When it comes to coats, I’m firmly in the Luther Vandross camp: never too much, or too many.
I swore I wouldn’t make another coat this year, but lockdown #2, combined with serial quarantine throughout November, took a decidedly outdoorsy turn in the Grinlow sewing department.
In my defence, I was in need of a cosy rain coat. I’d been getting drenched on the school run for some time, and drizzly lockdown walks were more trying than they should have been. As temperatures started to turn, this was no longer a minor irritation. That horrible feeling of being cold all day because you got caught in a freezing morning downfall is not fun. So, the winter Waver Jacket was born, and I’m very happy to have it in my life (you can read all about how I put it together here).
Coat making is, for me, a bit like buses: I won’t make one for ages but once I start, there’s a bunch in production at once. Once the Waver was underway, some beautiful wool coatings were wafted under my nose and, well, the coat fever kind of snowballed…
Plans to make a new super-insulated wool overcoat were joined by more plans for a lined blazer. Now these have come to fruition (you can read about both on my Minerva.com page here) my work is still not done: my husband has requested his own bespoke winter Waver and a French chore jacket to boot (we’ve done a deal – he’s making me a souped-up cutting table and in return I will use it to make him some clobber).
And of course it would be churlish of me to make a chore jacket for him without throwing one in for myself while I’m at it, right? (Yes, lockdown is turning us into one of those matchy matchy middle-aged couples.)
While I’m in confessional mood, I must also tell you that I have an itch to make another coat for the long winter ahead: something woolly but casual – preferably with a dropped shoulder. I’m torn between a hip-length coal miner-style and a below-the-knee cocoon style. I’m going to try really hard to resist; something I’m sure will be helped no end by proceeding to list the six things I love about sewing coats…
So without further ado (and that was a fair bit of ado wasn’t it?!), here are my six reasons to love making coats:
1. The zeitgeist
I couldn’t write about sewing outerwear without addressing the ruddy great elephant in the room: Covid has taken the most enormous dump on 2020. One glass-half-full positive has been many of us getting out of the house whenever possible – whether that’s to see friends and loved ones, or just to escape the endless monotony of being constantly at home (I know this hasn’t been everyone’s experience, but it is a fairly common one this year).
As the weather turned, wrapping up warm became a priority – and something that, it transpires, is surprisingly hard to achieve; when sat on a park bench chatting to a friend, you soon realise how inadequate your existing outerwear actually is.
While so much sewing has lost its allure this year, largely for lack of opportunity to show it off, sewing something warm and cosy so you can get out and about seems like the most common sense thing ever and, all of a sudden, hugely appealing.
2. Get technical
The zeitgeist brings me neatly on to my next point. Until this year, my coat sewing experience was limited to tailoring and, to be honest, that’s as far as my imagination had taken me with regards to outerwear. Roll on 2020 and, after decades of being distinctly un-outdoorsy, the need for decent all-weathers gear hit me like a bolt from the blue.
After a close shave with a very expensive North Face Arctic Parka, I realised I wanted that sort of coat, but without the hefty price tag. And so began my journey into technical outerwear. I’m very much at the foot of a mountain, but it’s an exciting one; I’m looking forward to seeing where it will take me and what kind of finishes I can achieve as a home sewist.
Last week I wrote about my Swedish-style rainproof winter parker made using the Waver Jacket by Papercut Patterns. It’s the sort of thing I always assumed one bought in a shop, not the kind of garment you could make at home; an unexpected outcome of our socially dislocated 2020 is that I’ve turned my mind to making things I never before thought were within my reach. Acquiring new techniques and technical skills has never seemed so necessary.
3. What lies beneath
In any ordinary year, this would have been the no-brainer in at number 1. This being no ordinary year in any way, shape or form, means you’ll have to overlook its demotion to number 3. This year there are probably too many reasons to love coat making…
The beauty of a coat (aside from the basics of keeping you warm and dry) is that nobody need know what lies beneath. A coat can cover up a multitude of sartorial sins. While many may now feel at ease leaving the house in sweatpants and a pyjama top, covering up the evidence of a our lounge-lizard existence is sometimes necessary – a deft move easily facilitated by The Right Coat.
Secret pyjamas take on a whole new meaning during winter get togethers outside: of course the coat stays on! Nobody ever need know what lurks underneath.
My favourite rapid cover up is the vintage wrap coat pictured in the gallery above. A Family Circle pattern from the mid-1970s, it’s relatively simple in construction but can be neatly belted over all sorts of fashion faux pas. Even better, the gentlemanly overcoat (pictured, top) is long enough to cover most of a bad trouser situation (if you live with animals or children you will no doubt be familiar with the unfortunate condition of Mystery Grease Spot Fluff Thigh).
4. Discovering old gems
I fondly refer to my most recent make as my ‘too smart for lockdown’ coat. It’s an extremely tidy looking double breasted overcoat in a light grey herringbone wool. It was made from another 1970s Family Circle pattern in my stash – and one I’ve made before (see the black wool mix coat, pictured top). Family Circle do great coat patterns and are well worth hunting down.
As is probably apparent if you’ve read this far, this is not the first vintage coat I’ve made and it definitely won’t be the last. There is something really wonderful about digging up old patterns and seeing how they translate into the present.
At the moment, 1970s patterns feel so current and on-trend you’d never guess they were 40+ years old.
Learning to use vintage patterns means you’re never short of inspiration or new designs to experiment with. They also have some of the best instructions for coat making going – if you want a soft introduction to tailoring, go vintage. On that note I will be posting a blog on that very subject soon – watch this space!
5. Always more to learn
Coats are a great way to dive into all sorts of different areas of sewing. Not only is sewing outerwear a bottomless pit of endless exploration in itself, but also through sewing different kinds of coats and jackets you inevitably upskill across various types of garment making while focusing on a single area.
A denim jacket is, for example, a time-consuming garment to make. It’s entirely satisfying, watching all those small pieces come together to create the iconic garment. But if this was where it ended, you might wonder how useful it is to spend all that time acquiring skills specifically for making denim jackets – after all, how many denim jackets will you need or want in the coming years?
Of course, sewing a denim jacket provides a plethora of transferable skills. You may indeed make another denim jacket in a different style, or you can transfer those skills across to jeans making (a walk in the park by this point after all that top-stitching and flat-fell seam practice), or denim skirts, or take the collar skills across to a jacket in a different style or material… You get the idea.
Similarly, the skills you learn making a tailored blazer or a pure wool overcoat – turning collars, using specialist interfacings such as wool and hair canvas or Petersham, making welt pockets, tacking and basting, lining and interlining – could be used for any number of tailoring jobs: shirts, trousers, waistcoats, etc. etc.
Crisp, beautifully pressed finishes take practice. Why not practice on a coat? There’s no rule book that says you have to work your way up to outerwear, though from the way people talk about sewing that sometimes seems to be the case. Go wild! Go and make a coat!
6. Cost per wear
I started with five points, but I couldn’t leave this one out. Sometimes I have little flashes of guilt for making coats – they’re often fairly bulky time-intensive garments, and when I think of my grandparents’ generation, who probably had one or two coats throughout their adult life, I wonder about the environmental impact.
The truth is, as I said in point 5, I’m always learning, and sewing is how I learn. It’s a tricky one, but I see it as follows:
a) sewing coats is generally a slow business, so it takes me away from sewing other faster items and ensures less pile-up in the wardrobe department;
b) I wear coats or jackets every day of the year so cost per wear is relatively low (for cost here I am referring not only to financial but also environmental and time costs);
c) I live somewhere with inclement weather and distinct seasons, so a variety of outerwear is necessary;
d) coats, being made of more robust materials and not put through the washing machine very often (if at all), tend to last far longer than other garments. Chances are, even when I have long since passed, the coat will belong to someone else. I have a coat in my wardrobe I bought on a flee market when I was 17 – and even then it was probably getting on for thirty years old. Cost per wear with a coat really does pan out rather well in the long-term.
Having to dress for different seasons and weathers means everything gets a look-in across the year, and I sew fairly classic styles and shapes (always with a little room for a few extra pies), which I hope adds to their longevity. I’m not sure if there are any garments in my wardrobe that get quite so much wear, and give quite so much return for the effort put in.
So, this autumn sees another three coats join my wardrobe, with a serious amount of learning and enjoyment had in the process. These garments took huge amounts of time, but they were worth every moment. Ultimately, coats give great bang for bucks, and are well worth the investment of time and energy. If you haven’t already, I hope this inspires you to get cracking on your own. Let me know how you get on!
Do you like to make coats or is it something you would like to learn more about? Let me know in the comments below!