The Cloak


The question tends to come up during rainy summers or in autumn: What to wear in cold weather? For men, whose suits are often made of wool, the question may not be all that pressing. Women can make do with mantelets and plisses. But neither are enough for when it's really, really cold. That's when you start to seriously look at cloaks.

The main difference between men's and women's cloaks is their length. While men's are roughly knee to mid-calf long, women's tend to be from a bit beyond the hip to knee-length. (The only extant cloaks I have measurements for are the two in Costume close up: 135 cm for the man's and and 108 cm for the woman's.) This may be due to the fact that a heavy cloak would press down on a panier, distorting it, or that it's quite warm under multiple petticoats, anyway*. Another difference is that men's coats have turn-down collars, while women's tend to have cowls. Many women's cloaks, both extant and depicted, are red, while men's are usually grey or black. What with the very few extant and depicted cloaks, this can only be a hint but is by no means exclusive, but the tendency towards red for women's cloaks is quite noticeable. The almost floor-length coat with one more more capes usually associated with carriage drivers only appeared very late in the 18th century and only for men.

As for fabrics, only sheep's wool is appropriate. The fabric weight can only be a rough guideline: A densely woven, well-felted, light woolen may keep out the cold and the wet better a heavier, less densely woven and/or less felted one. Worsted is not suitable because it lacks the insulating effect of felting. I strongly advise against any twill weave because they are often elastic on the bias. Since cloaks are cut in quarter or half circles, there's a lot of bias. So, linen weave it is. If the fabric is well-felted, the edges can be left raw. This is preferable since hemming a circle isn't much fun. In the following I'll assume that you won't have to neaten the hem. If you do, the cloak will become shorter by up to 2 cm.

Cutting out a cloak is no magic: The basic shape is that of a circle. That's not all there is to it, but it's a start. The magic lies in 1) cutting it with as little waste as possible, and 2) making the neck opening wide enough, but not too wide. The latter is more difficult than it seems.

What's making this How-To complex is that anything between a half and a full circle is possible, and each variant has its advantages and draw-backs. A full-circle cloak is heavy and consumes an awful lot of fabric, leaving a lot of waste. For most purposes, a three-quarter cloak is sufficient whereas a half-circle cloak is possible, but rather skimpy. A cloak will only be really warm if you can wrap it around you and cross the front edges over. With a half-circle cloak, you can only do that if the neck opening is really wide and closely gathered - and since the fabric width is a given, a larger neck opening means that the cloak will be shorter.

The fabric width limits the length of the cloak, unless you are willing to piece it. (Piecing is a valid and common 18th century technique, but it's more work.) A fabric 150 cm wide will not yield a cloak 150 cm long because you have to subtract the neck opening, which in turn must be wider than your neck circumference: Only by gathering the neck opening can you achieve the width necessary to accomodate the shoulders. You may also have to subtract the selvedges if they're too conspicuously modern.

Let's assume that your cloak is a three-quarter circle. Let's also assume that your neck has a circumference of 40 cm. The neck opening should then be 60-80 cm**. The formula for the circumference of a circle is 2r*pi, so if Ihave calculated correctly (which is by no means guaranteed), a 3/4 circle that yields a 60 cm neck opening should have a radius of 13 cm***. Let's also assume that the fabric is 150 cm wide, or 148 cm with selvedges subtracted. This means that the maximum cloak length you can achieve without piecing is 148 minus 13, i.e. 135 cm. For a person of 160 cm height, that would be floor length. For a man 190 cm tall, it would just be long enough.

Let's assume that you want to make a 3/4 cloak out of 150 cm wide fabric as long as you can make it without piecing. At first glance, you'd need twice the width for a half circle, i.e. 300 cm fabric length, plus once again the width for the quarter circle, adding up to 450 cm. However, you can interlock the pattern pieces as in this pic (left), which shows the economical cutting of a full-circle cloak. Therefore, you'll only need about 420-430 cm in fabric length. For a full-circle cloak, buy four times the fabric width minus roughly 50 cm.

As said above, a woman's cloak is shorter (something like 85-95 cm for someone 160 cm tall and maybe up to 120 cm). You should be able to cut the cowl from the remainder, unless you're very tall. But don't forget that to get a 100 cm long cloak, you don't cut a half-circle with a 100 cm radius! Remember the neck opening: For a 100 cm long cloak, you'll have to add about 14 cm to the radius (13 cm neck opening plus 1 cm seam allowance) and maybe hem turning allowance.

It may help if you first cut a quarter-circle paper pattern, but it's not necessary. If you're an experienced tailor, cutting one half and one quarter circle will not be a problem, so you can safely skip a few paragraphs. For the sake of beginners, I'll assume that you will cut a paper pattern. To do that, see that you have a piece of paper available that is at least 148 cm (or whatever the desired length plus neck radius is) square. Select one corner and draw two 1/4 circles around it, one with a radius of 13 cm and one with a radius on 148 cm. Cut along those lines. (If you've no idea how to draw 1/4 circles that size: Consider a pin in the corner of the paper, a length of string and a pencil.)

Your fabric will probably come folded lengthwise. Spread it open and fold it widthwise 148 cm (or whatever the desired length plus neck radius is) from one end. Smooth the two layers out so that the selvedges lie parallel at least on one side (fabrics often aren't 100% straight). Place the 1/4 circle paper pattern on it and cut the pattern piece on the fold so that you get a half circle of fabric.

Since we're making a 3/4 cloak, you'll need another 1/4 circle. The most economical way of cutting it is to place the rest of the fabric flat on the ground and then place the paper pattern on it with one straight edge along the longer one of the remaining selvedges.

Now all that's left is the collar, about 50-55 cm long and maybe 20-25 cm wide (for men), or the cowl (for women) of 40 x 80 up to 50 x 100 cm They may, possibly with a bit of piecing, be cut from what is left.

What if the cloak is supposed to be longer than 135 cm, or if the fabric is narrower than 150? Well, in that case it can become artful. You'll have to piece as in this pic (lower right). Make a paper pattern as above, then cut it parallel to one straight edge, the width being the fabric width minus selvedges (assuming that you can use the selvedges as seam allowance, i.e. you sew right along the border between fabric and selvedge).

When the parts have been sewn together to form a 3/4 circle, you gather the neck opening until it corresponds to the actual neck width. Try it on. If the cloak tends to gap in front, consider cutting the neck opening larger and gathering it some more to make up for it. Be careful: Every 5 millimetres cut off the neck edge widen the neck opening by about 5 cm. In the case of men's cloaks, you sew the collar to the neck opening; in case of women's, you make up the cowl as described on the mantelet page - possibly lining it with silk - and sew it to the neck opening. Turn the edges once if necessary, as narrowly as you dare, and sew tape (1-2 cm wide) onto the neck seam so that it can be used as a tunnel through which you thread tape to be used as bow-tie closure.

If you don't tie your cloack with a tunnel tape, you may use tapes sewn to the ends of the neck opening (as described for the mantelet) or a combination of hooks and eyes/chain.I'm not sure about the decorative hook/eye combinations that are offerend for LARP and the like, though. I haven't seen them on extant or depicted cloaks yet.


*) You may not believe it if you haven't tried it yet, but it's true. Warm air moves upwards, so two or three floor-length skirts (panier included) create a bubble of warmth. Cold air could only get in from around ground level, but since warm air is lighter, the cold air doesn't stand a chance. 18th century coats work along the same principle.

**) This is just an estimate. I did a few experiments, but they were not exhaustive.

***) 60 cm are three quarters of 80 cm (60 / 0.75), so if you'd cut a full circle, the circumference would be eighty. 80 divided by pi is 25,46. That divided by two is 12,73. Rounded up, the radius should be 13 cm.

Wednesday, 24-Apr-2013 21:56:07 CEST



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