A while back I made a coat/caftan for my Norse costume out of basketweave linen. It was very large, and although it’s wearable, I really wanted to make one out of wool instead, and more fitted.
I bought some wool at the last Grandmother’s Fabric Sale (seen on the very bottom of the pile to the left) with the intention of using it for a Norse caftan or coat. It is a pale grey with a dark grey and royal blue Houndstooth plaid. The fabric feels wonderful, but a little burn test suggests that it probably has a small synthetic percentage, which I don’t love, but don’t mind.
Unfortunately, after getting the fabric, I tried to see if Houndstooth was period accurate – and I haven’t been able to find anything to suggest it is. While it’s a twill (like period-accurate Herringbone), and the design is created by where different colours are placed in the warp and weft (like period-accurate plaid), I haven’t yet found evidence to say that Houndstooth IS period-accurate. There is a fabric from the Iron Age (in Scandinavia I think.. I’ve forgotten now..) which has been found that MAY be houndstooth, in which case it’s POSSIBLE that the same people would have had the knowledge to make this fabric – but no evidence to suggest that they would have wanted to (fashion) or that they did.
Still – I bought the fabric for a coat/caftan, it’s just enough for a basic rectangular/trapezoid-construction coat, I want a wool coat, I don’t have another wool that I really want to use… so – there we go.
Looking super-up-close at the fabric, the lightest grey thread is actually a tiny boucle too. I doubt that boucle yarn is period either for that matter. Merriam-webster.com suggests that the first known use of the word is from 1886 in this context, though that doesn’t mean the yarn originated at that time, only the use of the word to describe this yarn…
Between the fibre content, the pattern, and the yarn, this is becoming a project of moderate compromises…
To make the pattern I adjusted the pattern I’ve used for underdresses.
Normally I put the front/back and shoulders on the fold, but because of the amount and width of fabric, I pretty much had to do a shoulder seam. I wanted to cut the fabric pieces all the same though, so I did a back seam as well. I ended up having a bit of fabric left over (about a 30″x20″ piece) so when I constructed the back seam, I didn’t sew it all the way down, and cut the remnant into a gore for the center back to add a bit more width and make the garment hang a bit nicer.
I used the full width of the fabric as the length, so it’s pretty much floor-length before hemming. I did end up cutting the sleeves too long (I almost always seem to, when I don’t cut them a few inches too short!)
There’s very little flare to the side panels because of a lack of fabric though – less than the sketch would suggest for what I normally make this pattern up to. I did do a LOT of measurements to get a closer fit than the other coat though. (And yet still ended up with too-long sleeves!)
I’m still not really comfortable doing lonnnnng lengths of hand-sewing, so I opted to machine sew the hidden seams. In fact, I ended up doing this as a bobbin-using project, and while my top thread was consistently grey, I used blue, white, black, and grey thread in the bobbin, using up bits and pieces wound up from other projects.
The construction is pretty simple…
- First I sewed the shoulder seams. Normally I don’t have to do this because I cut the garments without a shoulder seam (as I’ve read is appropriate for this age).
- Then I sewed the center back seam. This too is something I normally don’t have to do, as I cut the front and back from one piece of cloth (for a dress) but since the front would be split for the coat, and I was paying close attention to how much fabric I had, I opted for a back seam. In this case because I added a back gore, I only sewed the back seam from the shoulders to the waist to start. (To later put in the gore.)
- From there I sewed the underarm trapezoid to the waist-hem trapezoid four times, then sewed the combination to the sleeve twice, then sewed the combination to the body.
- Next I figured out what I wanted for the neckline. I think that a higher neckline seems more practically for colder wear, but I also kind of like the look of the lower-cut coats that show off the brooches and necklaces. I decided that since my linen coat has a higher neckline, I’d do a lower neckline on the wool coat. I measured, pinned, tried it on, then cut out a slightly round high back neck, and a low, V-neck in the front. I’ll almost certainly wear my tri-lobed brooch from Raymond’s Quiet Press to hold the coat together at this point.
- From there I tried on the garment and determined that I could use the leftover rectangle for a back gore, and added that in.
- I always seem to cut the sleeves as rectangles to start, and so after that I trimmed down the length of the too-long sleeves, and pinned the taper in. I’ve found when I’ve tried to cut the taper, I end up with sleeves that don’t seem to fit correctly, so this seems like a bit of a pain. (Although I’ll label this as a low-waste pattern, there are a few fabric scraps that come out of this process, though I suppose one could use them for other small things to use up every inch…)
- Trying on the garment, I liked the fit pretty well, but decided that I’d like it a bit more fitted, so I took it in at the waist just a bit at the back seam. I could have done this on the side seams as well, but opted just to do it at the back seam. Probably not a period technique, since there wouldn’t even be a seam here (I think) but I like the fit better this way.
Even though I had resigned myself to this being a coat of compromises, I still wanted it to be PRETTY, so took some of the hand-dyed herringbone twill silk that I used for the cuffs on my blue linen underdress, and soooo carefully pieced it together to create front/neckline bands and bands for the cuffs. The front bands are on the straight of grain, the neckline front where it’s angled is on the bias, and then the back neckline was a wasteful curve… I started out trying to do it on the bias too, but because of how wide the band is, it just didn’t work properly, so I had to resign myself to finding another scrap of that blue silk….
I also twisted up a few strands of the red (raspberry) and navy blue linen yarn I’ve used now for a few projects…. but ended up not using it. Oh…more compromises.
Instead, I cut some red silk habotai on the bias, and applied it by hand along where the blue silk met the wool, using a grey thread whip stitch. Over that I did some simple stitches – but since I’d had problems stitching with the linen thread elsewhere, I used pearl cotton in a grey-blue instead.
Since I was running tight with fabric, my waist-hem trapezoids were really quite narrow without much flare at all (unlike the sketch above) so that meant there wasn’t a lot of bias to worry about, nor a lot of distortion to the hem height because of the angle. Because of this I was able to just do a simple folded hem, only having to steam it into shape on the gore at the back. Most of the panels were cut with the selvage on the edge, so I didn’t worry about finishing them at all. The ones that weren’t on the selvage (like the gore) I handled when I was doing the seam allowance treatments (below).
I pressed my hem in place, and then sewed it down with a wide and long zig-zag basting stitch.
From there I finished my hem with a herringbone hand-embroidery stitch in red linen yarn. I ended up NOT taking out the zig-zag basting, largely because it’s nearly completely invisible. Not only does that mean I don’t feel too bad about leaving it in there… but it’s also really hard to remove! I figured that until I finished off all the raw edges, it was also a bit of a security for fraying at the hem.
For the cuffs on the sleeves, I repeated the same thing as the body borders, and did a reverse facing on both cuffs with a slightly wider strip of the same hand-dyed herringbone silk, and added the red silk there as well.
… and I’m a glutton for punishment – seam allowances
Since I had wanted to have fairly small seam allowances, and didn’t want to line this coat (I didn’t want it too bulky) I hadn’t serged the seam allowances. The wool didn’t fray too much (But enough that I definitely couldn’t leave them raw) so I decided I was going to take the same red linen yarn from the hem, and do seam allowance treatments that would be visible from the outside – like I’ve seen a lot of other people do with their Viking/Norse garb.
For all the seam allowances that were on the selvage, I just did a running stitch, while on the raw edges, I did a whip stitch. Even though I had done the quick job of machine sewing the seams – I ended up spending 3x as long doing the seam allowance-finishing.
I really like the fit, and think the length and the narrowness makes it look really good.
While I am disappointed in the number of compromises I had to make to use this fabric, there’s also really nothing else that I would want to do with this fabric, so I’m ok with that.
Historical Sew Fortnightly
The Challenge: May – Practicality: Fancy party frocks are all very well, but everyone, even princesses, sometimes needs a practical garment that you can DO things in. Create the jeans-and-T-Shirt-get-the-house-clean-and-garden-sorted outfit of your chosen period.
This isn’t so much ‘clean the house’ garb, but it’s simple; not something for court or a fancy outing, just an every-day sort of coat/caftan/over garment for my Norse persona. It might end up getting replaced by something with fewer compromises if I acquire the right fabric. (At least while I’m still sewing Norse…)
Fabric: Wool (likely a blend) houndstooth plaid in greys and blue + herringbone hand-dyed silk + silk habotai
Pattern: self-drafted using rectangular construction
Year: Viking Age Norse
Notions: thread, embroidery thread, linen yarn.
How historically accurate is it? There are a number of compromises, but it’s ok.
Hours to complete: It probably took me over 2 days to cut and do the basic construction, but the trim, hemming, and seam finishes probably took 5x as long.
First worn: I wore it in it’s mostly-but-not-entirely finished state to April’s Beltaine event (SCA) and then a few days later finished off the last bit of hand-stitching.
Total cost: 3-4$ for the wool, the blue silk was scraps, and the red silk was in my stash, originally about $8/meter, and I used less than a meter. The yarn and embroidery threads were in stash as well.