long
If you are a devotee of sewing blogs (and there are many many wonderful ones out there), many of the bloggers have made coats over the past year – ideas a-plenty.

Trust me – this IS something you can do. And because you are going to pick good quality coating and good quality lining (heavy satin, preferably with a flannelized back if you can find it) and do a good job sewing it up, you are going to have a coat which will last you for years, will not fall apart, that you won’t have to reline after one year’s wear, and that you can be proud of. Oh, and it will cost you less than anything even approaching it in quality from the department store. And THAT, is a good thing.

Here are some of my favorite sources for stuff for coats:
Fabricmart
Gorgeous Fabrics
Fashion Fabrics Club

If you live in or near a place such as Philadelphia or New York, you have your own districts for fabrics — go, visit, and get the actual feel of good coating. You want something that is dense, heavy, as close to 100% wool as you can get it (or wool and cashmere or wool and mohair, etc.).

And don’t forget – buy the lining, the interfacings, etc. all at the same time you get the coating so that you can get lining that matches. Ask for ‘coat lining’ and don’t accept anything less than super heavy satin faced polyester. Do NOT buy acetate. It’s sleazy; it’s cheap and you will have to line the coat again one year from when you finish it. It is one of the ways coat manufacturers cheapen the product (to maximize their profits) and it is, as far as I am concerned, cheating the consumer. Don’t cheat yourself – make the coat to keep you warm and make it to last.

But don’t be afraid.
(photo at the top courtesy of The Wisconsin Historical Society)

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