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Historical Outerwear

The earliest forms of outerwear, once people got tired of just wrapping themselves in blankets, were capes and cloaks. At a time when fabric yardage was costly and labor-intensive, and sewing and tailoring had not yet evolved, this was the simplest shaping of woven material into something useful to wear in cold weather. Just a small amount of form allows it to hang from the shoulders and stay in place, freeing the hands for other tasks instead of keeping the garment wrapped around you.

In modern times, cloaks and capes are often relegated to the realm of costume, with the extra fabric viewed as bulky and intrusive to highly-active movements. However, they still shed the rain and can keep you warm with a style and elegance all their own. And since the patterns tend to be uncomplicated, it’s easier than you think to make one for yourself!

Designing Your Cape

Before you get started, there are a few decisions that you need to make about your cape or cloak that will make the actual project a lot easier.

Costume or Real Garment? – Is this just a one-time garment (try the no-sew version!) or do you want this to work as a real outer garment that protects you from weather? You’ll want better material and to spend more time on a real cloak versus a cape for a costume party.

Length? – Capes can be to the waist, to the knee or full-length (to the ankle) It’s often best to make sure they don’t drag on the ground as this can make them get wet/dirty or prone to being stepped on. Pinning some fabric and walking around the house can help you get a good idea of what works for you. Be sure to try things like going up and down stairs, going in and out of doors and at least just once try going to the bathroom with your practice cape pinned in place.

Material? – Are you doing a character cape? Or is this a historical recreation for the SCA? Costume capes tend to be satin, cotton or velvet, whereas historical garments are almost always a heavy wool or brocade that will actually shed rain and keep you warm. If the cape is going to be worn anywhere near fire, go with a natural fabric as that will resist embers (which melt holes in synthetics) and which is much more fire resistant. If you don’t want the cape to flap behind you and hang down straight more readily, make sure the fabric is heavier. If you do want the cape to flow and flap, pick a lighter weight material like a silk. Also be sure to look at the “wrong” side of the fabric and decide if you want the inside of your cloak to look like that. If not, you’ll want to pick out a fabric to line it with.

Garment details – Do you want your cloak to have a hood or not? Or maybe just a stand-up collar? Will the cloak tie at the neck, button shut or fasten with a brooch? Do you want your cape to have any inside or outside pockets? Or maybe an inside secret pocket? The more details you can think about and make decisions on before you start making your cloak, the better you can control your project budget and the less likely it will be that you get stuck halfway and can’t figure out how to finish it.

Sewing Tricks and Tips

ALWAYS wash any fabric before you start working with it. This removes any of the sizing from when it was manufactured and makes sure it won’t shrink smaller after you’ve sewn it up.

The thicker your fabric, the more thread gets used sewing it. If you’re making a really heavy cape, make sure to get a spool more thread than you think you need so that you won’t run out before you get done and thus can ensure the colors will match properly. If you plan on doing any zig-zag stitching, get double the thread you think you might use as that stitch eats up a lot of it.

The best way to hem your cloak or cape is to put it on and then do the pinning. This allows the fabric to hang naturally by its own weight and you get a straighter hem that way. You can put the cloak on a dress form, have a friend the same height as you wear it, or put it on yourself and have a friend do the marking and pinning.

Want a way to finish edges without having to sew them? Try using what’s called fusible interfacing or hem tape. This is a lightweight type of fabric coated with a thin layer of glue that activates when heated with an iron. Be sure to read the product directions carefully for specifics before using, and make sure they will hold up and stay permanent for whatever method of washing you will be using on your cloak.

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