Lucky you. They are great garments. I would not recommend them for bike use but on a really cold day they are toasty warm. An original (wartime) Irvin in nice wearable condition will set you back in excess of £500 and a good repro possibly more. They do get damaged and if and when yours needs attention, get it looked at sooner rather than later, as the damage won't get better and can get worse quite fast. We have three (or two) ways of doing this. We can apply a leather patch and overband it. This looks pretty good, is a good strong repair and is not too expensive. My father's jacket had an original field repair done this way.
Alternatively we can replace either the whole panel or part of it. We can do this with new sheepskin, but getting a colour match will be pretty hard. If you have an original Irvin jacket, we can repair it with wartime hide. This is the expensive option, but on an original jacket it is probably the best. We almost certainly can't match the colour of your jacket exactly, but the finish and general patina will be a better match than using modern hides with modern finishes. Whatever we do, a 70 year old jacket is probably going to be more fragile than a repro. We can stabilize the garment but we can't perform miracles.
We can also re-zip and repair other vintage military garments - American A and B jackets for instance. At the time of writing this, we had a B3, 2 A2s (one by Spiewak & Sons,1942 -1945, one Cooper Sportswear that looks just post war), and a 1940 dated Luftwaffe flying jacket made by Loutre AG. The problem with all these is hardware. Some of it is virtually unobtainable (Rapid zips for instance). Original zips for Irvin jackets come up now and then (but front zips rather rarely. Arm zips come, I suspect, from broken-up trousers). And when they do they are expensive. There is still some new old stock hardware for American jackets even as far back as the late 1930s, but again it is expensive (£40 -£60 for a zip). We can get some of this stuff for you but we can't spend the time needed to source most of it. That would push the price up out of all reason. So if you need hardware be prepared to look out for it and send it with the jacket or whatever. It is always worth asking if we have some particular item. Also be aware that we are repairers. We specialize in putting garments back into use. We are NOT professional, specialist restorers. We think we do a very good job, but if you need a museum quality restoration job done, I would start asking at Duxford. If you have any hardware in the attic, we would probably be willing to buy it from you for a reasonable sum. We are not made of money and neither are our customers.
That customer COULD BE YOU.
Hanging these jackets is a minefield. An original Irvin is quite
a heavy garment and by now the sheepskin is probably getting a little
fragile. A lot of the damage we see is round the shoulder area and we
suspect that this is caused by hangers. The jackets came fitted with
hanging chains. Don't use these either. They will pull out and taker
the collar seam with them. Again, the jacket will be too heavy and the
skin and stitching too fragile by this time. I would recommend storing
them in moth proof bags, stored flat. Cedar balls in the bag will help
deter moth too.
Can garments like flying jackets be cleaned? Well yes. But with a GREAT deal of care. An Irvin jacket issued in 1940 will have a 70 year accumulation of grime, oil, dead wildlife and assorted leather dressings on it. Some of which may be holding it together. It will obviously benefit from having some of this removed, but it should not come up looking like new. If it looks over-restored then some damage may well have been done in the process. Don't even think about dry cleaning. To clean and re-dress an Irvin jacket is a good way of loosing a couple of days, so I would suggest that our price of about 40 - 50 of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal. Because we know how to clean them, what to clean them with and what to re-dress with. Which is not the same compound that we use for routine dressing of vintage leather.
IF you are thinking about sending or bringing us an Irvin jacket (and actually this applies to all vintage clothing, but to Irvins especially), once we start working on these it can open up something of a "can of worms". For example, shoulder seam banding may appear to be coming away due to the stitching rotting. But when we lift the banding the seam under it has long vanished. We CAN'T just do the banding, the seam has to be exposed to determine the extent of the damage, then repaired before the banding is re-stitched. Often on these garments we end up asking ourselves where to stop. Just bear in mind that repairing vintage clothing can get a bit more expensive than you thought - it is the nature of the beast. We do our best to keep the costs down whilst doing a good job. Pretty much all our other work is done on a time-to-do basis. Irvins (and similar garments where the "repair" is closer to "restoration") are an exception here because frankly they take too long & the true cost of repair to a really badly damaged jacket would (probably) be unaffordable. So we quote on a "per item" basis and we fit the tasks in around our mainstream work. It means the project can take quite a long time, so this is another factor to consider before you sent this kind of work to us.
An example of the problems with these jackets is shown here:
This pile was extracted from ONE Irvin Coastal Command jacket. There is probably still this much stuff in there again but one has to be careful with these garments. Quite a lot of this clag ends up in our machines which then have to be stripped and cleaned. Cleaning these garments is not just a case of sprucing up the outside.
OK, so we have gone over your Irvin jacket and it has come back to you all patched up and brown. (You did know it was originally brown, didn't you )? And we hear you ask, "Is that the cleanest it will come ?"
Well, no. We could probably get it cleaner. But it is as clean as we feel we can go without damaging the jacket. You will still be able to see deep oil satins and the like - but I don't think you want to remove them anyway. They are a part of the jacket's story. And the jacket is also as clean as you probably want to afford. If we charged a sensible labour rate on this job you would wonder if owning an old Irvin jacket was such a good idea after all. Its a bit of a labour of love :-)
The pictures above show a half-cleaned Irvin jacket - there are still deep oil stains on the sleeve, but trying to remove them would also remove the surface of the hide. It is still slightly damp. The trousers at right have NOT been cleaned. Simply gone over with a soft brush and a vacuum cleaner & then half re-dressed.
This kind of garment can be brought privately, or on the Internet from a well-known auction site, or from a specialist dealer. One such that we have some personal experience of is oldnautibits.com, an aviation and naval collectibles specialist north west of Yeovil. There is something to be said for buying from a specialist (and an enthusiast).
We have recently done some work on a 1942 pattern USAAF B3 jacket and pictures are on this page. We would point out that this was done for our own satisfaction, to see what was possible and to try a couple of ideas for work on these jackets and the finished article probably looks more robust than it actually is.
Should you send (or bring) such a jacket to us (Irvin, USAAF B3 etc) we will raise an estimate (for which we have to charge - it can take a very long time to do properly) and once you have signified your approval, commence work. I think it a good idea to insert a brief word explaining to some extent how we arrive at our prices - some customers have been surprised at their estimates and it is handy to know in advance very roughly what to expect - although there are always surprises, not ALL of them nasty.
Irvin flying jackets – Why is my estimate larger than the national debt of Togo ?
This article is information concerning our work on Irvin and Irvin – style flight jackets but applies broadly to US forces shearling jackets and similar garments. We felt it necessary to write this to inform customers (and potential customers) how we arrive at the prices charged for sheerling work, and to expand a little more on our thoughts about work carried out on these garments.
Alterations on WARTIME jackets are not done here for four very good reasons. The first is that as the fabric of the garment has conformed to the human shape over the years, what were originally flat panels of sheepskin are now quite complex three dimensional shapes which are impossible to match and any alteration will be unsatisfactory as the shape will not be right. Secondly it is almost impossible to obtain big enough pieces of the correct wartime hide to work with. The piece needs to be big enough, of the correct colour inside and out and have the nap running in the right direction. This is such a tall order as to be almost impossible. Thirdly, there would be so much work involved that the jacket would be severely compromised. The stitching on these jackets is already weakened by age and the hide likewise due to age, wear and sadly poor storage. We run the risk of having to rebuild the whole jacket at crippling cost. Lastly - it would be just plain wrong. We are looking at an historic garment here and altering it would be intrinsically wrong in our opinion so we just won’t unless there are REALLY exceptional circumstances.
Repairs to wartime jackets can be a minefield. Trying to give you a ballpark figure is pure guesswork as each one is an individual with it’s own history and problems. Repairs have to be carried out under some of the constraints mentioned above. It has been suggested to us in the past that a jacket could be brought back to life by replacing an entire panel. This is pretty much impossible due to the shape factor discussed in the first instance above, and down to the material factor mentioned at point two. Bear in mind that a piece of shearling intended as a replacement has to be considerably larger than the existing panel to allow for distortion and for the depth of the seams. Our estimates are just that. With wartime jackets we simply do not know what is in there until we start – the stitching under the banding may have failed, or previous repair work may have been done to a poor standard and this may need rectifying.
Cost: In both cases the work will require a lot of hand stitching, especially on good quality garments . This is expensive by it’s very nature – someone able to work at this standard at a reasonable speed is NOT going to be on minimum wage. You can probably save yourself a nasty shock by measuring the likely length of seam we will have to disrupt. Sewing the seam between panels is charged at £3.50 per inch, then the over-banding has to be sewn back (two sides) at £0.50 per inch (this can be machined so is less expensive BUT the banding on wartime jackets has to be hand sewn @£2/inch as it is not safe to turn the sleeves through – the risk of the stitching failing catastrophically is just too high, and we have to sew through the same holes as were used originally).
Let us look at an example: A (very large) modern reproduction Irvin needs taking in substantially due to the owner having lost weight. Quite a lot of weight, and from waist to shoulders. It has sentimental value so they do not want to chop it in on a well-known auction site & look for something smaller, or it is simply a nice jacket that was made to an individual specification. The side seams are on average about 15 inches long each side. That is 30 inches at £3.50 per inch (max) , plus sewing the banding back on, which is 60 inches at £0.50 (£30). This will almost certainly entail moving the half belts on an Irvin and re-sewing the waist trim (£20 ish) so we are already looking at £140 for a very simple alteration. Anything other than simply taking in the waist will involve taking the sleeves out and removing and replacing the under-arm pieces (and incidentally removing and replacing the ventilation grommets). Have a good look at the structure there. It is really complicated and it can’t be compromised or the jacket will be unwearable. There are about 32 inches of seam EACH SIDE in that structure at £3.50 per inch, plus stitching and refurbishing the underarm triangles (£28.00 or so), so we are now looking at an additional £220.00 before we re-sew the over banding (remember that ?) which is 128 inches at £0.50 or £64.00. Now, if Mr. Tate managed to beat enough arithmetic in to me in the third form, that all comes to a rather alarming £424.00. Now, that is a “Worst Case” example, but it should serve to give some idea of the sheer amount of work required to achieve a good outcome – it does NOT include the cost of any materials – JUST the sewing, but it DOES include the time taken to disassemble the jacket and to do the cutting. The same costing applies to repairs of course, but as we endeavour to minimise the work done to avoid compromising the structure of the garment there is rather less of it involved.
Zips / zippers: Wartime zips are also getting fragile (I think I have said this before but it needs to be emphasized). The USAAF jackets are not so much of a problem as NOS Talon and Conmar zips are available. There are also reproductions, but take care with these as the quality varies enormously and as you are almost certain to be buying remotely make sure you can return a poor quality one if you don't like it. There are legends and rumors of NOS DOT and Lightning zips around for Irvin jackets but in reality the only way to get them is to break a garment and as a rule if a jacket is so bad we would do that the zips are probably shot too. This is why replacement zips are so expensive, because to get a zip we would have to break a usable garment - usually trousers as these are less wearable. We really HATE doing this, but needs must. The modern zips usually fitted to reproduction jackets (with some notable exceptions) are also a bit poor. The pulls especially are often bright and too big (in my opinion). We planned to produce an alternative based on the general look of a DOT single trunnion puller. After some trial (and a slightly expensive error) we have come up with a modern zip with a "DOT" profile puller ( for which we have to thank our good friend Dr Pugh for his help with the drawings). This is not perfect but the side by side comparison looks quite good I think.
Is it worth it ? We think so, but then, we would, wouldn’t we ? But our customers would agree with us. We are providing an almost unique service and doing it to a very high standard, whilst trying, as best we can, to keep the cost to our customers (many of whom come to us more than once) to a reasonable level whilst keeping the wolf from the Byson door. These are expensive and sometimes very valuable garments, both sentimentally, historically and financially, and work on them can’t be done “on the cheap” with any real hope of a decent outcome.
Not an FAQ but... someone asked us recently how much it would cost to completely dismantle a wartime jacket and re-sew it. This is not a question we have thought about really - our initial reaction was "you really don't want to know", but recently we have seen a couple of jackets where the stitching (the wartime natural silk thread) is badly degraded, and we suspect that we will see more of them so I would guess that we would have to charge about £1,000 for that much work because it would largely be hand sewing to avoid adding stitch holes and to minimise stress on the sheepskin. We will measure one up sometime and see if we can get it a bit lower. USAAF sheerling jackets may be less as less sewing is involved, but still pretty expensive, and the sheepskin on the (for instance) B3 jackets seems not to have aged as well as that on the Irvins which makes handling them more... challenging. And on the subject of challenging one should just mention the problem of altering jackets with a "bellows" back (USAAF G1 etc.). Reducing or increasing the size of these is fraught with difficulties. It is not impossible and SOME designs can be altered but as a general rule the amount of work required makes this prohibitively expensive and the results are not usually worth the money. It is worth asking, but these are not easy jackets to alter.
Do's and dont’s. There are a few things to think on. If you see a jacket needing some work that has been previously repaired using glue, it is going to cost more to put right. Avoid it if you can - I really can't emphasize this enough We have also seen a couple of jackets "repaired" with RTV silicone. One of these was recoverable, albeit it was NOT a cheap job. The other.. pretty much the whole of the front and the right sleeve had been coated, presumably to hide the damage. It simply wasn't repairable at any sensible price. The picture below shows a belt loop that has been glued. There is no sensible way to remove it . The fur trim on the jacket bottom has also been glued on and holes "repaired" with glue. We have had to amputate & transplant which has turned a relatively inexpensive job into a rather more pricey operation.
Doing any kind of prep work yourself will almost certainly NOT save us time. Knowing how LITTLE to do is one of the things you are paying us for. If you have brought, found or been given an Irvin or similar jacket and it is very dry don’t condition it before sending it to us. It makes life harder as we may well have to clean it off to run under our machines and we would rather have the chance to assess it “as is” so that we can see exactly what we have got to work with.
US bomber jackets (A2, G1 and the like) have knitted waistbands and cuffs. There are several sources on-line for these, some good but there are some suppliers who do not provide what in our opinion are satisfactory products. Some are JUST too short in the cuffs, sometimes we see "pairs" of cuffs where one is shorter than the other and some supply waistband knits that are not cut strait (and with knits there is absolutely NO excuse for this). There again, some are good in terms of shape and size but are manufactured from odd textiles which just either don't feel right or lack the elasticity these items need. The knits we supply are down to us & are inspected carefully on receipt . If you MUST supply your own, please check them VERY carefully before sending them on to us. Unless they are REALLY bad we will fit them for you BUT you may not be 100% happy with the finished job, which would sadden us.
What you can do, if you suspect that a jacket may harbour wildlife, is to bag it and put it in a domestic freezer for a week before sending it. That will eradicate the inhabitants without the use of insecticides and save us the trouble & you cost.
When packing a wartime jacket to send to us, try to use a box big enough to fit it in with the absolute minimum of folding. A tight fold can put a lot of strain on the stitching and we don’t want to have to fix damage that has occurred in transit. It is rare, but it has happened. This actually applies to any garment but it is especially important with wartime Irvins.
On completion you will receive an invoice with payment details, and then we will return your jacket (or you can collect it) it in due course. With the jacket you SHOULD receive a little note. If you don't (or haven't) it reads something like this:
Wartime sheerling jackets;
Many thanks for entrusting your jacket to us. We have done our best to return it to you in the best condition that we can but we feel it is important that you understand (if by some chance we have not mentioned it at least twice since you first contacted us) that your jacket is an 80 year old survivor of a type of garment that was designed for function rather than long life at a critical time in our history. Even the best of them are not really suitable for everyday wear with some rather rare exceptions. The silk thread used to stitch them is often nearing the end of it’s life aggravated by some poor choices of dressing and the skins themselves are often very weak and many have had a hard life postwar with heavy and often dirty use and poor storage. These jackets should be handled and used with considerable care. They should ideally be stored flat and in a mothproof bag in a cool, dry place. The weight of them is such that it alone will drag a hanger through the sheepskin on the shoulders over time and the hanging loop or chain should be regarded as a quaint decorative embellishment and NEVER used in anger.
Nevertheless they are wonderful jackets and with care and attention should last another 80 years, which is more than I can say for myself. The men who wore them were tough but like them, the jackets are sadly no longer as robust as they were.
BYSON repairs & alterations
Last revised January 2021
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