Costumes: Patternless Practical Cape
A warm and simple cape for those of us red-thumbs who flunked home-ec and are more likely to sew our thumbs to the fabric than the lining. Most of the “don’t do this” advice refers to things I have done, and learned from. For the record, this is not an indoor costume-contest cape, but an outdoor fend-off-the-weather garment that might persuade you to give up on coats entirely.
I. Fabric choice.
You will want two fabrics, either a) an outer shell and a liner, or b) two contrasting fabrics that could serve both purposes if you want a reversible cape. Outer fabrics should do a fairly decent job of repelling water. Inner fabrics need to be comfortable against the skin. Natural fabrics look best for that preindustrial look, but you can get away with rayon, microfibers, or one of the really convincing and touchable pseudo-suedes available. Wool challis or tropical suiting makes a good choice. So does a densely-woven silk, if you can get it.
Neither fabric should be too heavy–you’ll get your warmth from the air pocket between the two. Capes are so big that a little weight gets multiplied a lot more than you’d expect. Also lighter fabrics drape better. You would not believe how warm two light fabrics get when sewn together!
Don’t try to get by with a single layer. Even when the fabric is so thick you can hardly move, it’s never quite warm enough. This is a common mistake.
For the cape itself, you will need three yards of each material lengthwise (which will scrunch up around your body into width on the actual cape–trust me.) Width (which will become the length) is entirely up to you, but a good measure would be from the nape of the neck to about halfway between your ankle and the fullness of your calf–any longer and it drags on the steps when you go downstairs.
For the hood, the height should be from your collarbone to a couple inches above your head. Depth should be from your nose to about four inches behind you. You want it to shadow your face in order to protect you from rain, and not just to look all mysteriously Striderish in a dark pub. Add at least a foot depth if you’re going for the Smith of Wooton Major look. You will need four pieces altogether, two of each fabric.
The body of the cape will be made simply from two 9 foot long rectangles. No further cutting necessary.
You have four possible options of hood:
A. The sinister look. Leave the rectangles as is. This will cause the hood to stick straight up in the back all pointy, making you look like an extra in a cult horror movie. Of course, that could be desirable for folks who wish for that Nazgul panache or who just want to scare muggers. But for heaven’s sake, do not wear a white cape in this configuration in the United States! It has a very bad association. Any other color, fine.
B. The hobbity look. Lay your head on the wrong side of the fabric, in profile. Using a chalk, charcoal, or water-soluable oil pastel, have somebody sketch out an arc just an inch or two from the back of your head, smoothly segueing the ends of the arc into your top and your back edges. Cut all four pieces along this line, rounding off what would otherwise become a point. This is how I did the hood on my cape.
C. The Smith of Wooton Major look. Extend the top edge a foot or two more than the bottom edge. Cut the back edge into a sharply tapering curve to the bottom edge, so that the top edge juts back like a beak. It will drop into a proper tail when worn, especially when weighted with a hefty tassel. This is actually somewhat practical, as it can help hold the hood in place in windy weather. It can also serve as an extra pocket. Capes following this option cannot be reversible.
D. No hood. In this case, take a collar pattern from a blouse or shirt, and use that, adding a couple extra inches to the width. If you don’t add the extra inches, all the fabric bunched up to fit inside it later will cause it to stand up on end, making you look like Dracula. Of course if you want to look like Dracula, this is not a problem. This version isn’t reversible, either.
A. Lay the two body rectangles on top of each other, outsides facing in.
B. Sew three sides shut with the usual seam margin (1″, traditionally) leaving one of the long sides open.
C. Turn the whole thing inside out, which is actually right-side out.
D. Hem your hood or collar pieces individually on their top and side surfaces.
E. Run several rows of running stitches, with really sturdy thread, through both layers of the body’s unhemmed edge, starting as close to that edge as you can without danger of fraying through, and working down by close increments. Keep pulling each successive row tighter and tighter till you could fit it all inside your collar/hood pieces.
F. Pin on the collar/hood pieces, upside down and inside out (one in and one out for a collar, two in and two out for a hood) so that the bottom edge of the collar/hood pieces lines up parallel with the gathered top edge of the cape, with the lining piece or pieces on the inside and the outer piece or pieces on the outside, but with the cape a bit higher than the collar. Make absolutely sure that the inner and outer pieces will line up perfectly with each other later when they get turned right side out.
G. Sew the whole mess together with a little more seam margin than you’d usually use. This is thicker than most machines can handle, with all the layers and the gatherings besides; you will probably have to do this part by hand, with an extra large needle, unless you have access to an industrial sewing machine. You might need a pair of pliers to pull the needle through.
H. Flip up the collar or hood pieces and sew them together. In the case of a collar, you just sew the two pieces together as is. In the case of a hood, you first sew the linings to the outsides, so that you now have two pieces where you had four, then you turn the whole cape inside out and sew the back and top together (in the hobbit design, the back will morph into the top along a curve) and then flip it right side out again. (Of course, if you’re doing a reversible cape, there is no inside or outside at this point.) If you’re doing the Smith hood, attach a weighty tassel to the end. (If you try to attach a tassel to the point of the Sinister hood, it will not weigh it down; you will only look like a Nazgul trying out for cheerleader.)
I. Attach fastenings. If you can find extremely large frog-fastenings, they work really well, but they’re hard to get. Or you can attach buttons on either side of the throat with a chain between, and a smaller fastening (oversized hook-and-eye, snaps) above that. Or you can tear out a little bit of the seam on either side below the collar and run a cord through, sewing the seams back again securely to either side but being careful not to sew through the cord itself. Do not try to fasten it with brooches — this looks great until it wears holes through the fabric. Besides, the weight of the cape will pop the latch — I lost all my best brooches that way.
Advantages to wearing capes:
1. You can wrap it around you for double warmth.
2. You can bunch one end up under your head and use the rest for a blanket for an impromptu nap.
3. It covers more than most coats.
4. It keeps anything you’re carrying dry.
5. You might change sizes, but the cape doesn’t care.
6. Your hands stay warm inside.
7. Muggers don’t have a clear shot at your purse; for that matter, they have no idea what you might have under there — mace? A cudgel? — and will just as soon look for some easier victim.
8. Your arms never feel encumbered. You can move freely inside a bubble of warmth.
9. You don’t have to wrestle the sleeves of whatever you’re wearing into any other sleeves.
10. Nobody can see where you scratch.
11. You can throw it over other outerwear for an extra layer of warmth.
12. In a pinch, you can gather up the ends and carry things in its folds far more easily than you could with a coat.
13. You can protect small children from sudden storms.
14. You can also share half of it with someone you fancy in a storm — much cozier than sharing an umbrella!
15. A swirling cape can make you look bigger than you are and give predator animals like mountain lions or wolves second thoughts. I never used it on a mountain-lion, but I did once use it on a charging pitbull while walking home from work at midnight, along with a shout of “Go home!” — and thank heavens it worked!
16. It looks fascinating and makes a statement about who you are, so that birds of a feather can find you. But you already knew that.
How to wear a cape:
Don’t just let it flap dramatically behind you like Superman; the Man of Steel is impervious to cold — you’re not. In especially cold weather tuck one side in close around your body and throw the other towards the opposite shoulder; it will tend to cling there, especially with a strong wind blowing it into place. In variable weather, or when you heat up from walking, you can make subtle adjustments of temperature by how much you let the cape gape open (a feature much appreciated by the hot flash generation!)
Never sulk, skulk, snarl, or hang your head when people give you dirty looks for wearing a cape — that just confirms their opinion of you, or convinces them that you feel ashamed of yourself. They want you to share their misery. (Believe it or not, many demands for conformity spring from envy.) Instead, hold your head up and return their glare with a kindly smile. If they ask “Why do you wear that thing?” politely refer to one of the reasons listed above (gossipy old biddies especially understand the mugger-reason). If they just shout insults, I find that a healthy grin works, combined with, “Honey, by the time you’re my age, you’ll be so boring your husband will leave you!” (To a gaggle of young fashionistas) or “Ah — I see you prefer boring women!” (To a guy trying to impress the ladies he was with by bravely abusing me) or whatever seems most suitable to convey that you are getting much more fun out of life than your tormenters.
However, you will be amazed and delighted to learn how many people approve, or ask where they can get a cape like that! This is a good way to meet compatible persons. I have worn capes since I was thirteen years old, and persisted to my present silvery-haired age; it has often opened many a wonderful conversation. It’s surprising how many of these start right off with — “You look like somebody who’s read ‘The Lord of the Rings’!” Even if you get an office job that demands conformity of appearance, you can get away with wearing your cape to and from work, so long as you shed it indoors when you would have anyway.
Enjoy your cape! May all your winters be snug and fanciful!
~ Offered by Dreamdeer from the Realm of Lorien