Wear: Coated for autumn

In this post I will look briefly at the history of the classic wool coat, a staple in most people’s closet in one iteration or another. A proper coat is definitely a necessity for me, so for sewing in September, I chose outerwear as my main theme. The results are a cropped wool jacket and a knee length wool coat added to my wardrobe. I am no professional coat maker by any means, but I have tried some simple methods to give better finish to a me-made coat. Below I’ll include a few ideas for what to think about for when making a coat.

What is a coat?

It is a longer garment with centre front closure and long sleeves, usually worn over your other clothes for warmth, so a little longer and bigger. It is a protective layer and indispensable in cold climate at least parts of the year. It is also a symbol of the change of seasons and new beginnings.

Coats made for warmth are often made from heavy wool, but they aren’t necessarily waterproof. Traditional protection from rain and wind is gabardine or waxed canvas, oilskin or similar wind- and waterproof materials. These days there are a vast number of technical fabrications for any kind of activity to choose from. Nevertheless, today’s styles of outerwear are rooted in history, just like most things we wear. Functional garments developed for military, sports or work filtered down to the outerwear of our time.

Traditional coats

The classic greatcoat originated as military wear and was made for warmth and protection. It is typically double breasted with peak lapels, waisted and below knee length. After WW1 it became a male fashion staple among civilians. Around the same time Thomas Burberry developed the gabardine trench coat which has world wide iconic status today, worn by both men and women. The shape these two coats are based on hasn’t changed significantly in over a century and is still recognizable. In addition to there are shorter coats such as the pea coat, a navy wool coat originally worn by the navy. This style is maybe a little less popular by women – anyway, it remains a masculine outerwear staple.

Coats for women

Women’s coats became popular when women gradually became more active in sports and travel towards the end of the 19th century. Before that, they mainly wore capes to better accommodate the voluminous dresses underneath. As the female dress slimmed down, the coat became a more practical choice, and they borrowed many of the style elements from menswear. They could be single- or double breasted, they could have a collar or be collarless, and the length and width varied enormously. In the 1950’s and 1960’s emerged what we today consider classic style: A relatively straight coat in wool with a notched lapel, single or double breasted, sometimes with a belt. Many of today’s coats are derivations of the mid-century fashion, but their importance as protection against the elements is by and large taken over by modern, technical garments. Still, many people consider a proper coat to be a wardrobe necessity and it’s the only appropriate attire on occasions such as weddings, funerals and other important events.

The September outerwear project

My September theme was outerwear. I had a rather optimistic list of projects I never got around to make, but this list isn’t going anywhere and I might very well do them later. I did manage to make one coat and one jacket in wool, both lined, and I feel more confident about coat making now than I did before, so I’m calling it a success.

How to make a good coat

Making your own coat is an involved make and considered to be a challenge by many sewists. What a good coat is depends of course on personal preference, but to me a coat needs quality fabric, some structure and a neat inside. I recommend fabrics with as much wool content as possible, but a small percentage of synthetic fibers can be beneficial, too. If the fabric has a nap you must remember to cut all the pieces in the same direction. I’ve learned this the hard way. The weight and drape is important, too. A soft coating or maybe boiled wool will appear very different from a Melton wool. Melton is so dense it’s almost wind- and waterproof. Softer, lighter wools are not suitable for a cold winter, but they are excellent for early autumn and spring weather.

Jackets and coats without interfacing are very soft and, depending on the fabric, have little or no structure. Adding structure is very important for maintaining the shape, and I usually add some interfacing even when there’s no mention of it in the pattern. As a minimum I interface the collar, sleeve hems and hem, but adding interfacing to the shoulder area makes a huge difference to the finished garment. The interfacing must be of similar weight to the fabric, and for the collar you can add a double layer if necessary. Sometimes a fusible tape or cotton tape can be added to the armsyce, the collar’s fold-over line and the neck to prevent them from stretching out.

The Stacker jacket has instructions for the interfacing included, but the Raw edge coat is originally designed for neoprene fabric without interfacing. I used the pattern pieces and cut out interfacing for the top back, the shoulders, the hems and the collar pieces plus the facing. This is easy to do and will normally result in a better finish. After I started interfacing more of my jackets I’m much more happy with the results, and I highly recommend it.

To me, a lined jacket is almost always preferable to an unlined because the lining (that must be from a smooth fabric) makes it easy to slip in an out of the garment. It hides any mess on the inside of the jacket. Sometimes the patterns include instructions and pieces for lining, but it they don’t, adding a lining is easy. One of my favorite sources is from melilot.no, but there are plenty of others. When making the lining pattern you must remember to add seam allowance along the edge towards the facings. Find a good source for how to bag the lining, and you are good to go. I do recommend buying a good book about coat making and/or tailoring – getting to grips with basic sewing techniques is very helpful. I have a couple, and the one I use the most is Sewing for fashion designers by Anette Fischer. It is excellent, particularly if you are quite new to sewing.

This means that I have completed two of the themes in my 20/21 Challenge. This time, the list of unfinished (or not started) projects is longer than last month. I’ve already cut out a blazer in wool, so more jackets are on their way. I really want to make a utility style jacket, and I’m interested in sewing a jacket in dry oilskin at some point, too.

20/21 Sewing themes

  1. August: Shirts
  2. September: Outerwear
  3. October: Trousers
  4. November: Loungewear
  5. December: The black dress
  6. January: Knits
  7. February: Jeans
  8. March: Basics
  9. April: Blouses and skirts
  10. May: Summer dresses
  11. June: Sleeveless tops and shorts
  12. July: Swimwear

There are loads of great resources out there, and below is a short list to get you started with your own project. Thanks for reading!

Fibre2Fashion.com: The History of Coats for Women
Fashion-history.lovetoknow.com: Coat
Lovetosew.com: Episode 164 Wool and Episode 71 Sewing coats
By Hand London: Rumana coat sew-along

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