I live in the Windy City (Chicago) which really earned the nick-name due to politicians but the more literal meaning of the name is still applicable to the weather conditions during the winter. Waiting on elevated train platforms or walking around downtown (near the lake) will chill you to your core in minutes during typical Chicago winters.
A few months back I fell in love with a coat from Top Shop Chicago but had a realization when I looked at the price tag. For the cost of a coat made with all synthetic materials at Top Shop, I could purchase materials made with all natural fibers to make a much, much warmer, longer lasting, and better quality version of the coat if I was willing to put a bit of time and effort into the project.
To spend the time, money, and effort to make a coat from all natural materials was a big commitment. I wanted to create something with classic appeal so I could wear it the rest of my life. I don't want this item to be worn for one year and discarded - I wanted a heritage piece.
Which is exactly what I did.
- The coat is a simple princess line garment that falls to mid-thigh.
- The neck has sheepskin lapel
- Two toggle buttons are used for the closure
- The hood is fully lined in sheepskin
- The body of the coat is lined in knitted wool
- The sleeves are lined in knitted wool with rabbit fur lining the inside of the sleeve opening at the hand
- A layer of heavy weight cotton twill is used as an underlining to block wind and add extra warmth
Step 1: Why Use Natural Fibers?
In America, we have been taken over by synthetic materials. Polyesters, nylons, and rayons are everywhere. If you do a bit of research, polyester and vinyl are made from oil (source, source). Rayons (including bamboo) are cellulosic fibers from plant material that are put through a chemical process to turn them into fibers that can be used for garments.
These materials do not break down in landfills.
+500 years after each of us is dead, the synthetic fabrics and materials we use today because they are "better" than animal skins and hair, or natural plants will still be sitting in a landfill.
I, personally, am not okay with this. Especially when things like leather and sheepskin are a by-product of our food chain. Things made from leather and animal skin have a longer usable life than synthetics and break down naturally when discarded.
Step 2: Design Elements/Supplies
The coat I designed has a wool shell, a sheepskin lined hood, and the garment is lined in wool knit. You can purchase a pattern for a coat you like and make a few small modifications if ease is needed.
These are the tools and supplies needed:
- Wool fabric
- Silk for pocket lining
- 2 Sheepskin hides (approx 24" long hides)
- Wool Yarn
- Rabbit Fur (for sleeve cuffs)
- Hair interfacing
- Cotton Flannel
- Cotton Twill Tape
- Cotton Twill fabric for interlining
- Pearl Cotton (heavy weight cotton embroidery floss)
Basic Leatherworking supplies:
- Leather Needles
- Leather/Fur thread - heavy weight thread coated in wax
- Straight edge blade
- Marking tool
- Sewing Machine
- Hand sewing needles
- Marking tools (chalk)
Step 3: Pre-shrink Everything
When mixing materials like wool, cotton, goat/horse (hair interfacing), and animal skins, it is incredibly important to PRE-SHRINK EVERYTHING. Things will shrink at different rates when laundered and you don't want to have a garment like this pull funny after the first time it is washed.
Wash everything cotton in warm water, dry on a warm to hot setting to pre-shrink.
Hair Canvas also needs to be pre-shrunk. Wet the fabric down with water using a spray bottle or sponge and iron on a high temp until dry.
Step 4: Pattern Selection and Modification
I created a pattern to accommodate my design ideas but it is not difficult to modify a commercially purchased or downloaded pattern. When making warm apparel items, one big thing that you need to pay attention to is the thickness of the materials you use.
I created a lining for my coat from wool yarn that I knit to fit the coat. I knit a test swatch to find my gauge and measured the thickness of the sweater lining. The sweater lining was 1/4" thick. That is enough that you need to ensure the pattern you selected has enough ease to still fit once the sweater lining is added.
To measure the thickness of materials, place something large, flat, and moderately light weight on top of what you are measuring. Measure from the surface the item is sitting on to what you placed on top.
To determine if the final garment measurement is large enough to accommodate the desired lining, let's use circles and diameters. The idea is to take your bust measurement, add a circle the thickness of your lining material, and find out what the bust measurement of your final garment should be.
- Take your bust measurement and divide it by 3.1415 = this is the diameter of the circle if you were exactly round.
- Add the thickness of your lining material around the full circle. Your bust diameter plus 2x lining thickness = your new bust and lining diameter.
- Multiply the new bust and lining diameter by 3.1415 and this number is the smallest bust that will fit around you.
- See the 5th image in this step for a visual representation and example
The hood of my coat is lined in sheepskin- which measures 1 1/2" thick. I had to make many adjustments to accommodate that much fullness (but it was worth it). I backed the neckline off 1 1/2" all the way around, and made sure the measurements for the hood made sense and could fit fur between the fabric and my head.
Step 5: Working With Animal Skins
Working with animal skins - in this case rabbit and sheep - uses different techniques than working with typical fabrics. If you choose to use non-biodegradable faux fur, these techniques are still applicable for a great finish.
DO NOT USE SCISSORS TO CUT FUR. The best way to cut fur is with a straight edge blade like a box cutter or X-Acto knife. Hold the skin away from hard surfaces when you cut and cut from the back/skin side. The reason for avoiding scissors and not pressing against a hard surface is to prevent giving the skin a "haircut". When you cut this the correct way, fur should be visible outside the cut skin area from the back.
Avoid using pins. The holes from using pins are permanent and weaken the skin. Part of the reason to use real materials is to have a good quality item that will last for a very long time. Using pins will shorten the lifespan of the item you make.
Step 6: Edge Joining
When working with fur, it is a good idea to edge join to reduce bulk.
- Use a whip stitch to sew the pieces edge to edge.
- To prevent stretching over time, apply a line of cotton twill tape over the seam.
Being able to edge join is very helpful when working with fur. To create the piece you need for your project, you my need to piece together a few cuts. Pay attention to the nap/direction of the fur when piecing together. If done well, you won't even know it happened on the final piece.
Step 7: Sewing Fur to Fabric
There is a specific technique for attaching fur to fabric that works very well.
Begin by sewing a line of twill tape the the edge of the fur. The twill tape should be on the fur side and a whip stitch should be used.
When the whole side to be joined is taped, flip the twill tape to the back side of the fur and tack in place with a running stitch. On the front side of the skin, "pick" the seam meaning use an awl to pull and fluff up any fur was trapped under a stitch out.
Press the seam allowance on the fabric piece that the fur is attaching to.
Align the fur and sew the fur in place. Using a hand sewing needle, join the twill tape attached to the fur to the seam allowance of the fabric piece.
This technique was used to connect the rabbit fur to the sleeve opening, the sheepskin hood to the fabric hood, and the outside edge of the lapel to the coat.
Step 8: Working With an Interlining
An interlining can come in handy for many reasons on nicer, higher end garments. It can effect opacity of the fashion fabric, add support to a light weight fabric, or - as in this case - add an extra layer of warmth.
Heavy weight cotton (such as cotton sateen) is the most wind-resistant material of natural fibers. I had cotton twill so I decided to add the layer to slow wind cutting through the layers of my coat. I washed and dried the fabric on high/hot settings to shrink it as much as possible before using it with wool. The interlining pieces are cut the same as the fashion fabric pieces - except they are cut without the hem to reduce bulk. Before you begin sewing the fashion fabric, align the interlining to the wrong side of each piece and baste or pin baste i place . Treat the two layers as 1 when you sew.
Before seaming the pieces with the interlining, fold the seam allowance to the wrong side. When you make that fold, the edge of interlining will likely shift past the edge of the fashion fabric. The interlining fabric serves as a backing to the fashion fabric and needs to be slightly smaller so it does not bubble/pull/pucker. Pin the two layers in place while the seam allowance is folded toward the back. Trim the interlining to match the cut edge of the fashion fabric and then sew the seam like usual.
Step 9: Construction Steps
This is a general list of steps in order of construction. If using a commercial pattern, follow their construction directions.
- Make or find your pattern. Change anything about the coat or pattern.
- Cut from the correct fabrics.
- Stack and secure interlining
- Sew small details like pocket flaps or collars
- Sew pockets that fall on 2 piece of the garment
- Apply interfacing
- Do first round of seaming
- Construct the sleeves
- Add sleeve trim
- Continue seaming the garment.
- Add finishing details
- Construct lining
- Attach lining
Grand Prize in the
Sew Warm Challenge