Court suit – putting it all together

Sorry, this is a long post without any pretty pictures.  I was hurrying along to finish the coat, and didn’t have much time to take pictures of the progress.

I finally had the nerve to pull out all the pieces of the court suit coat and figure out where I had gone wrong.  When I left it in February, it was with the sickening realization that somewhere along the line, I had eliminated most of the neckline curve, making it impossible to draft a collar.

This wouldn’t have been so bad, but I had transferred the pattern to the fabric, since we were barely squeezing the coat out of the available yardage, and needed to know exactly where to place the embroidery.  I could tape on more paper, but I couldn’t piece in more fabric in such an obvious location.

Luckily, when I looked at it I determined it wasn’t as bad as I thought. If I moved the neckline out slightly, I could redraw the curve and meet up with the existing front edge.  This made the neckline and collar much wider and chunkier than the waistcoat, but that seemed fine to me.  Looking at period garments, it seemed several coats had similar necklines, in order to show off and complement the waistcoat.

So, onward.  More spangles. Hundreds and hundreds of spangles, reaching into the thousands.   I’d ordered two 10-gram packages (about 450 spangles each) back in January, and had to order 4 more. I have some left, but I also have several empty boxes.   I also still need to spangle the embroidery at the back vent and make two more buttons.  That’s a lot of spangles.

Luckily, my friend Chris, who is wearing the suit, was on board to help sew, embroider, spangle, lose sleep, curse, watch movies, and make tea.

Once we had spangled everything that was currently cut and embroidered, I moved on to the collar. It was drafted, the embroidery was designed, and then stitched out and spangles added.  Unfortunately, this process turned up another problem: somewhere along the line, the pieces of the coat had shifted, and the shoulders weren’t lining up quite right.  This made one side of the neckline longer than the other.  A little more hair-pulling, some tweaking of seams, and I was able to get something that fit together without too much weirdness.

The second pocket surround also needed to be embroidered, and somehow, the design did not get mirrored when it was stitched out. It meant the pocket was at the completely wrong angle on the coat.  Again, after much frustration and a few tears, we figured out the only solution.  Picking out the entire design wasn’t happening. Besides being enormously time consuming, the taffeta was just too damaged from the embroidery.  We removed the line of chainstitching that outlines the pocket, and one rose near the front.  We flipped the design, added the chainstitching back in, as close to the proper position as we could.  The old line shows in places, but much of it is hidden under flaps, buttons, and pleats.  To finish, we nudged the rose into a slightly different position, hiding most of the old stitching holes. Not perfect, but not glaringly obvious, either.

Somewhere in the middle of all this – about 3 days before the coat needed to be worn – I decided to sew the major pieces together by hand.  Yes, it was crazy, but I had my reasons.  First, I didn’t want the coat lining coming all the way to the edges of the coat.   If I’d sewn them together by machine, that is the only way I could do it.  By hand, I could do a more traditional stitch, allowing me to fold in the lining just a touch further and then leaving a little running stitch showing on the outside. As well, a sewing machine stitch is much more permanent and leaves much worse marks on the taffeta, and I wasn’t sure if I would need to adjust the seams later, when time wasn’t an issue.

The hand sewing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, or as time consuming.  In some places it was much easier than using the machine, because you can never catch a fold or tuck in a seam as you’re stitching, something that happens all to often when pushing fabric under a machine.

When it came to the sleeves, it turned out there was another issue with fit and pattern. Of course, the sleeves had already been cut out, since we were short on fabric.  I clearly remember patterning them, mocking them up, and being very happy with the fit.  At the end, however, the sleeves were much too large for the armhole, and also too long/too short in places along the armscye.  The sleeves were the last thing to go in, everything else was spangled and assembled, it was late, and the coat needed to be worn in a few hours.  I did the best I could to make them look decent, and will go back and deal with them later.

There really was not enough time in February, and even with another full week of late nights and early mornings, not enough time to properly finish this coat.  It looks decent, but I see all the issues.   It is definitely a prototype, and I learned a huge amount.  There will be another one in the future – but not too soon.

Things I learned during this coat:

  • You need lots more spangles than you think.
  • Bigger spangles have more size/shape variation, and it’s hard to sew them in a line that doesn’t look wobbly.
  • Never embroider on taffeta.  Silk satin is a dream, however.
  • Machine embroidery pulls things out of shape, making matching up with a pattern later somewhat tricky. A thin fabric like taffeta had much more pulling than the satin we used on the waistcoat.
  • Hand sewing is much easier than you think.
  • Work on the coat first! If I’d realized how tight it would be to cut out all the pieces, I would have made the breeches in satin, and only used the blue taffeta for the coat.  Instead, I went for the easy project first, and regretted it.
  • The next time I tackle a coat, I will make a meticulous mock up, including finishes and lining, before progressing any further.  I think it would have helped eliminate issues with both of the coats I’ve recently made.

DPP – Coat Progress and Decisions

Parts of the coat are coming along nicely:

Coat front being embroidered.

Coat pocket and lining fabric.

Coat buttons.

The fronts and back vents are embroidered, pocket flaps spangled and assembled, sleeves cut and sewn, cuffs embroidered, lining cut and sewn. Most of the major pieces are there.

That said, it’s really not ready for assembly. The DPP deadline is looming, and even with as close as I am, there is no way to finish this coat well in time to submit it for the project. It’s a tough decision. Without the coat, I feel like the submission is lacking completion, even though I am very proud of the pieces I have completed. With the coat, I feel like the submission could suffer because the focal point of the outfit wouldn’t be up to the same quality as the rest of it.

There is just barely enough blue silk to make this coat. I really don’t want to mess it up because I am hurrying. Also, the more I work with it, with this deadline looming, the more stress I feel and the less I like the coat. I need some breathing room, some time away from the project, and some perspective so I can come back and finish it properly.

So I’ve made a decision: My DPP entry will be the breeches, shirt and waistcoat. Not what I wanted to submit, but very good pieces and I am proud of them.

DPP – Waistcoat

The waistcoat for the DPP is finished. Here’s a recap of some of the steps along the way.

First the pattern was drafted, mocked up, and fitted. Once the pattern was right, I started arranging the embroidery files to fit the pattern exactly. I ended up using a sprig and rosebud as a border, with a double row of chain stitch along the edge. Pockets and pocket surround patterns were more elaborate, using sprigs of greenery and open roses to fill out the pattern.

First the embroidery was stitched out on lengths of satin:

Once the embroidery was complete, spangles were sewn alongside the double line of chain stitch, and smaller pieces like the pocket flaps and collar were assembled. Pocket flaps were then sewn on to the waistcoat fronts.

Waistcoat parts waiting for assembly.

Buttons were embroidered then spangled:

Buttons being spangled before being cut and assembled.

The finished buttons:

Waistcoat buttons ready to be sewn on.

Then everything gets sewn together. The waistcoat was backed and interlined with a plain, natural colored linen. The fronts were interlined with more linen, and lined with a natural silk taffeta. Most of the seams were sewn by machine, but the final seam along the neckline was finished by hand.

Finishing the neckline by hand.

The last steps are to make the buttonholes (always a bit scary), mark button placement, and sew on the buttons. An underlap was added during patterning so that the waistcoat edges would meet exactly when buttoned.

There were a couple major setbacks on the waistcoat.

The first one came while stitching out the embroidery for the waistcoat fronts. The pattern was broken up into pieces: 3 sections forming the outline of the waistcoat, a fill of small flowers for the body, and the pocket flap surround. I’d stitched each section individually and together, on muslin, using the same colors or very similar colors. I liked the combined effect of all the parts, right until they were all embroidered on the satin. Uh-oh.

The floral sprigs I was using as the fill on the waistcoat chest area had problems. Even though they were the same threads used everywhere else on the project, these particular flowers seemed to emphasize the darker green stems and medium pink buds, rather than the lighter greens and pinks in the waistcoat border. They just seemed really dark in comparison. Also, the floral sprig being used, while from the same set of patterns and originally used together on a period waistcoat, just felt like they were too different from the roses and buds used elsewhere. And finally, once it was all together it was obvious that the buds were too large, and placed too closely together.

I went from being totally in love with the project when just the border was stitched, to hating it once the fill was added. It was hours and hours of work, never mind the expensive materials. The question was – do I feel strongly enough about it to start over? This was the time to make the decision, before I put any more work into it. After a cup or tea and a chat, I decided that yes, starting over was exactly what I needed to do.

I started stitching out the waistcoat again, while editing a new pattern for the fill. I chose the same rosebuds used in the border, and made sure the scale and spacing was much lighter than before. The end result is what you see here:

Rosebuds pattern filling the chest area.

The second setback came when I was about to cut the embroidered and spangled waistcoat fronts for assembly. From looking at multiple period examples, it seemed that most of the waistcoats did not have an underlap for the buttons; they simply overlapped and part of the embroidered was covered up when buttoned. I wasn’t 100% happy with the idea, but it was period and it saved time (and money), since the side of the waistcoat that would be hidden would not need spangles. I kept wondering if it was the right decision, and with 2 fully embroidered waistcoat fronts laying in front of me it was finally clear: I needed that underlap. When the two sides overlapped, the embroidery on the right was almost completely hidden. Period or not, it just looked unbalanced. I had enough seam allowance to create an underlap, so a quick pattern change was all that was needed. Well, a pattern change and a few more hours sewing on more spangles.

In the end, I am very glad I took the time to re-do those steps. I absolutely love the way it turned out. It really shows off the embroidery and hand work that went into it.


This is up on the inspiration board right now. It’s just enough to keep me excited and itching to get back to working on the DPP.

Inspiration Board

Inspiration pinned up on the board: photos, buckles, finished collar.

Embroidery, take 2

A while back I posted a picture of a sample button for this suit. I’d selected an embroidery file I liked, and have been working with it on and off to create designs I wanted to use on this project. I haven’t really been happy with any of the combinations I’ve worked up.

I was originally very excited about this embroidery file in particular because it was all in chain stitch, like the inspiration photo, and it had both pink roses and a blue flower. It seemed to have some interesting possibilities for using pink on the suit and blue on the waistcoat.

I’ve finally had to accept a couple things about this file. First.. it’s just horribly complicated to find a pleasing arrangement that uses pink on the blue suit, but pink AND blue on the cream waistcoat. If I don’t use pink on the waistcoat it feels like two disconnected pieces, and the blue flowers disappear on the blue silk. So I’m going to only use the pink roses.

Which brings me to the next issue. I think the pink roses I am using look sort of mushy and shapeless much of the time. I keep stitching them out in different color combinations and sizes and I haven’t really fallen in love with them yet. I do love that they are in chain stich, but I think that is also the root of the problem.

So back to the drawing board, as they say. My choices of embroidery files are slim. Of the handful that are suitable for waistcoats, a couple just don’t appeal to me aesthetically. One of them is quite nice as far as layout, but I was unhappy with the stitch quality. I thought I had stitched out all of the files, but couldn’t find a stitch out of one last pattern. So I stitched out a sample and I love it!

I’ll be using bits and pieces from multiple files and patterns, but the main design elements will be a chain stitch loopy braid pattern and satin stitch roses. Now back to editing and combining files on the computer.

Fabric Selection

Fabric selections for the DPP were fairly easy, since I planned to use as many fabrics as possible from my stash. I had plenty of lightweight linen for shirt-making, and a few yards of a cotton French lace for ruffles at the front and wrists.

For the waistcoat, I plan to use the most wonderful fabric I’ve ever worked with, a lovely double-faced silk satin in a rich creamy color. For the rest of the suit, I have a beautiful cornflower blue silk tafetta. I would rather have had a second satin to use for the suit, but not enough to spend money to buy the yardage.

The fabrics and lace were originally used to make this 18th century inspired wedding dress:

18th-century-inspired silk satin wedding gown.

I think they’ll be equally stunning in an 18th century court suit, don’t you?

18th Century Suit Buttons

Here is a close-up of a button from the inspiration suit:

18th century suit button

Detail of button from inspiration suit

The button is made of embroidered fabric wrapped around a flat disk.  All the embroidery on this suit appears to be chain stitch, with the exception of the little circles, which are similar to small sewn eyelets.  The button is bordered by chain stitch in two shades of pink.  Then the row of circles, and a small flower in the middle. The waistcoat buttons are smaller, but almost exactly the same. However, the border of the waistcoat buttons is navy blue rather than pink, which ties it together with the coat quite nicely.

Three of the waistcoats in the Martha Pullen DAR book also use chainstitch embroidery.  I stitched out some samples, and they look very passable for machine embroidery.  One of the patterns is sprigs of rosebuds and forget-me-nots, perfect for the suit I want to make.  However, none of the patterns are as intricate as the inspiration suit, and will need a lot of layering and positioning to give the same effect. Still, it’s a wonderful start.

I decided to start with a button, since it is small and is a bit of immediate gratification.   There was a promising circle motif from one waistcoat, and the rosebuds from a second.  Using embroidery design editing software, I was able to separate the rose from the sprig it was on, add the leaves back in, and shrink the design while trying to keep stitch count and density reasonable.  The circle involved two rows of machine chainstitch, and I was able to insert a color change between the two rows.  This enabled me to make the outer ring a darker shade than the inner, just like in the inspiration photo.  Finally, I combined the rose and the circle into one design, and combined colors for ease of stitching.  I didn’t like the first test run; the rose was too small and choppy, so I tweaked it and stitched it out again.

Here is the sample button, stitched on the blue silk taffeta, embellished with spangles, and wrapped around a chipboard circle:

Blue taffeta button with pink rosebud

Sample button of silk taffeta, embroidery, and spangles

Up close, it is obvious this was stitched by machine, but a few paces away it gives a very reasonable effect.  It also takes a small fraction of the time to create.  I am not sure about these exact colors; they were what I had on hand.  I want a distinctly pink rose, but this veers a little too far towards berry.  I think I’d like something closer to salmon, without getting quite as peach as the inspiration suit.  The spangles are exactly what I wanted to replace the small embroidered circles, and will add some nice sparkle to the finished garment.   This is very close to what the finished buttons will look like.

18th Century Men’s Suit – Inspiration

The Kyoto Costume Institute publishes the most beautiful books, with detailed pictures.  Utterly dreamy.  My favorite suit is pictured in a couple of their books: the expensive Revolution in Fashion: 1715-1815, and the more reasonably priced 25th Anniversary Fashion.

Navy blue satin court suit

Men's Court Suit from the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute

This is a stunning example of 18th century clothing. I love the richness of the silk, the roses, the swags, the way the embroidery is carried through both the coat and vest, with subtle differences.  I would love to create a suit like this.

The vision: To create a man’s court suit using the above image for inspiration.  As much as possible, I’d like to stay historically accurate in regard to pattern, fit, fabric, embroidery, etc.   The outfit will include shirt, pants, waistcoat, and outer coat.  I will also pull together accessories – wig, shoe buckles, etc. – to complete the look for photographs.

Fabrics:  I plan to make a blue suit with ivory waistcoat, both embroidered and accented with silver spangles, and possibly silver thread. The shirt will be fine handkerchief linen trimmed with Valenciennes lace at the cuffs and collar. Lining will be linen or cotton. I have some ivory double-faced silk satin and forget-me-not blue silk taffeta left over after making an 18th century-inspired wedding dress.  The fabrics are gorgeous, and better yet, they are already paid for.  The blue is lighter than the navy in the inspiration photo, but the color is period-appropriate and I’m not going for a 100% accurate replica.

Embroidery: I can do simple hand embroidery, but this is far from simple. However, I do have an embroidery machine. My plan was to search the web for a small rose & rosebud design that I could manipulate to get the effect I wanted.  The biggest hurdle is that much machine embroidery looks very modern, so I will have to choose carefully.  Luckily, before I really started the search, I ran across the new Martha Pullen book and embroidery CD’s from the DAR Museum.  The book contains several waistcoats from this period, complete with digitized embroidery patterns!  This is as close as it gets to replicating period embroidery by machine.   I’ll use the machine to do the bulk of the work, then accent with hand-stitched details and silver spangles. The original suit has small circles embroidered around the buttons and edges, and I will probably use spangles instead of embroidery.  The inspiration suit doesn’t actually have any silver on it, and I want a bit of glitz.  Other period suits have similar motifs worked in silver instead of thread, and I like the effect.

It’s a big challenge, but I think I can do it.  I have nearly a year until the deadline.  Of course, I hope to make a woman’s outfit as well…

2010 Double Period Project

Your Wardrobe Unlock’d is hosting the “Double Period Project” this year.  The basics are 1) there are two periods to use as inspiration, 2) you can make as much or as little as you like from either period, and 3) it can be as historically accurate (or not) as you like.  Prizes for different categories, abilities, etc.   They ran a similar contest last year, centered around a single dress pattern, but I didn’t have time to participate.  This year, however, I am going for it.

I may try both periods, time allowing, but I was really excited that one of them is 1770-89, the time surrounding the French Revolution.  I love so many extant garments in museums from this time period.  I’ve wanted to re-create one for ages, but without an excuse (or a client), I just haven’t done it.  Now I can.

I’m hoping to do both a man’s court suit and a woman’s polonaise.  Court suits were still worn into the early 1800’s, and I love the over the top embroidery and spangles.  I also love the adorable polonaise gowns and big hats from this period.   Both styles should both be fun to make.

So this is the beginning of my dress diary for the 2010 DPP.  I always mean to keep a diary and never do, so this is another good excuse to try something new.