Crafting with Lily: Spencer Jacket Edition, Part 1 (patterning)

I spent Friday night patterning my spencer jacket and making a toile. It went very smoothly, much more smoothly than I expected. Let’s hope this doesn’t mean construction will be a beast!

I started by flipping through Etsy to get a better sense of the visual effect I was after, and then I went back through the pictures I took from the library (which totalled 6 different historical patterns from two different books) to see which came the closest to my vision and/or could most easily be adapted to it.

What’s in my mind is a really basic, and plain, jacket made of beautiful fabric that will photograph well. I want it to button up to the neck, have a wide band at the waist, plain sleeves with just a bit of puff at the shoulders, and French cuffs that also button. If I had the time I would make a stand-up collar, but those are obnoxious to set into the neckline (not to mention it would require another trip to the fabric store for stiff interlining), and I want this to be a quick project, so I’m settling for a plain collar that will lie similar to a Peter Pan collar. I haven’t yet learned how to do piping, plus I have a really lux and luscious material that won’t need embellishment to look fancy, so I am going to for no decoration but the buttons. Easy as pie. (Note: I also always make pie from scratch, including the crust. Just so you have proper perspective on my relationship with pie.)

The first thing to know about making a spencer pattern from historical sources is that all costuming books say “just use a pelisse pattern without the skirt” rather than including specific spencer patterns.  Jean Hunnisett in her Period Costumes for Stage and Screen: Outerwear Part 2 (which is everything other than capes and cloaks) had a pelisse jacket from 1817 that was close to what I wanted. It was just burdened with overwrought sleeves and collar, and a front that uses hook and eyes and not buttons, but those are easily changeable issues so I used that pattern as my base.

spencer pattern adapting

The spencer is constructed of the following parts:

  • back piece
  • side back (1 per side) – this piece fits under the bottom of the triangle and extends to the side; it forms part of the armhole
  • front piece (1 per side, connected in the front by some method of closure)
  • “belt” to enclose the bottom edge, also connected by a front closure
  • sleeves + optional cuffs
  • collar

The construction for the basic body is simple. Probably the most complicated parts are making sure the side piece connects at the proper angle to the back and making sure the dart under each breast is placed correctly. Otherwise, it’s five pieces sewn together, two darts, and then sleeves that have to be gathered on the top to make them puffy, and a collar that requires either an interface or a deep stand.

I started drawing a pattern to my own measurements with the back piece. Backs of dresses and jackets at the time (1810s) often had a diamond cut, to create a narrowing effect at the center back waist and to drop the shoulder seams onto the back so the front would be unbroken by seam lines. My shoulders and back are broad, so I had to elongate the diamond horizontally to get it across my back. This distorted the side pieces somewhat, giving them a much longer “tail” than their counterparts on Hunnisett’s pattern, which was a copy from an extant historical article.

I used her pattern as a reference point for how wide the top and bottom of the diamond should be (widening mine slightly to keep the diamond more proportional on my back). I also referenced where the top and bottom of the side “point” fall on the heighth (I used my back length rather than what was in the pattern). I also used her pattern as a guide to the shape and angle of the side piece where it will connect to the front piece.

Being confident in knowing the breath of my own back, I went ahead and cut the back and side pieces for my mock-up and pinned them together. Sure enough, they fit my back perfectly, and the angle at which the side pieces curved was also spot-on.

Time to pattern the front, which I knew would be less mathematical and more trial and error.

For the front I started by drawing a horizontal line as wide as half the remaining width I needed for my circumference (C – back piece bottom width – 2 x side back bottom width).  I then added 3 inches for the dart, as my bust is 6 inches wider than my waist, hence I need two darts of three inches each, since the only narrowing between chest and waist is said darts.  I looked at her pattern and saw the bottom front v’s down a bit under the darts and lowered my edge an inch at the center of the dart, drawing mostly straight lines from the corners to the bottom of the v.

I drew up to the side height I expected to need and also the front height. At this point I was entirely disregarding the measurements on her pattern, because it was so much smaller than mine–I was going strictly for shape and angular relation. I measured on my neck how wide the neckline would be from the center front to where it hit the top of the back diamond and drew that curve in on the paper. 

That was where I stopped and thought, “okay, the easy part is over.”  I really wasn’t sure at what angle the top of the neck and shoulder would meet, so I drew out about four gradings of it and then measured on myself from where I thought the shoulder corner of the diamond would be down to the bottom of the jacket.  My top eyeballing wasn’t quite high enough, so I drew a line to the measurement. I curved in my best guess at an armhole to connect the back corner shoulder to the front side piece. (The guess was based on how the pattern in the book was shaped.)

At this point, I cut out the pattern from the butcher paper and held it up to my body, dart folded and all. The side piece needed to be at a different angle, and the armhole was too big, but the heighth and width and boob cup were all spot on.  Back to the pattern table! I cut an inch off the bottom of the side and taped it to the top, then taped in some paper to bring the armhole closer to my limb. Looked at it again, and it looked good–nothing for it at this point but to cut it in fabric and make a toile.

I pinned the new front half (I only cut one from the scrap fabric, no point cutting two if it was FUBAR) to the back/side already together and tried the whole thing on. Found the armhole was still a bit too large and the side piece could come up another inch, and the front center should come down level with the v of the dart. Otherwise, it was a fit (which, let me tell you, is pretty damn good for a flat pattern to need only one round of revision once it’s tried in fabric).

That was where I left the project, as midnight had come around and I wasn’t up for more math. The belt will not need a pattern; the collar and cuffs will not be patternable until the body and sleeves of the garment are constructed and I can measure to the fabric as I cut and sewed it. The sleeves are simple one-seam (AKA, one piece) sleeves. I will use her sleeve pattern graded to my arms for length and circumference and my actual cut garment for sleeve head height. I may narrow them somewhat, as well, because her sketch looks inelegantly bulky in the arms–and while that might be accurate, it will not photograph well.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased with the progress so far and am hoping this will turn out to be just as easy in construction as it was in patterning. (If this didn’t sound easy to you…you really don’t want to know what I think hard is.)  Results:

Her version

Her version

My version

My version

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