When I’m sewing a garment style that is brand new to me or something a bit more complicated, I like to put my hands and eyeballs on the finished product first. As it turns out, there are loads of sewing knowhow and construction details just waiting to be discovered in your own closet right now!
We’re sewing coats right now in the Collective, so I got curious about what I could learn from my closet. Luckily, I found a great reference to share: my grandmother’s well-loved cashmere coat that I recently inherited from my mom. Let’s dive in!
A little background
I enjoyed a close relationship with my grandma over the years. Before I was school-aged, she looked after me every day while my mom did bookkeeping for my grandpa’s wholesale produce business. She was an amazing seamstress who sewed much of her own clothing, mostly to save money (which you could do back then!)
She’s the one who taught me to sew as a kid, starting with an apron. I can still remember her correcting me “You’ve got to learn how to sew straight!” Apparently, that was quite difficult for my little hands – good thing I eventually figured it out.
One of the cool things I admired about my grandma was her taste in clothing and jewelry. She wasn’t flashy at all – she favored simple, high quality materials and solid construction built to last. So you know this coat wasn’t fast fashion. I mean, it’s 100% cashmere for crying out loud.
I remember trying it on when I was in high school. Ah, I can still feel that silky lining against my skin and its glove-like fit. Almost all of us Watanabe ladies are short, petite, and basically the same shape. Putting on that coat last week really brought me right back there with her.
When was her coat made?
Since my grandma passed away in the early 90s, she could have only purchased the coat sometime between then and the late 40s when our family resettled after Japanese internment.
Could modern technology help us out here? For funsies, I popped what I knew about the coat into Chat GPT to see what it thought about it. (Yes, this is the same AI technology that high school students are using to write their 5 paragraph essays in like 1 minute flat! 😁)
Me: I’m trying to determine what year an overcoat was manufactured. This is a cashmere coat purchased some time between 1950 and 1990. It has large lapels and a large collar, is knee length with raglan style 2 piece sleeves. It has cuff tabs and closes with a tie instead of buttons. The shape is a-line. It was made with fusible interfacing and a multicolor label that says “100% cashmere”.
Chat GPT: Based on the style and construction details you’ve provided, it’s likely that the overcoat was manufactured sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s. The use of fusible interfacing, which is a type of fabric adhesive, became popular in the 1960s as a way to give added structure to garments. The a-line shape, large lapels, and raglan sleeves were also popular during this time period. The use of a tie instead of buttons for closure and the 100% cashmere label also suggests that it’s from a certain period. However, without an actual label or tag indicating the exact date of manufacture or the brand, it is hard to be more specific about the year it was made.
Wow!! Ok, that shaves it down to 3 decades. I dug deeper by following Chat GPT’s additional suggestions on dating the coat.
Chat GPT: Other details that could help identify the manufacturing date of the coat include:
1. Brand name or label: Many clothing manufacturers include a label or tag with their brand name and/or logo, which can often provide clues as to when the item was made.
2. Care label: Many garments produced after the 1960s have a care label that includes information such as the fabric content, country of origin, and recommended care instructions. This label could give an idea of the date of manufacture.
No manufacturers label but I found some other labels!
The “dry clean only” care label also dates it post 1960 (which we already knew), but the big clue here is the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union tag. At its founding in the early 1900s, this union was one of the larges in the US and the first majority women’s union. Very cool!
This particular design of the tag with red, white, and blue colors only appeared between 1974 to 1995 so we know the coat dates to the late 70s or after.
Time to use a lifeline
In desperation, I did the obvious thing next: call my mom’s sisters. My Aunt Karen didn’t remember the coat but she’s pretty sure my grandma owned it long before she passed. She also recognized the collar style and fit, and thinks late 70s or early 80s. So that’s what we’re going with!!
Style and construction
When analyzing a garment’s construction, I first like to look at style lines. This raglan sleeved number sports interesting curved seams joining the sleeves to the body, reminiscent of Deer and Doe’s Opium Coat pattern. The coat also has front and back shoulder darts, plus a small front side panel coming from the lower front armscye.
The kick pleat looked unusual to me with the seam sewn closed. Perhaps the maker wanted to cut down on manufacturing time – or maybe it’s the style? I don’t know. Not very functional IMO, but I guess passible for a knee length coat. In any case, it looks A LOT easier to sew that way with a lining. Speaking of lining, let’s move to the inside.
For ease of movement, the pattern designer turned the outer coat darts into pleats. There’s also a pleat starting from CBN going halfway down the back for some room to reach. At the hem, you can see this lining is free hanging with swing tacks, some of which need repair. Interesting back facing shape!
The lining fabric looks and feels quite durable. Based on the age and the type of garment, I’m betting on a synthetic material.
What we can learn
Exploring vintage and not-so-vintage RTW in my closet or at a thrift shop expands what’s possible in my sewing. I love adding fun and personalized details to my makes and this research gives me so many ideas.
It also helps me to understand how RTW solves construction challenges and design requirements (like ease of motion or durability for example). Manufacturers usually address these needs in an efficient manner since it affects their bottom line.
Other times, I find methods or materials I want to avoid because the end result looks, well, cheap and shoddy. Or maybe an unfortunate fabric choice yields an unsatisfactory drape or silhouette. You can save yourself a lot of time and heartbreak with this information prior to starting a project.
In this case, I also enjoyed a little trip down memory lane. ❤️ Isn’t it neat how fashion connects us through the generations this way?
Let me know in the comments if you like closet digging for ideas and if you found any gems!
Polly Furr says
I love your story, Alison, with its family details, including the photo of you and your grandma. Interesting research! And of course your experienced analysis of the design and construction. Very inspiring, and I am glad to know more about you via your coat.
Thank you Polly, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Carole M Pluckrose says
Your coat reminded me of a coat I’d bought, same colour!
I was home on weekend leave and went into town to buy myself a new winter coat. As you might have guessed, it pretty well matched the colour of your coat. However, the hem needed some alteration. The shop had an in-house tailoring and alterations department. The coat was left with them.
Now this coat cost me, in 1974, a high £90+. It was then EXPENSIVE. I went back to base and Mum waited for the call to say It was ready for collection. Time span, 2.5 weeks. Mum was in town and went to collect it for me. Mum, as I’m sure you have picked up from the Collective, was a tutor and demonstrator for Singers. She inspected the work and refused to accept it. I don’t think I’d want to have been on the receiving end of her polite but cold reaction. Actually, she was livid. I knew she was collecting the coat so rang her that evening. Then she told me what had happened.
About 2 weeks later she got a call, it was ready for collection. I’d done a swap of duty, so being home, I went to collect it. You really had to see the face of the tailoreress when she was told the coat was, right now, being collected. She came out and was looking around for Mum! As per my instructions from Mum, I inspected it minutely. The stitches, this time, were acceptable,as always the rest of the hem. I’d all but turned it inside out. Put it on and asked for a ruler, to check it was actually level. I took it home and Mum re-inspected it. She approved. We both laughed when I told her that the staff looked at me very warily and I wasn’t going to buy anything else from there!
Not only was the cost expensive, I was charged and had paid upfront for the alteration. They even tried to charge me again for the 2nd alteration. I refused telling them that if the work had been done properly the first time, there wouldn’t have been as issue. The problem was theirs not mine.
All that recalled, thanks to your Grandma’s coat! I do like it and hope you get many years wear from it.
Ah, thanks for sharing your experience Carole – every garment has a story, doesn’t it!
Leigh Rollins says
What a classic coat with a rich history! If only it could tell the stories.
I’m most impressed with the shoulder darts that are never seen anymore but what a difference in fit those darts make. And 100% cashmere–ahhhh.
The only experience I had with a vintage coat was a muskrat coat from the 40’s; bold shoulders, wide cuffs while the body had a slight swing shape to it. I loved it and wore it for several years until it the skins started splitting. It was in a vacant house that I rented after being empty for several years; not the best way to store a coat but I was thrilled!