Taking Measurements for your Paletot

The first thing to do in preparation for making a coat is to take good, accurate measurements. Since this is more of an introduction to coat making, I’m going to simplify the measurements as best I can to make it easier for you to get started right away.

All measurements should be taken over what you will wear underneath this coat, if possible. That’d mean a period shirt, trousers, and waistcoat if you have them. If not, I’d recommend adding maybe an inch to your measurements if just measuring over a regular shirt, for example.

A good idea is to tie a length of twine or ribbon around the natural waist so that all of your measurements are referenced from the same points. This should be tied around the waist at about the level of the naval.

While it’s possible to measure yourself – I do it all the time – for beginners I’d recommend having someone measure you if you can. If all you’ve got is your self, you’ll just have to contort your arms into various positions while trying to keep your body as straight as possible. For some of the more awkward measurements like the back width, I’d probably measure another coat or waistcoat that fit me well.

And in general, try to keep your body relaxed in its natural position when taking the measurements. Don’t try to stand extra erect like a dashing officer if you don’t stand like that in real life, for example.

With that all said, on to the measurements!


There are a number of measurements you’ll need to take for your coat. I’ve included a chart in which you can right them all down for convenience. Listed out, you’ll need the following measurements:

  1. Breast (written as half the actual measurement)
  2. Waist (written as half the actual measurement)
  3. Total Length
  4. Back Length to Hip Buttons
  5. Side
  6. Chest
  7. Width of Back
  8. Sleeve
  9. Sleeve + Back (optional)


This is the most important measurement and determines which size of graduated ruler you will use for your draft. Measure around your chest at the fullest point, just under the arms. Take note of the full measurement to choose your ruler size, but the measurement is written down as half of the total, since we are drafting half of the pattern on the paper.


The waist measurement is taken at the level of the natural waist, about even with the naval. Again this is written as half for use when drafting.

Breast and Waist measurements.

Total Length

Measuring down the center of the back, start at either the base of the collar or at the 7th vertebrae if you don’t have period clothing available (the bony part on the back of your neck). Measure from there, pressing the tape against the hollow of the back, down to the bottom of where you’d like the coat to be. This is mainly a check measurement to compare with what we’ve drafted later on.

Length and Length to Hip Buttons on right figure.

Back length to Hip Buttons

Again starting at the base of the collar, measure down the center of the back to the position you’d like the back hip buttons to be, usually a couple of inches below the natural waist. This is another check measurement to compare with the draft.


Put the measuring tape under your armpit, though not too high up, and measure straight down to the waist seam. Yet another check measurement!

Side Measurement


Sometimes when drafting, especially with these older drafting systems, our body’s widths will not be perfectly distributed from front to back. This is a good measurement to take to compare with the front of your draft.

The chest measurement is taken across the fullest part of the chest, from armscye seam to armcye seam.

Chest Measurement.

Width of Back

This is similar to the chest measurement, but taken straight across the back from armscye to armscye at a level just at the bottom of the armpit.

Width of Back Measurement.


The sleeve can be a little troublesome to take, especially for a beginner, but it’s easy to fix during the fitting process if necessary.

To take the sleeve measurement, stand with your arm extended horizontally, and bend the elbow at 90 degrees. Measure from the armscye along the back of the sleeve, around the elbow, to just past the wrist (sleeves were longer in the 1860s than they are today).

You can also take the same measurement from the center of the back, that way you can compare the two measurements and look for any discrepancies. I’ve included a video demonstrating the two measurements.

How to Use the Measurements

As you’re drafting your pattern in the next section, take note of the various lines in red, and compare their lengths to the measurements you took. If they’re far off, it indicates something may be wrong, and that you should investigate before moving on and potentially compounding the problem. This can happen especially with larger sizes, above size 46 – 48.

Finding Original Photographs

As we reproduce the paletot worn by John Wilkes Booth, we’ll be referring to several photos I’ve found of him wearing the same style of coat. Being a rather infamous character of history, it was easy to find photographs from different angles, which definitely helps us out.

Generally speaking though, there are some great sources out there for period images that you could use for other future projects, and in this article, I’ll discuss how to find them and how to manipulate the images to bring out more details.

Sources for Original Photographs

With the internet, it’s possible to find all kinds of good period photographs these days to use as inspiration for historical reproductions. From a quick Google search, to using something like Pinterest, or Ebay, to going to more focused websites such as the Library of Congress, a high-quality image is only a few clicks away most of the time. Though do take care to check for copyright information – if it’s just for personal use most of the images are probably okay, but anything more take due diligence. For example, one image I found through Google of John Wilkes Booth wanted something like $400 just to be able to use the image–definitely frustrating!

The key is finding the largest resolution, highest quality images as possible, so as to gain the most information from the photograph. Though you can usually gain some information from even poor quality images if necessary.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has a great number of high quality images in their online collections, though it can be a little difficult to actually find what you’re looking for, and the website itself often has problems loading. I usually start my search from Google with something like “Library of Congress 1860s civilians” to at least get me closer before getting to the actual Library website. Their main page for Civil War images appears to be https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cwp/ though I’m sure there are other ways to get there.

From there you can click through the various collections and often strike upon something good. I’ll leave that for you to do at your leisure though, as there are thousands of images to browse through.

I found this image of Charles Sumner which seemed to hold some promise, along with some other information about him, such as the publisher, medium, and rough date the photograph was taken.

You’ll notice under his image on the left there are several options to download the photograph. The JPEG versions are of the poorest quality, but the quickest option if you just want to take a closer look before making a decision to go forward or not. But the highest quality image is the TIFF image, and holds as much of the original information in the photograph as possible. I highly recommend downloading that option if you want to see as much detail as possible.

The image downloaded within seconds just now as I’m writing this, but yesterday I kept getting errors on the website. So I guess if you have problems, just wait a few hours for things to calm down and try again.

Google Images is another great place to search for period photographs, though you do have to be more aware of copyright issues. Simply enter your search terms and click on ‘images’.

You can refine your search by filtering out the lower quality images by clicking on the Tools button at the upper right, and choosing Large under the Size option.

I was able to find a good number of images this way, including some from the Library of Congress that eluded me thanks to their clumsy system.

There are of course other search engines and websites you can search from, but these are my main sources, from which I can dig in to find further information on specific websites.

Planning and Research

As you probably know, the basis for any historical clothing reproduction begins with diligent research into the styles, patterns, fit, and construction techniques of the time period. It occurred to me while commencing my latest project that it might be a good idea to go into the particulars of my thought and research process of the particular coat I am copying. In this article, we’ll go over the very basics of the various types of research one can get into for a historical garment, and in subsequent articles I’ll go more deeply into the various details that I’ve used to reproduce John Wilkes Booth’s paletot.

While I’ve broken the different types of research into four distinct groups, please note that they definitely do overlap in various ways depending on the particular project.


The first type of historical reproduction (and I use the term loosely here) has a wide variety of historical accuracy and level of construction. You might have on the one hand the typical lowest quality ‘sutler row’ garment made in some factory overseas with just the minimum of ‘research’. You’ll often notice the poor quality entirely machine made construction, misplaced seam lines, and can tell right away that they were made from modern patterns. These types of garments might fool the general public who has no knowledge of historical clothing, but for most of us we know to keep well away. Often, those just starting out in the world of historical reenacting or living history will fall into this category unless they have a mentor to guide them – I know I did at first!

On the opposite end you might have clothing made for the theatre or film. These types of clothing could very well be made by extremely skilled and knowledgeable hands by those who have done their researched as per the rest of this article, but at the same time, allowances are made to allow for quick changing of costumes, perhaps adding a zipper or two, or in the interests of getting a better fit, the clothing might be based on a modern pattern with the stylized details added afterwards to make it look period correct.

Even I’ve taken this more of a costume approach to a garment or two on occasion. For example, I recently was commissioned to make a pair of 19th century trousers for a gentleman in Australia to wear at his wedding. While the construction itself was done entirely with historically-accurate techniques, I ended up using a more modern 1940s pattern (with his permission) to ensure a good fit, since time and expense prevented us from doing any fittings. The result was a pair of trousers that looked as though they were 19th century to the vast majority of people, even if a couple of the seam lines were slightly different.

Fashion Plates

A good first step to improve your knowledge is to study fashion plates of the period. These could be found in a variety of magazines and publications, catering to everyone from ladies at home looking for the latest fashions with Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, which was extremely popular during the mid-19th century and featured illustrations and even patterns for women’s wear, to trade journals such as the Tailor and Cutter Magazine that focused more on pattern drafts for men along with the illustrations.

And of course there were many other magazines and sources for fashion plates during the period. I used to have access to a French website with thousands of men’s fashion plates from I believe the 1830s through to the 70s or 80s, which I really need to find again.

These fashion plates are great for getting ideas for your historical clothing, but it does come at a slight disadvantage. If you try to copy one exactly, you may discover that they really were more artistic representations rather than exact copies of garments worn during the period, and you run the risk of making a garment that is more a product of the imagination than one based on historical practice. Look in particular at how thin the waists are, or the way some of the clothing drapes – it can get ridiculous! That said, they’re an excellent resource for inspiration, especially in conjunction with the two options below, and I’ve got more than a couple of saved for future use, such as a hunting ensemble I found years ago in one of those French fashion plates (sorry I can’t remember the name!).

Photography from the Period

Studying original period photographs is by far the easiest and surest way to make an accurate reproduction, and something that is pretty much accessible to everybody. With the invention of the camera in the early 19th century, by the 1850s and 60s, photography was becoming more and more common, and offers us a superb glance into what was worn during these years. While to some extent, people tended to dress up and pose for the camera, there are plenty of more informal photographs to be found of, for example, men at work, and it’s possible to gain a great deal of information from such images on what and how they wore their clothing.Studying original period photographs is by far the easiest and surest way to make an accurate reproduction, and something that is pretty much accessible to everybody.

Most of these photographs are just a quick web search away. In particular, the Library of Congress has thousands of old photographs on its website, which are very easy to download in extremely high quality and resolution to examine more closely. It’s also possible to find websites dedicated to clothing construction with images detailing the various aspects of the garment, which can be an invaluable resource. In next weeks edition, I’ll be delving into how to get the most out of these period photographs and showing you the process with which I went from photograph to drafted pattern, going into detail the decisions I made from the information I had at my disposal.

Studying Original Clothing

Of course, nothing beats the study of original clothing in person to be able to learn about the construction of 19th century clothing. The only trouble is the difficult one might have to go through to be able to study them.

The easiest way would probably be to look out for various conferences and workshops on historical clothing, sadly not very common these days. About a decade ago I had the opportunity to attend several conferences and examine by eye and photograph hundreds of pieces of original clothing, which have aided me greatly to this day. By seeing the clothing in person you can see just how each piece was constructed, at least for the most part, and develop a good sense on how to construct just about any piece of clothing out there.

Another good option is frequenting antique shops, especially in historical areas pertaining to your interest. I know in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania there were a couple of shops I frequented, one in particular had a beautiful Federal enlisted frock coat for sale for an absurd amount of money that I got to stare at through the glass case and make mental notes. Likewise I was able to pick up some late 19th century clothing at nearby antique stores for much less money, which I still have to this day to be able to refer to and perhaps some day make reproductions of. There are also those digital antique shops known as Etsy, Ebay, and Pinterest which can often give you some surprising good finds.

Finally, there are also museums and historical societies at which you could also view a great deal of period clothing, though mostly through glass cases as well. Depending on the museum (usually the smaller ones are more open to this) and how friendly you are with them, you might be able to get the opportunity to examine some clothing in person, though great care needs to be taken not to damage the clothing in any way.

In conclusion, in reproducing a particular piece of original clothing, the actual process involves a little bit of each of these options, save maybe the first. For example, I’ll see in a photograph a particular coat I’d like to reproduce, draw on my knowledge of clothing construction from examining original garments, draft an appropriate pattern based on my measurements, and perhaps take a little bit of inspiration from the fashion plates along the way for various accessories or accompanying clothing. Remember that each person’s journey of historical tailoring is different, and we each pull from different areas according to what we have access to, and our own preferences with regards to style and construction details, leaving us with unique garments that have our own mark upon them while maintaining good accuracy for our particular time periods.

Installing the Canvas

With all the preparatory work out of the way, we can begin installing the canvas. Begin by laying the forepart on top of the canvas, right sides up, and aligning the forepart at the darts, collar, and other visual landmarks. If you’ve not done this before I’d recommend starting on the side with the 1″ allowances marked on the canvas.

Also note that the upper part of the collar, along the bottom edge, should align exactly with the edge of the canvas, since we didn’t add any allowance there.

The following process basically consists of basting the forepart to the canvas down the center, and around the edges, all the while supporting the shape with your hand underneath and smoothing out any excess in the forepart. This is the general order I use to install the canvas.

Begin in the center of and about an inch below the shoulder, basting down the front, smoothing out the excess fabric in the forepart as you work. You can use either a straight basting stitch or a diagonal stitch – I tend to vary depending on the angle I’m working at.

When you get below the chest level, aim for the center of the waist or the location of the dart, if you have one. Continue smoothing out the fabric as you work – please see the video for a demonstration of this.

Stop your stitching about 1″ above the waist. You need room to do some work there later.

Starting at the same point as the previous stitching at the shoulder, baste along the shoulder towards the armscye, again keeping 1″ from the edge.

Continue basting along the armscye, pushing any excess down and away from the center of the waistcoat and away from your stitching.

And continue basting along the side seam towards the waist. Here you can see me pulling gently on the forepart with my left hand in an effort to smooth everything out.

Keep basting to 1″ from the waist.

Also, try to keep the basting away from the ends of the pockets. We need those free to be able to turn under shortly.

Then baste across the bottom of the waist to the dart, keeping again 1″ from the edge of the forepart.

Finish up installing the canvas by basting from the bottom of the dart towards the front.

Keeping 1″ from the edge of the forepart, baste up along the center front of the waistcoat, smoothing the fabric as you work.

When you get to the roll line, turn and continue basting following about 1″ below the roll line. We still need to finalize the position of the roll line, so don’t worry too much about following it perfectly.

Continue basting below the roll line onto the collar. I neglected to draw the roll line in on my collar, so I’m just keeping the stitching near the lower edge of the collar.

Continue basting to the end of the collar, stopping 1″ from the end. It gets a little tricky near the shoulder due to the tighter curves, so just be aware of any excess, smoothing as you stitch.

Finally, baste from the edge of the collar across the shoulder to the midpoint, where you started, just to get that area secured.

After you’ve finished basting, hold up the waistcoat, on yourself or a tailor’s form, and check to see how well you did – are there any wrinkles or excess fabric still remaining in the forepart? If so, you may need to go back and re-baste. Kind of a pain but well worth the effort.

When you’re happy with everything, carefully trim the excess linen away from the forepart.

This completes the installation of the canvas.

Chest Padding

The last thing to do before installing the canvas is to add a bit of padding to the underside. I’m using a 100% wool quilt batting from Hobb’s Heirloom, which gives just the right amount of body without being overly thick.

I first cut two layers of batting to very roughly the size of the area I want to pad. The area depends on your own individual body type and shape, but generally the chest area can be padded rather reliably.

After cutting, I like to very lightly press the wool batting to smooth out any wrinkles. Just the lightest of touches with the iron will allow the fibers to relax and puff up a little bit after being in the packaging. Just don’t press too hard or you’ll flatten it beyond repair. You could use a little steam if necessary as well.

Now gradually trim away the wool batting until you’ve got the shape that looks like it will work for you.

Here’s what I ended up with. I kept it out of the very top of the shoulder since mine are already full enough, and dropped the padding just to above my stomach area. At the same time, keep the padding about 1″ from the armscye as well as the roll line, as well as any edges if you decide to make your padding larger than mine.

With one layer of padding in place on the wrong side of the canvas, baste down the center of the padding using fairly small diagonal basting stitches – 1/2″ or so. These stitches will permanently keep the padding in place so you don’t want them to fall out over time.

Then continue basting around the outside edge of the padding.

If you’ve got a larger padding then you may wish to do more basting along the central area, but for a smaller-sized padding, this works.

Collar Canvas

We can now turn our attention to the collar canvas, which also must be attached with as few layers as possible. Begin by drawing in a line along the neck edge, twice the seam allowance in width. So using 3/8″ seam allowances, my line is 3/4″ from the edge.

Beginning at the base of the collar, align the edge of the collar with the line you drew, and baste the collar to the forepart with a diagonal stitch, keeping a neutral tension.

Make sure the front edges are aligned as closely as possible.

Near the top of the shoulder, the curves tighten up a bit so it’s slightly trickier to get everything in place. I like to take smaller stitches in this area to ensure nothing moves out of place.

Here’s the completed collar after basting to the forepart. Don’t worry about the roll lines quite yet, we’ll straighten them out later.

On the sewing machine, stitch two parallel rows about 1/8″ from the edge of the collar and from the forepart’s neck seam, along it’s length.

And here’s the canvas thus far, after stitching down the collar. Repeat for the other side.

Preparing the Canvas

With the canvas cut, we can move on to the construction, which involves closing any darts we may have to give shape to the waistcoat. We’ll be closing the darts along their raw edges – no seam allowances – to minimize the bulk in the canvas.

With the right side up (you should have two opposite facing canvases), hold one of the darts closed, raw edges butted together, and work a few stitches in place near the end to hold the dart together while you work.

Then passing the needle through the opening in the center of the dart and under the canvas, poke the needle up through the canvas about 1/8″ to 3/16″ away from the opening.

And do the same on the opposite side. Keep each group of stitches about 1/8″ from the previous, and continue working your way along the dart, closing it up as you go.

Feel free to rotate the work while stitching so as to make it easier on your hands. I had to contort my fingers to get a good photograph.

Continue working with alternating stitches until the dart is closed, being sure to keep both sides even with each other.

The waist dart is a little trickier due to its length and more complex shape, so try to keep both sides evenly aligned with each other as you work.

Pad Stitching the Darts

While this stitching does hold the darts closed, it’s obviously not very strong, and so additional work is necessary to keep them from ripping open. Cut strips of linen about 1″ wide by about 1″ longer than each of the darts.

Center the strip of linen on the dart, extending the strip about 1/2″ beyond each end.

Now using a small pad stitch, about 3/8″ to 1/2″ in length, pad stitch along the center of the linen, ideally catching the center of the dart underneath. The stitch itself is about 1/8″ wide.

As you work, flip back the linen strip to ensure you’re still centered on the dart.

Here’s the first row of pad stitching complete.

Then continue pad stitching the dart closed with two rows on one side. Try to work in a little additional shape to the dart by holding the linen strip taught and just barely pulling the forepart in towards your hand. It’s very subtle and you’ll barely see the movement, but it’s worth it if you can pick up the technique.

Followed by two rows on the other side. Unless you’ve cut your linen wider, I find five rows to be perfectly adequate.

Finally, trip the ends of the linen strips flush with the canvas. Repeat with any other darts you may have. You can see how much shape we’ve worked into the canvas, which will make the waistcoat fit all the better.

One quick shot showing the underside. Again you can see the shape we’ve built in.

Cutting the Canvas

With the pockets completed, it’s time to move on to the canvas construction. The canvas in a waistcoat or coat provides structure and shape to the garment and is usually made of linen. In my case since the waistcoat fabric is rather lightweight, I’m just using a piece of regular medium weight linen.

Begin by laying out the collar and waistcoat patterns on the linen, being sure to keep the grain lines parallel and leaving at least 1″ around the edges.

Trace around the entire pattern, including any darts.

Also draw in the roll lines for the collar, though we’ll be editing them a little later.

Here’s what you should have so far.

Now add 1″ around the outside of the waistcoat and collar, along the front edge, bottom edge, side, armscye, and shoulder, and the outside of the collar.

No extra material is added to the inside of the collar or the neck edge, as these have seam allowances already and will be sewn together.

The extra material added here aids in installing the canvas later, giving us a little more room to work with.

Don’t forget to add extra material to the center back of the collar – it slipped my mind here and I added it off camera.

Here’s a diagram showing all of the extra fabric added.

Next, extend the length of any darts by one inch, redrawing the dart lines as necessary. This prevents all the darts from stopping at the same point, allowing the shape to be a little more gradual and subtle.

Cut out the canvas pieces for the forepart and collar, including the darts directly along their seam lines.

Breast Pocket

The remaining breast pocket is constructed in the same manner as the other pockets, but the angle is a little steeper, so I thought I’d show a few little details to help you out.

Here I’ve transferred the stripes to the pattern piece. The lack of a dart in this area makes it a little easier to match the stripes, though the bias cut negates that a bit.

Here I’ve basted in the pocket welt and the upper pocket bag. I like to cut the pocket bags for these angled pockets a lot wider than I need them, so that I don’t have to figure out the exact angle of the pocket bag, which is much more prone to error. By cutting them larger, the angles can simply be drawn in later and the pocket bag trimmed to size.

Be careful when basting in the pocket welt – since it’s cut on the bias, it has a tendency to want to stretch out of place.

My stripes ended up being ever so slightly off, about 1/32″ at most.

After sewing in the lower pocket bag, you can determine the angle of the pocket itself. I’m keeping my lines about an inch away from the pocket bag seam line, they’ll be trimmed more closely later after sewing the bag closed. The lines should be vertical.

Trim the pocket bag on either side.

Now taper the pocket bag with two cuts, right to the ends of the stitching on the pocket welt. They’ll be a bit larger and deeper compared to the lower pockets, due to the extra fabric we still have, and the angles involved.

With the pocket bag trimmed, you can pass it through to the inside of the waistcoat.

Lay the other bag on top, and draw in the pocket bag seam lines, beginning and ending at the ends of the pocket welt. I tend to make these pockets about 3 inches deep, the bottom edge slightly slanted towards the center front. Curve the lower corners of the pocket as well. Before sewing, double check that the lines you’ve drawn overlap the pocket bag below.

Sew the pocket bag closed and trim the seam allowance to 1/4″.

And here’s the completed breast pocket. The ends will be tacked down after the canvas is installed.

The Pocket Bag

Take the other half of the pocket bag and fold under one long edge to the wrong side by 1/4″ to 1/2″ – doesn’t really matter as long as you have a deep enough pocket.

Baste the pocket back to the pocket welt, wrong sides together, about 1/4″ below the top, or at least covering all of the stitches and raw edges on the welt. Keep about 1″ at either end free from the basting stitches.

Now you need to mark the ends of the pocket stitching on this pocket bag as well. I find the easiest way is to roll back the pocket bag, find the end of the stitching, and crease the pocket bag at that location. Repeat for the other end as well.

Then mark the creases in chalk on the right side of the bag, just so you can see the ends of the pocket more clearly.

Now fell the pocket bag to the welt from mark to mark, being careful not to let the stitches show through on the right side – not too difficult as there are so many layers now.

I meant to show you the stitches in this photo but they’re so small they’re almost impossible to see! Just slight dimples in the fabric.

Here’s why we ended the stitching at those marks. The excess fabric needs to be trimmed off to help the pocket bag fit through the opening. I don’t usually draw these chalk lines, but it’s a good idea for the first couple of tries. Mark the lines from the end of the felling stitches at a steep diagonal, to a point on the edge about halfway down the pocket bag.

Trim the pocket bag at each end.

Pass the pocket bag through the opening to the wrong side. If you’ve done everything correctly it should all lay smoothly in place.

Working on the wrong side now, get everything laying as smoothly and as flat as you can, removing any tension between the two halves of the pocket bag, and making sure the opening and welt are aligned properly. Grasp both pocket bags with one hand and baste them together right below the pocket opening. This keeps everything from moving while we close up the bags.

Now draw in the seams for the pocket bag. The sides should be parallel to the grainline of the forepart, or at least as close as possible.

And draw the bottom of the pocket bag roughly parallel to the waist line on the forepart, and at least 1/2″ or 3/4″ away from the bottom, to keep room for the facing seam.

Finally, I like to curve the corners of the pocket to make it easier to get things out. You can do this freehand, as I usually do, or use some round object to draw in the curves.

Now stitch the pocket bag closed following the line, getting as close as you can to the top of the pocket, being sure to fold the rest of the forepart out of the way.

Here’s the pocket bag after stitching closed.

Now trim the excess from the pocket bags down to a 1/4″ seam allowance.

One last look at the pocket from the inside. Remove the basting stitches from the pocket bag at this point, as they’re a pain to remove later if you forget.

Finally, turn to the right side of the forepart, and baste the pocket welts to the forepart along the length through all layers, keeping about 3/4″ from either end.

And with that, I consider the pockets completed. We’ll need to tack the ends down after the canvas is installed in the next step.