and am about to do the pattern work for my first “old school” jacket.
As I look back over Getting Things Sewn’s second year, I see the predictable disruptions of househunting, house-selling, packing, moving, and settling in. But I also see a very promising beginning to my new local sewing community. I am finding people to say “Wow!” to where I live and online. I’ve come to see that’s essential to building and maintaining my momentum.
I am also finding people to say “How?” to–experts who can inform and nudge me to build my fund of knowledge and experience.
Zero things sewn wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for year 2.
But as for year 3 I’m off to a great start.
If you ask me, there’s nowhere to go but up.
In the elevator of Columbus’s great LeVeque Tower, built 1927.
A basted jacket presides over our empty classroom.
Get out the smelling salts because you may be in for a shock. Yesterday and today in class I drafted a trouser pattern. No, really!
Victoria is teaching us the “fly line” method of trouser-drafting.
I, who have been resisting your entreaties for ten years to learn pattern-drafting, was drafting a pattern!
Now brace yourself: I found it very absorbing.
I won’t claim I understood everything. Don’t ask me to reproduce what I did in class or explain all the reasoning; I’m not that enlightened. But today I reached a tipping point. I found myself thinking that I could actually learn enough about pattern-drafting and alteration to succeed. And I could succeed enough to feel rewarded for my efforts.
Christopher Foster-Hicklin’s notes. We met him on Day 1.
I didn’t reach this conclusion logically. I just felt it. I noticed I was saying things to myself like “It would be fun to draft and make beautiful wool trousers for Jack,” and “I could baste Jack’s sportcoat together and have him try it on for fit.” These activities sounded interesting and wonderful–and possible!
You know I’ve been dreading that sportcoat project for years. A couple of weeks ago, though, in preparation for this trip to London, I discovered that the dread had dissolved into simple curiosity. The fear was gone, and that’s when I opened up to the possibility of learning what I had to learn. No, “had” is the wrong word. “Longed” is the word.
From Christopher’s notes, a sketch of a backless vest
Around 4:00 this afternoon, as our class was winding down for the week, I said to Victoria, “A miracle has occurred. I was just thinking, ‘I want to baste the pieces of Jack’s sportcoat together and have him try it on!” The miracle was that I didn’t feel dread or obligation but, as I told you, just curiosity. I told Victoria, “That sportcoat is the gateway to the sportcoat I really want to make.”
While waiting for my train back to the flat this evening I remembered writing that the sportcoat project could turn out to be a stepping stone. Whether or not it becomes a completed garment, it is serving a purpose. The effort has not been wasted, and the reward can be richer than I could have imagined.
Left: a back piece for a morning coat. On the right: a side panel, but probably for a different coat.
This morning, Edith, I really wished you could have been in class to see master tailor Christopher Foster-Hicklin’s notes as a 16- or 17-year old in the late ’60s when he was a student at the Tailor & Cutter Academy. He made a gift of them to Victoria, and when she showed them to us we were entranced by their beauty and utility.
A bellows pocket pattern flat…
As she leafed through pattern pieces, notes and sketches Victoria explained the shape of a pocket, the peak of a lapel. Christopher is still working as a master tailor–as he told our class Tuesday, although he celebrated fifty years in tailoring in 2012, “I’m not 90 years old.” These notes and sketches are part of a living continuum.
Before I came to this class I asked myself what I wanted to get out of it. I could chalk it up as simply another interesting experience. Or I could challenge myself to keep learning–and using–techniques to make more beautiful, more lasting clothes.
In my own way I can be part of the continuum, too. I like the sound of that! I hope you have some openings in your appointment book because I see more exciting projects ahead!
Your slow but devoted student.
A label from one of the tailoring companies Christopher has worked for in his long career.
A couple of days ago I found myself strolling over to my rolling baker’s rack, where I store my sewing projects on full-size baking sheets, and pulling out my oldest, most guilt-ridden UFO (UnFinished Object): my dreaded Sportcoat Project.I was simply curious about what I’d done and what was left to do.
The vexatious Sportcoat Project
Having spent years avoiding any contact with The Sportcoat Project, this was a surprising change. Let me explain.
I started The Sportcoat Project in early 2004 After sewing a challenging vintage jacket pattern I must have thought I was ready to attempt a modern jacket pattern for Jack for his birthday with guidance once more from my sewing teacher, Edith Gazzuolo.
After finishing this 1936 jacket pattern, was I ready to tackle a sportcoat?
I made a muslin, which Edith fitted, and we altered the pattern pieces. I cut wool, lining, and interfacings and set to work. I recall at some point Edith’s saying that the fabric was a little too light or that the interfacing was the wrong choice…I forget the details. But the upshot was that the mistake wasn’t reversible. I could continue and maybe the jacket would be wearable, or I could cut my losses and start over with another fabric.
I started over.
On a park bench in London, Jack models a Lands’ End sportcoat.
Darn it, I would see this sportcoat through.
Paging through my copious and meticulous notes, I see sketches, snapshots, homework checklists, rewrites of sections of the Vogue pattern instructions, and comparisons of interfacing philosophies and materials. Phew!
Notes and more notes!
Two years into this project, in the summer of 2006, Jack and I took a trip to England and Scotland. Waiting for a traffic light in York, we chanced to see a button shop across the street, where I bought buttons for The Sportcoat. What a nice souvenir to add to Jack’s now year-and-a-half belated birthday gift.
That was the last time I did anything on The Sportcoat Project.
Buttons from our England trip.
My next notes, dated September 2006, were for an ambitious three-jacket project for myself made from the 1941 McCall “Misses’ Mannish Jacket” pattern. I think I wanted to practice more on jackets for myself and return to The Sportcoat Project with more experience.
Over the course of a year and a half I finished those jackets, which can be seen in Reader’s Closet on the Threads website here. They are beautiful!
The Misses’ Mannish Jackets were going to be a warmup for The Sportcoat. They weren’t.
Then I sewed many more garments for myself. And there was a long stretch when I was sewing draperies and cushions for the living room and dining room that called for lots of hand work, which I gladly did. The draperies and cushions are beautiful!
From one year to the next, I always managed to see some challenging sewing projects through. But not The Sportcoat Project. I came to dread and avoid it–for years.
For one reason, there was still a lot of work to do on it, and any misstep could relegate it to the “wadder” pile. (Nonsewers: a “wadder” is a project you wad up and throw away in frustration.) The chance of failure remained great. I could wear my own imperfect garments, but I wasn’t going to give Jack a garment that looked amateurish and expect him to wear it.
Another reason was, even with Edith’s guidance, sewing menswear is a very tricky business, and there isn’t a whole lot of help for home sewers.
Other reasons have just occurred to me. The fabric is okay, but not inspiring–and I think it’s only okay on Jack, too. I had wanted to practice on a good enough fabric rather than cut into something special like a Harris tweed. The problem with that approach is I’m never very motivated to see the job through because I never experience the thrill of construction that pulls me forward like a good suspense story.
Behind the scenes: underlining, interfacing, welt pockets.
I am also realizing, just now, that I’ve never had a compelling vision of Jack wearing this sportcoat–not once! Even if I did finish this sportcoat it would lack that magic that the best sewing projects have.
I also never worked out with Jack how this sportcoat would work in his wardrobe.
Plus, I planned my first sportcoat for him to be a birthday gift! Talk about expectations I was placing on myself!
One of the chest pieces and the draft.
So, let’s do an audit of The Sportcoat Project:
Ability level: moderate, but willing to learn
Compelling vision: nonexistent.
Expectations: high and unrealistic
What are the chances this project will ever get finished?
Plus difficile indeed!
Nevertheless, all these years I have not countenanced throwing this project away. “All that work–wasted!” I’ve said to myself. It really wasn’t until yesterday afternoon writing this post that I figured out what I really needed to figure out. What work did I fear wasting?
I thought I didn’t want to waste the hours and hours it took to produce those welted pockets with flaps, chest pieces, the canvas-backed cotton lawn I’d basted onto the fronts, the interfaced vent and hems.
Maybe, though, I didn’t want to value my ability so little that I would just–give up. If I were to throw out The Sportcoat Project and feel good about it, it would be because I’d rediscovered the essence of what I wanted, and devised a better way to attain it. Nothing–nothing would have been wasted then.
I think that’s what I sensed–but hadn’t put into words yet–when I pulled The Sportcoat Project from the baker’s rack Sunday. “Next week I start the Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors short course at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London,” I thought. “How about looking at that sportcoat?
No guilt, no frustration. Just simple curiosity.
The back, with more underlining, canvas interfacing, and a back stay.
I looked each piece over with as an objective eye as I’ve ever had. “Nice work here. Too much bulk in that seam–how could I do that better next time? That pocket material looks too heavy–what do bespoke tailors use? Say–I could bring some of these pieces with me and get my classmates’ and instructors opinions. Shall I budget space in my suitcase? Of course!”
The prospect of being around people who appreciate, aspire to, and practice bespoke tailoring has rekindled my enthusiasm and willingness to learn.
In my mind now, The Sportcoat Project has undergone a transformation. I’m no longer seeing it as a sewing quagmire.
The subject line read “Bespoke Tailoring–2-week short course at FTM.”
“FTM” is the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. I had visited it as part of my research two and a half years ago for “Sewing Destination: London, England,” which I wrote for Threads magazine. I had been getting the museum’s e-mail newsletter ever since.
Suitings awaiting a tailor’s needle. (photo: Cynthia DeGrand)
Every few weeks I’d glance at the announcements flowing from FTM about its exhibitions, events and courses and enjoy imagining attending. Then I’d get on with my day.
But this subject line grabbed me. Immediately I clicked on the link.
Gieves and Hawkes, at No. 1 Savile Row (photo: Cynthia DeGrand)
“Led by a Savile Row tailor,” it said. Wow. “Including tours of Savile Row,” it said. Wow!
Great tailoring requires great materials. English woolens. (photo: Cynthia DeGrand)
It just got better–and more daunting.
“All-day field trip exploring London’s tailoring centres and the market for bespoke.” Yes!
My favorite research project ever: my article in the June-July 2012 issue of Threads.
“Students will understand the technicalities of fitting a garment [right…in one day?] and begin to draft their own pair of trousers using Savile Row techniques.” Eek.
“Students will be invited into three tailoring companies to be shown the unique ways of working within each company.” Ahhh.
Lock & Co., one of London’s great old hatmakers mainly for men. (photo: Cynthia DeGrand)
“Using all of the techniques learnt the previous day, students will create their own waistcoat baste completely by hand.” Hmmm. Maybe. We’ll just have to see how much I learnt first.
Despite my qualms about drafting patterns, since anything beyond the simplest alteration gets the better of me, the thought of being exposed to the arcane arts of British men’s tailoring from a pro, in the company of fellow enthusiasts, in my favorite city, was almost more than I could stand.
A great suit calls for the right hat. Jack admires the hats in the window of Bates. (photo: Cynthia DeGrand)
I forwarded the e-mail to Jack at work with the single sentence: “I want to do this!”
He wrote back, “And I want you to do it.”
The next day I registered for the course.
I have never felt worthy of working with worsteds. Will that change? (photo: Cynthia DeGrand)
That was just under three weeks ago. I learned yesterday that only a few places are still open, and the course is expected to go. It takes place January 14-24.
The evening of January 9 will see me boarding a plane in Minneapolis, landing at Heathrow at noon on the 10th. I’ll have a few days before and after the course to revisit some of the places and events–museums, vintage fashion fairs, street markets, and stores–that I covered in “Sewing Destination.”
Well-tailored menswear can have a long life: a vintage menswear store called Old Hat. (photo: Cynthia DeGrand)
Between now and the flight I’m assigning myself some homework:
planning a travel wardrobe
reading about the history of British men’s tailoring
studying men’s pattern-drafting and tailoring books
As to the last of these three assignments: I won’t be an expert, but at least I’ll be able to ask better questions.
But, just maybe, I’m being too pessimistic.
Could be a bespoke waistcoat for Jack be in the offing?
A souvenir from my Threads magazine research: swatches of Harris tweeds handwoven in Scotland.
I kept thinking the shoulder pads were just a little too big.
Is it when I’ve made the last stitch? Pulled out the last tailor tack? Given it a final press?
Cleared my worktables and vacuumed up the trimmings?
Modeled the garment and written about it for the blog?
When I’ve worn it once? Hung it in the closet?
This bread is done. But when is a sewing project done?
When does that magical moment occur that a sewing project becomes a garment?
I often think that in this regard–testing for doneness–cooking is easier than sewing.
Wouldn’t it be great if pattern instructions said, “Roast skirt to a temperature of 130 degrees for medium rare”?
Or, “Bake jacket until top is golden and center is springy to the touch. Cool on a rack”?
I mean, you know whether a cake is a blob of batter in a pan or something you can put birthday candles into and serve.
But do you know when your sewing project stops being a construction project and starts being a new home to move into?
Yes, you say?
Well, then tell me!
A little surgery. The jacket made a full recovery.
At the risk of being labeled a neurotic sewer, I’m continuing to mull over the 1930s Butterick jacket. I said that the shoulders were a little too padded, which bothered me. I resolved to follow through on my dissatisfaction. In a little outpatient surgery I would open up the jacket, do a shoulder pad reduction, stitch her up again and have her back on her feet in no time.
I had Jack take pictures of me for the “before” version, in preparation for the improved “after” version that was sure to follow.
Then I undid only enough stitches from the lining to turn part of the jacket inside out and remove one pad. Hmm. It was actually pretty thin.
Opening up the shoulder pad, I saw there were just two thin layers of batting basted together. I teased one layer out.
I removed one wafer-thin layer of batting. Is this bordering on obsessive-compulsive?
Was this bordering on insanity? I got this far; I might as well follow through and see if absolutely minimal padding would do the trick. No padding at all left the shoulders looking a little crestfallen.
I reinstalled the newly minimized shoulder pads. Yes, slightly better–like moving from a B to a B+.
I like the shoulder definition of McCall’s pattern 4065 from 1941.
For comparison I tried on one of my “misses’ mannish jackets,” McCall’s 4065 from 1941. Ah, the forties: the era of defined shoulders. This jacket felt like an old friend. It might not be apparent to anyone else, but to me, this jacket got the shoulders just right. I felt…understood.
From 1941, the “Misses’ Mannish Jacket.”
Back to the 1930s jacket. Now I think it’s the cut that’s just a little off for me. Forgive me if I sound too particular, but having sewn a lot of garments for myself, I know the difference between the many that fit fine and the few that go beyond and have…I can only call it chemistry.
When I pull on a jacket or coat I’ve sewn and feel a smile spreading across my face, that’s chemistry.
Usually, “chemistry” refers to something between two people. So how can I experience chemistry with…a coat? The best way I can explain it is, when the garment-wearer me feels completely understood by the sewer-me who took the time and had the interest in getting it right, that’s chemistry.
Or nailing it.
However you want to call it.
For those garments where I’ve nailed it, like the “mannish” jacket, I don’t find myself asking, “Is this done?” or “Am I done?”
That suggests that doneness is not only a matter of stitching the last stitch or pressing the last press.
It’s achieving a state of well-being where the background chatter about construction and fit has melted away.
When I feel that rightness, that’s when I know I’m really done.
With thinner shoulder pads, I’m raising the grade from a B to a B+.
I’m happy with my 1930s jacket, for the most part. I’m annoyed that I placed the top bound buttonhole above the roll line, but happy with the rest of the construction. I’m noticing, though, that I’m still seeing this as a project. Will it move to being a summer wardrobe staple? We’ll see.
Right now, it’s just important to notice this back-and-forth in my mind. I’ve invested so much time and effort in this jacket, I want it to be right–and it’s worth taking a little more time to experiment and fine-tune. But I owe it to myself to answer the ultimate question truthfully: “Is this done?”