“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”
A few years ago, my favourite uncle presented me with a challenge. My mom’s hometown, a wee little place outside of Regina, Saskatchewan, had started hosting a Robbie Burns Supper, and my uncle, upstanding member of the community that he is (or possibly just the person with the best phony Scottish accent), had become the emcee, and after a few years of renting the appropriate costume, he wanted to have his own. Preferably made, if possible, by his sewing niece. I managed the obvious kilt (an adventure of its own that I apparently failed to document at the time) a few years ago, but apparently kilts, because they sit higher on the waist than trousers, require special, shorter jackets. Who knew?
So somehow, despite having no time, a general disinclination to sew for others, and several hundred kilometres between us, I found myself agreeing to attempt this jacket. Did I mention I’m rather fond of my uncle? I would not do this for just anybody.
I don’t want to even admit to how long this took. Fairly shortly after the original agreement, my uncle came to visit, and we looked through my patterns (and plenty of pictures on Kilt Society for inspiration). We settled on Burda 7523, as it had cuffs and the exact pockets and things my uncle wanted. (Without the flashy details a lot of the actual kilt jackets have — my staid farmer uncle wanted none of them). We went and thumbed through a swatch book at the lone local retailer of fine fabrics, and my uncle selected a gorgeous (and pricey) fine herringbone wool.
I could say that this is where the drama begins, because it took the shop almost a year to get the fabric in, but the fact is that the fabric sat in my house considerably longer than that after it did arrive, so the shipping was not exactly the limiting factor. Frankly, it took me losing a job to find the time for this. But this year, as soon as the obligatory Christmas insanity was past, I buckled down.
I almost think the hardest part of tailoring is the decision fatigue. To underline or not? Hand or machine tailoring? Sew in or fusible interfacing?How much hair canvas, and where? Do I want to make my own shoulder pads, or just buy them? I was exhausted just thinking about it. I have a lot of tailoring books, with a lot of information, some of it conflicting. What I don’t have, despite having tailored things a few times before, is a good sense of how each material and method will interact with the next to get the desired result, especially with such a lightweight fabric as my wool.
Most wool is a delight to work with — it steams and presses and eases and just makes the heart happy to handle. I have not felt that way about this gorgeous wool-cashmere blend since about five seconds after I finished cutting it. It doesn’t ease — it puckers. It doesn’t press particularly well, either, even with a generous application of steam and pressure from my clapper. On the upside, it isn’t prone to turning shiny from over-pressing. Underlining had seemed like a good idea, but it turned out to be absolutely necessary to keep the seam allowances from ugly show-through.
I wound up doing all the tailoring by painstaking hand. It’s not that I disdain other methods — but I feel like I have a lot more control when I work by hand, and I needed every bit as much control as I could get.
The scariest bit, of course, was the welt pockets. I’ve done them before, as well as plenty of bound buttonholes, but somehow the raw terror never really goes away. Again, lots of hand-basting got me through.
Of course the second welt went better than the first. This is why we practice. A tailoring blog I read a long time ago said when learning to make a suit jacket, you should plan to make the jacket twice. Not a muslin or a toile, but the full jacket, same materials and everything. That was the only way to really learn what the results were going to be and fine-tune your methods.
At least I made very sure they matched before I cut.
This project both tested my skills and made me doubt them. I had to rework some parts again and again until they were, if not excellent, at least passable. At the same time, I’m a little struck at the knowledge and experience that I do have — I’ve done all these things before, at one time or another, sometimes well, sometimes not. I’m no tailor, but I might be a competent amateur.
So here’s a few things I did right.
1) I underlined. A thicker underlining might’ve been better than my soft rayon sheeting, but it helped so much.
2) I balanced the dart with a bias strip of my underlining fabric. This means that there’s a lump on both sides of the dart from the folded fabric!
3) I used flannel bias strips to ease the sleeve caps and create sleeve heads. I’m always astonished that this works, but it does — and when I made my muslin I thought there was WAY too much ease in the sleeve cap and I would have to shorten it. Of course, right after I got the sleeves in (pinning then hand basting then machine sewing) I remembered I was supposed to include epaulets.
4) I remembered to interface the hem of the body pieces before I sewed them together.
5) I put the slanted breast pocket on the correct side! The reverse almost happened.
6) and, the lapels are beautiful, at least from the right angle.
7) One of the vents came out perfect. We won’t talk about the other one.
Then, about a week before my deadline, the worst upset of all happened!
After going strong for many years, this year the tickets for the Robbie Burns supper just weren’t selling. So the event was canceled, and for this year, at least, my uncle has no need of a kilt jacket.
I’m pretty crushed, I gotta tell ya. I’m sure he’ll find other venues for the outfit, but I had really wanted to have it done for him this year! (Not least so I could get some pictures of him wearing the jacket for this post!)
On the other hand, it means I got an extra week to work on the jacket. Though I’m not entirely sure if that was good or just gave me more time to procrastinate.
As you may have gathered, this wasn’t the most fun I’ve had with a tailoring project. Since it’s a project for someone else, my own perfectionism (which I can usually let go of when sewing) reared its ugly head, not a good combination with this intractable fabric, and nearly every step along the way felt like a battle.
But now it’s done, what I’m thinking about is the idea of a second jacket. One for ME. I’ve got patterns and another chunk of black wool suiting, and sewing menswear for ME sounds so much more rewarding!
The Sewcialists is a hyper-inclusive editorial site. We recognize that “Menswear” as we use it in our theme month is a very loaded term, and we use any gendered reference in these discussions to denote the most broadly accepted “traditional” categories only, without wishing to prescribe or proscribe what any person can wear. We recognize all gender identities and the choice to dress how one pleases.
Ten years ago, Taran Meyer decided to learn to sew a winter coat, and she hasn’t been able to stop since. She teaches sewing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and blogs at www.tanitisis.com. You can find her on Instagram as @tanitisis.