Recreating an 18th Century Court Suit

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A few months ago, I ran into an article on The Costume Rag about a frock coat and suit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I fell HARD for it.You can see pictures of it at two places for the most part – the actual Museum site, and fans who go and take pictures of it. The museum site has the best resolution but the fans pick up the details. Like a mysterious pocket on the right pocket. Like the details on the back. I myself plan on doing a sojourn to London this coming May/June to see this in person. But for now, I wish to recreate it for my husband to wear to the Versailles ball. Because let’s face it – it’s GORGEOUS.

So I went to work digitizing. I could go into the details of how, but I’m not particularly good at digitizing myself, nor am I an efficient one. However, my artistic better half, Cari from Cabbit Corner was busy with a combination of life and a GIANT stack of commissions, so I decided to tackle it myself. As you can see, there are a LOT of different parts to this design. I actually made myself a to-digitize list and broke it down into separate parts depending on how long I thought each part would take. I put it in an Erin Condren book to be pretty.

About 30 hours later, I had a first draft. (On a side note, because I get asked this all the time, the program I use is PE Design 10. The program gives you AMAZING power over your digitizations but it is VERY slow. Not sure if this is my computer or the program, but it’s slow.). This is the reason I don’t digitize for commissions. I don’t think it would be fair for me to charge anything less than 25 dollars an hour to sit and slave away on a design, and yet I know there are people who do it way faster and way better than I do. Which is why if asked, I will always send you to one of them: Denise of Romantic Recollections, Cari of Cabbit Corner, and Liuba of ArtEmbroidery.

 

You can see my design on the left and this interposed on top of the coat on the right. I then started to put it into a coat setting to see how it would look.

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I printed this design about 8 times (6 hours each time) before I found a color scheme I liked. You can see some of the failed prints here:

 

After I finally decided on a color scheme, the hard part was choosing the back fabric. As you can see from the close up pictures, the fabric is on a gorgeous brocade of dots. For the life of me, I could not find any brocade anywhere like it. And moreover, no one would make it for me for less than 200 a yard. I knew I would need about 10 yards. This resulted in me deciding to go solid. It helped that I realized between ordering two custom historic wigs, custom shoes, and two flights to Paris, I was out of budget.

So after all that I was able to finally print the first OFFICIAL piece of my coat – a cuff.  I was happy with it. ? You’ll of course notice the antique silk organza applique.

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And a final cuff printed on silk duchesse (navy) with silk threads.

On a slightly different note, I am not going into the patterning of this coat and how to do layouts of the embroidery here. I go into it in previous articles here and here.

The patterning of the coat was complex. I used JP Ryan’s 1780s coat pattern but it turned out my husband had a very odd shape so I ended up using that to draft my own version. Her patterns are always excellent and I highly recommend them.

I did also start on a waistcoat since I happened to have the silk duchesse in house. However, after doing a 24 hour shift at the hospital, I messed up placement of the third pattern repeat and the whole thing turned into garbage

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What you’re not seeing is the repeat that got destroyed on the bottom. X_X I see this and I see 24 hours of embroidery time – and sooo much beautiful thread, wasted.

So now starts the process of embroidery and more embroidery. I anticipate at 6-8 hours of active machine time per repeat, 45 thread changes PER repeat (I think I mentioned I’m not the best digitizer ever), and about 42 repeats for the whole coat, not counting buttons or belts… we’re looking at 1,890 thread changes, and 336 hours of machine time or 14 days of machine running 24/7 (which obviously I can’t do so it will likely be 42 days embroidering). Good thing I love the process!

Also I made a new rule for myself – I’m not allowed to work on this tired. Granted, I’m currently working 70-80 hours a week so I may end up breaking this rule now and then…

Let’s end this on a positive note – check out this front panel! Wheee!!

 

 

It took me about 2 months to finish the other side, the waistcoats, the buttons, the breeches straps, the backs, the collars, the pockets, the waistcoat pockets, the cuffs, etc. Once I had all the parts collected, I started the fun process of sewing it together.

I had him try it on with just the shell.

I actually do something slightly different from other people. I sewed the entire exterior together, and then got each lining piece and just sewed it on by hand to the coat, from the interfacing. Not a usual way to do it, but with the heaviness of the interfacing, it made the most sense.

For the VERY heavily embroidered areas in the front, I used linen buckram, reinforced with gum arabic and blind stitched it to the front. I the covered it with the linen to it wouldn’t be seen. But this prevented some unfortunate buckling in the embroidery- an issue I had with ALL my frock coats to date. ? It seemed to work but I’ll let you judge for yourself at the end of this article.

Once all that was settled, I added pockets to this coat! This is my first frock coat I added pockets to, mostly because I didn’t trust Matt in the past to not stretch it out by putting too much in it and distorting the shape of the garment. And let’s face it – heavily filled pockets usually end up ruining the exterior shape of ANY garment (unless it’s covered by a pocket hoop! Whee!).

I even added the SECRET pocket on the right side of the coat. I first noticed it after it was pointed out by Pinsent Tailoring on the 18th century sewing group, and wanted it for Matt. I used some heavy handed button hole stitches to make it for Matt as well. His will hold a secret little locket, made for me by Queen and Cavendish, filled with a picture of me (drawn by @belindal.illustrates ). I really do wonder what marvelous little secrets that original pocket held. Love letters? Historic goat intestine condoms? Snuff? I really do hope it wasn’t snuff and something a little more fun in nature.

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At this point, I started making buttons. In the past, I used modern button kits but finding that those buttons break apart so easily, and Matt tends to manhandle his buttons, I decided to go ahead and make them the old fashioned way. I got some button “moulds” from Burnley and Trowbridge, and went at them. After a few attempts, this seemed to work best.

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  1. Cut a GENEROUS margin around  your embroidered button.
  2. Give a margin of around 35% of the button diameter and sew a circle around the button shape.
  3. Trim off excess fabric but don’t cut too close to your stitches. And don’t cut your string (did that like 5 times…)
  4. Pull it closed.
  5. Insert your bone or wood button mould.
  6. Sew it shut, and make sure it’s tight

I sewed a LOT of buttons this way.

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I added these, and voila! Coat was done.

Meanwhile, I made up the waistcoat (also using the JP Ryan pattern). However, Matt’s weight fluctuates about 30 pounds in any given 3 months, so I went ahead and made his lace up in the back with some hand-sewn eyelets.

I also made up his pants using the JP Ryan pattern – which I think is a FABULOUS breeches pattern and I don’t think there is a better one out there. Please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong – I’d LOVE to learn. I actually did play with the pattern a LOT on these. While her sizing is good, Matt’s thighs are HUGE. I went ahead and added another 2″ to each thigh, and took out about 10″ on the buttocks. While I understand that the “diaper butt” look to breeches is totally HA, I for one like admiring my husband’s fine rear end. So I went ahead and made it a little more tight. It’s still a little baggy to account for movement as well as his weight fluctuations.

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As for the breeches straps, I made it as close to the original as possible. That being said, I noticed the design didn’t print well much smaller than it was, so I made the straps 1.25″ instead of the pattern’s recommended 1″. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but once I was done, I realized my error. Almost all breeches buckles on the market are designed for 1″ straps, and due to the embroidery, the straps didn’t fold very well. I ended up buying two neck stock buckles to compensate, though I may get actual breeches straps now that I found some. ?

As for his shirt, I made him a hand sewn shirt complete with THE STITCH (per the pattern by Larkin and Smith) about a year ago so we decided to rewear that. Please note my beloved gathers at his wrist. ?

Ok, no more talking. Here are the photos of the finished piece.

 

Some closeups:

 

Seriously, Matt is a fun model to photograph…

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The Waistcoat:

 

 

And for funzies, a closeup of the stroke gathers:

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