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.)