In trying to keep updating the website every week (trying being the key word in that sentence) I have decided to try writing a set of posts to act as filler material between LARP events when there is nothing to write up about.
A few people have asked how I make my tabards, particularly my reversible ones, so I thought I would attempt to write a “how-to” guide for you.
In this part I will talk through some of my thoughts on materials and equipment, and about making a single sheet tabard for monster purposes. In future parts I will talk about making single tabards with shoulder seams, reversible tabards and how I decorate my tabards with felt.
There are many wonderful people out amongst the crafty communities on the internet who have made tutorials and videos on how to do different stitches or garment construction with patterns/no-patterns amongst other sewing/crafty things. If in doubt, as I’m not so good at photographing my steps (and will be resorting to diagrams to illustrate my explanations below), I suggest you go and google it.
Let’s first talk about material and equipment – these are my thoughts based on my experiences in making bits of larp kit. Other people who make kit in your branch will certainly have their own opinions on things, and if you’ve got a question are usually more than happy to talk through the problem. Sometimes bouncing ideas around other craft-minded people can be a real eye opener and you can learn a lot from community experience.
But, on with my personal thoughts.
Materials and Equipment:
I always look for material that can tolerate being washed at 40°C (poly-cotton/cotton based or other reasonable synthetic material) with a mind towards washing the finished kit post an event. I’ve found peace-of-mind knowing that, apart from a few delicate pieces, I can separate my post-event laundry into darks and lights and wash them all at 40°C without worrying about things shrinking or turning a funny colour. Insert white garment turning pink story …
I usually buy my material for tabards as poly-cotton bed sheets from Asda or cotton sheeting from my usual haunts, though for fancier garments I’ve bought different cloth to suit the character. For example I’ve made a banquet tabard from grey silk taffeta for a noble priestess as it wouldn’t have the same level of wear as its adventuring counterpart. My advice is to think about how the garment is going to be used when you’re looking for fabric.
If you can, try and get a feel of your cloth before buying. Hold it up against a pale surface or the light and put your hand under it – can you see through the cloth? Do you want to see through the cloth? Does it feel sturdy enough to be dragged through brambles or will it rip easily? Does it look too shiny in the light? It all boils down to the “look” you want for your character/monster kit. Also consider how the cloth will feel against your skin – some cloth will soften in the wash, but others might not and you don’t want something rubbing in hard to reach places under armour.
When choosing colours be aware that some colours might bleed during washing. You can get around this by pre-washing before starting your project, but it sometimes takes a couple of washes before it stops. If it’s a particularly striking colour, for example a deep red or blue, which you are pairing with a paler colour like white or a bright yellow, add a piece of scrap white cloth into the wash. If it comes out white then your colour isn’t going to ruin the other pieces after the first outing. If it comes out off-white (or the dreaded pink) wash the cloth again with a new piece of white cloth. Rinse and repeat until the cloth is white for peace of mind. Pre-washing also helps garments from shrinking once made, as the fibres have already shrunk prior to cutting. This isn’t to say your woollen tunic is safe once it’s been washed once, but I’ve found it a sensible precaution to take.
Needle and thread (or sewing machine and thread)
You’ll to want plenty of thread for your projects – enough to complete your stitching plus some extra for patching holes and dealing with tangles and long ends, particularly if you’re using a sewing machine. I have found some threads snap easily if used on a sewing machine – it might be that I’ve set my tension too high or something – but I go with cotton/poly cotton thread because it usually comes on big reels and I use so much of it in amongst with all the things I make. If I am going to have stitching visible on my project I try to match colours as best I can, so take a sample of your cloth with you when you go buying thread. Or accept that you’re going to have small black/white marks at your edges. It’s up to you.
For hand sewing or embroidery I have found that threading your needle and cutting a length to about your elbow is a comfortable amount of thread to handle if sewing with one thread or the double thickness. I usually pull my thread so that the needle is at the centre point and work with this doubled thread if I’m working on something I want some strength to it e.g. closing a turn through hole on my reversible tabard or repairing a hole. I usually use the single thread for delicate stitching or embroidery work, but it’s down to personal preference.
A word about needles – choose one that can pierce your cloth and feels comfortable in your hands. I can’t offer much on buying needles as I have a hoard of them in my sewing box and usually choose any old one, but if the needle is too blunt for your cloth (usually a problem with heavy or thick fabrics) you’ll spend half your time fighting the needle through the cloth or stabbing your fingers and thumb. I prefer needles with a rounded eye so that it won’t stab my hand as I’m working, but the easy thread ones are handy for quick work. If you’re having trouble threading your needles, investing in a needle threader is your solution. They’re usually included in sewing kits you can buy in the shops and can save you lots of frustration.
For sewing machines choose the needle that best suits the cloth you’re working with. Be careful with your fingers when working at the sewing machine, and if your machine has particular requirements you should bear them in mind when picking up a pack from the shops. Have a few spares for just in case – there is nothing more frustrating than breaking a needle mid project and having to put it on hold until you purchase a replacement.
Pins hold the pieces of cloth you’re working on together. I don’t really have much more to say on these except be careful when lifting your project, particularly if it’s quite large. Pins have a nasty habit of hiding in the bundle of cloth and stabbing you in the hand when you least expect it, or pricking your lap as you stitch a long pinned length of cloth at your sewing machine.
Dressmakers chalk or pen/pencil to mark the cloth
I use chalk as it marks your cloth for cutting or noting front/back of tabards as it brushes/washes off easily. However, on a few projects I have used pencils or pens to make quick marks that will be hidden in the seams. Ink can bleed into the cloth though and can leave unsightly marks on certain cloth so I wouldn’t advise this unless you can guarantee the area isn’t going to be seen. But this is only because I like things “just so” and don’t quite trust my freehand cutting for good reasons.
Cloth tape measure
My projects’ best friend. Knowing that you have cloth that is the correct size sets your mind at ease, particularly if you’re doing things quickly or relying on the folding technique described below. I usually work in inches because of the pattern’s I use for my larger projects and because I have marked up my tape measure regularly with the various seam allowances I’ve had to deal with. A ruler could do for smaller sections such as around the neckline or measuring a seam, but I would prefer the flexibility of the cloth tape measures that are sold along with sewing supplies.
Scissors should be sharp so they don’t fray the cloth as you’re working or crimp it as it cuts. If you have special dressmaker’s scissors don’t use them to cut paper or card as it blunts the cutting edge and can put nicks in the blade if they get damaged.
Below are my “optional” things which you might want to consider using when making your tabards.
Neckline cutting guide
You can cut a slit or a circle for the head to slip through on any tabard, but I use rough cutting guides that I have made to make a shaped collar, kinda like a home-made pattern. These are two pieces of paper – one a deep half circle, one a shallower half circle that meets the desired width of the front circle. Using these creates a front and a back to your tabard.
When using the cutting guide you should either hem or roll the edge of the cut cloth to give a neat finish, which leaves the end circle a little larger than the paper pattern suggests. Experiment to find what front and back combinations suit you best, but remember that the widest point needs to pass over the width of your head, otherwise you’ll be struggling into your kit every time you put it on.
I use felt for my heraldic devices on tabards because it’s hardwearing and I don’t mind if the surface gets a little bobbly from use and washing. You could also make your decorations out of other bits of cloth, sewing the edges down neatly to stop it fraying before you stitch it onto the tabard, purchase patches or embroider the tabard itself. You could also use fabric paint, but I’ve not had any experience with that, so can’t say how well it would work. Experiment and see!
If I’m adding anything onto the project I work on it with my embroidery hoop. I have a large one which can just fit an A4 sheet of paper on it and a smaller one. The larger one sees the most use as I can usually find the symbol I’m adding to the tabard on the internet and print it onto an A4 page. This gives me my template for cutting and my stitching guide for doing the eyes or fur or little bits to give the symbol some definition.
Mark the centre point of your tabard and slid the inner ring of the hoop under your cloth, positioning it roughly where you want your design to sit. Don’t forget to leave some cloth at the top so you can put some tension in your cloth and some for the seam at your collar. Once you’re happy with the positioning, add the outer ring on top and tighten the screw until the cloth doesn’t slip out of the ring if you tug it firmly. Make sure you’re happy with positioning and that your cloth is taut across the ring. Pin your decoration on top and prepare to start sewing. As your work your cloth will slip a little as you put pressure on the underside of your work, but you can correct the tension by tugging the cloth back in place and making sure the screw’s tight.
By doing this your decoration will sit nicely after you’ve finished your project and won’t pull on the cloth or look bunched and untidy. It also helps if you choose to iron your tabard in the future as it won’t deform as the cloth is smoothed.
Embroidering properly with embroidery floss is not something I do regularly, preferring to cross-stitch small sections or to decorate my work with felt patches that are stitched in place. There are lots of different stitches that can be used to embroider cloth and create different textures, most of which can be found on the internet with lots of helpful guides. Take some time to do some reading and try some yourself.
Iron and ironing board
I am a recent convert to using the iron on my projects – especially those that “need” it because my pattern instructions tell me to (obey the instructions, especially if it’s the first time you’re doing it!) or contain fusible interfacing (the stuff that makes collars and cuffs stiff or help give a “flat” front to doublets etc). However, before stitching a couple of pieces of cloth together I find that ironing them flat helps the end result, especially if hand stitching hems.
Paper and pen/pencil
Making notes on seam allowance, dimensions or other notes is generally handy so you don’t forget.
Someone willing to (or coerced into) help with measurements, folding, testing or sustaining you during your project. We all have one somewhere …
If you’ve got this far I applaud your enthusiasm. Let’s now talk about making a “simple” tabard from a single sheet or piece of cloth.
Simple tabard (Single piece with hole for neck)
The simplest tabard to make quickly is a bed sheet with a hole cut in it, tucked into a belt. Quick to put on it makes good monster kit to cover your nicer tunic and shirt or character kit and can be used to represent a number of npcs depending on your system. The default ones we use are black or grey tabards for squires/knights of the knightly orders or noble militia, and black, brown or green for general monster kit. These are also good if you want to outfit a number of people in similar colours with a limited time to do so. For the Fools and Heroes system, the Law Guilds tabards are in red for the Guards (with a gold eagle head) or green for the Foresters (with a brown eagle head) – just in case you wanted to know.
On your minion, or the person who wants the tabard, measure a length from the shoulder down to the desired length such as the knees. Don’t let them try and look at where you’re measuring as you’ll end up with too short a length. I normally measure from the shoulder seam of a t-shirt or similar garment as it normally sits at the midpoint of the shoulder, and then run my tape measure down over the shoulder and chest to the knees in a straight line. If they want an idea about how long this will be, I then demonstrate on myself and re-measure if they want. Note this measurement down (adding a 2”/5cm or appropriate seam allowance if you intend to hem the bottom of the tabard).
Now measure the width of the chest or shoulders depending on how wide the tabard is to be. I sometimes check the hip measurements on women just to make sure they’re happy with where the tabard will sit. As it’s going to be tucked into a belt, we don’t need to worry about how far round the tabard will go under the arms. Make a note of this dimension (and add for your seam allowance).
A word on seam allowance – I use the rough calculation of about 2” as I add an inch to either side. I don’t always use all of this and frequently end up with the tabard slightly larger than planned, but it allows for mistakes in cutting, wavy lines or fraying if you’re project is going to be put to one side for any length of time.
You now have measurements for a rectangle of cloth that will be your tabard.
With the help of your minion, fold your cloth in half and lay it on the floor or a large flat surface. Mark out the dimensions you have noted on your bit of paper and cut it out from the cloth. Try and keep your cloth as flat and smooth as possible and keep your lines straight and perpendicular to each other – this way you avoid having a funny tabard which hangs more to one side when you hold it up.
You should now have a very long rectangle of cloth.
Refold this long rectangle back in half so that it returns to the dimensions you originally set out. With your chalk lightly mark this fold (just in case). Fold this rectangle in half again so that you end up with a long thin piece of cloth half the width of your shoulders and the length of your tabard. Carefully mark this fold near the fold at the top so that you know the mid-point where your head is going to be.
You can now either cut a T-shaped slit in the top of your tabard at the centre (the downward arm of the T on the front side only) to the width of your head, a semicircle on both sides or use the neckline guide discussed above to make the hole for your head. You can either hem this cut edge or leave it raw depending on how bothered you are about fraying cloth. How to hem the neckline is discussed below.
Hem the rest of the tabard if you want, then test it on your minion. Tuck the front and back of the tabard into your belt and voila – one simple tabard. Now, go forth and do battle.
How to stitch a rolled hem
Ok, so you’ve got a tatty cut edge of cloth which will fray eventually (it will!). If you’re not so bothered about keeping your project neat and tidy, you can skip this bit. However, I urge you to reconsider, especially if the edge is around the neck or somewhere that will get pulled or stressed regularly (like putting on a garment, taking it off, kneeling on a hem etc).
There are two ways of doing this – hand sewing or machine sewing. I’ll explain the machine sewing first.
Take your piece of cloth and turn the edge over towards the “inside”. Pin in place using your handy pins and carefully press your hem using your iron and ironing board. Once this “firm” line has been pressed, unpin the hem and roll the hem again towards the “inside”, turning this edge back inside the roll to hide it. This tucks the raw edge into the roll and reduces the chance of it fraying around the stitches. Pin this new hem in place and machine stitch a standard straight stitch down this turned hem. Tada, you now have a nice neat hem at your neckline.
However, assuming you don’t have a sewing machine we have an alternative method. Again, turn your hem once, pin and press. Turn your hem again to the “inside”, pin and prepare to stitch. You should be using a “slip-stitch” as this does not leave a visible line of stitches on the outside of the cloth. Thread your needle with a matching thread to your cloth or something reasonably similar (black for dark cloth, white for pale cloth if you have nothing else).
Anchor your sewing with a knot at the end of your thread (if it helps) and insert the needle from inside your folded hem outwards. Check this is reasonably secure, and start to sew. There are many tutorials online (the joys of crafty people of the web), but here’s my attempt of a written one. I suggest you work with the hem towards you until you’re comfortable with this stitch.
Slip your needle towards the back of your work through your fold into the cloth of the sheet. Catch a few threads of this cloth before bringing the needle back into the fold. Work your needle along your fold a bit and repeat – you will gradually work along your seam creating this “zig zag” stitch which pulls together if you put some tension into it. When you want to finish (I try to do this near a shoulder seam or similar), do a couple of back stitches to secure the end and trim the loose end so that it’s not obvious.