For the last several years, I have been working on adding new pieces to my various impressions, with the goal of a new piece every event or two, if possible. I have shared on here about making uniform shirts, work dresses, and more. For the last several years a friend has graciously loaned me her bolero jacket to go with my blue hoop skirt and blouse. Now it was time to make my own.
I decided I wanted it to be period correct, and that I wanted to make it like one from the ladies handbook. I searched through many pictures of ladies jackets from the war era currently in museums. Finally, I found one in the Metropolitan Museum with a shape I really liked and I knew would go well with my skirts and the type of sleeves I have on my Garibaldi blouse. It also happened to be very similar in shape to the coat I had been using! I found out it was called a Spanish coat, and with it there could be several types of trim, ranging from layers of very fine trim, to wider trim, to very militaristic trim in design. It could also have a flare sleeve, which worked well for my blouse sleeves. I liked what I was seeing.
Next, I found an online copy of the 1862 and 1863 Godey’s Ladies Handbook – the fashion Bible for the time. I searched through hundreds of pages of etiquette, fashion plates, and clothing and trim patterns, among other things. FINALLY, I found a trim design similar to what I was imagining, and paired with the shape of the jacket, I was inspired!
I drafted a pattern for the coat and began searching for my fabric and trim. Online, I found vintage tropical weight wool, which happened to be the same color as the trim in my two hoop skirts! SCORE! I purchased it and realized it was perfect! More time passed as I searched for the correct trim. I didn’t want the pencil-thin trim that would require layers and layers of trim to make the proper designs with it, and thus tens to hundreds of hours to apply it, but neither did I want a trim that screamed 20th or 21stcentury. I wanted something that looked like the era. Through many online searches, I finally found a private seller who had trim that looked very close! Not only that, but it was a vintage trim AND on sale! I snatched that up in a hurry!
Now that I had all the pieces, I sat down and started my coat. I cut out all the coat fabric and lining first, pressing the pieces and making sure they fit together right. I attached the coat sides and back in the wool, and did the same with the lining muslin, pressing the seams open. Then I began the long process of laying out the trim design. Originally I had planned to go with a cloverleaf with “diamond” leaves pattern, but when working with the trim I realized it wasn’t going to apply cleanly and clearly that way since I couldn’t get this trim to make clean corners. However, the rounded cloverleaf pattern worked beautifully! I mapped out proportionate locations for the design all the way around the coat, and started laying it out, pinning the trim every couple inches, and keeping it a consistent distance from the edge. Once I had the whole thing laid out, and in one piece I may add, I started stitching it. All. By. Hand. Every inch of this trim is hand applied, and boy was it worth it! It allowed me to check the design and distances every few inches when needed, and some times I had to tweak the cloverleaf design to make it proportional.
I then attached the lining the coat around all the edges, leaving the sleeve holes open, and making sure to catch the ends of the trim securely in the seam. I pressed the seams open again and turned the coat right side out through the armhole. I pressed the edges again to have a crisp edge, especially with the resistance of the wool against the muslin. It was already shaping up beautifully!
I took the sleeve pieces and worked with several different ideas on the sleeves. Should I do one pattern per sleeve? Two? Three? I laid out a couple and held it up as a sleeve to see what I liked. I decided on using three designs per sleeve. I laid out everything as before, knowing how much space I needed for the sleeve hem, then spacing up from the hem edge to where I wanted the design. Laying it out in an even pattern, I pinned it every few inches again. Then I hand stitched it in place on the sleeves just as I had with the body of the coat.
Once I knew the trim was on securely, I pressed and stitched the hem on both sleeves. It was going to be gorgeous! Placing the fabric right sides together, I stitched the long seam closed, forming the sleeve. Once all this was done, I pressed the coat by hand and made sure everything was fitting tightly and crisply. I then basted the armholes so everything stayed crisp and tight. Pinning the sleeves in place, I attached 60-70% of the sleeve flat, and gathering the rest of the fabric at the top of the sleeve, giving it more room and mobility to the jacket. With all that pinned in place, I stitched both sleeves in the coat. Once I knotted everything and removed all the pins, I shook out the coat and looked at it. It was gorgeous! Exactly what I wanted!
I wanted to make sure everything was right before I took it to my next event. So, I put on my corset and Garibaldi blouse, pulling on the coat last. I noticed it did need a few tweaks to the side seams just to make it fit as designed. Those alterations done, I tried it on as before. Now it fit PERFECTLY! I packed it and went to my event the next week, where I debuted it at the ball! So far, those who have seen it in person have loved it. I hope you do as well!
If anyone is interested in creating a remake of a piece of clothing from the era they love, such as I did with this coat and my love for the War Between the States, I would say it’s work, but it’s absolutely worth it! If you are interested in fashion or what ladies were taught during the 1860s, be sure to check out Godey’s Ladies Handbook.
~By Rachel Holland