Updated 30 April 2010
Jackets keep us warm. Umbrellas keep the rain off. They both do so quite efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. But what could be more romantic, more adventurous, more absolutely fabulous than a gorgeous, long, swishy, mysterious cloak? Whether you need something in black, lined with red for the classic vampire look, something light and floaty to turn your favourite ballgown into a fairy princess ensemble, or just something to keep the rain off as you hunker in a muddy ditch and wonder why you ever took up re-enactment anyway, you will find help and inspiration below. Doubling as a blanket, handy for keeping you and whatever you're carrying dry, and easy to share with a chilled (and possibly attractive) friend, a cloak is nearly as useful as a towel. And they're easier to sew than you may think!
For hundreds of years and on various continents, cloaks were the outer garment, worn by rich and poor1 alike. As a child, you're sure to have tied a towel around your neck and pretended to be a superhero2. But it never looked quite right, because the bottom hung down all different lengths, and it didn't wrap around the front properly. The earliest cloaks, such as those worn by the Vikings, were just big rectangles of cloth, those being easier to weave. But everyone after that, from Ninth-century Crusader to Nineteenth-century admiral, wore essentially the same garment, though with manifold variations.
The Semicircle Cape
This pattern will give you a cape - simply an unhooded cloak. It's the basis for just about any look you want to create.
You'll need a piece of fabric twice as long as it is wide, and about as wide as the distance from your shoulder to your ankle. Lay it out smoothly - the floor will likely be the only surface big enough - and fold it in half once, so you have a square. Now, get a piece of chalk, a sliver of soap, or a pencil, and tie it to the end of a piece of string3. Hold the end of the chalk at one end of the fold, pull the string taut, and hold it in place4 at the other end of the fold. Make sure you're not doing this on one of the 'open' ends of your layered fabric, or you'll have two halves to sew back together later! Keeping the string taut and the chalk at the same angle, draw a quarter-circle on the fabric. Then cut it out with a pair of good scissors, keeping the fabric folded properly. Ta da! A semicircle of fabric.
When you're done draping it around your shoulders and pretending you've got a cloak already, refold it neatly and lay it back down - you still need a hole for your neck! Simply measure around your neck with a measuring tape, add a few centimetres of breathing room and overlap, and then draw and cut out a smaller semicircle, again using the chalk and string, and holding it where the two straight edges meet. The length of the piece of string (the radius) should be the circumference of your neck (plus a bit) divided by π. If that's too complicated, get a dinner plate with a circumference a little over twice that of your neck, and use that to draw your smaller semicircle.
If you don't plan to line your cloak, you're pretty much done. The straight edges should be ravel-proof if you left the selvedge5 on, so you'll just need to hem the long, rounded edge. This can be done with a simple rolled seam and an overhand stitch if you don't have a sewing machine. Simply tuck the edge of the fabric under itself - making sure it will be on the inside when you're wearing the cloak - and sew it in place with small diagonal stitches. Do the same for the neck hole.
Besides the extra warmth, a lining adds colour, and style, and a chance to sew coins into the hem for emergencies, like they do in all the romances. You can even wear a fully lined cloak inside out so it will look like you have two different ones! Simply make the same cape again, lay it on top of the other one (making sure you lay the two sides you'll want to be visible on the inside for now) and sew the two straight sides and the long, curved one together. Turn it inside-out through the neck hole, then tuck the edges in and sew that shut, too. To make the fabric lie better and the edge neater, sew once around the entire outside, about half a centimetre from the edge. Yes, it's a long seam, but the edge will look baggy and unfinished if you don't!
Extras And Embellishments
The basic cape can be adapted to your needs and the design you had in mind, making it suitable for a variety of periods. And even if you just plan to wear it around the house in the winter, why not jazz it up a bit?
If you have very heavy material, very broad shoulders, or it simply fits the style better, you may want to make fitted shoulders. Do this before sewing the lining, and make both sides (and both pieces) identical! Put the cloak on, mark where your shoulders are, and then remove a wedge-shaped piece with the broad end at the neck from each side. Sew the edges of the wedge together, making sure the seam is on the side that won't be visible when you wear the finished cloak. You'll need cut the neck hole slightly wider from the start if you're going to do this.
If you're very tall, you may have trouble finding fabric wide enough to make a full-length cloak, since standard widths are generally 135 to 160 cm6. In this case, buy a piece of cloth twice as long as you'll need the finished cloak to be, and make up the difference in width by sewing a wide strip to one long side. This will hang down in the front on either side of the opening and look like a border7. A contrasting colour or material will help it look more deliberate, or you can cover the seam with a piece of trim later.
You'll need a way to keep your cloak from slipping off your shoulders. Fortunately, there are many solutions, to suit any budget, taste, and time period. You can buy brass, pewter, copper, or even silver clasps or brooches that will do the job quite well. Alternatively, use a hook and eye arrangement, sew buttons to one side and loops to the other, or even simply add ties.
Trim can help turn an ordinary cloak into something special. Again, your choices are only limited by your wallet, your imagination, and possibly your desire for authenticity. It's simplest to trim only the straight edges in the front - the bottom edge is very long, and the curve may make it difficult to sew the trim on smoothly, but if you'd like to trim that, too, there's nothing stopping you! If you plan to add a hood, make sure you have enough for that as well. You can make or buy ribbon trim or braid (which is easier to lay around curves), use strips of fur8, or simply embroider something directly onto the fabric.
To turn your cape into a proper cloak, you'll need to add a hood. How can you skulk in the shadows without it? A hooded cloak is the ultimate disguise: nobody will ever recognise or even notice you9 if you're wearing a long black cloak with the hood up. Fortunately, the scrap left over from cutting should be more than enough. To make a long, pointed hood, you can use the scrap almost as-is. For a more conventional hood, simply cut the point off and round the back slightly. Just keep two measurements in mind - your hood will have to be at least as high as the distance from your shoulder to the top of your head, and at least as deep as the distance from the corner of your eye to the back of your head. It will also have to taper slightly from the back, so that the bottom is the same size as the neck hole of your cloak. Deeper hoods offer more protection and mystique. A hood that falls open on your shoulders isn't quite as good against the elements, but looks more romantic. It may use a lot more fabric than you think, so when in doubt, test with cheap scrap! Even if you don't line the cloak, a lined hood will look and feel nicer.
You can simply attach the hood to the top of your cloak. If lining both, attach the 'outer' hood to the 'outer' cloak, sew the lining into both, turn through the opening in the lining, and then close that. However, an attached hood wasn't always the fashion, and for more versatility, there are other options.
Capelets and Cowls
A capelet is a shorter cloak, about waist to elbow length, which is worn over the main cloak, with or without a hood, and usually attached somehow. A vestigal capelet can still be found on many winter coats, helping to guide rain away from the wearer. A cowl is like a shorter hooded capelet, but closed in the front and usually cut with an attached hood, though you can sew it on it separately. It's worn loose over the cape, or by itself for protection from the sun and a little extra warmth. If you make a cowl that has a hood with a long point, you can use it as a kind of shawl to keep the whole arrangement in place in the wind, or, for reenactment purposes, to wrap the whole thing around the top of your head as a rather silly hat that was briefly in fashion among 15th-Century gentlemen. The edge of the capelet or cowl is a good place to add trim, and you can make a dagged or scalloped edge if it helps the look you're trying to achieve - just be aware that it's more difficult to hem, and harder to line properly.
If you just need a simple cape, or are wearing a cowl over it, you won't need a collar. However, no proper vampire outfit is complete without the high, pointed collar, and a more demure one can dress up a cape you plan on wearing in lieu of a jacket. If you want to make stand-up collar, you'll need to line it and put some kind of stiffer material like an iron-on interface between the layers.
Unlike a jacket, a cloak doesn't have sleeves. Packages and bags can easily be carried under the cloak, butyou'll need to stick your hands out the opening at the front if you need to grab any small children about to run into the street or reach your keyboard, and that means cold air will come in. If it fits your chosen time period, you can simply overcome this problem with arm holes. Just make two slits at the front of the cloak, about 1/4 of the way around and just above your elbows10. Keep them narrow and relatively small and be careful with the hemming, and you'll hardly notice they're there unless you need them. If you're worried about rain getting in, you can always add a capelet to cover them.
A cape that's hip length or shorter is known as a pelerine, and can still be found in women's fashion sometimes. However, it's also favoured by those who need freedom of movement and by equestrians. Since it takes a lot less material to make, you can use it to try out the technique, and possibly pass it on to a child later as a 'proper' superhero cape.
Three-Quarter or Full Circle Capes
You can, naturally, cut your cloak to more than a semicircle for extra warmth and extra fabric to swirl dramatically as you move. This will usually require you to assemble it out of several pieces11, and is not necessarily historically correct. If you're prone to carrying swords, be they real or latex, be aware that it's also a lot more fabric to get in the way when you're drawing or wielding your weapon.
A Note on Materials
Besides the decorations, the very stuff of which your cloak is made can help determine its look - and its authenticity, if you're trying to recreate a certain time period. Look at paintings and pictures, research the technical possibilities of the period, and if all else fails, ask your friendly local re-enactors!
Match the material you use to the statement you're trying to make and the purpose your cloak will be used for, as well as your budget. Lighter cloaks, especially if unlined, will tend to flap more in the wind, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether you favour drama over practicality.
- Wool is the traditional material for a cloak, and for good reason - it's warm, wears well, and keeps the water off. If you keep an eye out during the sales, it's not too expensive, and you can double up lighter coat-making material for extra warmth. Woollen blankets can also be used, if they're big enough - you may have to assemble your cloak from two pieces. Military surplus shops are a good, cheap source for blankets, if you're content with their very limited range of colours12.
- Fleece is light, relatively cheap, warm, comes in a variety of colours, and usually doesn't even need to be hemmed, making it ideal for the novice cloak-maker. Just don't use it if you're trying to make something historically correct. You won't get away with it.
- Velvet can look very nice - or truly horrible. The 'nap', the fuzz that makes velvet velvety, points in a certain direction, like the fur on a cat. If two pieces are sewn together that face in different directions, they'll appear to be different colours! It's also tricky to sew, so while it's very luxurious, it's not a beginner material. It also usually isn't 'authentic' to use it for historic re-enactment.
- Linen and cotton are usually too light for making a cloak intended as an outer weatherproof garment, though they make good linings. Cotton also has the advantage that it's cheap, so it can be used for costumes that you're likely to wear only once or twice. Linen may be too stiff to drape nicely if used by itself.
- Silk is soft and flowing, shiny, and feels very luxurious. It's also rather expensive, but it can make a very nice cloak to use as a more exciting wrap with your evening wear!
- Leather is very heavy, rather expensive, and hard to sew with anything other than an industrial-strength sewing machine. It's also not nearly as common historically as people seem to think. Well-oiled, it can make a good raincoat. You'll almost certainly have to piece your cloak together from smaller bits. Old sofas can be skinned as a good source of free leather - just make sure the owner really doesn't want it anymore.
- Satin - unless it's silk-based - certainly won't fit into any historical context. It's not very warm, and be careful around those romantically guttering torches, as polyester and nylon will melt and drip while burning and cause nasty burns. You can use it as a lining, though, if you want something shiny and can't afford silk, or for a cloak meant to go with a more modern outfit.
- Sequins are just plain strange. Unless you need a sequined cloak as a costume for the fish in a school play, you need more help than this Entry can give you if you're considering using sequins. It would be several square metres of glitter. You'll look like a walking disco ball!
Make your cloak whatever colour you like, but be aware that it will show the dirt, as the hem is prone to dragging in the mud. A neutral-coloured cloak can be worn with a variety of outfits, but maybe you'd rather make a bold statement. If you're trying to recreate a certain time period, research the colours and dyes used in that time, and any potential symbolism or class restrictions. You can dye your own fabric to whatever shade you desire - perhaps to match an existing outfit - but make sure you use cotton thread if you're going to do so, as polyester won't dye well!
Time to enlist the help of a towel around your neck again. Get a striped towel, and drape it around your neck. You'll see the stripes hanging down vertically in the front - but look in the mirror, they're horizontal in the back! That will happen with your cloak, too, so be careful when choosing patterns. One with multiple axes of symmetry - plaid, for example - might work, but everything else will look odd. It's best to stick with a solid colour, and just embellish it with trim.
If you have your heart set on a pinstriped cloak such as that worn by Cornelius Fudge from the Potterverse, you'll have to cut several wedges of material, all running the same way along the pattern of the fabric, and assemble them into a semicircle. This is also a good solution if you're working with narrow material - leather, for example, can be hard to find and dreadfully expensive at the appropriate size. Also, medieval looms were only 70-80 cm wide, so if you want a very authentic cloak, you'll have to assemble it from bits! However, this method requires a lot more sewing and a lot more material, particularly if you're using a pattern, and isn't recommended for beginners or the faint of heart.
Wear and Enjoy!
As every costume designer knows, layers are the easiest way to add interest to any look - and surely, a cloak is the ultimate outer layer! Wear it with pride, and a dirty look for anyone who dares to laugh at you. With such a long history, it's only a matter of time before they come back into fashion, anyway. By then, they'll already be old news to you...