Tailoring a Vest

Seven years ago my husband started asking me to design a vest. Inevitably, if you sew, someone you love is going to ask you to make something for them. I don’t know why this happens all the time, but it’s sorta like someone asking you to write a song for them if you’re a musician. And at the same time there’s something gratifying in that; somehow they perceive the skill or talent to be extraordinary.

But Derek understands what it means to ask; he knew that me making a vest for him would take on some spiritual implications. Kinda like me designing his a coat of armor. I was happy to do it, but some of the skills required were way above my level.

From the 1960 book Cutting from Block Patterns by A.A. Whife, in the chapter “Waistcoats – Varying Styles”:

Waistcoats, sometimes called vests by tailors, are not quite so much in evidence now as they were at one time. The popularity of the so-called “two piece” suit (jacket and trousers only) has taken this third garment into the background of things. But there are still many men who like to have a waistcoat as part of a suit–and there are the “odd” waistcoats. The latter are made in contrasting shades of cloth, sometimes in gaily-patterned silk.

However the waistcoat may fare in the future, there is little danger of its decease; so let us see what has to be done in the making of it.

My husband has a thing for vests (known in English parlance as waistcoats) and wears them with everything. Thrift store, high street, designer–he has them all. One season I talked him into buying a Dries Van Noten vest, shirt and trousers; the entire silhouette looked so great on his long, thin frame. It was dapper, casual and a little bit quirky Belgian. He always likes to look funky, taking things that are normally formal and throwing them into odd situations. (I tried to keep him from gardening in his leather-soled Italian shoes, but no.) And Dries Van Noten naturally designs for this kind of fella–tailored but rumpled.

The only problem with this kind of wearing style is that the clothes get worn out, quickly. Anything that can be torn will be torn: the fabric belts in the back tear off, the neckline usually rips, and as with most of his clothes the pockets get drilled out from all the coins, keys and pocket knives. I don’t know how to prevent this in a finer fabric but I wanted to make him a classy yet funky tailored vest that would combine all the types of details he loves.

When I set out to make that vest several years ago, I was using a McCall’s pattern that was sort of sackish, more like a smock than a tailored vest. In addition I knew little about fitting and altering patterns so I was going blind. Although he likes smocks too, I’m a little biased toward the tailored look.

So I hunted around till I found this vintage pattern from 1948. Thankfully it was his chest size (these older patterns are not multi-sized), and I liked how it had options for the back–either ties or darts to create a slim fitted look. It was also my first time working with an unprinted pattern. Many patterns pre-1950s are unprinted, and really all that means is that the patterns are pre-cut and the markings are all noted with drilled holes rather than printed lines and dots. Once I looked around at the pieces, they made sense.

I wouldn’t call what I did “tailoring” exactly, but there were a lot of adjustments along the way as well as modernizing some of the sewing techniques. Tailoring, in the exclusive use of the term, involves a lot of hand-sewing. Some of that seems to me to be about “mystique” of quality as much as it is about technical quality. But then again, I don’t like hand-sewing.

After much cutting, re-cutting, lengthening and altering pieces so that they could be sewn by machine, I’m happy to have a tailored-to-my-husband pattern to use again. What more could a man want?

Mr. Whife wouldn’t have guessed it then, but all fashion has since changed, in that all things background have come into the foreground. This is standard postmodernity. Most men I know wear vests at least once a week, if they wear a jacket at all. I’d like to see what the “odd waistcoat in gaily-patterned silk” looks like (I bet Derek would LOVE that). Given that he is going to wear his vests in a different time and climate, and I am free to make it work into this century.

Some details I’m quite proud of: pearly mussel-shell buttons, a lovely chartreuse silk-wool twill fabric, and bound buttonholes that caused a lot of swearing in process. I think next time around I’ll go for ordinary buttonholes. (And please excuse the bits of threads hanging–that is already his hard-wearing at work–this vest has been to Berlin and San Francisco and back already.)


  1. Alison says:

    The vest is brilliant Amy!! I LOVE the colors of fabric you used; so representative of both of you. Yellow out front, Purple’s got your back. This makes me want to finish Michael’s kilt. I got most of the way done but then set it aside for some reason or another…

    I really enjoyed the process of making a garment for Michael; I learned a lot about him through it.

    Will you make more?

    • Amy says:

      Hey Alison – Yay, a new comment!

      I will probably make more, although afterward I was so happy to be done. I’m going to work on a coat for me next, but it’s nice to have the pattern down. I’m sure he’ll ask again! It’s true, you can’t help but meditate on people when you are making things for them. There was so much to this, but I think I got the regal-clown in there 😉

  2. Alison says:

    I am stoked to see the winter coat project progress. Have you chosen fabric?

    I am still barely clinging to the idea of making a birthing gown. The idea of it thrills me but I could not find any patterns that were remotely close to something I’d like, and I definitely don’t have the skills to adapt or create a pattern. So if you run across any cool maternity patterns in the near future let me know….

    • Amy says:

      Hey Alison, I’ve gotten the coat fabric down to two ideas, but they’re both kind of light. I don’t know how they’d look in the jacket, so I’m pondering.

      For the birthing gown, what kind of ideas do you have? I think a lot of patterns wouldn’t even need to be adapted or changed. (I’m kind of an obssession-ist so I worked to get the vest pattern right and I kind of like that process. Plus it was way too short on him.) But with your dress–there are a lot of smocky or long and flowy dress patterns that wouldn’t need maternity-izing (is that a word?). Folkwear has some cool stuff; I know you used them before.

  3. Alison says:

    I really like this one, and I might buy it if I don’t make my own.


    But I’d like straps that button, which would make nursing easier. I liked the straps on this dress:


    A combo of the flowiness and tie-back of the Daniela Corte with the more functional straps of the Parfait would be ideal. But the straps on the Corte gown are awfully pretty. It would be nice to feel a little elegant in the delivery room…

    Do you think it would be crazy difficult to adapt the Colette pattern by making the skirt portion fuller and the back tie instead of zip?

    • Amy says:

      Ooh, sweet maternity gown. It’s kinda sexy! just bought a very similar dress on super clearance from Urban Outfitters. It’s not on their site, but looks a lot like this one.

      The shoulders slip off if I’m not careful, so I’m sure the Corte dress would, too–so for breastfeeding I think that’d be perfect.

      It looks really, really easy to make–IF that was something you wanted to take on. There are a few Simplicity patterns that are similar. I think you could easily use the top of the Colette pattern and take out the side zip, but you’d have to add an entirely different bottom (just gather a big piece of fabric into a skirt).

      Also the Colette pattern is for woven fabric and the Corte is a knit dress–would you prefer knit? Because I have tons of extra knit fabrics laying around that we could drape and play with–maybe on a Craft Punk night!

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