The Merchant Gentleman’s Coat

Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #1:
The __13 Challenge

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My sexy circa 1713 man’s coat

I know I swore I wouldn’t post the challenges for the HSF here, but this is an exceptional case. The first challenge for this year-long saga of stretching my sewing skills involved celebrating a fashion from a year ending in __13 (e.g. 1913, 1413, etc.). Most folks would have done something pretty and simple, like Edwardian or Regency.

Me? I’m a glutton for punishment and men’s fashion.

So began the 1713 man’s coat.

Before I go on, I have a large confession to make: I have a horrible, irrational fear of the sewing machine. It’s not like I’ve never used one– I own one in fact– but I hate machine sewing and have since I was little. A whole dissertation could probably be written about whatever weird psychological phenomena prompted this distaste, but for now, just remember that I refuse to machine sew anything other than a straight line. This is an important factor in the insanity that follows.

So, I live in Carlsbad, NM, a town out in the middle of the Chihuahua desert. I am fortunate that, even though we are in podunk nowhere, I have access to a fabulous craft emporium chock full of the finest fabrics and patterns at deeply discounted prices.

So, I trooped into Walmart to find 1713 coat patterns and some cheap, suitable fabric. Many Walmarts have done away with their fabric sections, but thanks to a steady crafting community, our smarmy Walmart still dedicates a tiny corner to quilting cotton and the “China Specials” (those fabric bolts marked “contents unknown/variable” with the texture of a felted plastic bag). When I finally found time to get to this Subway-scented wonderland, it was a week into the challenge already, leaving me only a few hours after work each night to sew.  Fortunately, the Fates of Fashion were in a good mood that day, and I emerged from the polyester muddle with the only heavyweight natural fiber available in any sort of feasible color: 6 yards of brown cotton canvas duck ($5.49 cents a yard). Walmart was discerning and refined enough to furnish me with a historically accurate pattern as well:

Aw, yeah! Simplicity 4923.

I’m not joking about the historical accuracy, at least of the actual coat silhouette itself. Jack Sparrow wannabe aside, this pattern is actually good for achieving an early 18th century look as long as you don’t need something perfectly accurate, method-wise. In fact, I’m going to go back and buy the large size version so I can make one for my barrel-chested father. I chose to make an xsmall this time around because I wanted something smaller and therefore quicker to sew. Also, thanks to an excellent sports bra, I happen to fit in the Simplicity man’s xsmall and will provide evidence as soon as I find/make something other than jeans and t-shirt to wear underneath.

The sewing saga began Thursday night with the cutting of the pattern. The envelope back said the coat would take 5 7/8 yards of 45″ fabric to make a coat. My cotton duck was 60 inches wide, but I figured 6 yards wouldn’t hurt (room for mistakes). I ended up using only about 3 yards, so I have enough left over for another, if I choose. The directions and pattern pieces were all straightforward and easy to piece together, minus the darn interfacing which I cheaped out on and just used some more cotton duck, so it’s a little too bulky. However, the directions are mostly common sense, except the sleeves. I had to perform some serious sleeve voodoo on those things just to get them to line up properly!

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An accurate, scientific portrayal of what occurs during sleeve voodoo.

So, did I mention I hate sewing machines? I felt rather accomplished pushing my needle in and out of the cloth over and over and over and over. I sewed 100% or this coat with my own hands and only stabbed myself once (with the back of the needle, of all things). I started out at about 10 stiches per inch on Friday, but by Sunday morning, I was booking it at something a little closer to 5 or 6. My mother walked by on Saturday night with a horribly concerned look on her face and offered to machine sew the monstrously, terribly, god-awfully long 84 inch strip of interfacing. But I was in too deep. I soldiered on. My irrational fear and pride at least keep me industrious to a fault.

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The irony of the hole in my pants does not escape me…

My favorite part of the project was the 27 buttons. Walmart has almost no trims besides wired ribbons and plastic buttons, but I found one hanger of 3/4 inch brass buttons at a frugal 97 cents a pack!

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Plus, they totally say “Le Bouton” which makes them French and fancy. Yeah.

The little brass buttons were inspired by this early 18th century  illustration of a military officer:

“Studies of Two Gentlemen” by Luca Carlevarijs, circa 1700-1710

I’m a sucker for gold and brown, plus buttons are fun, so sewing that long front row was satisfying. I ignored the pattern’s suggestion for paired-button placement and went for a dense, evenly-spaced line. Most civilian English and French coats from 1700-1720 had cloth- or thread-covered buttons all the way down the front, but the major inspiration for this coat in the first place was this illustration by the same artist:

“A Man Wearing a Yellow Coat” by Luca Carlevarijs, circa 1700-1710
In addition, there is a later coat made out of a linen/cotton fabric that helps me rationalize the cotton duck.

The buttons appear to stop just below the waist line at pocket-level, so that’s where I ended my buttons– a fortunate happenstance considering that I used up every single brass button in a 150 mile radius! The pocket flap design on the original Simplicity pattern is way too big, ungainly, and ill-placed (they are way too high and I recommend completely ignoring it and making your own), so I cut the shape to resemble this drawing’s pocket flaps and attached them in a more historically- and aesthetically-pleasing place: where the sleeves end.

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I love late 17th and early 18th century men’s fashion! It’s fussy, but not so fancy that a modern man would feel threatened by it, yet it’s all so over-the-top with gargantuan, heavy wigs, buttons everywhere, and fluffy skirts (yes, gents, you too can enjoy the glory of a full-circle spin in this triple-godet, 134-inch hem coat).

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134 inches of swirly, manly goodness.

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Note: While you can’t see them thanks to me having to wrangle this man’s coat onto a very, very female dress form, this pattern has historically-appropriate angled shoulder seams that fall over the shoulder blades instead of sitting on top of the shoulder.
Also: obligatory cat hair.

Historical Sew Fornightly: Just the Facts!

Italian Man’s Coat, circa 1713
Fabric: Walmart Special Brown Cotton Duck
Pattern: Simplicity 4923 with modified pockets, man’s size xsmall (32″ chest)
Year: 1710-1730
Notions: 27 brass buttons, thread
How historically accurate is it? 65% total, but it’s 100% handstiched because I have a horrible, irrational fear of the sewing machine…
Hours to complete: 38 Hours
Total cost: $25 for fabric, $9 for buttons, $1.26 for thread
For more examples of non-pirate interpretations of Simplicity 4923:
18th Century Men’s Outfit” on Just Blame Jane (uses the breeches pattern that I am saving)
A Pattern is More Like a Guideline, Really…” on Sempstress (uses multiple modifications to create a variety of looks for the fab musical 1776. She makes a good notation about sizing, too!)
For more info on hand stitches, here’s a handy little guide: “Hand Stitching” (also includes tips for sewing with fur!)