With the recent interest in historical men's garments, and historical tailoring techniques, I have been honoured by being asked to write this Masterclass for YWU.
As the scope of this subject is too large for a single article, I will be breaking it down into six modules. Each module will guide you through each process in the making of a lounge jacket, from basic to advanced techniques.
The history and commentary will be kept short, so I may give full attention to the practical aspects of tailoring. Then you are always learning and honing your skills towards becoming adept at historical tailoring.
So join me over these six chapters as I unravel the mystery behind historical tailoring and show you that this old trade isn't as mysterious as it once was thought.
Member links to all parts of this series:
Late Victorian Tailoring Techniques 1
Frequently I hear, “My husband wants me to make him a tailored 1880's coat, uhm... perhaps one day!” or simply “Tailoring is hard, why try?” This seems to be the natural response for people when they hear the word “tailoring”. As with anything that came from the trade guilds of medieval Europe, there is an air of mystery and secrecy around it. Even reading early tailoring texts seems more like deciphering ancient Greek geometry scrolls than learning about making clothing.
Luckily, as we move through the 19th century books on the subject become easier to read and understand, and by the 1850's we see cutting books with the block systems we are familiar with today. Unfortunately, however, as these cutting books were written for established tailoring firms they do not include any making instructions for the garments.
By the early 1880's we see the first true tailoring books being widely produced by publishing firms, books that will have an impact on tailoring for the next 40 years. It is from these resources that this series was compiled.
In this module we will cover
In the mid-nineteenth century the frock coat was de rigueur, in some variation or another, for both formal and informal day wear.
At the start of the 1880's the frock (middle right) began a slow decline in popularity, giving way to the morning coat (near right) as the formal day dress and the lounge (far right) as its informal counterpart. By the 1890's both the morning and lounge suit were established business wear, with the frock finding a hold out with professional classes and more conservative older gentlemen. By the end of the Edwardian period, the frock was relegated to the most formal day occasions and matters of state.
To illustrate the change in fashion, a book written by S.A. Shields in 1870 stated that an economical man would do well with two morning and two frock coats. By contrast, another book published later in the century states that a man should have four lounges, one frock and one morning coat.
Our humble lounge jacket started life as a two to three seam overcoat in the late 1830's, called a paletot. By the 1840's the paletot rivalled the frock overcoat in popularity and by the 1850's there were many variations, from a loose overcoat to a fitted jacket. In the 1860's this more fitted variation was called a “sac coat” (in American English) or “lounging paletot”. By adding matching waistcoat and trousers the “Ditto” or sac suit was born and would become the staple of informal day wear for business, travel and street wear. By the 1870's the Lounge had carved out its own niche, and its popularity grew as ready-to-wear manufacturing made this coat affordable to the average working man.
A by-product of this industrialization of the lounge was the mass production of materials that the tailors typically made themselves, such as stay tapes and sheet padding. This in turn lead to a “standardization” of tailoring techniques using these newly available products in the 1880's.
The following is by no means a complete list, but a list of tools you will need for this Masterclass. As dressmakers I am sure you will have most, if not all, of the following:
Bent Handles Shears
Having a good pair of shears makes life easier. For smaller hands I recommend a 10” (25cm) bent handled shear. For larger hands 12” (30cm) to 13” (32cm) is perfect. Personally I use a 10” (25cm) trimmer for lighter fabrics and 13” antique shears for heavier fabrics. Dressmaking shears are handy for lining and pocketing materials and to snip threads.
Though not necessary, they are a welcome addition for trimming the lining to prevent fraying. These are necessary for trouser construction.
The best tape measure to have is with both metric and imperial measures. This will help you, no matter the system being used, to ensure a good fit.
Chalk Try to find a tailors chalk (right) in clay. The easiest to find is tailors' wax chalk, but these can leave marks that are hard to remove (especially in silk). After a little wear the wax chalk also pulls the fabric, which is undesirable.
Your pins should be 1¼” (3.2cm) long. Shorter dress making pins are helpful in tight areas so it is beneficial to have a few of these as well.
General Sewing Thread
Avoid polyester thread if you can. For a more historical seam thread, use mercerized cotton. Mercerized cotton thread has been around since the 1840's and holds a good strong seam. For finishing stitches use a good silk thread in size A, in a colour that will blend into the coat fabric.
Tacking Yarn / Basting Thread
This is available in either size #50 or #40 and is a soft cotton thread that is easy to break for removal or alteration.
Silk Tailors' Twist #8 is the best to use for button holes. If this cannot be found then a size #D buttonhole twist is a good alternative.
This is a stiff, thin cord used to reinforce the edges of hand worked buttonholes.
Used to coat your hand sewing thread to prevent knotting. For top stitching by hand the waxed thread is pressed with an iron between sheets of paper. This helps the thread lay uniform and flat. DO NOT USE WAX ON SILK.
It is preferable to have a tailor's thimble (right). This thimble is open at the end to help keep your fingers dry. Make sure you buy a size that fits comfortably on your middle finger.
I know of many modern tailors who use a #7 sharp throughout. This is fine for modern tailoring with thin wools and fabrics. I have found the best needles to work with heavier period fabrics to be #5- #7 betweens (quilting). A #7 sharp is excellent for basting.
Most tailors use a heavy dry iron, these can weight up to 12 pounds (5.4 kg) or more and are used with a press cloth. Unfortunately, these are quite expensive. The next best option is a steam iron with a reservoir. With the reservoir you can use the iron for extended periods of time without running out of water.
This is a small ironing board used to press the sleeves or difficult tight areas.
Tailors Ham and Sleeve Roll
These are tightly packed pressing surfaces that look like a ham and a sausage roll. They are used to shrink or "full" rounded areas.
Now we move on to the practical skills part of this guide. This section will be broken in half due the number of stitches; I do not want to discourage nor overwhelm you. (Note that I am left handed, so you will need to mirror the hand positions in the pictures!)
Hand stitching is probably the most important skill for tailoring, and for many, the most difficult part to master. In the past, tailors' apprentices sat cross-legged in a poorly lit room perfecting their skills for years on end. If you are not used to hand sewing, there are a few things you will do wrong until you become familiar with the process.
The first common mistake is not using a thimble. Perhaps, at first, you feel it too unwieldy or uncomfortable. In the end you make your fingers bleed and all joy is lost by way of pain. Just remember, the more you use it, the more natural it becomes until you no longer notice it. A good trick, to increase the comfort of your thimble, is to use a cloth plaster (band-aid) to line it. Not historically accurate, but makes the thimble fit better and more comfortably.
The second common mistake is to make your thread too long. Logically, this will save time having to re-thread your needle, but unfortunately, you will find that your thread will knot and gnarl on itself. This will cost time and frustration in the end. To remedy this, cut your thread between 18- 21 inches (45- 53 cm) long and thread up several needles. By making your thread shorter it will not knot; threading several needles saves you time and ensures economical use of your time.
The final, most common mistake is to pull your stitches too tight. Doing so will bunch your material and cause a poor finish to the coat. When stitching, only one thread of the fabric should be picked up, and it should be drawn just enough to leave the fabric's thread unchanged on the exterior of the coat. Puckering or creasing should be avoided at all costs.
When starting out, this is most awkward to learn to wear properly. The thimble has a tendency to spin, twist and fall off at the most inopportune moments. With a little practice and wear, however, you will soon find it to be invaluable.
To wear the thimble properly, place on your middle finger and curve your finger towards your palm. Seat the needle eye on the thimble and hold the needle between your index finger and thumb. This gives the best angle to sew ergonomically and easily. To practice, try this exercise:
Materials—A needle and a thimble.
Threading the Needle
To insure against knotting, the following is the best way to thread a needle. Pull out 18-21 inches from the spool. Take the free end of the thread and insert into the eye of the needle. Set the threaded needle down and snip the thread at the spool and knot. By knotting at the spool end you keep the thread from twisting.
When making your stitches, take time to examine whether:
A good deal of sewing economy is in the position in which you hold your work. Using these positions will help you to weave the needle in and out of the fabric, concentrating your working effort directly into the sewing. At first hand sewing might feel awkward and clumsy - in fact you will poke yourself a lot! Keep at it until you feel comfortable with a needle and thread. The more confident you become now, the better the work will be later.
Position One (Fig. 1) - Used for running and combination stitches
Position Two (fig. 2) - Used for seam stitches, such as backstitches
Running Stitch - Used in hard to reach areas, or seams that do not need much strength.
Making a Running Stitch
Fig. 2: A. Take several stitches at a time. B. finished stitch
Even Basting Stitch - Used to secure seams and edges for sewing.
Making an Even Basting Stitch:
Uneven Basting Stitch - Used to secure canvas work to the fabric.
Making an Uneven Basting Stitch:
|Fig 3: Taking the first stitch from the backstitch||Fig. 4: Finished Stitch|
Making a Diagonal Basting Stitch:
Back Stitch (the Tailor's Stitch)
Making a Backstitch
A half-backstitch is the same as the back stitch, except that the needle is put only half-way back, thus leaving a space between the stitches.
A prick stitch is the same as the back stitch, except that the needle is put only a thread or two back to make a stitch that's almost invisible on the surface.
Open Seam Exercise
For this exercise, cut two strips of material, a yard (one metre) long and four inches (10 cm) wide. Take one strip and fold in half lengthwise. Now baste the two edges the entire length using an even basting stitch, just short of 1/4” from the edge.
Once the basting is done, stitch just below the basting with a back stitch. Take your time, familiarize yourself with the stitch and play around with using the pad of your finger (in position one) to lengthen or shorten the stitch. Once the back stitch is done, remove the basting and cut the fold down the centre.
Press this seam open, and look closely. Study your stitches. Are they uniform? Are they straight? Do you see puckering?
Raised and Stitched Seam Exercise
This exercise is done the same way until you are to open the seam. Instead of pressing the seam open, you press the seam edge to the right side, baste down and stitch this down with another row of backstitches (pictured left, from the right side)
Thank you for reading the start of what will be a learning journey for all of us. In the next instalment, we will be discussing...
Part Two - Measuring, Commercial Patterns and Historical Fabrics
Member links to further instalments in this series:
Late Victorian Tailoring Techniques 2
Late Victorian Tailoring Techniques 3
Late Victorian Tailoring Techniques 4
Late Victorian Tailoring Techniques 5
Late Victorian Tailoring Techniques 6
Plain Needlework - a Guide to Nineteenth Century Hand Sewing, Hollis & Bell An invaluable and exhaustive resource for hand sewing. A must have, for tailoring and dress making
Tailoring (Historical/ Victorian)
MacLochlainn, Jason: The Victorian Tailor, Batsford, London; 2011. [Ed: Jason's own book was published soon after this series first appeared at Your Wardrobe Unlock'd.]
Doyle, Robert: The Art of the Tailor, Sartorial Press Publications, Stratford, Ontario; 2005. Available from the Sartorial Press website. This is a bit of a Frankenbook, with bits taken from many sources. It is a good book with overviews for drafting late Edwardian and 1950's patterns. It has a thorough section on making garments, taken word for word from Phillip Dellafera's “The Art of Garment Making”. The edition he uses was published in 1952.
Cabrera, Roberto, Flaherty Myers, Patricia: Classic Taioring Techniques. A Construction Guide for Men's Wear. Fairchild Publications. New York, 1983 This is the best book on making up currently in print. Remember, it is modern tailoring, so some thought and research needs to be made to reproduce historical garments.
Poulin, Clarence: Tailoring Suits the Professional Way Chas. A. Bennett Co. Inc Publishers, Illinois, 1952. Another supplement to Cabrera. This book explains bespoke coat making step by step.
Milani, Lucille: Tailoring the Easy Way. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey, 1976.
A highly detailed book on tailoring. Another supplement to Cabrera.
Tailoring: The Classic Guide to Sewing the Perfect Jacket Minneapolis, 2005.
Recommended to beginners as a supplement to Cabrera. This book is directed more towards modern dressmakers than tailors.
Shaeffer, Claire. Couture Sewing Techniques The Taunton Press, CT, 2005
Even though it's a dressmaking book, Chapter 10 deals with tailoring.