Project Swapway: Designing a Cape

A few months ago, I joined a Steampunk Swap in the Odd Duck Swaps group on Ravelry.  My swap target (or “spoilee”) was very talkative and fun, so I got loads of ideas for what to make for her.  One thing she mentioned caught my fancy right away as a great opportunity to set a design challenge for myself.

The inspiration started with a page of illustrations of Victorian capes that my “spoilee” had posted.  One caught my eye immediately.

Victorian Cape

Victorian Cape

So gorgeous!  I loved the high neck, the tailored look, the weighty drape of the luxurious fabric (presumably fur, in the original).  I imagined that this would be a lined cape that would keep a lady warm on the coldest winter strolls, and yet be easily tossed aside for a waltz with a beau.

So then I started to think about how to put my own spin on it.  A steampunk cape with a bit of my own flair.  I toyed with the idea of buying fabric and sewing, but I really wanted to knit it.  A yarn with a good drape should mimic the weight of the fur better than even faux-fur.  And what would a knitted cape be without a heavenly lace trim?

The neck caused me more trouble in all of the design stages.  I was pretty sure I couldn’t achieve the wonderfully ridiculous height in the illustration without wire, and I wanted this to be somewhat washable.  My spoilee is a tango dancer in real life, and I envisioned her being able to don this cape to keep of the chill after a night of dancing, and if she is like most of us that means she’ll want to wash it from time to time.  That nixes the possibilities of wires for my skill level.

Here are some other ideas that I kicked around for the collar:

  • brocade or other heavy fabric (like the illustration)
  • felting (thanks Kris! but I think that would have been too much challenge for me in this already challenging challenge)
  • just knitted like the rest, allowed to flop over
  • crazy ultra-stiff knitted fabric like some kind of superbobble or faux-weave knitted on teeny needles
  • cables again knitted on teeny needles
  • a lace panel over a contrast color knit (I held onto this one for a long time, and then it stopped making sense)
  • stiff interfacing or buckram in the lining to keep the height (this idea was combined with most of the others in my imagination)

I’ll tell you what really happened with the neck in a little bit.  For the beginning design purposes, I decided to knit the neck part in red with the vague idea of putting black knitted lace over it, and using interfacing in the lining to help hold it up.

I got some direction on my spoilee’s color likes and dislikes, then fretted about that for a good long while.  Then I ordered the yarn and started making a muslin.

Cutting pieces based on my diagram for a muslin

Cutting pieces based on my diagram for a muslin

It helps, when making a muslin, to have an idea of how shapes go together in clothing.  I’m not sure I could do well with this for, say, a fitted suit shirt for a woman, but I’ve made a few cloaks in my day and I was very confident about my ability to construct a cape.

I drew a picture of how I wanted the final piece to look, made some measurements regarding length/width/diameter, diagrammed how the panels would go together to make that shape.  Then I cut and sewed.

The beauty of the muslin is, that if you screw up, you just chop it off, or resew and trim, or throw it all out and start again, and you don’t have to feel bad at all if it didn’t work.  Muslin is fairly cheap, and if it’s not cheap enough, someone recently gave me the tip that you could buy bedsheets from the thrift store and that would work too, and I like recycling!  It only took me two tries to get something I liked.  I had my dressmaker’s doll all clicked into my spoilee’s size and tried it on.

Muslin version on the dressmaker's doll

Muslin version on the dressmaker's doll

Now that’s the shape I wanted!  I don’t think I had pressed it in this pic, but you get the idea.  It hangs nicely around the shoulders, there’s enough volume at the bottom that there are some nice folds without being excessively ruffly.  The neck has got nothing to stand it up here, but at least it gave me a good idea of the length to go for to get the neck height I wanted.

So with the muslin complete, the yarn in hand, it was time to cast on!  Because I was doing this on the knitting machine, and didn’t have a pattern, I started by knitting a gauge swatch.  I’m not 100% sure, but I think I even did the proper thing and washed and blocked it.  Machine knitting can change a lot when it’s washed and blocked.  I got the stitches per inch from the gauge swatch, and multiplied by the number of inches across the first two front panels.

Knitting the two front pieces of the cape

Knitting the two front pieces of the cape

I decided to cast on the two front panels together, because any errors in symmetry would be most noticeable on the front.  They were also the only panels where I could fit two side-by-side on the knitting machine.  To do two pieces at once, you have to knit each from a separate ball.

Knitting all the pieces on the knitting machine took way longer than expected, about 2 evenings or 4-5 hours per panel.  The thing I should have remembered from my days of sewing cloaks is that the bottom width of a cape or cloak is deceptively huge.  So it also took a lot more yarn than expected.  I ended up having to order more half-way through.

So while I was spending many an evening cranking out panels for the cape, I was spending all my commuting time handknitting approximately 104″ of trim.  The trim pattern came from one of the indispensable Nicky Epstein “Edge” books, Knitting on the Edge, I believe.

As a true confession, I’ll have to admit that I didn’t math-out my panels ahead of time, and there were minor variations in each panel (other than the front identical ones).  My basic method was to figure out how many stitches I needed to increase or decrease to, and in how many inches, and then just work my way there.

I was inspired/corrupted by the book The Prolific Knitting Machine, which suggests making simple shapes and then “half-fashioning” or zigzagging, trimming to shape, and sewing up just like you would a purchased knit fabric.  The book argues that if you really wanted handknit-looking garments, you would be using regular needles, and that there’s no need to push your machine knitting to be something it’s not.  Thinking ahead to a future project, I can’t wait to try making myself a cardigan this way.

Cape pieces sewn together, before trimming

Cape pieces sewn together, before trimming

So once all the pieces were knit, I did indeed use machine zigzagging, sewing and appropriate trimming to “half-fashion” this cape.  Especially because I was planning to line it with a satiny fabric anyway, I saw no reason not to do this, as any ugly seams would be covered.

I trimmed to an elegant curve, cut and sewed a lining.  Affixed the lining and then finally tried to decide how to deal with the neck.  At that point, I had not yet sewn up the last open seam, so I could still press in an interfacing if it wanted more stiffness.  And yet, as I looked at the collar, I decided I loved it just the way it was.  The lining, due to a happy accident, was puffing out a bit at the neck, and the knitted outside was pulling down in an elegant curve.  In fact, all by itself it was opening up like a beautiful flower, and I suddenly felt that anything else I could attach would at best gild the lily and at worst look overwrought and contrived.

Finished cape on the dress-makers doll

Finished cape on the dress-makers doll

Instead, I made a really simple neckband casing, and pulled wide black ribbon through it.  Done!  The neck turned out far nicer than anything I was originally planning to do.  My main concern was that the red not overwhelm my spoilee’s natural hair color, and because the lining puffed out, and the knitting curved away from the face, I felt that the red peeked out just enough to tie into the trim.

The only thing I didn’t like about how the project turned out, was that I wasn’t 100% happy with how bulky the lining and knit fabric felt along the base of the cape.  This isn’t a fault that is noticeable from the outside, but my spoilee seems to be an experienced seamstress, and I feel that the lining doesn’t look super professional from the inside of the garment.  Hopefully she can forgive that flaw.

So that’s the tale of the Victorian/steampunk cape!

Until next time, keep those needles clicking and needlebeds clacking…


5 thoughts on “Project Swapway: Designing a Cape

    • Thanks! I definitely see it as a one-of-a-kind, I doubt I’d have the patience to try machine-knitting the whole thing again. But I’m not saying I would exclude the possibility of doing something else of the same scale. Weirdly enough, I think I kept to my timeline better because it was for a stranger than I would have if it were for myself or a family member.

  1. It isn’t bulky. I’m off to tango in it now! Such an awesome gift. It will be great as the cafe where I dance is usually quite cold, but I’ll be able to take it off (should I choose) when I dance. And hey, I wear red shoes, so the red in the collar is a nice added touch. Can you tell how giddy and pleased I am with this? Cause if not, I’ll gush some more if necessary :}

    • I’m so glad that you like it and that it works well with your tango outfit! I was really hoping that it would be useful to you for tango, as it sounded like you would get more mileage out of it that way than if it was a strictly steampunk costume piece.

  2. It is the most awesome gift ever. I’ve shown it off to all my friends. And of course worn it to tango, where I was the envy of all.

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