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Making a Coat: Details Are What Make It

First, a bit of housekeeping detail. Because I wanted this coat to be as long as I could get it (no red chapped knees for me), I made the decision that I was NOT going to fold up the hem. The other thing is that the fabric is so spongy that I was afraid the hem would end up looking lumpy. Using the same poly shantung fabric that I used for the welted pocket in the lining and the bound buttonholes, I made 3″ wide strips of bias. I ironed down 1/2″ along one long edge and sewed it all along the bottom edge of the coat. I now have to steam press it and catch stitch it into the interlining. When I’ve done THAT, I’ll put in the lining. I know there are a lot of folks out there who are vastly more experienced than I am and who are vastly better sewists than I am..and who use something referred to as ‘the bagging method’. I, on the other hand, because I am stubborn and wedding to things that I learned at Mrs. Reynolds’ knee in high school, have sewed up my lining completely and will be pinning it in and sewing that baby in, invisibly, by hand. Part of this is because this coat weighs a ton and takes up a lot of room and flipping it around under the arm of the sewing machine is basically impossible(I tried this with the buttonholes and had to take a little something and lay down until the mood passed). The other thing is that hand sewing is something I can do on the counch with a video going, with the coat draped over my lap (built in warmth, that).

There are certain things that make garments look much more expensive than they might be:
Color: Black, dark gray, brown, navy and camel are luxurious colors. Purple, scarlet, turquoise, and lime green are not. Trust me on this. If you are going to go to the trouble of making something like a coat (which is going to cost some real money because good coating costs – but it’s like that thing from “Moonstruck” – “It costs money because it saves money”), although deep in your heart of hearts what you want is a coat that is going to cheer you up on those cold gloomy mornings, stick with something in the first set of colors. A coat in National School Bus Chrome Yellow might put your eyelids into permanent ‘stapled to your eyebrows’ status, but it will get dirty fast, spend a lot of time at the cleaners, and look grubby no matter what you do. Making a coat is a lot of effort; you want to get as many seasons wear out of it as you can. Use things like hats, gloves, and scarves to get that trendy splash of color.

Length: Mini coats are very foxy. No doubt about it. But the very same shape and color of coat will look much more classy and luxurious if it is at least knee length and if it’s three inches longer than that – killer.

Accoutrements: by this , I mean the little decorative details such as a belt with a buckle; buttons, tabs, epaulets, and so on. The more of this chiffon-oria that you have on a coat, the more limited it is. Shiny gold buttons, tabs, epaulets and a belt and you’ve got a coat that people are going to assume spent some part of its life in the military. This sort of stuff is like spice – just a dusting goes a very long way. If you want the belt and buckle to be the attention getter, then don’t put on epaulets and shiny metallic buttons. Think of them as jewelry for the coat. Just pick one thing. On the other hand, you can build in a lot of lovely things if they all match the coat itself. See: welt pockets, bound buttonholes, lovely matching buttons (even self-covered! woohoo!). These all make the coat look mucho-lux.

Technique: My mom was a fearless sewer. I have memories of her making us all sorts of things when my sister and I were kids. She was very creative – I recall her recycling a bunch of tartan wool skirts as the lining in a duffle coat for my sister. Great stuff. But in my mind’s eye, I also have memories of the way she sewed and what she wanted was to put out as much in the way of clothing as she could cram into her sewing time. I don’t recall ever seeing her do something by hand, for example. She never made a muslin for anything (being 5’10” and thin helped a lot). When I came home from sewing classes in high school, to do all my home work on the hair canvas and so on, she goggled at all the handwork and I remember her saying, “I’d never do any of that; you can make a jacket without doing all of that.”

And she’s right – you CAN, but it might not come out looking the way you want it to. Part of the reason people sew is that they want the sort of thing that they see in photos or movies or tv but that they can’t get where they live or that they can’t afford. They already have an idea in their heads what the outcome is going to be and trust me – the only way to have things come out that way is to spend a bit of time learning technique. Now, technique is useless if you can’t make it fit. A lot of lovely technically beautiful things hang in closets all over America and are never worn because they don’t fit. So learning to make and fit a muslin on yourself is definitely worth learning to do. But on the other side, if you don’t know some technique, you can have something that fits you but does not hang correctly and doesn’t look like the picture in your mind’s eye.

So, here are some basic things that you will need to know how to do to make a coat(and a lot of this goes for sewing other things as well, so they are worthwhile learning).
Steam pressing (aka ‘ironing’). An electric iron that can put out a whole lot of steam is the sewist’s friend. There are all sorts of good heavy irons out there. A good solid ironing board is worth having also. Whatever pad the cover comes with, find an old wool blanket and use that under the cover instead. it will hold the moisture and the warmth and pads the ironing board in a far more satisfactory way. Pressing cloth. Get at least one and use it religiously. With practice doing steam pressing, you will be able to perform all sorts of little bits of magic at the ironing board, like shrinking the caps on sleeves just enough to smooth them into the armscye and so on. Animal based fibers (wool, mohair, cashmere, etc.) gobble up steam and allow you to mold things. Silk, and man made fibers, however, do not.

Hand Sewing. Do not look on this as drudgery. There are certain sewing activities that, although you can whip them off at the sewing machine in jig time with just you, your machine and some pins, come out with a much better result with the application of some hand sewing. One of them is putting in zippers (especially if you are doing in vintage style in the side seam). Another is setting in collars and lapels. Another is applying the interfacings and interlinings in various tailoring methods. A lot of people are married to the use of thimbles; I never have..and I have the scars on the ends of my fingers to answer for it.

Grading seams. When you are working with thicker materials, a seam takes up a lot of space. It makes a lump. You can steam press it all you want, but it’s still a lump. The best way to make the lump less..lumpy..is to grade it. This means that after you sew your seam, you take out your trusty shears and make one side of the seam (usually the side that will be on the top when you steam press it down) skinnier than the other side of the seam. Once you steam press it, they will lay on top of one another in a far less lumpy sort of way which makes the garment look much nicer and less ‘home ec class’ (my apologies to the rest of my compatriots in Mrs. Reynolds 7th period sewing class – especially to those of you who entered your ensembles in the “Make it With Wool” contest in 1969).

Admit you need help. The days when sewing classes of every sort were available in fabric stores seemingly everywhere are not the usual thing. However, the interest in sewing at a solid level and making challenging stuff has grown tremendously in the past 5 years so there are more and more classes out there. Just because your mom did not teach you how to sew at her knee does not mean that you cannot learn to make great stuff. The information is out there on the internet, in books, in workshops, on dvds. it’s amazing what is available. Just commit yourself to make one thing that you really want. That is usually NOT aprons, tote bags, or pillows. If what you want to make is a coat for your first project, then there is a coat pattern out there just for you. If you are brave of heart, there are tailoring videos and books out there to help, though I think finding a sewing class is a great way to learn and make some sewing buddies as well (and sewing buddies are great to have). But the point is to admit that you need help and get out there and find it rather than dream about making something … and never getting around to it.

So..until the next time.

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One Comment

  1. Hatty says:

    OK, I am with you all the way there. Maybe because I was brought up in the north of England and now live in Istanbul where it snows feet deep every winter (yes, yes, I was astonished too first time I saw it) but to me unless it comes below the knee, it is NOT a coat – it’s a jacket. And what use is a jacket when it’s cold? A coat is as long as is practical (ie so long as you don’t trip over it it’s good) and as warm as possible! And it does NOT flap open when you walk. What the heck is the point of that? It’s like throwing all your doors and windows open every five minutes in the winter!

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