LOATH INTO LIKE INTO LOVE: THE CHRISTIAN BALENCIAGA-ESQUE TOPCOAT

by Daughter Fish

Lately, I’ve found that the enjoyment I feel from a me-made garment has an inverse relationship with how painful it was to sew. Basically, the more I hate something while sewing it, the more I seem to like it afterward. Take this tartan-print topcoat. Midway through making it last week, I was ready to slash and burn it, along with the sewing pattern it rode in on. Despite the pattern’s super awesome design, which is based off a mid-century Christian Balenciaga jacket, it lacked any kind of useful instructions (more on that later), which only added to my insecurity about the fabric I’d chosen and my tailoring skills. I was ready to chalk this project up as a glorified, wool bathrobe, when Mama Fish came to town and saved the day.

If you happen to sew, having a mother who sews well is kind of like winning the information lottery. Mama Fish had all sorts of tips on finishing the cuffs, the lining, the collar…basically all those small tailoring details that make a jacket look good. Within a few days, we’d shaped this from loathed bathrobe into loved topcoat…and just in time for modeling it at the beautiful, magical Storm King, a sculpture garden north of the city.

So, I must share a little about this tartan-print wool I used. It was gifted to me by my Aunt J (Mama Fish’s sister), who received it from her mother-in-law sometime in the 70′s or 80′s. At the time, my aunt’s mother-in-law had just redecorated their travel agency in Los Angeles, and she’d used the tartan-print wool to reupholster chairs for the luxury client suite. You see, these were the days when travel agencies catered to the jet set, when flying was something special and dignified (not like catching a flying Greyhound bus), and a good Scottish tartan print apparently was a very elegant choice for the chairs. Ultimately, though, there was a lot of fabric left, and my Aunt was given yards and yards of the stuff, and she wasn’t sure quite what to do with it, so it sat in her sewing room until last spring when she sent it to me, via a friend.

I wasn’t sure what to do with it myself. It’s not the sort of fabric I would buy. However, it’s a really nice suit-weight wool and when I started thinking about testing this Balenciaga jacket, I realized I could use the tartan, thereby saving some cash and using up some of my stash. In fact, everything (except the buttons) for this jacket came from the bins in my sewing nook.

I used the CB Topcoat pattern from The Center for Pattern Design. I really love this organization, they have a ton of useful information on their site, and I wish I lived close enough to take some draping classes at their California campus. That said, I’m going to give them a D- on the instructions for this pattern, which included several pages of suggestions for finishing techniques, but none of the meat and potatoes of actually constructing the thing. After cutting out and sewing a first version of this jacket, I realized the size medium was enormous. I ended up ripping the thing apart and grading the pattern down. Once I got the fit right, Mama Fish and I discovered the collar pattern piece actually  seemed to be missing (or at least we thought it was, based on the picture on the pattern cover…but since we didn’t have construction instructions, we just had to guess), so I had to draft my own. At $28 for the pattern, there was way too much guesswork.

All of that aside, I really do like the cut of this jacket. I bought the pattern because I’ve become increasingly interested in Balenciaga’s highly sculptured clothes from the 40′s through 60′s. This jacket has a pli de souplesse—that deep fold  at the armscye—which I think is beautiful and allows you to wear the jacket easily over other garments. The pattern was developed by Balenciaga’s tailoring assistant, Salvador, as a teaching example of how Balenciaga used unusual seaming to sculpt his clothes. The sleeves are cut in one piece with the back, folding around to connect to the front of the jacket. The tartan print seemed better suited for a shorter jacket, so I made it thigh length and slightly longer in the back.

The suit-weight wool wasn’t heavy enough to give the sleeves the sculpted look I wanted, so I cut a yoke/stay from thick wool felt that lines the sleeves as well as the upper back of the jacket. I attached the yoke to a chinese silk lining.

Instead of regular buttons, I bought magnet buttons which easily snap together. This is awesome, because I didn’t have to put any buttonholes in the jacket and can snap it closed one handed. Of course, the magnets like to stick to my keys, if they’re in my pocket.

As we got out of the car at Storm King, a group of hip ladies from Brooklyn complimented me on the jacket. In fact, they asked me where I bought it, and when I told them I made it, they immediately asked if I make them for other people. That solidified my liking of the topcoat. Since then, I seem to be seeing topcoats all over the place, like this Coach version advertised at the Time Warner Center building.

This one has leather accents on the collar, welt pockets, and zipper. I’m kind of in love with those details. Next go (and there will be a next go! BECAUSE I LOVE THIS JACKET) I’m playing with leather.

Loath into like into love. It’s a good progression.