Bespoke · Breeches · Fabrics · Plans

Building Breeches: Finding Functional Fabrics

I spend a lot of my time in breeches. When they fit poorly enough to make that time uncomfortable, I get cranky.  Uncomfortable Barn Time is unacceptable.  (Well, in reality I’ll accept it if the alternative is No Barn Time but it makes me cranky.)

I know the right answer when RTW clothes don’t fit: make my own! But making breeches is intimidating.  At first, all bottoms with two separate leg-holes were intimidating.  Then I learned to make chinos and only fitted bottoms were intimidating.  Then, in late fall 2017, I drafted and made stretch jeans from my TNT trouser pattern and they actually fit well.

Suddenly breeches seem within reach, at least from the construction standpoint. So let’s go!  Fools barge in and all that.

 

For some reason, before I start to make something, I like to have a pretty decent idea of what I’m trying to make.  So I started asking questions.

  • What are breeches made of?
  • Has anyone done this before? What resources are available to help me?
  • Stylistically, what do I want these to look like?
  • How do seamlines and other construction features differ from other two-legged bottoms?
  • Are patterns available? If so, what are the pros and cons of altering a purchased pattern vs. drafting my own from a well-fitting sloper?

I’m sure there are more, but that’s enough for now.

You may have inferred above that I started with fabrics.  I worried that might be where the whole plan would go off the rails.  If I couldn’t find fabrics that would work, both for the main pieces and also for the knee patches, there was no point going further.1  A quick look inside my waistbands got me started: the three-season breeches I’d been wearing were made of a heavy, stable, mostly-cotton knit with a small-to-moderate amount of stretch in four directions. (Winter breeches are a topic for a different day and only if I can make basic breeches that work.)All of my (barely) surviving pairs have between 92-95% cotton and 5-8% spandex or Lycra (for our purposes, they’re the same thing, one’s just the generic name for the other).

 

Two of my surviving pairs are TuffRiders and one is an old pair of On Course breeches.  Care labels rarely give you the names of the technical fabrics commercial producers use and, in the case of many breeches, they’re not readily available to the home sewist, anyway. But I think we can get pretty close.

I was born in the ‘80s and started riding in the ‘90s and I don’t recall ever wearing a pair of breeches that weren’t a cotton-spandex knit or an entirely synthetic knit with some measure of spandex.  In my mind, breeches are made of knitted fabrics.  So I set out to find a knit of similar weight, body, and fibre content.

Ok…how about any knit with similar body and weight? I had some mostly-polyester ponte knit, once, that behaved pretty similarly to new, knit breeches.  I ordered swatches of any remotely-close-looking ponte knit I could find through a couple of the major online fabric retailers.

 

I ended up with 6 swatches, all of which disappointed me at the time but I might take a gamble on one or two in the future.  Most of my disappointment was wrapped up in fibre content, which is a topic for a different post.  However, some are clearly no-gos simply because of how the fabric behaves.  The one I most wanted to like was the one with the highest cotton content, which still tipped in at just 50% cotton, 25% polyester, and 25% I-don’t-recall-what-else.  There’s no way that one will work: the swatch is already warped from the little bit that I’ve tested to see the amount it stretches in each direction.  With that little recovery, my lovingly hand-crafted breeches that took many hours of my time would last for about 3 rides. Another fabric, apparently, got classified as a ponte even though it has only mechanical stretch. That one’s clearly not an option either: you’d never get those things on and, if you did, you’d never bend your knees! Another hopeful is technically a four-way stretch but the amount of vertical stretch is way too little and the horizontal stretch is probably way too much to give any support.  I imagine you’d feel all the cons and none of the pros of both characteristics, with binding tightness around any joints (like the knees) due to the vertical rigidity and also the flimsy nothingness of super-thin, summer-weight tights, which I really don’t like. The three that remain, while not clear winners (especially at their price points), might be viable now that I look at them again, at least for light-weight schooling garments.

Well, humph! After receiving my swatches, I actually tried to give up and just buy some breeches but then I realised the TuffRiders I’d been wearing for several years had been discontinued.  I looked for things I thought were similar and started to notice that it was really hard to find a similar breech in a knit fabric.  I ordered one but it wasn’t even close enough to wear as a stop-gap so I sent them back.

 

I mulled over the problem for a while in the back of my mind and slowly started to realise that the breeches offered for sale these days are really pretty different than what I’ve been used to wearing. I began to wonder whether that implied significant advances in technology and functionality as well as stylistic evolution.  I’m generally pretty impervious to style trends and very slow to adopt them but this was one of those moments I was open to the idea.

I noticed a lot of the breeches I liked were marketed as woven (and the ones that weren’t looked more like riding tights, which I don’t care for wearing). The idea really intrigued me. I love structured clothing, impeccable tailoring, and traditional aesthetics.  I love white-tie formality and adore the fact that, technically, dressage is a white-tie event. I was inclined to think woven breeches would probably be a little more structured.  As a result, I think they might be more flattering than knits, which leave no secrets. There’s one huge caveat, though: they would have to fit really well in order to meet the demands of eventing.  It’s much harder to make a garment that permits serious athletic activity in a fabric without stretch.  That’s why knitted textiles and spandex so revolutionised the sportswear industry.

Once upon a time (ok, only a little over 100 years ago), this woman modeled fashionable riding jodhpurs.2

Of course, some of that exaggerated hip curve was stylistic and shaped by contemporary conceptions of morality and modesty.  It was also rooted in pragmatism, though: spandex hadn’t yet been invented (that happened in 1959) and knit clothing, other than hand-knits, was rare in general. Coco Chanel’s 1916 suit collection is sometimes referenced as knitwear’s first big break.  Technologically, even the most impeccable tailor needed to build in a certain amount of ease into a woven garment in order to accommodate the athletic demands of horseback riding.

The breeches in the popular catalogues were definitely not aesthetically similar to Edwardian jodhpurs. So what had changed?

Enter stretch wovens.

In the last decade or so, textile manufacturers seem to have dramatically increased the quality, variety, and availability of stretch woven fabrics, both in RWT clothing and in fabric sold by the yard to consumers.  I think I’m a bit behind the curve on this, actually, because I’m a natural fibre snob and resisted anything with any amount of synthetic content.  The more I see and work with these fabrics, though, I’m becoming a convert. I’m beginning to think stretch wovens might be the linchpin that really brings sewing equestrian garments into the reach of the home sewist.  If that’s true, I’ll probably be nearly evangelical about them.

Back in 1995, Linnéa Sheppard published one of the very few resources I’ve found on this topic: Sew your Own Riding Clothes.3  In it, she lamented the challenge of finding suitable fabrics for stretch garments, in particular.  While she mentioned that breeches were made from both ‘stretch-knit and stretch-woven fabrics’, she advised home sewists that ‘You won’t find these types of fabrics in fabric stores.  Suitable fabrics are out there, but you might have to do some searching or order your fabric by mail. [Horror! Well… it was the ’90s…]. The fabrics you’re looking for are heavy-weight four-way-stretch knits, preferably nylon/spandex and cotton/spandex blends.’  She does conclude that section by saying that, ‘Breeches and jodhpurs can also be made from four-way-stretch woven fabrics’, though she provides no more information about that option.4

I really think stretch wovens have come into their own in the last two decades, becoming widely available with a variety of characteristics.  As I said before, the ready availability of options for technical fabrics suitable for riding makes it easier for the home sewist to sew riding gear successfully.

That’s the theory I’ll be testing, anyway! I’ll be back soon with a discussion of fibre content.  Until then, kick on!

 

 

    1. This post got long fast, so I’m just talking about the main fashion fabric here. I have ideas for knee patches that I’ll be testing and discussing in a future post.
    2. As a trained historian, I’m acutely aware that there’s quite a bit in this post that looks like ‘history’. It’s not, really; these are just my hypotheses and impressions.  I would welcome any corrections or further resources you may have to suggest. I think it would be pretty fun to trace the development of fibre content in riding trousers over the 20th century, using catalogues and other materials.
    3. Linnéa Sheppard, Sew Your Own Riding Clothes (Breakthrough Publications, 1995).
    4. Sheppard, Sew Your Own Riding Clothes, 8-9.

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