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Tips, Tricks, Tutorials, and Random How-To Guides

Recommended Sources for Historical Sewing Patterns

I try to use pre-existing patterns as often as possible. I use several different books on historical costume as sources and inspirations for my patterns. Lots of costuming folks like the patterns in the books by Norah Waugh, but I find them too complicated and poorly-explained for most of my 1:6 scale projects. If you're looking for sources for coats, breeches, vests, etc. my current two favorites (with links to Amazon listings) are:

1. Men's Seventeenth & Eighteenth Century Costume, Cut and Fashion: Patterns for Men's Costumes, by R. I. Davis.
I've used some of these patterns to make coats, vests, and breeches for pirates like Bloody Red Bess, naval officers, and pseudo-historical figures. For Doctor Who fans, you can use these patterns to make breeches for the Fourth Doctor's Season 18 outfit. You might be able to modify some of the coats into the Season 18 coat. One of the coat patterns looks like a good match for a coat from "Brotherhood of the Wolf." There also is a pattern for a doublet like the one Ramirez (Sean Connery) wears in "Highlander." I love this book.

2. Men's Garments, 1830-1900, by R.I. Davis.
I've used some of these patterns to make frock coats and vests suitable for several Doctors. For example, I modified one of these patterns to create the Sixth Doctor's multi-colored nightmare of a coat. One of the patterns in this books is a dead-ringer for the Eighth Doctor's coat, or that same pattern could be modified slightly for the Fourth or First's coat. If you used a curved item like a bowl to draw a new line, you could modify the coat-tails for a Second Doctor's coat. Some of these patterns might still be available for free somewhere on the Costumer's Manifesto website.

3. From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking, by Denise Dreher.
I've used some of these patterns to make tricorn hats for pirates, Gentleman Jack, and pseudo-historical figures, and bicorns for naval officers and a deerstalker for Sherlock Holmes.

How and Where to Find Historical Sewing Patterns

Such historical and theatrical reference books can be very expensive. Prices seem to range from $50.00-$70.00 for most of these books, with some books costing around $100.00 each. (One book on my Wish List currently costs $150.00.) Please don't ask me to estimate how much money I've spent on all my sewing books. The answer would be scary.

In order to find more affordable copies of these expensive books, you can check eBay, Half.com, Amazon, and similar sources for used copies. Amazon is great for suggesting even more books you might like to buy - which can alert you to other books you could use. You can set up "saved searches" and "automated alerts" and so forth at such sites to alert you when certain books are listed, when the books are listed in a certain price range, etc. Use these features and realize you might have to wait years for a good price to appear. If you see a good price, snatch it up quick before someone else does. Or, save up the money to buy the book you really want at its current market value. Be aware that books like these can go out of print quickly and then increase drastically in price. (For example, a matter of months made the difference between being able to buy one book on Amazon for around $50, and then only being able to find it on the secondary market for $190! I decided I could live without that particular book.)

At these prices, you might want to "Try it before you buy it." Check university libraries, which often stock these or similar books for their Theatre/Drama departments. If your campus or local town library don't have a particular book you want, you might be able to get it through Interlibrary Loan. Ask your librarian for more information if you're unfamiliar with this service. And always remember that librarians are the Secret Masters of the Universe, Guardians of All Knowledge and Wisdom. So be polite when you ask.

How to Convert Historical Sewing Patterns to 1:6 Scale

If historical patterns are printed on a grid, you can convert them to 1:6 very easily. The books usually tell you what scale the patterns are (usually 1:8), or you can measure the grid squares (usually a 1/8th inch square represents one "real world" inch). Use a scanner/Photoshop-type program/printer combo, or a Xerox copier, or some other method to enlarge the patterns from the original scale to 1:6 scale. (IRC, the math to convert 1:8 to 1:6 comes out to approximately 133%.)

If the pattern isn't printed on a grid, you'll have to:
1. Read the 1:1 measurements for each piece listed on the pattern (Ex: 27 inches from CB neckline of coat to CB of coat-tails)
2. Measure the actual length of the scaled-down piece as printed in the book (Ex: 9 inches)
3. Calculate the scale based on steps 1 and 2. (Ex: 1:3 scale)
4. Calculate how to convert the scale from step 3 into 1:6 scale. (Ex: Reduce 1:3 scale pattern pieces 50% to become 1:6 scale.)

Next, add a seam allowance around each enlarged piece. To do this more easily, I usually print two copies of each piece. I cut out the first piece. Then I use a ruler to mark a few dots 1/4th of an inch away from each side of the second piece. I use those dots to line up the first piece, then trace along its edge to create a 1/4th inch seam allowance. Corners can be a bit tricky with this method, but it usually works out all right, especially with a little practice.

If you want/need more detailed assembly instructions than are available in the books, look out for sales on patterns at Jo-Ann fabrics. There are several patterns (from Simplicity, Butterick, etc.) designed for historical re-enactors or for Halloween costumes. (These patterns are listed in the "Costumes" or "Crafts" section of the catalogs for each company. The catalogs usually are on a table near where the patterns are stored.) During a sale you can buy a pattern for $1.99, etc., and get clear directions on how to assemble the cryptic pieces in the historical pattern books. Doll patterns also offer ideas for modifications to patterns and instructions. For example, use the instructions in the doll patterns when you attach sleeves at 1:6 scale unless you really enjoy insanity and pain.

Vogue, Butterick, and McCall's all offer patterns for men's suits in 1:6 scale pretty regularly. Craft stores like JoAnn Fabrics or Hobby Lobby, or even in the craft department at Wal-Mart sell patterns. Check the "Crafts" or "Dolls" sections of the pattern catalogs in the stores or on-line to find the current version available. Hint: JoAnn Fabrics sells patterns for 99 cents or $1.99 or 75% very regularly. You can check their web page or call your local store to find out when their next sale will be. Also, if you sign up for their mailing list, they'll mail you a flyer every week or so to tell you when all their sales will be, when those cool Halloween fabrics (like thin pleather or vinyl) come out, etc. Even better, the flyer will always have a coupon for 40% off one item in the store. I've gotten some great fabric using those coupons. Just make sure to bring the coupon in every few weeks or so to be scanned (even if you don't buy anything). Otherwise, they'll drop you from the mailing list and you won't get the cool coupons any more, the punks.

Velvet Substitutes for 1:6 Scale

Using real velvet for 1:6 projects inevitably results in too much bulk, as happened when I made the Eighth Doctor's frock coat. In my humble opinion, panne velvet usually winds up looking cheap instead of elegant, and doesn't look in-scale to me. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of buying a bunch of panne velvet during a sale-induced fit of insanity. In a desperate attempt to rid myself of it, I used some of it to make white and tan Time Lord Robes.

Luckily, I stumbled across two excellent substitutes for velvet that look elegant and in-scale: moleskin and microsuede. Both look remarkably close to velvet at that scale, and are much thinner than any real velvet is. Jo-Ann Fabrics stocks these fabrics regularly. I used moleskin or microsuede to make the Third Doctor's jacket.

Button Substitutes for 1:6 Scale

Some people use "Barbie buttons" that you find at Wal-Mart or Jo-Ann fabrics. I've found that they're out-of-scale for anything other than frock coat buttons. For shirt buttons, I used to use seed pearl bead from the bead section at Wal-Mart or craft stores like Jo Anns, Michaels, or Hobby Lobby. You can see how I used seed pearl beads as the buttons on the Third Doctor's shirt if you scroll down this page.

My current favorite 1:6 scale buttons are are fingernail decorations from Crafts2Do. There are a variety of colors and sizes. I prefer to use the 1.5mm nailheads as shirt buttons and buttons on breeches, the 3mm nailheads as vest buttons, and the 4mm nailheads as frock coat buttons. You can see some examples on pirates like Bloody Red Bess, naval officers, and pseudo-historical figures.

Frog Closures for 1:6 Scale

You can find free patterns for frog closures online by typing "frog closure" or something similar into Google or another search engine. I sewed black elastic cord into the frog closure pattern. I made the "button" portion of the closures by using an X-Acto knife to slice 1/4 inch bits of toothpick, which I then painted black. I tied black thread around the toothpick bits, then sewed the toothpick "buttons" to the elastic cord.

How to Make a 1:6 Jabot

Cut a strip of the same fabric you use to make the shirt. You can fray check the edges so you don't have to seam it. Cut strips of lace about three times as long as the finished jabot will be wide. Make some gathering stitches along the top of each strip using the longest stitch length setting on the sewing machine. Gently pull the threads so the lace bunches up at the top. Sew the gathered lace onto the strip of fabric. Sew the strip into a stand-up collar. You can adjust the pattern for the pants waistband of a commercial pattern to make a stand-up collar by shortening it and possibly making it more narrow. I used this method to make a jabot for a custom James Bond: On Her Majesty's Secret Service Action Figure

How to Make 1:6 Tassels

To make the tassels, wrap regular red sewing thread around an item. I used this handy sewing tool whose name I can never remember. You know, the seam-measuring-thingy!
Carefully slice open one side with an Xacto blade. (You can see the Band-Aid where I sliced open my finger doing this, so I do mean "carefully.")
Wrap more red thread around the middle of the tassel.
Tie a knot to hold it all together, about a fourth of the way down.
Sew the tassel to the socks.

How to Make 1:6 Socks (with or without Tassels)

Socks are just tubes of fabric. I trace around a foot and leg of the figure to make a pattern, fold it in half, then sew along the back side (where the seams in old-fashioned silk stockings used to be). If I need to make it tighter, I sew it again. It's easier to make it tighter than to make it looser!