Plaid Duffle Coat or an Escalated Test Drive

We went out the other day to take in the last of autumn and see the birth of the new winter season. When we were there, we took the opportunity to photograph my first self sewn coat. It was a beautiful cold, cold walk in what really felt like the twilight of late autumn and the dawn of winter with most of the trees completely bare, safe for the odd golden leaf here and there. The paths were littered with orange, brown and deep yellow leaves and a low faint winter sun greeted us as we walked and took in the seasonal changes of this familiar woodland walk. The cold has chased away pretty much all of the toadstools and we had our first dusting of snow since so we’ve moved well and truly into winter now. So the perfect time to show you my first self made winter coat!

In my previous post I mentioned that for most of autumn my main sewing project has been working on sewing a wearable toile of a winter coat. In this blogpost I’m going to talk about and celebrate the making of my first ever coat! I’ve said before that sewing a winter coat has been on my mind for a long time, years really. I’ve long known exactly what type of coat I wanted to make but I worked it up in my head to be such an enormous, mountainous challenge that I kept postponing it. It seemed so far removed from anything I’d ever sewn up to that point: properly unattainable. Of course the more I pushed the project into the far future the more daunting and bigger it became. This year there were a couple of things that pushed me to finally do it. First up is that the winter coat I’d been using up until this year has been in dire need of replacing to the point that it became barely wearable. Secondly, my parents gifted me a beautiful woollen fabric made from Shetland wool to make a coat from and I was aching to get to work with it. Finally I don’t think I’ve ever felt more comfortable and confident in my sewing abilities so I figured if not now then when?

Because I’ve never made a coat before I figured it was time to put on a brave face and make a toile. However, because making a toile for a project like a coat in a wildly different fabric than you are actually going to use for it renders it a pretty much useless exercise, the project quickly got elevated to “wearable toile”. Meaning you essentially make the project twice, in an usually less precious fabric but a fabric similar in feel, weight and other such qualities as what you are meaning to use for the proper version.

I wanted to make a test version for a couple of reasons; first up the Shetland wool fabric I was gifted was precious, hard to get and limited in quantity so I didn’t want to risk ruining the project with a rookie mistake. I liked the idea of being able to test out techniques and fiddly bits in the process on a fabric where the stakes were less high so to speak. Another reason I wanted to make a test version was to see if my sewing machine was up to the task of sewing all those layers of thick fabric. Honestly this was perhaps the most important reason to make a toile as my sewing machine can be really temperamental at times. Finally, the reason why most toiles are made, I wanted to check the fit and element placing and see if I needed to tweak anything for the final version.

The choice of coat befell on a duffle coat style. Duffle coats have always been one of my favourite styles of coats and I’m fond of their practicality and easy going nature. As a child I had a magnificent one that was made of wool and either colourblocked or maybe a patchwork of different shades of black and 3 shades of green (light, mid and dark). I had many handmade coats as a child so there is a good chance this coat too was made by either my mum, my aunt or my nan. Sadly, as I was a child in the Great Before, the time without digital cameras and mobile cellphones, no photos of this coat made it to 2021 and thus it remains an imagine in my head alone (and in the process the coat in my memory gets more splendid every time I think about it).

I first had a good look at different coat patterns in a broad range of styles before I paired it down to the a couple of patterns that fit the duffle coat style. I find patterns for winter coats a bit thin on the ground to be honest and most of those that are there are in dire need of an update particularity in terms of size range. I thought about using the tosti jacket from waffle patterns and modify that to more of a winter coat. I dismissed that idea on the basis of skill but still would like to make that pattern some day perhaps as a spring coat. Then I my mind turned to the Albion from Colette or the Cascade Duffle coat from Grainline studio, both fairly similar in style. Ultimately I went with the latter because it is a tad more refined and detailed in terms of features.

As I alluded to while I was looking at coats I noticed that practically all the coats I had looked at had a really small size range. Given the advise is to make winter coats one size bigger than your usual size to accommodate for all the layers in winter, it gets even worse. Some of these patterns came out years ago so I know there was less awareness then but take one look at the numbers and it is clear that it was an obvious issue then too and an update is long overdue. To be honest I barely fit into some of the size ranges of coats I looked at and I keep thinking about all the sewists that wanted to make coats in those years and just had nowhere to turn too. Thing is, while I had a look around in the broader world of coat sewing patterns I don’t think it’s much better now. Luckily Muna and Broad and Cashmerette are around now and have a few coat patterns that do cater to those sizes but those are more geared towards spring or early autumn. Part of the reason why I went with the Cascade coat is that I know Grainline Studio is aware of the issue and they are slowly working through their old catalogue and updating their patterns in extended size ranges. They also indicated that they give this priority over putting out a huge amount of new patterns and I appreciate that a lot. They gave an update half a year ago and they weren’t working on the Cascade pattern at that point but I hope they will get around to it before next year as it such a great winter staple (personally I’m also looking forward to the Archer coming out in an extended size range).

The Cascade pattern had been around for years and took the sewing blog sphere by a storm when it was just released. It’s a classic take on the duffle coat that comes in two length options; short or long and the option of either a collar or a hood. I went with the long length and hood, both features I prefer in my coats cause I like to be snug and cosy in winter. My favourite feature of the coat is the the hidden zipper band behind the button band and toggles. It makes the coat extra cosy and wind resistant and also makes the coat more detailed and elevates it above other similar coats. Additionally the coat is fully lined and has patch pockets on the front. I made a size up from my bust because I want to be able to comfortably wear any and all layers under it and also tuck in my scarf.

I wasn’t really sure what type of needle to use, I foolishly thought there was something like a coat needle, or alternatively a thick-wool-needle, but an internet search wasn’t really of help so I asked the kind folks at the local sewing machine shop and they resolutely answered that what I needed was jeans needles. So I got those and they worked a treat. I was prepared for a mountain of broken needles but what do you know the first needle got me through the entire coat! A midwinter miracle!

The fabric for the outer shell is a wool mix, according to my stash administration 80% wool, 20% polyester, but I got this years ago and the fabric place wasn’t the greatest in their precision of fibre content, so who knows. I got this fabric in a sale when I was a sewing baby, as the fabric was a good deal and I was apparently very optimistic in my ability to achieve grand sewing goals. Subsequently it lay buried in the deep depths of my stash for years, while I learned skills, built up confidence and learned more about my own preferences and style. These days I’m not sure a fabric such as this would make it home as I try to stay away from plastic based fibres and the bright pink is not the best fit for my autumnal palette preferences but when I decided to make a wearable toile for a winter coat my mind turned to this fabric instantly. The fabric has a nice fuzzy, woollen texture and is woven in a twill weave with a plaid pattern in black, off white and bright pink.

For the lining I used an equally ancient stash fabric just to up the stash busting properties of this project. I’m not sure where I got it, might have been an early buy or a second hand find or possibly part of inherited stash. I think it’s a viscose mix fabric as it is very shiny and smooth but feels more robust than a 100% viscose. It reminds me a lot of coat lining fabric I see in RTW coats, thought this fabric feels a bit thicker and more substantial than those do. I figured it made a great lining and I’m not inclined to use such a fabric for much else so there we go. The fabric is a woven twill tartan fabric in dark blue and dark green (possibly Black Watch or at least made to resemble that tartan).

One of my main concerns with sewing a winter coat was whether my sewing machine could handle it and given the outer shell fabric is quite substantial with a hefty weight I was doubtful at best. However the machine handled it really, really well. Surprisingly so, considering how temperamental it can be with other fabrics. It was able to sew through at least six layers of fabric at once, five of which were outer layer and one was lining, without a problem. I’m increasingly thinking that it is not so much the amount of layers or thickness itself that causes problems for my machine, but bumps / increases in fabric thickness.

I modified the patch pocket to be a double pocket. I had seen this with my partner’s rtw coat and thought it was a neat variation on the patch pocket and this coat gave me the opportunity to play around with it without a lot of risks. So the first layer is a pocket with a side entrance and the second pocket on top of it is a patch pocket with a top opening. I think it worked out pretty well overall and doesn’t create an overwhelming ton of extra bulk. If I keep it for the other coat I would make some tweaks to it and place the pockets a smidge higher but overall a good first attempt I think.

The zippper went in without a problem but the toggles needed some more work. Mostly you need a way to keep the toggles in place while you top stitch them down (you can’t pin them as it will leave holes in the toggle tabs). The pattern has a couple of suggestions for this: the first method I tried out was taping them down with masking tape. The idea is to tape them down, sew over the tape and then carefully tear away the tape. This method sort of works but when I went to tear off the tape I found that it also pulled at the carefully stitched down toggle seams resulting in the stitches being pulled out somewhat and creating tiny loops making the end result look very messy.

So I went on to try out method two which is to glue them on the coat with textile glue. The reason why I tried the masking tape method first was because I was under the impression that I didn’t have textile glue and it was the weekend and I didn’t want to wait a week before I could work on the coat again. However much to my own surprise I found a tube of glue among my sewing notions. It’s so old that I can’t even remember where I used it for in the first place. I was even more bewildered when I found out the glue in the tube hadn’t dried out yet and was still in good condition. Merrily I pressed onwards and this method worked a treat, the glue dries really fast and once it is dry you can top stitch the toggles without a problem. So from now on I will always go this route for toggles. I found out while sewing and wearing the coat around that the quality of these particular toggle closures that I bought are not great; they feel flimsy and the coat wasn’t even a week old and I noticed some flaking on the loops. So for the next one I will get different toggles, or maybe make my own.

The fit of the coat is really good, straight from the package, so I’m quite impressed with that. I can wear the coat comfortably with layers or a thick sweater and scarf, which was an important feature for me, but I don’t think it looks too big or anything. The coat is the most fitted in the shoulders, as well as the sleeves. Particularity with the sleeves I read that a lot of people reported them as maybe being a bit too narrow for a winter coat, but I tried it on with a couple of sweaters and didn’t have problem, but it’s something to be aware of when making this coat.

Another important requirement for any type of coat for me is my ability to bike in it, as beside walking that is my main way of getting to places. The neat thing about this coat is that while the body is quite long, the zipper is shorter and at a length of 60 cm in total stops at basically the perfect place for you to be as warm as possible while retaining your freedom of body movement. You can see in some project photos of people who made this coat, and I noticed it with my coat at times as well, that the lower button band sometimes stands away from he coat a bit more than the upper band. This is because the lower button band doesn’t have the zipper behind it and the upper part of the band does. You can help it by buttoning it down, but the trade off for that is less freedom in movement. It doesn’t bother me at all, it’s a piece of clothing and on your body it will always move around and sort of lead its own life in the wind and rain (and it definitely doesn’t bother me enough to give up my ability to bike!).

When all is said and done I have a small list of changes for my next coat but they are minimal tweaks here and there. This is way less than I expected it to be! What I did do to really test it out is simply wear it out and about and live in it for a bit to really take stock of how it fits and what I’d want to change. I would recommend that for any sewing project you care enough about to make multiple versions of but especially a coat as it’s so weather and movement dependent.

I’m really happy with the coat I made and stoked to have had my first self sewn coat experience. I’m a bit bewildered and in disbelief that I made it to this point, while at the same time it feels so natural and normal to put on my own self made coat before heading out. Not by a long shot did I ever expect the entire experience to go this smooth and painless. Neither would I have thought my first coat to look this much like… an actual real proper coat! Of course there are little things like the toggle top stitching that could be neater and having to read instructions multiple times to understand what was being described but that is nothing compared to what I expected the struggles to look like.

Looking back it seems silly how big of a challenge I made it out to be (and that I procrastinated so much about making it). In the end my main take away is that sewing a coat isn’t hugely difficult or more accurately it is not more difficult than the stuff I regularly have been sewing; I encountered nothing I hadn’t done before. However, what does make sewing a coat different from sewing “everyday” stuff is that sewing a coat is a lot of everything; a lot of pieces to cut and sew, a lot of instructions and steps, a lot of pinning, pressing, checking, double checking, sewing, top stitching, a lot of sewing small pieces joined into increasingly bigger pieces and for a fully lined coat you have to do all of those things twice. Sewing a coat is above all a big time commitment and takes away a huge chunk of your sewing time. I predominantly sew on the weekends and I worked on this coat for weeks going to months. For me it was worth it though, clearly; as I’m about to do it again.

If anything the experience has made me want to sew with wool more often. I haven’t sewed with wool fabric all that often, especially in recent years, which seems odd given that as a knitter and spinner I work with wool all the time. I guess my experience as a knitter and spinner should have prepared me for this but I really love working with woollen cloth! It is just such a beautiful and easy to work with fabric. Just thinking about it makes me even more excited to start cutting out the Shetland wool for my second duffle coat.

It’s been such a good experience that I cannot help but think and dream about other possible future coats; making a coat in green wool or a beautiful dark rust seems almost irresistible, then there are spring/autumn coats and jackets and rain coats and I feel there is lots to learn about those too, and maybesewing a coat for my partner. All these things suddenly seems attainable after having my first coat under my belt so I cannot help but fill my dreams with thoughts about future hand made coats. Though we’ll see how I think about it once I finish my second coat (I’ll have to pace myself with such big projects, before I run away and in the process run over myself haha). But I’m really happy and bubbling over with enthusiasm of this new found sewing confidence.

Hope you enjoyed reading about this and that my enthusiasm gave you a smile. I hope December is treating you well and I hope you have a cosy midwinter (-or a bountiful midsummer-). See you next time!

2 thoughts on “Plaid Duffle Coat or an Escalated Test Drive

  1. Wat een schitterende jas!!! Mooie kleuren en je ziet goed dat hij een perfecte pasvorm heeft! Goed dat je alle bobbeltjes die je tegen bent gekomen opgelost of veranderd hebt. Goed dat je nog lijm had en die nog goed was en zo de inzet van de rits heb kunnen doen. Ik snap dat het een overwinning is geweest. Ik ga in de dozen van jullie nog eens kijken of ik je eerste wollen houtje-touwtje jas kan vinden. Je mag oprecht trots zijn op het resultaat. Goed gedaan zeg!!! Groet Margot

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