Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thoughts On Late 18th Century Breeches

After another trip to help out at the museum, it occurs to me that others may benefit from my inebriated experience. I am by no means an expert, but I may be able to help someone with the agony of men's breeches.

Breeches are weird. They do not fit like 20th century pants. If the wearer’s pelvis is squeezed and they feel as if they might fall off at any minute, they fit correctly. When working with a commercial pattern, ignore the assembly order and follow these directions instead. Use the pattern directions for making pockets, buttonholes, etc. These tips are most helpful if you have made 18th century clothing in the past.

Start construction with the waist band. Measure the wearer around the top of their pelvis, below the belly and across the small of their back. The back of the waistband should include a one to two inch gap for fabric stretch and weight loss. The waistband should sit low on the pelvis and come up at the back.

When cutting the waist band pieces, make allowance for gut size and the fact that the front might not be horizontal. If the waist band slopes downward at the front, the sides need to be cut at an obtuse angle so the buttons and button holes meet correctly.

The waist band can be finished at this point. Leave some room for the bottom seam, but they can be lined, the buttonholes and eyelets finished, and watch pocket created if desired, but make sure to leave the bottom seams open to accept the legs. Fold the finished waistbands in half and mark the midpoint for attaching to the leg seams later.

Fall front breeches need to have the fall cut through the outer fabric and lining. Complete the fall binders according to the pattern directions and make button holes at the top of the corners. If the breeches are unlined, add fall lining pieces and leave the bottom loose.  The bearers can be sewn to the fall opening before it is cut. Since they overlap, the bearers can have a button and buttonhole, if desired. A gap can also be left in the fall seam to button the fall to the waistband buttons.    

Now for the hard part: the legs. Most breeches in this period are tight and should fit snugly right under the kneecap. Measure the wearer from the center of the crouch to one inch below the knee. If the wearer’s feet and knees point straight ahead, the pattern pieces need no side adjustment. Most folks are bow legged. If the breeches are to be lined, fitting can be done on the lining and the changes transferred to the fashion fabric. Make sure the pattern has a stand that sticks out on the leg back pieces at the bottom of the outer seam. This is for the buttons. Both front and back leg pieces should also have a tab that hangs down about an inch to support the band.  If the breeches are fly front, there should also be a similar stand on the crotch seam of the right front leg piece.  

If there is no lining, make muslin fitting pieces of the legs. Make them slightly larger than the pattern. If they are fall fronts, don’t cut the fall. If they are fly fronts, sew the fly seam shut for fitting. The crouch seam should be high, tight, and centered. If the center back pulls, material needs to be added to the top to make the back seam longer. Ignore the back gathers and vent for now. The center front seam may need some adjustment at the top for proper fit.

Pin the leg seams closed, and check to make sure the outside seam is centered on the leg.  If it is too far forward, cut material from the outside bottom of the back piece till it is centered. Make sure to remove similar amounts of material from the bottom of the front piece on the INSIDE seam. If the wearer’s knees point outward, this helps twist the seam to compensate. Gradually blend these cuts with the inside and outside seams all the way to the tops of the legs.  If the wearer’s knees point inwards, reverse the process. This works for trousers too, btw. Alternate adding or removing till both the inseam and outseam are centered on the leg.

The bottom seams of the leg fronts should be slightly concave, and just below the kneecap. The rear seams convex, and just above the hollow at the back of the knee. Keep the bottom seam tight to help hold the stockings in place, and follow the knee contour closely. There is not much movement below the knee, but there should be a small pocket above for knee movement. Some breeches have a slightly longer inseam than out. 

Once everything in front is nice and snug (looks like the image above) sew the center front and back seams of the outer fabric and any lining. Make sure to leave the top back open a few inches for a vent. Sew the first inch or two of the outer leg seam together, and make pockets, if desired. If making fall fronts, complete the fall lining and finish the fall. If these are fly fronts, make buttonholes and a finish the button stand. Add fly buttons. If making unlined fall fronts, whip the loose bottom of the fall lining to the crouch seam. 

Turn the legs and waistband inside out. Match front of the waistband pieces to bearers and pin the fronts of the legs to the finished outer waistband. The waistband should be upside down at this point. There is considerably more material on the waistband front. The back of the waistband should an inch or so longer than the leg pieces at the vent if there is a vent insert. If the vent will be open this isn't needed. Gather the rest to fit. The back should form a moderate bag to sit into. The front of the waistband gets sewn to the bearer pieces. Sew the outer waistband piece to the legs and turn it up. Sew the waistband lining down (don’t sew through the watch pocket.) Add a vent triangle piece if desired, leaving the eyelets free on the outside.

Button the waistband inside out on the wearer and check the fit one last time. If all is well, the bottom of the legs can be trimmed to ½” below the kneecap and just in the hollow at the back of the knee. After any last minute adjustments, unpin and finish the inner leg seams. Finish the outer leg seams as far down as the button stand. Clip the seam allowance into the button stand so it lies flat under the front leg piece. Add buttonholes and buttons in a line that matches the seam above. There may be some excess material at the front, but this will be gathered into the band. 

There are many styles of knee band, follow whatever directions come with the pattern. Measure the wearer’s leg just below the kneecap and subtract the button panel overlap—this is the size of the opening the finished knee band SHOULD have for attachment to the leg. Turn under and stitch knee band bottom seam and knee band lining seams (make sure to make a left and right!) The longest part is at the front and gets inserted into a buckle or gets a buttonhole. The back of the knee band is about an inch long and will most often get a buttonhole for a buckle or a button. Finish the sides and top of the knee bands as far as the opening left for the legs (the size of the wearer’s leg measure below the knee.) Clip the outer knee band fabric and pull out the small tab for leg attachment. 

Clip the front and back leg bottoms within ¾” to 1” of the outside edge and up to the height of the seam allowance. This will allow the knee band to overlap the button stand on the legs and hold it securely. Pin the knee band upside down, to the bottom of the leg, starting with the long part at the front. Gather or ease any excess leg material into the knee band at the front and sides, to make a kneecap pocket. Sew the seam allowance and turn the knee band down. Sew the lining over the seam allowance, but not to the button tab on the outside of the leg. Instead, sew the loose end of the knee band vertically to the outside of the buttonhole tab. It should look like this.

Sew the tab at the back of the knee band to the button stand like this as well. The knee band ends will overlap and snug down tightly to hold the stockings up and the breeches down. Finish with either a button and button hole or just a buttonhole to hold a buckle.

Fly front breeches are now complete. One last fitting is recommended for fall fronts, to mark the bottom of the fall edges and where the buttons should go. The fall should be tight and not gap too much when sitting. 


  1. Thank you for this helpful tutorial. I will definately bookmark it and follow the instructions next time I'll assemble a new pair of breeches for my husband. I've made my first pair without any pattern, but from scratch/draft and drape and I know it could use some improvements, which are now delievered via your post!

  2. My pleasure! I need to add some photo links and a few more bad drawings.

  3. Thank you I found this as I sit and take an arthritis break from sewing the breeches on my lap. It should help me get a better fit. I usually make pants for fat men and thin boys.

  4. Yes, more pictures please! I have three patterns before me now: Simplicity 4923, Burda 2459, Reconstructing History 109. Do you have any favorites that you recommend?

    1. Sorry, missed your comment. I used the JP Ryan pattern and modified the hell out of the legs. The top part is straightforward, if you knees are at all crooked you have to work at it.

    2. Reconstructing History's breeches pattern instructions might as well have been written by drunk four year olds. They are insanely confusing, even for experienced sewers. For example, in step 6 they have you sewing half the pocket to the back of the pants, lining up the marks and sewing across the top and sides. The top of the pocket does not meet the top of the back of the pants if the marks are aligned. In Step 8, you should CUT OUT THE PANTS BACK. So apparently you start sewing the pockets in before you even have the pieces cut out? In Step 12, it is revealed that the pocket piece is supposed to sewn to the front lining instead of the back. Literally any other pattern is a better choice than theirs. Save yourself the misery.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing all of this! I am getting ready to start breeches and a frock from JP Ryan patterns, and would greatly appreciate your recommendation on an appropriate weight of linen to use. I am thinking of something like "Light Tobacco Coloured WLN 669 100% linen, 7.5 oz., 56" wide" from William Booth, Draper. link to page:


  6. your article seems to concur with the approach my gut has been telling me to take: Make the waist and knee bands, position them so they feel right, and adjust the body of the breeches to meet them, in place. I may end up making a canvas trial mock-up, to create my sewing pattern from. The patterns I've tried have been disappointing, to say the least.