Press "Enter" to skip to content

How to Find Colonial Waistcoats at Goodwill

I needed 25 Colonial-looking vests for 1776. Because I wasn’t sure that I’d get round to making a coat for everyone, I wanted vests that weren’t faked out in the back, and I needed them to have structure and to be long enough to cover the obviously modern fly fronts on the britches I was making them. Now, you can’t just trot off to the Goodwill and buy a real live Colonial vest. But you can pull off something passable, if you believe that that there are, in fact, user-serviceable parts inside of a jacket….

In the interest of due credit where credit is due, this idea actually came from my boss. I said I was going to look to rent vests from the college, and she said, “Why? You know you’re just going to end up mangling Goodwill jackets.” I hadn’t actually known that. I’m not sure I would have thought of it, but it made a lot of sense once she said it.

So here’s what you do – head off to your local resale. You’re looking for modern men’s suit jackets – the kind that end just below the crotchel area. You want single-breasted. Ideally, you want a lapel that doesn’t curve at the edge. They need to match the chest and waist measurements of the actor, without a lot of ease. (Your actors will probably complain about this, and tell you that you got them the wrong size.) Don’t believe any measurements you find the suit labeled with, either. They don’t tell you how much ease was added to make the fashionable line of whatever time they were made in. ;)

the starting jacket
Here's the jacket I started with.
jacket with lapels closed
The idea is to close up the lapels, remove the sleeves and collar, and add a gross of buttons...

These are patch pockets, so I removed them. In the course of mangling two dozen jackets, I learned something about patch pockets:

monkey business in pockets
There is always some sort of monkey-business going on inside of patch pockets. This one has a sub-pocket. Others had slashes covered by strips of lining. I can't explain....
shoulder seam length
Check the length of the shoulder seam. If it's more than 6", you're going to want to cut the shoulder back to get a more period line. I had to on 24 out of 25 jackets. Good luck with that...
collar removed
Remove the collar. In a cheap, uniform-style jacket like this, it's easy because the collar and under-collar are nearly identical pieces sewn into the same seam.
two part collar
Sometimes you'll find that the under-collar is one piece (often felt or felt-lined), while the collar is a two piece construction with a band at the neck and a collar looking bit above.
binding the edge
With those, I removed the under-collar and separated the collar from its band. I left the band on the jacket and used it as a sort of built-in bias-binding for the neckline. *shrug* Whatever works - done is beautiful.

Sometimes, you’ll run into a collar construction that makes no logical sense. Often, it’s old. (One of the jackets I brutalized still had it’s original work order tags in, stating it was made for a Mr. Loresch on 8-2-56. I felt a little bad about what I did to that poor thing….) Sometimes, the only thing you can do is cut it and seal the edges with a zig-zag.

cutting off the sleeve
Cut through all layers about an inch from where you want to end the shoulder. In this case, I'm off into the sleeve.

sleeve head
If you're working in the sleeve, you'll need to pull out the padding that makes the sleeve-head. Ripping violently is an option.
shoulder pad
You will probably have to deal with the shoulder pad and chest pack (the main stiffening of the jacket front). Separate it from both the lining and outer fabric of the jacket, and trim it to about 1/8" inside the intended edge of the shoulder. If you're doing this in the sleeve-head, be prepared to find about 20 lines of stitch in play....
two different shoulder pads
How much of a pain this will be depends a lot on the age and quality of the jacket. The shoulder pad on the left is from a modern, cheap uniform and it's just a few layers of padding. The one on the right is from an older, nicer coat and has cotton wadding, hair canvas, fuzzy cotton, muslin, and a bit of felt. It was harder to cut through.

Remember that extra inch of fabric you left yourself when you made your initial cut? Use this to bind off the new edge, wrapping it over the padding. You can do this neatly by hand. I did this for about  a third of them, before I came to my senses and switched to a zig-zag over the edge. It doesn’t matter how you do it – just make sure you get all the ugly to the inside… I won’t tell.

Make button-holes all the way up to the neck. You’ll probably need to insert a couple between the existing button-holes as well. You want the spacing to be somewhere between 2″ and 2 1/2″. This would be a bother, if my sewing machine didn’t have a really fantastic one-step button hole feature. I love my Kenmore.

price tag
In case you are wondering *why* I'm doing this... You can't beat the price.
the finished vest
My guy was kind enough to model his vest, sans frock coat. (Peter Lemongelli as Sir Richard Henry Lee)

Having the structure inside of the jacket keeps it from going all wrinkly on the body, and it’s close enough to the right line for the stage… The trim at the shoulder isn’t the most period thing, but it hides a rather ugly line of stitching. In a perfect world, you’ll want to fit the vests to each body, so that they stay close near the neck instead of pulling away. I’m not costuming in a perfect world, and the neck action does a lot to hide  the problem.


  1. Laura
    Laura May 27, 2011

    This is a GREAT idea. And you know what Erin says: “What is our favorite kind of sewing? DONE.”

    • missa
      missa May 28, 2011

      Done is BEAUTIFUL.
      It’s funny what a few years of theater will do to a girl… I’ve gone from the land of fuss-towards-beautiful-well-researched-perfection to let’s-just-go-with-it. It’s so funny. I went through all my fashion classes not understanding what “just don’t over-think it” meant, and now, looking back…. Now I usually don’t have time to think a full design through the first time, much less overthink it – it’s sort of pick a direction and run, and trust that it will work.

  2. Cindi O. Rose
    Cindi O. Rose March 9, 2015

    Did you remove the pockets? I love yur idea and the information about different shoulder pad construction was very interesting.

    • missa
      missa March 9, 2015

      Thank you, Cindi. I removed all patch pockets and pocket flaps, yes.

  3. Kayleigh Stratton
    Kayleigh Stratton February 7, 2020

    Nine years later, and here I am. It’s just past 10PM on a weeknight, my kids all have school the next day. I just got done making and frying THREE DOZEN “johnnycakes” because tomorrow is colonial day in my 5th grader’s classroom. I’ve taken measurements for a waistcoat for him, and I have the fabric. I was going to do something quick and dirty.. But I still have to make a mockup pattern. And assemble it. and I haven’t touched my sewing machine in MONTHS. Which means I need to make sure it’s in working order as it is, and that’s going to be a good half hour or more of time, and that doesn’t include making sure my bobbins are full and I just.. I hit a point of desperation.

    Guess who is about to go grab an old suit coat I got from Goodwill last year as my oldest kid’s theater costume and start mangling it?


    • missa
      missa February 7, 2020

      Omg, Kayleigh – that’s a lot! Like, too much. I wish you Godspeed and good luck, and most of all some sleep. Let me know how it goes (or don’t if it means you get to rest).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.