Monday, January 11, 2010

Braintan Breeches

When I was at the Eastern (Muddy Run State Park, PA, 2009), which is my 'big' event of the year, I met a gentleman who wanted a pair of 1750's fly-front (or French Fly) braintan breeches, hand sewn. I told him that I had no idea how long it would take but I'd give it my best. We agreed on a price/hr. & he supplied the hides.
I made a test pair of cloth breeches for him, which he was pleased with and we were off!
Of course, I'm making this sound easy... and it was... here & there.

The story below is not intended as actual sewing instructions. Go buy a pattern & follow those... but if you already know how to make breeches this is a wonderful outline of how leather can be very different from cloth.

*If you ever decide to do a project like this, be sure you have enough hides of the same weight & color. It's difficult to work on different thicknesses & if you aren't careful, your French Marine will end up looking like the Pied Piper. Fortunately these were close enough and should age well.
*Breeches & pants take 5 hides. By Divine Grace & Sheer Luck I managed to squeeze them out of 4, but there's not much left & I was lucky not to have to piece my pieces.

These hides were made by Kfir Mendel and his web site is

I started off by laying out the best use of the hides, the layout here is not exactly what I finally settled on. Whenever you are cutting on leather, be sure to cut 'with the grain', meaning that all pieces are 'in line with the spine.' (Not like the leg bands are shown here). If you are literally cutting it close, there are a few pieces that can be tipped just a little, but NEVER tip a major piece like front, back or bands. Even tipping the fly can cause wonkiness... but in an emergency a fly facing or gusset can be tipped.

When cutting leather, it's ideal to have all your major pieces cut the same top-to bottom: meaning the top is the neck & the bottom is the tail. Sometimes this isn't possible, but no matter what, always keep 'in line with the spine'.
*If you are concerned about knowing the grain after it's cut, lightly mark with removable chalk on the wrong side, (check it before you chalk it) to make sure it will actually come off.
*Also, avoid holes, mends, etc. in stress areas. (You should patch all holes before you cut... check out the leg band below for a mend).

I used masking tape to lightly tack the pattern pieces down and chalk-mark around each of them. I also X'ed the side of the pattern piece I'd already laid out so there was a left & a right.

When cutting, be careful to make smooth lines as there may be raw edges involved somewhere in the garment.

You can piece the pockets or pocket linings if it's below where the flap shows the material.


You will need the following tools & materials:
scissors, chalk or soft lead pencil, ruler and measure tape, leather awl, cork board, paper clamps, glover's needle, blunt leather needle (or 2 harness needles), linen thread, bees wax, forceps or pliers, a thimble, pen/pencil for writing, paper to write on, timer if you want to know exactly how long 10 days can be...
Oh yes, and several cats to tell you how good this project smells -"Gail, why won't you let us have some? pretty please, I'm really cute."
I marked all my seams with either pencil or chalk and then pre-punched the holes with an awl and cork board. This prevents distortion and seam slippage, and makes easing longer pieces into shorter pieces much easier (like at the back of the leg band).
I used a double running stitch for all seams. Glover's needle first then switch to the blunt needle when you go the other way... don't cut your thread! Of you could use the 2 harness needles like my mother does. I've never mastered this.

I sewed all my pieces-parts together. The waistbands & gusset (though I changed this to a single layer with a turned edge later on). Normally I would sew the leg bands now, but as they have buckles, I had to wait & do it differently.

*make sure you have a right & left waistband.
*clip & turn, you may have to top stitch, but don't jump the gun on when you top stitch... it's usually last.

Sew the pockets on the front, clip & turn just like regular breeches... but top stitch so the opening lays flat.
Sew the pocket linings on, matching the bottoms & clip the top after to give yourself the 1/2" seam allowance.
The bad part about this is that your stitches have to be really nice, and they aren't as pretty as they will be by the time you are done...

Sew the fly together, sew the buttonholes in, and sew the fly facing on.
There's a lot of turning & top stitching here... you know the drill.

Remember on men's clothes, the buttons are worn on the right and the buttonholes are worn on the left. You really shouldn't forget that. Check if you have to... in fact, double check. Do it again just to make sure.

Leather rhymes are fun, so here's another one...
"A hole in Leather is there Forever!"
Unless you have some water & a suede brush to minimize the damage from not triple-checking.
*NEVER charge your customers for your mistakes. Ever. I lost several hours to this fix, but it's worth it to have a pair of men's breeches rather than lady's riding pants.
(BTW, the buttons are just set here, they aren't sewn on in this picture).

Sew the front crotch together.
Sew the seat together.
Sew the outseams together.

Sew the leg plackets & buttonholes. Make sure the front placket overlaps the back, and the back has a tab so you have somewhere to sew your buttons!
You will probably have to top-stitch to keep the leather flat & prevent distortion next to the button holes.

This area can be very different from pattern to pattern.

Now sew the inseam & reinforce the crotch-seat seam and the inseams with another row of stitching. This take stress off the first seam & makes it less likely to rip out later.
Make sure your stitching line on the inseam crosses over the seat in a single thread to reinforce that crossroad.
You may want to stitch over it a few times to make sure you don't get that really annoying 'hole' right there. It's not like the pants are going to fall apart if you don't, but it always looks like something is going to go dreadfully wrong.
*Be very careful later to tip the seams in the correct direction, and not have them twist between the seat & the leg bands. I like my seams to face backward, but it's really a matter of preference.

Turn the back seat seams over where the gusset is going to be & top stitch them down. (not pictured)
Put the waistbands on & top stitch where necessary.

Sew the remaining button holes on the waistband(s).

(see my post on how to make a hand sewn button hole).

Sew in the gusset in back. I decided on a single layer because there is so much thickness there, the more material, the harder it gets to sew & I'm not sure that would be comfortable to wear. This seemed like a far better idea.

Use a strong but flexible thong or linen cord to tie the gusset closed. I did eventually use braintan itself as a thong, but it may be too soft to withstand the pulling on a waistband.

For the leg bands, I made some mock-ups in fabric until I found one I liked.
I cut the leg bands on the fold & squared off to start. I shaped the ends for the buckle(s) later.
Sew the leg bands on, turn & topstitch.
Clip just outside your stitching line & turn the leather right-side out... This is going from a finished seam to raw edges... not the best description without a picture. Sorry.
Mark your stitching lines with a pencil & cut the ends near the buckle to shape.

(The buckle attaches on the back, the tab goes on the front).
Sew the buckle on.
Mark & sew the shape of the tab & cut after stitching.
Punch holes like for a belt.
Depending on the type of buckle, you may or may not have to add a 'belt loop'. In the future, I will make an actual loop rather than the stitched on job here. It's not bad, but I'd prefer it another way.

Last but not least, sew the buttons on. Make sure each button fits through it's corresponding button hole & lay them out accordingly. Trust me, this is important.
Sew the buttons on, hiding the ends of the thread between layers whenever possible, but make all knots on the top side so they don't rub on the person. Also very important, make a shank by winding the thread around itself before moving on to the next button. Leather is thick & will take up that room.

I used black silk/bamboo crochet thread that I waxed. Much better color than the linen... which I had just enough of to finish off the leg bands. I mean, not 3" to spare. I was picking the ends out of the scrap pile to finish the last few inches...

I was only able to work on these 3-5 hours a day. Band-aids were my finger's best friends, and I went through a lot of them. If you notice yourself getting tired or crampy (or crabby), stop.

This project was a solid 40 hours of work, and that does not include the "oh Brother" moments where I had to re-do something.
If you are going for 'looks' rather than 100% accuracy, sew the main seams with a machine & walking foot, then hand-stitch the outside. It will probably cut your time in half.

The truly amazing thing is how the volume of leather changes. I saved every scrap & by the time I was done it all fit into a box about 2/3 the size of the original pile. Fabric does exactly the opposite!

I can honestly say that I'm happy with the results, even if they aren't perfect. And I'm very happy that I can say "FINISHED!!!"

"These are the pants that never end! Somebody started sewing it, not knowing what it was, and she'll just keep on sewing it forever just because: these are the pants that never end! Yes, they go on and on, my friends..."


Keith said...

Good post, excellent.
Thanks also for your comments on my blog much appreciated.
Regards, Le Loup.

Lauren Stowell said...

WOW! Those are truly amazing! You've got skills, girl, I would be petrified and clueless of working with leather.

Keith said...

I see in the finished photo that the fly buttons are hidden. I have never seen this before on 18th century breeches. The French fly I have seen have only been partly covered or not covered at all?
Le Loup.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

Yes, the buttons usually show on the french fly. I discussed this with my customer, and he wanted the hidden buttons anyway.

He gave me the reference... "Where two worlds Meet" and sent the 'pattern diagram'. It was not usable, so I went with a 1730-40 French pattern with a similar shape, straightened the waistband as per his request & made the leg button placket part of the pants a la 1750's rather than sewn on as in the original.

I don't know how accurate the 2 Worlds reference is as I've never seen the book. I think it's the same author who wrote The Voyager's Sketchbook (Hansen, Hanson???) but I could be wrong. The drawings were similar.
The general information that I've looked up from there is decent, but they aren't my favorite sources.

The Diderot diagram 1769? shows fly front & drop front breeches. The fly front has a hidden fly with the bottom button showing.. maybe a double buttonhole? I don't know anyone who actually unbuttons that last hole, so it would make sense to have it doubled to help the fly lay flat.

The down-side to 1/2 hidden flies is that they don't lay right. Hidden flies look right on the body, sorta flashes the buttons as the person moves but keeps the fly from catching on the darn things & pinging them off in the middle of a woods walk or tavern. Funny, but not that great when you get them home to your wife.

I work from the old pattern plates & historic pattern books as much as possible, but when my customer says "hey, could you straighten the waistband so it lays under my belly rather than rolling down like a bad pair of pannyhoes?" I straighten the waistband. Historically accurate? No. Happy customer? Yes.

Keith said...

Fair enough Gail, but it won't do your reputation any good when people ask the man "who made your breeches"! Hopefully he will be kind enough to explain.
Regards, Le Loup.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

I think my reputation will be just fine. I love my thread counter friends & we truly enjoy each other's company & input, but everyone understands that if the difference between making a living and not is 1/4" of a fly... well, I'll give the 1/4" and get the order.

I would have loved to have this project absolutely perfect, but that doesn't always work out.

Considering most of my stuff is sewn by machine, it kinda blows the whole historic accuracy thing right out of the water anyway.

I will NOT make a Plain's Indian dress out of polyester calico, or an 1860 ball gown with a zipper in the back. I do have some standards.

lilywhitepurity said...

Please PLEASE tell me where you bought your silk/ bamboo crochet thread and the brand! I've been searching all over for some because it has a truly wonderful drape when knitted!

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

If I remember correctly JoAnn's had the cotton/bamboo crochet thread, and it was somewhere around $5.99 for a mid-size skein. I hope that helps.