Sometimes I get projects that are simple, client A wants costume X, I make costume X and everyone is happy. Simple.
Sometimes however I get the chance to work on much more complex projects, projects that require research, thinking, testing and decisions, these are generally more interesting if a little more challenging.
At first I thought making a WWI Trench Coat for Whitchurch Silk Mill was going to be one of the simple projects, but this is turning out to have so much more depth than I imagined possible and as much as I can I’m going to share my process with you as this project unfolds.
Whitchurch Silk Mill is the oldest silk mill in the UK, still in its original building in rural Hampshire it is a working Georgian water mill that still weaves silk using 19th century machinery. They used to weave silk for linings for Burberry coats and for this project I have been commissioned to make trench coat to be lined with a special one off commemoratory silk to mark the anniversary of centenary of the First World War.
The “trench Coat” was really the first raincoat, made of gabardine a waterproof heavy-duty cotton fabric invented by Thomas Burberry in 1880. worn by officers in in the Boer war, where they were a real hit, being lightweight, waterproof and hard-wearing.
They became called “trench coats” in World War One, in which they proved to be ideally suited to trench warfare. Their popularly has continued and they are considered a design classic today. You may have spotted one being worn in episode 4 of the BBC WWI drama The Crimson Field.
The design changed during the Great War as improvements were made to assist the trench bound wearers. The first challenge was for me to choose which version of the coat to make (Cue Lindsey following white rabbit down research black hole…)
The trench coat you see today is typically double-breasted with 10 front buttons, wide lapels, a storm flap, buttoned pockets, belted at the waist, buckled straps around the wrists and buttoned shoulder straps.
The early coats were quite different;
Single breasted, plain, long and full, these coats from The Burberry Catalogue in 1905 are much the same design officers took to war in 1914.
During the war the design changed to suit the needs of modern warfare, key changes were the wrist straps, to keep the mud out, the the storm flap to keep the rain out, shoulder straps to keep kit straps fully on the shoulder and D loops on the belt which allowed for carrying more items of equipment around (not hand grenades, that’s just silly) shown here on an original coat.
We wanted our coat to tell the story of the Great War, so we chose to go with a later design allowing us to explore all of the above, but we were also keen to make sure it is not just a modern coat, our final design is very similar to this design from this poster from the IWM collection.
Now we have the shape, next is the Fabric, we need a gabardine or drill cotton in the right colour, but what is the right colour?
Officers heading over to Burberrys Haymarket store could have coats made up in a range of colours, this was after all a bespoke item, but there was only really one colour suitable for a war time coat, especially if it was to be worn as part of your uniform.
Khaki, or drab which has its origins in India is used by armies around the world for their uniforms. The word Khaki comes from the Persian word meaning soil. It has been used to denote both a yellow-brown and a green, but like dirt, over the years is has been applied to a range of colours.
you can buy precoated waterproof cottons to make raincoats today if you wish, they come in a fairly standard palette shown below.
the top colour being a little too cream and the second one down not quite being a drab enough green, the main issue with these fabrics is the grain, or lack of, these are very tightly woven cottons, you can hardly see they have been woven at all, but look at this close up of an original WWI Burberry trench coat.
We need a fabric with the same weave, weight and drape to be able to match the look of the original and this is I think is almost more important than colour. Saying that we have managed to find a fabric which meets these requirements and is only a shade or two darker than we imagine the original would have been when new.
In my next post on this project I will talk about creating a pattern and the fitting process.