The history of a uniform tells the history of its army. An army’s choice of cloth for example, would typically be dictated by an abundance or absence of materials; the iconic British ‘Redcoat’ owes it’s origins to cheap red dyestuff that was readily available at the time of the New Model Army’s formation in 1645, yet is still used to this day.
The history of the 1802-Pattern Greatcoat tells the history of an outmoded British army preparing; in earnest; for modern war against modern thinkers. It presents a process of rare bureaucratic adaptability, rare public support for a bleak war-effort and quite significantly, it reveals the humble beginnings of mass-production in Britain.
In Napoleonic reenacting, the pattern greatcoat seldom seems to garner much scrutiny. Off-the-shelf reproductions are easily accessible for agreeable prices, combined with the fact that the reenacting calendar typically occurs within the warm summer months (where a greatcoat will see more time slung up as a nondescript grey parcel than as a worn coat), often results in a regrettably common sight of Crimean War or American Civil War-style greatcoats being anachronistically worn in a Napoleonic context. Since I do not make a habit of settling for anything less than the best, I’ve gone to the trouble of carefully researching and hand-crafting my very own nondescript grey parcel.
I had been wanting to try this project for several months before I could actually secure a little time between other sewing commissions, but it seems apt that I should embark on this garment as winter approaches. It’s hard to imagine what a soldier in the Peninsular felt as the harsh winter of 1808 approached but no few men must have been thankful for their woollen greatcoats and blankets on nights without a shelter.
Unlike standard Kersey, Greatcoat cloth took its colouration from the mixing of various coloured wools when spun and wove. The characteristic ‘Salt & Pepper’ texture is consistent throughout the cloth, concealing the exposed weave threads when the close-cropped nap of Kersey inevitably wears through. Consequently, Greatcoat cloth would never appear threadbare to the casual observer, regardless of how much toil the coat and its wearer had seen. Soldiers’ clothing was typically issued annually whereas greatcoats were subject to replacement every three years, and only granted if deemed by the commanding officer to be completely worn-out.
My first experience using ‘Stuff-Wove’ Kersey was in constructing a pair of Officer’s ‘Overall’ trowsers for a friend in April – during that work I discovered the cloth had a peculiar resistance to stotting and prick-stitching with sharps needles, I suspect this was due to the needle passing awkwardly though the mixed weights when pushed in at a close angle. For basting, I resolved to use a crewel needle which undoubtedly made for easier work getting the thread through the cloth, but forfeited the possibility of neat stitching because the broader needlepoint conspires to finds it’s own path of least resistance through the weave.
To my delight, greatcoats of the period were not liable to a tailored fit. Military contractors such as Pearse, Tripp and Hebdin & Co were in the practice of making uniforms up to preset sizes
CUT AND CONSTRUCTION
The cutting pattern devised by Sean Phillips
As a final aside, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly my greatcoat came together: the pattern was fully drafted on a Friday night, and by Saturday evening I had succeeded in basting, sewing, un-basting and felling every machined seam. Perhaps such ruthless efficiency was inspired by the spirit of Georgian mass-production and abandon for the time-consuming intricacies of a tailored garment.