Friday, November 4, 2011

Presto Change-O Jacket Size-O

(Part 5 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 39
This week starts the most challenging thing yet for you to learn, not only in our current Island of Misfit Clothes series, but in the entire Dress Like a Grown-Up blog up to this time! It's time to get out of the wading pool and queue up to the diving board: very soon, you'll find yourself either sinking or swimming in the deep end.

We'll be talking for the next little bit about jackets; and more specifically, the way they fit. If you've been following along with the blog for any length of time this year, you have a good understanding of the importance and usefulness of wearing a jacket. You also probably remember the "search hierarchy" when it comes to finding a good secondhand jacket, which I laid out in Chapter 29 --

Proper fit  [is more important than] the current style [is more important than] the fabric quality [is more important than] the maker's label.

If you've put this into practice out in the field, at the estate sales and secondhand shops, you have probably refined and simplified this concept further. I memorized the rubric thusly: "Fit trumps condition. Condition trumps style. Style trumps quality. Quality trumps age."

Whichever way you memorized it, what's clear is that proper fit is king of the mountain. This necessitates, unfortunately, ignoring otherwise perfectly serviceable articles. You've undoubtedly experienced the heartbreak of seeing your perfect jacket on the rack, only to have to turn it away when you've discovered it's an inch too large in the chest.

Wouldn't it be great if you could afford to take it to a tailor, who could expertly take it in somehow, work his magic on it, wave his wand, burn candles -- whatever the heck tailors do -- and that same jacket would come back fitting you like, well, like a jacket? But is short, the economy is rough, and it's hard enough to make ends meet as it is. That jacket will have to stay on the rack.

Until now! That's right, I'm going to show you how to do it yourself. More accurately, you'll be able to approximate what a tailor does. It's daunting at first, but with some basic needling skillz, you will be able to take a jacket that is grossly outsized, and sew it down as trim as you please. We're not going to rush through this: I'll take several weeks, step by step, and show you just how to go about it.

This week, it's Toon Time. Through the magic of skillfully crafted graphics, I'll clearly illustrate the concepts involved, and perform the surgical procedures virtually, before we look at the real article.

Getting a jacket to fit is all about the balance. We've looked at balance before, in Chapter 33, when we adjusted the buttoning-point to correct for a low shoulder. With large sizes, the same concept applies, just in a larger scale.

This is your average fellow. We'll be fitting him for a jacket. The first thing you will notice is that the poor guy has had his arms hacked off at the shoulder. The reason is simple: when treating a jacket for alterations, the sleeves are considered as separate from the body. They get in the way, and it's easier not to deal with them just yet.

Here's our guy in an ideally-fitting jacket. (The sleeves have been removed for clarity.) What to notice here is that the jacket is built in two halves, front and back, that are joined together at the shoulder and the side body. The shoulder and side body seams are shown. Most people think of a jacket as left and right, because the front opens up. Try to get away from that, and see it as the relationship between the back and the fronts.

In a jacket like this one, both halves are balanced, as shown by the blue arrows. The fronts sit against the chest, the back against the spine. The collar sits against the back of the neck, and the armscye (the jacket's armhole, taken from "arm's eye") is centered around the wearer's arm. The front and back sides are said to be the same length, that is, in balance. Because the jacket sits naturally in place against the body, it doesn't have a tendency to pull, gap, wrinkle, or sag, whether buttoned or unbuttoned.

Here's a more corpulent, barrel-chested fellow, also wearing a well-fitting jacket. His jacket is well-balanced, and fits in all the right ways, just like his thinner compatriot. Since he has more chest to cover, it takes more fabric to cover him, but the relationship of the lengths are still said to be in balance.

Take that large-chested jacket, and put it on our thinner fellow, and a balanced jacket becomes immediately out of balance. His smaller frame can't support the extra fabric in the right places. The chest balloons out, and the back is larger across the blades, (but not as much as the chest, because a man's extra mass hangs out more in front.) All that fabric can't just stay suspended out there unsupported -- it has to have somewhere to go. And that's when we get into trouble.

Try on that jacket unbuttoned, and here's what happens. The chest, being heavier and more constructed than the back half, collapses against the wearer. The jacket is unbalanced at the front: all that extra length, which was needed to cover a larger chest, falls down, and that length needs somewhere to go. The armscye acts as a pivot, and the fronts fall away toward the rear. The lower back kicks out, and the back pulls away from the spine. The back neck is pressed in, but the arms tend to pull back. The jacket looks hugely large in the back, the arms are uncomfortable, and wrinkles form behind the arms and across the back.

Buttoning the jacket is no better. Pulling the fronts together by the buttons forces the fabric away from the lower back into place -- but that extra length still needs someplace to go! Now, it pushes up, towards the collar, and pulls the neck out at the back. The armscye acts as a pivot in the other direction now. The jacket now looks oddly short in the back, and wrinkles pull forward under the arms and down the back.

If you asked a tailor how to fix a balance problem, he would answer that the correct way to do it is to remove the arms, remove the collar, rip the shoulder seam and side seams out, pull the fronts up, re-sew the side seams, re-set the shoulder in place, narrow the fronts, and re-set the collar. In short, re-make the whole darn thing.

But there is another way, a much easier way. It isn't perfect, it isn't "correct," and instead of eliminating the primary problem in one go, it replaces large errors with small ones, which can be chased in sequence until the final error is negligible. On the other hand, it is completely do-able by the average non-tailor, it takes a lot less time and effort, and the results are very, very close to the "right" way. Oh, and you can do it for free.

Here is the key: we won't touch the highly constructed chest and shoulders. There's a lot of work that goes into the lapels and collar of a jacket: canvas, horsehair, melton, pad-stitching, and a dozen other things you've never heard of. Try to mess with them without knowing just what you're doing, and you'll never get it right again. By working with the simple areas and staying away from the "professional-only" ones, you can preserve good, professional-looking results. After removing the sleeve, just take out the side body seam, essentially separating the front and back halves.

I know what you're thinking, and don't panic about the sleeves -- we'll cover those later. Just carefully remove them, and they can be re-set after we're done with the body.

Now that we have our halves separated, (and color coded for clarity,) we'll start chasing down errors, starting with the largest: the overall balance, caused by the excess chest size. Since the halves are free-floating now, this is almost self-correcting. Make sure the back of the collar is correctly in place, smooth down the chest with the fronts buttoned, smooth down the back, and the side seam will overlap. Pin the overlap, and you will see an immediate improvement. The red arrow shows the next small error: the back may still be too full across the blades.

Now we start chasing down the small stuff. Pinch the excess fabric together at the center back seam. Don't take out a lot; only if the blades are way too large, and only nip from just under the collar to just above the small of the back. The next error to contend with is the shape of the armscye: you can see that the correction to the fronts has pulled the scye to the rear, and now we have to move it to its proper place again.

This is a simple operation as well: release the shoulder seam, from just beside the collar to the end of the shoulder. Since the shoulders are padded, you'll have to do this carefully to keep everything in place. Smooth down the rear of the scye, and pin the wedge-shaped overlap.

This has reduced the circumference of the scye. Since it's in the proper place at the rear, what remains is to cut the front of the scye to give room for the wearer's shoulder. Be very careful not to cut larger than the scye's starting size, or else your sleeve won't fit! Sleeve heads can be made smaller, but you can't add fabric -- so we'll be sure to measure twice and cut once.

After everything is in place, sew the side and shoulder seams in place. A very good practice is to preserve the curve of the front edges, and stitch them down to the rear overlap. The seams were stretched and shaped when the jacket was made, and the more you can preserve the original shape of the fabric, the better it will look. As you can see here, the result of the alteration is a balance and fit that is very nearly as good as a custom-made jacket. The only remaining error is to hem the bottom edge to be even all 'round.

For comparison, here are the two jacket profiles superimposed. The original, well-fitting jacket is in red, and the large, altered jacket is in black. The differences are that the lapel notch and button point are slightly lower, the total length is fractionally shorter, and the position of the side body seam is shifted to the rear. The armscye, although of the same size, has been brought forward slightly to a more comfortable position.

If this seems like a huge project, I won't lie to you -- it is. Don't fear, though; we're going to take our time on this, span several months, off and on, working step-by-step the whole way, and by the end, your jacketing options will have expanded practically without limits! As with anything you attempt, your first jacket will take awhile, and might not be what you would call an unqualified success. Your second will be better, and faster, and your third faster and better still. Eventually, you will be able to go to an estate sale, pick out a gorgeous jacket that is six inches too large, buy it for a song, and alter it to fit you in a single weekend. Imagine that!

Click here to go to the next essay chronologically, Part Six of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

Click here to go back to the  previous essay chronologically.

Click here to go back to Part Four of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

Click here to go back to Part One of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

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