Dawn's Costume Guide to Cloaks


Cloaks and capes are popular because they look neat.

The reality is that they are drafty and bulky, and donít come with pockets. In my experience I prefer warm layers of clothing rather than having to deal with a cloak in bad weather. When it is cold that wind will come right up under the cloak, and every time you have to open it to get your hands out youíll freeze. Iíll take a warm tunic any day.

Wool makes the best cloaks.

While it is naturally waterproof while it is on the sheep, wool with large amounts of waterproofing lanolin is not often sold in fabric stores in the US, so plan to aid Mother Nature with a can of water repellant, such as the Scotchguard brand. (And let's hope they get that new formula on the shelves pretty soon) What wool will do is keep you warm, even if you forget the Scotchguard and get soaking wet in a surprise storm. It also wears well. Unfortunately, good wool isnít cheap, and in some parts of the country nearly impossible to come by. But since even cheap wool and wool blends will work, you may be able to get yourself a nice cloak without selling the kids into slavery.

If you are allergic to wool, or only want a cape for show, you can get by with nearly anything else that has good drape. Many drapery fabrics work well (big surprise, eh?) and you can even use denim and heavy woven cottons or blends.

Avoid knits or very loosely woven fabrics, and (for fitted cloaks) fabrics that have definite patterns such as plaids, stripes, and small figures. Satins are romantic, but cold and slippery, and should only be used as linings. A better lining for a serious cloak is flannel, or flannel-backed cotton.

The easiest type of cloak

is a large rectangle of fabric. It can be draped and worn a variety of ways, and is more versatile than a fitted one. For example, it can double as a blanket at night, or a sun shade during warm weather. If youíre costuming on a budget, it can be recycled into something else when you can afford to have a fitted cloak made. Early European and late Roman (Byzantine) citizens wore some variation of the rectangle as outer wear. For ladies, especially, it can be attractively draped. Hang the rectangle over your shoulders letting the two sides fall unevenly, the longer end on the side you feel more comfortable with (You can experiment with this to see what suits you.) Wrap the shorter side over one shoulder and arm like a shawl. Wrap the longer side over the other arm, coming up from under the armpit and going over the arm to the outside. That longer end can now be thrown up over your chest and over the opposite shoulder for warmth when needed. Youíll find that by varying the position of the drape over your arms and shoulders you can control your body temperature in cool weather. A large piece of plaid works well in this style.

The second easiest cloak

is a circle with a hole in it, otherwise known as a poncho. This is a good choice for children because there are no fastenings to fiddle with, and if it gets turned around nobody will know. It is easy to make in small sizes. For adults, you will need to piece yardage to get a diameter that is twice the length you want. Consider putting the neck hole off center so there is a definite front and back to the drape. Youíll want the front to be shorter so you can use your hands.

The half-circle cloak is another option. Made from a half-circle with a diameter twice the desired length, this can hang off your shoulders and be elegant or dashing. Resist the urge to use a piece of ribbon on each side for ties, as you will strangle yourself each time it slips. Either do without, or use a pair of frog fasteners or a buckle.

A ĺ or full-circle cloak is very popular, and the full style lends itself well to being mysterious or romantic. Again, you need solid buckles or frogs as fasteners. Part of their appeal is being "big enough for two", but they also take up luggage space for two, and require two hands to keep out of the wet grass.

Piecing a half or full-circle cloak is pretty easy

It just requires a lot of long seams. If you are making a lining, cut the same amount of fabric but about 6 inches shorter than the cloak fabric.

Before you begin cutting cloak panels you need to figure out how you are going to get the best use out of your chosen fabric. If you are using 60" wide fabric and you are happy with a cloak that will come to the back of your calves or maybe just sweep above the floor, you can cut panels with the selvedges at the top and bottom of each piece. If you have narrower goods, you will have to lay the pieces lengthwise. This requires more yardage.

You're going to be cutting wedges, pieces of a circle, and assembling them into an arc. Probably the easiest way to do this is to get a piece of string and cut it a few inches longer than your desired cloak length. Tie a stick of chalk to one end and have a helper hold the other end.

If you are cutting from a 60" width, you can alternate panels for most efficient use of your fabric. This works best on fabrics with no nap or obvious pattern in them, since half are going to be "upside down".

If you are working from narrower material, work your way down the yardage, marking each wedge in turn. If you want to be really frugal with the fabric you can use the half-wedges that remain on the sides of each full wedge, and sew them up, too. Again, you have to be using fabric that does not have a nap or an obvious direction to it.

I made one of my first cloaks from some wool scraps that were given to me. They were different widths, and I could not cut the same size wedge out of each one. There are no rules saying they all have to be the same width, though, and when it was sewn together you couldn't tell.

Once you have all the panels cut out you just sew them up side by side until you have enough of a circle to satisfy yourself. You don't need to sew them all the way to the point, since that will create a bulky seam at your neck. Leave the last 6 or 8 inches unsewn, and simply lop off the points and make yourself a nice curved neckline.

Hem the bottom of the cloak and the bottom of the lining. You will not sew the bottoms together, because if you did the lining would either sag and show underneath the hem, or it would bunch up and make the bottom hemline lumpy and ugly.

To insert the lining lay the two shells together with the right sides of the fabric facing, and pin the neckline and sides. Do not pin the bottom hem. Sew the sides and neckline.

Turn everything right side out and iron the seams flat. You are now ready to add frog fasteners or a buckle to keep it closed.

Coming someday: How to Add a Hood



All text and artwork copyright 1990, 1997, 1998, 2002 D. Duperault. NOTHING on this site may be reproduced or distributed by any means without my written permission. This information offered in good faith, and worth only what you paid for it.
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