Sewing A Vintage Inspired Princess Coat with Mary-Ellen
The Makings of a Princess (Coat)
Since I have now been sewing for a year and a half, I decided it was time to take on the challenge of making a coat. This is technically not my first – at the end of last year I made the Charm Patterns Swing Coat (a pattern that was exclusive to Gertie’s Patreon subscribers last winter) but, given the style of it, there wasn’t any real fitting to worry about. The Princess Coat, on the other hand, comes with the tag ‘tailoring’ which was enough to scare me off for a while. Having now made it, however, I would reassure you; if you haven’t taken the jump, it’s not as difficult as you might suspect.
Inspiration for the Princess coat
The Princess coat pattern is inspired by the Lilli Ann style of coats of the 1940s and 1950s. The Lilli Ann label was established in San Francisco in 1934 by Adolph Schuman who named the company after his wife Lillian and established it by way of a $2000 bank loan. The company soon became known for creating beautiful, elaborately designed suits and coats. They were featured regularly by Vogue.
Schuman bought the majority of his fabrics in Paris from small textile companies that were in financial straits after the war; it is reported that Schuman’s business saved many of them from financial ruin. He also helped multiple European weavers modernize their systems and often placed orders for their entire output during certain months. His input was so valued in France that he was awarded medals.
In 1953, Schuman opened a three-story production plant in San Francisco. In the 1960s, he developed a line of knitwear as a mod-inspired London line before moving to more career-based looks throughout the 1970s and 1980s. His heirs kept business running until the 1990’s but the line closed its doors in 2000. The joy of Lilli Ann garments is in the details. The architectural styling of the clothes is beautiful, so it is no wonder Gertie was inspired to recreate the look.
The Princess Coat features Princess seams, a fabulous shawl collar (with the option of a notch detail), 3 interchangeable sleeve options (a tailored sleeve, a bell sleeve and a lantern sleeve) and can be made in various lengths (a cropped jacket, jacket with peplum, or a full-skirted coat).
In a way it reminds me of those ‘Red Herring’ books I read as a child. Gertie describes it as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ pattern – there are actually 24 different combinations.
While the decision was difficult, in the end I chose to make the cropped jacket with tailored sleeves and left out the notch on the collar as I loved the dramatic circular sweep of the shawl collar.
While this beautiful fabric could easily be used for any variation, I decided in the end that the open weave of the fabric (being 90% polyester and 10% wool) lends itself better to a more everyday version of the coat (which is really what I needed more than anything else). I also have plans to make a couple of Stanwyck skirt variations to pair with the jacket.
Toile & Fit
I’m a big believer in making toiles for patterns I haven’t made before – no matter what version of the coat you make, you only need to toile this pattern as a cropped jacket as the peplum and skirt don’t require any fitting. Gertie has provided really good instructions on how to make changes to your toile; it’s one of the best features about Charm Patterns that you almost feel as if you have a tutor by your side.
To choose your size, the key measurement you want to focus on is your high bust – Charm Patterns come with cup sizes (A-H) so this part of fitting is effortless, even for the bustier among us. I started with a size 12 as my high bust measurement, grading out to a 14 at the waist.
Being princess seams, I only graded out at the side seams (not all the princess seams). A lot of people who ask me for advice on fit make the same mistake when choosing their sizes; they often use their waist measurement to decide which size to make in the case their waist is a size or two larger than their bust. The problem with this is that you end up with a lot of excess fabric around the shoulders and bust area. It is easier to grade out at the waist than it is to get rid of excess fabric everywhere else.
I also prefer to make my toiles from calico rather than making wearable muslins – Gertie herself advises against them. I didn’t make any massive adjustments in the end. I increased the side seams at the top of the jacket as there was a bit of excess but to go down a cup size would have made it too small and I wanted to leave enough room for an extra layer of knitwear when the weather turns bitterly cold. I also had to shorten the arms a little and redraft the shoulder seams a little. I was surprised I didn’t have to do a bicep adjustment on the sleeves as that is a common adjustment I need to make, especially having opted for the tailored sleeves.
The jacket came together really easily in spite of it being made up of quite a lot of pattern pieces (and I was making the shortest of the versions).
I did skip one major feature, however: the bound buttonholes. After a test, I realised that this fabric wasn’t well suited for this technique. It would be much easier in a tweed or wool; something more rigid and stable. It was the aesthetics of this fabric that really appealed to me; the large scale houndstooth gives a really modern feel to a very vintage style. This fabric would be ideal for less fitted outerwear. Instead of the bound buttonholes, I decided to steal the look of the red cropped variation of the Princess coat on the Charm Patterns website and use invisible closures which I think works really well given the giant houndstooth doesn’t get broken up or ‘cluttered’ by buttons. It’s a satisfyingly clean finish.
I learned quite a few things about tailoring while making this jacket and it has inspired me to make other variations of this pattern in the future. I loved learning about the bias strip method for setting in sleeves. There’s hand stitching involved in making this pattern; for the bound buttonholes (if you choose to use them), the hem and the sleeves as well as attaching the lining to the coat hem. If you were to make the full-length coat version there would be even more (but I really enjoy hand stitching and find it strangely therapeutic).
What I love about this pattern is that it can be used to make a really authentic looking princess coat, but what I hope to show by sharing this version of the coat is that the pattern can also be used to create something more ‘modern vintage’ for everyday wear. While my wardrobe is trousers-free, I think this version would look as beautiful with a pair of jeans as it does a swing skirt.
Be sure to check out Mary-Ellen’s Instagram @shesewshappiness for some more wonderful vintage inspired makes.