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A Pattern is More Like a Guideline, Really…

So, Laura said she was looking forward to a demo on how I made the Frock Coats for 1776.  I used a pattern. (What?! Missa? Are you feeling ok??) It’s not that I’m not all about cheating, or being creative, or drafting patterns. It’s just that it easier to a pattern that already exists and change it up. Here’s some ideas…

I need a passel of nice, proper frock coats. You would think I’d be using some sort of nice, proper frock coat pattern. Instead, I’m using this one:

Simplicity 4923
Oh, yes, it's that old Simplicity Pirates knockoff.....

I bought it years ago for a Day of Wrong costume, back in the day when me using a pattern at all was pretty darn wrong. I have the size that includes Medium, Small, and Extra Small. I need to make coats ranging from a 38″ to 48″ chest.

The first trick to using a pattern like this to make passable frock coats is to actually measure the pieces around the chest. (Most pattern manufacturers add modern amounts of ease to historically inspired patterns. That’s why they always look slouchy.) The medium size of this pattern measures 45″ around the chest, once the seam allowances are accounted for. (The envelope claims differently. Don’t listen to it.) Most of the coats I cut were based on the medium size. Use whatever size fits the actual measurements, not the size the pattern recommends.

coat for Adams
This coat, for John Adams, is the closest to the actual pattern. I've changed is the size of the cuffs and skipped the pocket flaps.

Skipping the pocket flaps was more a function of the incredible thickness of the stage curtain velour that I was sewing with. I’ve also used only two of the godets included with the pattern, and left side slits.

coat for Rodney
For this coat, I eliminated the Center Back seam and cut the back piece on the fold.

Eliminating the flare at the center back of the coat skirting changes the way the skirt falls around the body. I’ve also straightened the center front line of the coat, and taken about 2″ per side out of the center front so it’s more of an open line.

coat for Lee
This coat, for the very flamboyant Richard Henry Lee, uses all three godets. I've also changed the front line.

I changed the center front by folding out 2″ of the center front, then folding out a curve that goes from waist to hem. With this coat, I put trim all around the edge except on the godets. This means the edge of the coat body is stiffer than the edge of the godets, and the godets happily collapse out of site when the coat isn’t moving.

coat for Hancock
The front of this coat for Hancock was cut the same as the coat for Lee. I changed the sleeve cuffs.

Most of the cuffs on most of the coats I’m using are really from an earlier period. They really shouldn’t flare as much as they do. For this coat, I cut the cuffs using the bottom of the sleeve pieces and adding a slight flare. This makes a two-piece cuff pattern that follows the angle of the sleeve closely.

coat for Hewes
This one is similar in the sleeve, but has less curve in the front line.
coat for Morris
This one has the same front line as the last, but uses the original flared cuff.
coat for McKean
Oh, yes, this one uses the same pattern. It's just a bigger alteration.

I overlapped the front and back pieces of the pattern to eliminate the side seam, eliminated the godets, straightened the front line and the line of the back skirting, and made the cuff with less flare. The skirts are tacked at the corners to give that military line, and I added rectangular lapels. Oh, I added a quick stand collar, too. The coat is actually made of two layers of relatively thin, drapey polyester – one is a crepe, and one is a plain weave. The skirts, cuffs, collar and lapels are interlined with acrylic craft felt to give them some body.

I apologize for the rather sad quality of the photos – this is what happens when you’ve got actors who want to be on stage and a costumer who wants mug shots. ;)

I also want to make a public apology to the actor in the last picture. The skirpt sort implies that Col. McKean is a rather large fellow – specifically that he’s larger than the fellow playing George Read. (There’s a line at the end that says something like, “In my case, hangin’ won’t be so bad… One drop and it’s over. Poor Read over there will be dancing the jig long after I’m gone!”) The problem, unfortunately, is that the two actors wear the same suit size. Gosh, I love a good challenge…. There are only so many things you can do in this situation. You make one actor look as small as you can, and make the other look, well, larger. I’m very grateful that he’s a good sport about it.


  1. Amy
    Amy May 29, 2011

    I love watching you work and this time was no exception! I am grateful that you use patterns, even as just a guideline. I like direction but like the freedom of flexibility to do what I think would work/look better.

  2. Laura
    Laura May 31, 2011

    Hee. I have used that pattern several times, most recently for the brown Pirate coat I made my sister (as seen at Teslacon) and the MN Twins Pirate coat I made her. It is a fairly easy coat to use, but I have so many issues with the godets. The last time I made them separately and tacked them into place. Thoughts on making this easier?

    Nice coats, though! Looks like fun.

    • missa
      missa June 2, 2011

      Not really. I don’t particularly like the godet pattern in this one – it doesn’t have enough volume for a truly period look with multiple stacked pleats, and the best way I’ve found to secure the darned things is with stitches that go all the way through from the outside of the coat. It’s a sadness.

  3. Cathi
    Cathi June 7, 2011

    Wow! That’s all I can say to this. What a woderful testament to “don’t believe what the pattern picture shows!”. You did amazing work, especially your ‘trickery’ with the last gentleman. Well done!!

  4. Stephanie H
    Stephanie H June 16, 2011

    Ummm, wait a second. You used *curtain velour* for the John Adams coat?? REally?


    Much love, missa!

    • missa
      missa June 24, 2011

      Frankly my dear, I don’t give a …

      I mean, you can call me anything you want, as long as you don’t call me late for dinner.

      Yeah, that’s it. Sorry – crazy busy the last few weeks… Darned theater!

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