Welcome to another chance to delve into the depths of traditional theatrical tailoring. This time I am walking through the steps of making a suit loosely based on a WWI military suit.
The pattern and construction are fairly accurate to period, with concessions for durability and ease of alteration. The fabrics and detailing were chosen to create an “ish” feel for a Shakespeare piece not set in a particular time and place, but with a crisp, slightly “other” feel with riffs from Gary Oldman’s Prada Spread - which if you haven’t seen you should check out now. Seriously. I’ll wait... It is probably one of the most adventurous and beautiful forays into men’s fashion I have seen in recent years, and if you have an interest in menswear it is well worth the drool it induces.
Back to the suit I am walking you through. The coat pattern is from a modern draft; Fundamentals of Men’s Fashion Design: A Guide to Tailored Clothes by Misaaki Kawahima. It is obviously still under copyright, so I can’t walk you through it step-by-step, but it was very easy to follow and created very accurate results. The two-part sleeve pattern is very different from any I’ve encountered before and took me two tries to get at all, but in general it is a very pleasant pattern to follow and even included the most comprehensive armscye pattern I’ve ever seen, and practical pocket placement.
The trouser pattern is from the Sartor System of Drafting Historic Men’s Wear by Robert W Trump. The Sartor System is a modern system developed by a master professional tailor and draper who even today works in the summers at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and the rest of the year at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. His comprehensive system is fairly simple to use, and incredibly accurate and reliable when done correctly. I worked with a draper two summers ago that swore so adamantly by this system that she felt no qualms cutting trousers out of fashion fabric for the first fitting. It starts with a general rectangular layout and allows for various styles of trousers within that general start. It is in plain English and easy to follow. The only down side of this system is getting a hold of it in the first place. He is self published in the old school sense of literally going to Xerox to print a copy. Thankfully he now has it in disk form for a very reasonable amount if you manage to get a hold of him and finagle an opportunity to ask him.
The mock-up is made out of a thick cotton canvas to mimic the stiffness of the finished coat with guts. It is fit with shoulder pads, and is usually very quick to show what corrections are needed. It is also a light color which makes marking those corrections to the pattern directly onto the canvas easy to see.
This pattern draft has alteration pins to take in the trousers’ side seam, and center back. The curves in the trouser pattern are too pronounced and, in general, too large. This is partially due to the actor’s recent change in measurements over the summer break, and partially due to excessive curve in the side seam of the pattern itself. The coat requires taking in at the center back as well. Though part of this is due to being too large, it also is because the actor has a more erect posture than the pattern allowed for. The pattern itself allows for more of a stoop of the spine and thus, the extra space. The armscye also requires adjustment to the point of the mock-up sleeve being completely unable to be fit. The mock-up sleeve also has an inaccurate biceps line that is completely insufficient. This is once again partially the drafts fault and partially old measurements that didn’t allow for the actor’s summer body sculpting. Since the first mock-up sleeve is unable to be fit, a new one is made in the cotton canvas for the second fitting once the suit coat body is close to being finished.
When marking and cutting the wool, I like to use two different colored chalks - one for the stitch line and one for the cutting line. This is a largely theatrical practice. Since we use suits over and over again for a large variety of actors for years on end we try to make them as alterable as possible. To this end a variety of seam allowances are allowed for any place they can be hidden without an adverse effect on the final product.
Usually curved seams that are unlikely to ever be altered are left with as little as ⅝”-½” (15-13mm) seam allowance. These seams often include armscyes, neck, and the front of the jacket. Just in case I like to leave 1” (25mm) on each of these until the second fitting. The extra seam allowance on the front of the jacket also makes grading the seam easier after the guts and facing are attached.
Extra seam allowance is left at the hem, side seams, and center back to allow for up to 2” (50mm) difference. This allows for the farthest a suit can go without looking ridiculously unbalanced. If you tried to let out any more than that the balance of the shoulders would creep very far forward, as well as the side seams, since letting out seam allowance at the center front after button holes have been added is not possible. However letting a suit out just a bit or in just a bit to create a custom fit can make a character that much more precise. Also hemming for a taller or shorter actor with similar proportions is a very painless way to make a suit stock stretch for different shows. There also comes a point when shortening or lengthening a suit becomes ridiculous. There is no really elegant way to hide 7” (15cm) of hem in a pair of trousers. At some point some actors just need to move to the next length of either a short or tall suit. Just because you can sometimes smash a square peg into a cylindrical hole doesn’t mean that is the most effective option.
This variation of seam allowance is much less common outside of theatre. A bespoke suit made for one person to be worn by that same person for years on end has the liberty of assuming certain measurements are very unlikely to change, such as long bones, and often the seam allowances are standardized to the point of sewing directly the standard amount away from the cut line without a stitching line. This also relies heavily on well-trained and experienced stitchers. I find that sewing with a clear stitching line is not only easier for myself, but also much easier to hand off to stitchers of varying experience and still achieve excellent results.
The wool used for this suit is a tropical weight wool twill with a variegated rust and mauve pinstripe. It is very soft and, since it is wool, it is very easy to convince to curve and stretch. Save linen, silk, and harder materials for when you want a tailoring challenge. At least 80% wool in a suiting fabric will make the process significantly easier.
Cutting the guts is one of my favorite parts. The guts are what make tailoring a unique three-dimensional art. It is also a place not to skimp in time and materials if at all possible. Quality materials make it easier to create a beautiful product. There is no really good way that I know of to fake a beautiful French collar canvas, for instance, and skipping guts altogether is what makes a cheap suit look so cheap in stores.
I like to cut apart my main drafting pattern to create my guts patterns to conserve paper, but you can also copy out the jacket and create whole pattern pieces for your guts.
The first section of the coat guts is the canvas front. Tailoring canvas can also be called Hymo, Acro, or hair canvas. It is a canvas with a fairly high hair content to make it stiff and light.
Examples of tailoring canvas of various qualities can be found here, here, here, here, here and many other places once you know what you are looking for. A great explanation of what to look for in a high quality canvas has already been written by Jeffery Diduch. It also comes in different weights. The heavier the coat fabric, the heavier the canvas should be.
The shape of the canvas front covers most of the suit front, but cuts in to avoid the dart. Hymo in the dart would only add an unfortunate amount of bulkiness as well as make the suit front more difficult to alter. Ending the canvas at the front edge of the dart makes for a lovely crisp edge for the dart to follow. I soften that edge a bit by pinking the raw edge that floats in the coat front.
The back of the coat only gets a very small amount of guts: the yoke. It is usually cut from a soft but relatively unyielding fabric compared to the wool, such as muslin cut on the grain, or even occasionally lining fabric.
The next level of guts to pattern for the front of the coat is the hair canvas and cotton quilt batting/tailor’s wadding. The pattern for the hair canvas etc. is the same shape as the cotton quilt batting/tailor’s wadding, though the hair canvas is cut without seam allowance, and the cotton quilt batting/tailor’s wadding is cut with seam allowance. The shape of the pattern starts at the shoulder seam, but cuts in ¾” (19mm) from the roll line. From there it curves down through the chest and up to the armscye.
Hair canvas, or hair cloth, used to be made out of horse tail hair, because the tail hair was fairly long and stiff. Now quite a bit of hair canvas is actually made from nylon, though the widths are usually still the same as though they were still made with horse hair. Honest to goodness horsehair hair canvas can still be found.
The cotton quilt batting/tailor’s wadding layer is one where pennies can certainly be pinched. Traditional tailor’s wadding for coat fronts is almost identical to cotton quilt batting, and cotton quilt batting is much cheaper and easier to find in most sewing shops. For super lightweight suit fronts I’ve even used baby flannel, but that makes a much softer front than what I want for a military coat. This coat has a lightweight cotton quilt batting for this layer. I pinked the all the edges to create the softest transition possible into the fairly lightweight coat front.
The shoulder has a little extra support over the curve with a bit of French collar canvas. This supports the floating darts in the hair canvas layer. The pattern shape of the French collar canvas is about 5-6” (12.5-15cm) of the hair canvas pattern piece starting at the shoulder.
If I were working with a light-colored suiting fabric, I would have to be careful to pick out light-colored guts, but since I am working with a lovely black wool, I don’t have to worry about if my guts will show.
Combining the hair canvas, collar canvas, and quilt batting are put together they create the plastron. The layers need to be prepared a bit to create a three dimensional form. The canvas front gets a ¾” x 4” (19mm x 100mm) dart-like “V” to curve over the shoulder. A scrap bit of bias canvas front gets placed behind the opening and zig-zagged down. Variations on the zig-zag can also be used. The three-step zig-zag, curved mending, three-step serpentine stitches can be used also for added stability.
The hair canvas layer gets a slightly smaller sized dart (½” x 3” or 13mm x 75mm) except along the roll line edge, and gets zig-zagged shut. Two short vents along the shoulder edge are cut and left open. These are supported later by the bias collar canvas and allow for movement in the curve of the plastron through the pad-stitching process.
The quilting cotton is carefully placed over all the other layers so that none of the rest of the plastron shows. The edge of the quilting cotton should be just shy of the roll line on the canvas front. These pieces are loosely based together over a ham and pad-stitched.
Pad-stitching starts at the roll line and goes across the plastron. The shoulder of the plastron is left open about three inches (75mm) from the shoulder to allow for movement for the curve over the shoulder pad. The pad stitch itself is simpler to do than to explain. With the canvas layer toward me, I bend the all the layers over my finger and take a bite from right to left through all the layers, directly over the most curved part of the fabric. (This would be reversed if I were left handed.) Then I move down the lapel line, toward the hem, and take another bite through all the layers from right to left. This creates a little / pattern on the side I am sewing and a little dot on the quilt batting side.
Although the stitch itself is very simple, there are some very crucial aspects to it that are a little more complicated to master. The first is that the point of all of this pad-stitching is to create a controlled level of depth, as in 3D curve to the fabric layers. It is horribly disappointing to see absolutely flat pad-stitching on YouTube tutorials. If I wanted flat fabric on a flat table I could just flat line the fabric to a stiffer one and be done hours earlier. Good pad stitching is done while taking the little bite through all the layers while the layers themselves are bent over a curve. I like to curve the whole thing over my finger where I take my bites, but others prefer to curve it over a table edge, but the really old school way of adding the curve is over the curve of the thigh. That’s how sitting tailor’s style got it’s name. Tailors would sit on the tables or benches cross-legged and pad-stitch over that curve.
The other common pitfall for pad-stitching is to accidentally create corduroy out of the quilt batting. Looking closely at my pad-stitching reveals my '/' stitches do not make neat V shapes the way seen in other pad-stitching tutorials. This is an easy trick to side step creating even lines of dents in the soft quilt batting side of the plastron. A smooth surface is the goal. It is possible to do the V-shaped stitching and not create furrowed lines with care to keep the tension on the thread gentle, but I prefer not to risk it and stagger my stitches.
Since none of my stitching will show through the dark wool I have for the suit front, I like to use up what is left of the spools of thread that are abandoned by stitchers unwilling to use a spool up to the end on the sewing machines. This gives a pretty odd piece meal look to the pad stitching, but I like the odd satisfaction of finishing off little spools of thread. Also avoiding waxed thread can be helpful, since in some instances the wax can bleed through to the front of the jacket during pressing.
When starting off with pad-stitching, I’d recommend using a contrasting thread to easily see what you are doing, but if you are working with a light-colored suit fabric, that may not be possible.
A trick to creating a plastron that doesn’t show on light-colored fabric is to pad stitch with the tailor’s wadding toward the light colored suiting fabric rather than toward the body. This makes for a beautiful, soft, light-colored front for light-colored linen suits, but is a special challenge to pad stitch in a concave shape rather than a convex, or into a bowl shape rather than over your finger, over a table, or the traditional tailor’s style of over your thigh.
If I absolutely do not have time to hand pad stitch a suit front, there are several shortcuts. If I am very careful to maintain a curved shape under a machine, I can either zig-zag the pieces together or put it under the blind hemmer for a slightly less dented plastron. Both of these are, in my opinion, the harder option for a usually inferior product, but sometimes it is necessary.
One shortcut I highly approve of is zig-zagging the interior edge of the tailor’s tape to the front canvas. Taping the edge of the canvas creates a beautiful, crisp, edge to the canvas and helps keep the rather scratchy raw edge of cut canvas under control. Tailor’s tape is used along the center front edge of the front canvas. The old school method is to whip stitch the length of the tailor’s tape inside edge to the canvas, but since the zig-zag doesn’t show through the canvas I don’t see any reason not to machine-stitch this step.
Once the canvas front and plastron are finished to this point, it is time to baste it onto the coat front. Sometimes basting it with the plastron over a ham helps preserve the precious curve, but in this instance I did it on the table. I started from the top of the coat to the bottom of the coat. Next I tacked out from the center along the waistline. After that I tacked down to the hem and across the hem, making sure that there were no bubbles. Then I tack from the waist, up along the roll line. Across the shoulder, and down along the armscye as far as the canvas goes, is the last step.
One section of tailor’s tape that has to be put in by hand is along the roll line. This should be sewn with thread that matches the suit fabric. In this case I use black thread. It can be sewn in three steps by doing a prick-stitch down the center of the roll line then whip-stitching the edges of the tailor’s tape to the canvas.
However I am a huge fan of the one-step process shown in the picture that was taught to me by Kjersten Lester-Moratzka. The tailor’s tape is pulled slightly to cup the roll line to the chest. Since this roll line is fairly short, ending above the chest line, it is only pulled an extra ¾” (19mm). When the lapel is longer, such as with a tailcoat, it can be pulled as much as 1” (25mm). The extra length is eased along the roll line.
The lapel is then pad-titched just like the chest, but in matching fabric to the suit fabric. It is a slightly smaller pad-stitch than on the chest, but once again starts and the roll line and works it’s way outward. Don’t worry if the stitch lines don’t exactly match up at the edge. Some of the fabric will have moved a bit with pad-stitching, so the lines shouldn’t usually exactly match up at the edge.
The lapel is then pressed over a fluffy towel or a special thin ham and allowed to cool in the new curved position. At this point the coat is starting to take some of its shape on the form.
The yoke is put together by overlapping the seam allowances at center back and stitching them together. The center back of the coat is then sewn shut from the neck to the top of the vent and pressed open. The yoke is then flat lined to the top of the back of the coat.
Next came reinforcing the armscye. This is done with a little strip of bias fusible interfacing. It is from a woven interfacing, and pinked. It is carefully pressed along the curve of the armscye that is not covered by either the canvas coat front or the yoke, and based into place. The yoke can be extended to the side seam if the front canvas is as well which is a way to avoid this step, but for a softer coat front this way works well as well with less wasted canvas and muslin.
When putting together the center back of the wool, I figure I might as well do the vent while I am there. I press the center back open until I reach just above the vent. I then jog the seam allowance over to be able to fold the vent back on itself without sacrificing any seam allowance for possible future alterations. I reinforce the wool with some woven fusible interfacing with soft pinked edges, press into place, and cross-stitch into place leaving enough room to add a hem later.
Next time: The lining and inside pockets...