There are some fabrics that, when gone, are impossible to truly replace.
For the screen accurate live-action cosplayer, this can be a major stumbling block.
Until Abbyshot released their 7b frock coat, the only real option was to drop the £1500-£2500 it would cost to get a coat made bespoke in the proper fabric, which was extremely limited in supply and a painful £330/m (the lining alone is £89/m). Fortunately, companies like Abbyshot and Magnoli Clothiers spend significant time and money reweaving some of these fabrics and make them available to a larger audience at a price not quite so eye-watering.
One such fabric that has NOT been rewoven yet (though Magnoli is close to releasing his version, so I hear!) is the beautiful silver and purple fish scale waistcoat worn by Matt Smith off-and-on throughout S7b.
The fabric itself is a shot silk jacquard fabric with a lot of texture. The base fabric is gray-silver silk shot with dark purple, with a gray-silver jacquard pattern woven throughout. The way the base has been woven gives it a lovely iridescence, sometimes appearing purple and sometimes appearing medium gray (though in reality it’s quite dark), and the jacquard pattern is notably raised, giving it a beautiful, thick texture that really pops in some of the more extreme, theatrical studio lighting of episodes like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (pictured left) and Cold War.
The original fabric, naturally, is long gone. I’ve been on the lookout for a suitable alternative fabric for a while now, but I’ve never found anything even remotely close. There’s a lot of boxes to check: Purple isn’t a very popular color, and purple/silver iridescent jacquard silk is something I’ve literally never seen. The common concession here is to go for a plain medium gray, and I’m okay with that concession given that that’s how it often appears onscreen. Beyond that, the hardest part is finding a fabric with a textured weave in a scale pattern or similar at an appropriate size. I’ve investigated a number of fabrics in countless styles and come up with nothing. Until one day when I wasn’t looking for it at all…
WHAT WAS THIS BEAUTIFUL FABRIC? AND DID THEY HAVE IT IN GRAY OR SILVER OR PURPLE??
Turns out it was the backside of a stretch piqué fabric and it did not come in gray, silver, or purple. I was a little disappointed but it DID come in this neutral beige so I figured, well, perhaps I could dye it gray or purple. So I took home a swatch.
Upon researching the fabric, I discovered that it was 50% cotton, 47% polyester and 3% spandex. That seemed a little strange to me; it was as if half the threads were 100% cotton and the other half were poly/spandex. And it did stretch one direction and not the other. Maybe, just maybe…
So, keeping my fingers crossed and knocking on every piece of wood I saw, I bought some cotton dye and some poly dye, cut my swatch into three pieces, and did a test. Low and behold!:
My prayers were answered! The warp was poly/spandex and the weft was cotton! The top swatch was the original, the middle swatch the poly dye, and the bottom swatch the cotton dye. That meant I could theoretically dye the warp to a silver/gray and the weft to a purple and have an incredibly close fabric match! And less than a month away, Gallifrey One was calling, just begging me to secretly construct this waistcoat and give it a big debut. After a lot of talking it through, I decided to take the project on.
Unfortunately for me, though I didn’t know it at the time, that was significantly easier said than done.
Fabric dyeing is a damn pain on the best of days, and trying to match two separate colors on the same fabric to a sample I do not have a swatch of with store-bought, premixed dyes turned out to be EXACTLY as frustrating as it sounds.
I had to purchase all of the equipment needed, as I previously owned none of it. My own forays into dyes had consisted of coffee dyeing yarn for my Tom Baker scarves and that I could do in a food-safe pot with a little white vinegar. Dyes aren’t that expensive but when you end up having to purchase a bunch because you keep running out before you’re satisfied with a color, the cost adds up quickly.
The initial color test was promising. I bought some gray poly dye and together with the purple cotton dye my fabric looked better every second. The most important detail that came to light was that between the diamond shapes, the warp and weft were plain woven together, very similar to how the original was made, and when dyed different colors it took on that iridescence that makes the original look so unique, at different times either purple or silver. Not to mention that the luster of the polyester was a perfect representation of the shine of the original silk.
But getting my colors dark enough was trouble. Doing the cotton first would leave the fabric too gray when done, doing the poly first would leave it too purple. Even after rinsing, the two bled into each other too much. And how well can one color match when you don’t have a swatch? The guesswork was stressful, not to mention that the color of the dry fabric was significantly lighter than the wet color, making it hard to gauge if I was getting the depth of color I desired or not. And the stainless steel pot I bought wasn’t big enough to really hold a full yard with enough room to move freely, so I had to use my kitchen sink. My PORCELAIN kitchen sink.
Yeah, that was fun to clean up.
But eventually I came up with a color I was happy with. I took all the soak times and dye/water ratios and replicated the process perfectly!
By this time I had spent several days, many hours, and a lot of money to get to this place. It looked good next to the frock coat and time was running out until the convention, so I went with it.
The next step in the process was the pattern. A friend of mine had spent a lot of time drafting a pattern for the waistcoat and he was kind enough to let me copy it. But he’s a bit taller and more athletically built than I am, so it needed a little alteration.
Many hours, cups of coffee and/or wine, and yards of muslin later, I had a mock-up that I was pleased with.
The fit of the waistcoat is odd, with a snug waist but really loose sleeve holes. Also of note, while it appeared to have a dark gray backing, it was lined in… muslin. Just normal, regular old white cotton. Strange for such a fancy waistcoat, but a cotton lining would make the waistcoat much more bearable to wear on a hot set for hours at a time.
There was also some confusion about the number of pockets on the waistcoat. Some people online were convinced it has four pockets, though others were certain they only saw three. Some digging for photos revealed…
…both were correct?
Apparently, all of the waistcoats made for Matt Smith have a changing number of pockets, sometimes three and sometimes four, for no good reason at all. Arbitrarily, I decided to do four pockets.
There was also the button issue. For some episodes, most notably in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (the only episode where he wears this waistcoat sans frock), the waistcoat sports some standard four-hole 16mm horn buttons, which he wears with the Double Albert chain. Other times, such as in Hide, he sports silk passementerie buttons in… warm gray? Silver? Brown? The colors change with every photo. These buttons were (surprise) handmade and hand-dyed by a woman who then retired from the BBC and has since passed away, so finding the real ones isn’t even an option.
The obvious choice would be to go with horn buttons, but a friend of mine managed to scrounge up some silk passementerie buttons in white a while ago (long since discontinued, of course), so the plan was to dye those to a reasonable color and go with it.
With only a few days left before Gallifrey One, I dedicated every spare moment I had to the project. I’d never made a waistcoat before (in fact, never made any garment before), and although I was assured they were simple garments to make, I copied a custom pattern from my friend with no instruction manual and had to guess at how the thing was to be constructed. I knew it would take a lot of trial and error, but I was determined.
I went to Joann’s and purchased the last of my fabrics. Normally I’d hit the Fashion District but I had neither the time nor the money. I wanted a dark gray charmeuse for the back but had to settle for a warm, medium-gray cotton. I also picked up a medium-to-light weight interfacing, some purple thread, and notions.
I was ready to begin.