Saturday, 10 October 2015

My Frocktails Cape

Finally, let me tell you about my frocktails cape!

Yes, this wonderful, draping floral coral thing of beauty... I'm making an exception today; that gushing can stay.  Seriously, it's my favourite garment ever made.  I absolutely L.O.V.E. this cape.

Apologies in advance, but there are going to be lots of photos in this post.

Not the hardest thing I've ever made, but the best I can recall making - made with care from start to finish, and looks just like I hoped it would.  It's so rare for me not to make at least one irreversible stuff-up!

My cape story started with a random fabric find; a small and beautiful half price remnant at Tessuti Fabrics in Chatswood.  When I last looked for the fabric in-store there was still some, but I don't know if there would still be.  I haven't found this fabric in Tessuti's online store, so if you're lusting after some it's probably best to just call them. 

The fabric is a woven viscose, medium weight and terrifically drapey with a loose weave that's prone to fraying. That coral colour is one of my favourites, and the fabric looks amazing on both the right side and the wrong side where the colours of the woven pattern are inverted.  Each panel is nearly 2 metres long, with the white flowers growing inwards from each end of the panel cut and a section of coral colour between the tops of the two plantings. My 90 cm remnant was just a little smaller than a half panel, but it had me thinking of 40s-style dresses for winter so I bought another full panel too. 

The fabric came home with me, and was subjected to lots of my admiration over a period of weeks. 

And then frocktails drew nearer and nearer.  I made most of my frocktails dress, and then it came time to make sewing decisions for an outer layer.  I wanted to use a pattern and fabric from my stash (qiuckly narrowed down to this fabric, of course), and I wanted to be able to accommodate my dress sleeves without crushing them. Surprisingly that still left me with several choices in the very wide sleeved jacket and cape departments.  Laying out the fabric on the floor and measuring the floral heights and widths from the two panel ends, it seemed that a medium length, not too flared cape that was made from several panels would allow me to have the flowers climbing up nice and straight from all around the hemline, with a plainer coral fabric at the top of the cape. 

Frocktails Cape - front flat view
Frocktails Cape - back flat view

Vogue 7231 from the 1960s fit the bill perfectly.  Judging by the pattern illustrations it had a lovely shape and some attractive, slightly curved seams, one of the variations was designed to hit just above knee length, and its panels looked about the right width to fit my flowers without pruning them too much.  

Vogue 7231 on Etsy

The photo above comes from Etsy (unfortunately now sold); my copy of the pattern came from a second hand store in a size 14.

The pattern as drafted has a back inverted pleat and a martingale belt, but as I wanted the cape to be all about the fabric I removed these elements and made a back pattern piece that was cut on the fold. More time on my knees shuffling pieces of pattern tissue on fabric confirmed this modified version of the pattern would fit nicely on my fabric - IF the pattern fit me!

Obviously removing a pleat in the back removes some wearing ease, and I suspected a 1960s size 14 might be equivalent to a modern-day size 10, so I sacrificed some gingham to a muslin - and was absolutely relieved :).  The cape sewn to knee length looked fine, the shoulders fit well, the neckline sat in a comfortable position (some vintage necklines are VERY high), and the body of the cape fit me, though it felt a little too fitted.  Based on this fit, I left the shoulders and neckline alone but added ease in the panel seams of the cape (ie all the vertical seams except those at centre front), starting at around shoulder level.

Frocktails Cape with some extra ease

Now at this point, when I could very well have cut out my cape, I stopped the practical work and let Google lead me astray.  My pattern instructions were very simple, and I was worried they might be dumbed down, so I started searching for cape construction and jacket tailoring tips online.

Everything I read seemed to tell me I needed to underline my fabric as well as line it, so I popped back to Tessuti Fabrics for supplies, and was very lucky to catch Colette before she dashed out for lunch.  Colette advised me that underlining would take away the lovely drape of the fabric (of course!!), and that a layer of interfacing and a lining would be plenty. I mentally breathed a sigh of relief - so much less work!  And then even though Tessuti's had some plastic buttons that were the right size and style and nearly the right colour for my fabric, Colette suggested I get fabric covered buttons made up at a little specialist button shop in Newtown, All Buttons Great and Small.

The cape fabric drapes beautifully, even after it's been interfaced and lined

Back home I serged the cut edges of my fabric, warm machine washed and line dried it, ironed it and then block fused all of it to make it more stable before I cut out my pattern pieces.  I hadn't ever block fused a whole panel of fabric before - and with a small domestic iron and ironing board in a small room it's slow and painful - but I think it's very good practice to fuse the interfacing to the fabric before cutting out the pattern pieces, so I'll definitely do it in the future.

And then I spent a few hours on my knees moving pattern pieces around on my fabric to try to fit everything in without chopping up the flowers, and with the aim of getting a feeling of symmetry, or at least balance, in the cape.  I know most people hate the cutting out stage, and the painstaking layout work is a really slow part of the cutting out stage, but when I mess up the pattern layout I tend to hate the finished garment - for me it's very much worth the pain, and lets me do things like including a single bloom on one side of the collar :).

Frocktails cape: print placement

To add ease to the cape I just adjusted the angle of the panel lines so as to add about an inch at the fullest part on each side (except centre front) of the panels at the hemline, tapering away to nothing at around shoulder level.

With my pattern pieces all cut out on the Sunday before Frocktails, I caught a train to Newtown the very next day on my lunch break with a bag full of interfaced fabric scraps. All Buttons Great and Small made up my buttons on the spot, and the resulting buttons looked perfect - just the right style and colour, and they even threw in an extra (slightly imperfect button) for free.

Beautiful fabric covered buttons for my frocktails cape

With such perfect looking buttons, I was worried my machine's button holes wouldn't be up to scratch - in fact, I wasn't sure my buttonhole attachment would cope with the large buttons - so I decided to outsource this step too. 

Normally I mark my buttonhole placement with pins at either end of the horizontal, but that often results in buttonholes that are only very nearly parallel.  This time around I used more pins and rulers and lots of measurements before marking the buttonhole placement on my fabric with a washable pen (and yes, the marks came out later without a problem). 

I was cutting it fine by now, with only a matter of days until frocktails, but I remembered reading this post about the Quick Buttonhole Service in Alexandria.  Monday evening was a mad rush of sewing - the main seams, facings and collar, and lots of basting to hold the outer and facing layers in place - and on Tuesday I rushed out to Alexandria at lunch with my cape and a sample button.  Mick wasn't able to do my buttonholes till Thursday, so I used Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to finish my dress, cut out and sew together the cape lining pieces and prepare some welts for the cape, 

And look, my buttonholes are perfect too! Perfectly straight, all the same length and inset from the edge of the opening, and all very neat.  

Buttons in their buttonholes

Two evenings to go... Sewing the cape facings to the lining pieces was straightforward, and the collar fit perfectly (it's a simple camp collar, which is why I wear it with the top button open).  I pressed the cape carefully to check that everything was hanging well without any seams puckering, and then it was time for the cape's welt pockets.

But two evenings before a big event is a bit late to try to work out something you haven't tried before...  Up until this point I'd intended to skip all the top stitching suggested in the pattern (for a cleaner look and less stress!) but to include the welts and pockets in my cape.   I could see how I'd sew the welts to the openings in the cape, but I couldn't understand how to attach pockets behind the welts that would also let my hands move in and out of the cape, and when I got to this step I discovered my pattern was missing  the critical last page of instructions. (I can see now that the welts were to be sewn on from just behind the openings and the pockets were to sit forward of the openings, between lining and outer fabric.)  Argh! I took the easy approach and skipped the welts and the pockets.

At this point it became clear that I should have added another layer of interfacing to the cape opening where it had extra stress from buttons and buttonholes - the fabric was looking too "worked" around the buttonholes. On the buttonhole side I cut pieces of interfacing of about 4 inches in width to fit above, between and below the buttonholes, and then pressed in this extra layer of interfacing retrospectively - it was a very fiddly and irritating job, but well worth it for the improved look of the fabric. It was an easier job to then add the same width of interfacing to the button side of the opening, where I hadn't yet sewn on the buttons, and then to add strips of interfacing around the fabric at the hand openings in the body of the cape. 

Nearly done!

Hand stitching the lining to the outer fabric at the slit openings was easy when the fabric was pressed and pinned, sewing on the buttons was straightforward with lots of pins to help with my button placement, and I was able to bag 90% of the lining using my machine, with just a short length to hand stitch.

Small hand stitches on the hand openings
A bagged lining on my frocktails cape

A careful press, and all done! 

I've heard people say they couldn't possible wear a cape; that capes are impractical and that they just don't work, but I found mine a delight to wear.  Obviously I couldn't wear a shoulder bag over it, but it worked well with an evening clutch, and it did a much better job than a regular jacket in not crushing my silk organza dress sleeves.  I like too how a cape makes what you're wearing underneath - even the shape of what you're wearing underneath - a surprise.  I don't think I need another of this type of cape in my wardrobe, but I'm tempted to sew up a more modern cape, like Vogue 1322: 

Vogue 1322

As you may have guessed, I took these photos at the same time (and place) as the photos of my frocktails dress.  I think they've turned out really well, much better than photos in my garden or on my balcony, but they were a bit of an effort - I really need to find a quieter place for photos!

With Gillian's Better Pictures Project in mind (and specifically the ideas of taking photos out and about, and more is more), let me tell you about taking these pictures.

First of all it although I took these photos many weeks ago, we were having a bit of an unseasonal heatwave. It was a really hot afternoon; too hot for a warm dress let alone a cape on top - my flushed cheeks are partly the result of the heat, but mostly the result of bucketloads of embarrassment (more on that later).

I had a "location" in mind for these photos, a short drive away from home with easy parking, so that's where I set up my camera and tripod.  It just didn't photograph as well as I'd imagined though; my camera's photo review function showed me it was too bright and contrasty and any photos I took there were overexposed. What's more, people kept walking through the space, on their way to and from a big apartment block!  So I packed up my stuff and tried another spot nearby which I remembered as having consistent shade and interesting geometric backdrops, set back from the road in a quiet square.  I was taking some test photos to determine which angle would look best when the entire family of a good friend of my son's walked by and waved hello (oh, embarrassment!). Very soon after they'd left a security guard appeared and told me I had to move on immediately, and that I was not allowed to take photos there (oh, mortification!).  I felt so embarrassed at this point that I really didn't want to stay in the area and take photos, but I'd been promising myself all week that I'd take the photos that day, so I swallowed my pride and walked around the corner to a road with some nice walled sections of footpath.  The road was much busier than usual as it had become a temporary bus route while the nearby train line was being repaired, all those buses were driving slowly due to a couple of small roundabouts, and across the road was a high-rise apartment block with plenty of spectators, I mean residents. At least the light was good!

I took a LOT of photos in this position.  At first I was so embarrassed that I looked cranky in the photos, but after a while I got used to the people watching from their balconies and the passersby staring, and decided I should just laugh at myself for being such a spectacle.  Hence the smiles and the flushed cheeks :). All up with three attempted locations, a little travel time and pauses between larger groups of passersby the exercise took me an hour, a lot longer that photos in my garden take - but I got photos that I think are good enough to represent how much I love my cape.

Well, that's a long blog post, and a lot of pictures - I'd better stop!  Thanks for reading (or just looking at the pictures), and see you soon!

- Gabrielle xx

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