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Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic

Circular Costuming

It’s interesting to look back at the path I took on my way to becoming a professional seamstress & costumer.  I suppose the signs of what I would be where always there, but I still find it surprising how I got to where I am now.

As a child, I was always looking for something to do – and by “do”, I mean “make”.  When I was first introduced to crayons and paper, I tried to draw circles.  And (as the story goes) when my circles weren’t perfect, I would get frustrated.

I think my creative side was a bit baffling to my non-artistic mom.  (Over the years, I’ve learned that a lot of my childhood quirks were actually quite normal for creative types.)  I’m sure she got tired of hearing “What can I draw?  What can I make?  I’m BORED!!

By the time I was 7, my mom decided to introduce me to hand-sewing.  I remember hand-stitching tiny pillows for all my dolls until I got bored with pillows.  At some point, I even crafted a tiny doll, complete with a bed and small tea-table with chairs.

Amazingly, I still have the little hand-sewn doll with matching furniture.
I don’t know how old I was when I made them – I only know I was in grade school and I have vague memories of making them.

Tiny doll close-up. I even gave her hair of thread, complete with braids!

Here’s a close-up of the miniature table (made from one of those pizza topping protectors) & chairs. I used plastic beads and floral wire for the chairs, cups, & teapot and the cookies are hole-punches.

It wasn’t long until I was begging to learn to use my mom’s sewing machine so I could make more advanced things.  I guess I finally convinced her I was skilled enough not to sew my fingers and she relented & allowed me to try using a motorized needle.  (I probably ended up putting more mileage on her old sewing machine than she had or will.)

In 3rd grade, I was part of my school’s Odyssey of the Mind (aka OM) team.  Our Long-Term problem was Theatrics, and we chose to write our own version of the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin without Rumpelstiltskin.

We had to make or find all the sets, props, & costumes on our own with only adult supervision.  I drew the set backdrops and my classmates helped paint them.  (I still have the two castle setting backdrops rolled up in my closet.)  I also decided to make my own costume (I was a palace page in the play), and it’s the first costume I have memories of making.

Here I am soon after the OM competition playing dress up in my costume with my little sister – it’s hard to see, but I made her a small crown that I’m holding over her head:

This is the only photo my parents seem to have of me in my self-made costume. Right before the competition, I stupidly decided to have my hair cut short (like my mom’s was) and I look like a boy.

I made the hat (without a pattern I think) using a circle of fabric and a strip of mylar-covered cardboard stapled to the fabric.  I sewed the pumpkin-style pants from a basic elastic-waist pants pattern and chopped them off at the knee.

The most amusing part of the story is that my childhood laziness is what convinced an OM judge that I actually made my costume and not my mom.

You see, I was a skinny little thing (still am, but at least I am more adult-sized now).  I hated feeding elastic through a casing as a kid.  And the smaller the diameter of the finished elastic loop, the more I dreaded it.  So I put in my inch-wide waistband elastic, but I could not even bring myself to try making the smaller elastic casings for my 9-year-old toothpick legs.

My lazy solution to the leg elastic was big rubber bands (probably from my parents’ desk drawer).  I put on the cut-off pants, pulled the rubber bands over the bottom edge of each leg, and pushed the raw edges up with the rubber bands, creating the balloon look I wanted.  (I remember the green satin fabric fraying badly on the unfinished legs, but I didn’t care because you couldn’t see it once I pushed them up with the rubber bands.)

When the OM judges were questioning us after we performed, I recall one lady skeptically asking “Did you make your costume?” and I just pulled one leg down to show her the rubber band.  That immediately convinced her I had, and I remember thinking to myself “How would I have proven it to her if I hadn’t been lazy??” because I knew I totally could have made them the right way if I had wanted.  (And by “right” way, I mean the one way I knew to sew with elastic at the time.)

So who would have guessed that the overall OM experience was such a foreshadowing of my life to come?  Fast forward about 10 years, and I was in college studying to get a degree in Theatre.

My school had a rather small theatre department (about 25 majors in a good semester), and all the majors were required to audition for every play, even if we only wanted to do the technical backstage stuff.

The first play of my freshman year was Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and I was given the role of one of the “attendants” in the forest.  One night during rehearsal, the professor directing the production was lamenting the fact there was such a disproportionate number of girls to boys in the cast, so I offered to dress as a boy.  He quickly approved the idea and asked another of the theatre girls to do the same – the difference was that I ultimately fooled some of the audience but she did not.

I was pretty much thrown into the university’s costume shop as soon as it was known I could sew.  The student costume designer for As You Like It only knew the basics of operating a sewing machine, so, like in third grade, I was making stuff up in order to match her sketches.  (I had been advised more than once in high school that I should be an engineer, and I guess I sort of am when it comes to building with fabric.)

I took the fabric I was given for my costume home to sew it up over the Thanksgiving break.

And it gets weirder…

The fabric was green.  And there was a hat pattern (to go with the tunic) in the same beret style I had made myself as a kid.  Want some proof? – here’s a photo from my college scrapbook:

At least the college costume version looks better than my 3rd grade version!
(And no, that’s not my sister in this photo – just a friend & follow theatre major.)

After graduating college, I got my first job as an intern in the costume shop at the Dallas Theater Center.  The resident cutter/draper at the time was an interesting lady who preferred couture techniques and more hand sewing than machine sewing.  Many people had difficulty working with her, but she loved my hand-stitching, so I managed to stay on her good side.

As the intern, I was originally stuck with the least favorite domestic machine in the shop because no one else wanted to use it (it was computerized & temperamental) and all the interns in the years preceding me could barely sew.  When it became clear that I knew what I was doing, they bought me a brand new industrial to use.  =)

Once again, I had managed to convince someone to let me use a better machine.

Sometimes, I feel my life goes in circles.  Repeating – but never quite perfect – circles.

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17 responses to “Circular Costuming

  1. Leila December 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Awesome story. I love knowing more about you and how you got here. Love your story. I was born to a creative, messy, awesome mother. She definitely fueled my creative side with bags of Popsicle sticks, glue, paper and tape. A couple of years ago she sent me wholesale size packages of tailors chalk and tape. I couldn’t loved a present more.

    • Brooke December 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm

      What a great present to receive! And I bet you think of your mom every time you use that chalk or tape. =)

      I think it’s fascinating to learn how people get into sewing. You were lucky to have a crafty mom!

  2. Elizabeth December 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I’ve been enjoying following your blog. I’ve been involved with costume making for my daughters’ theatre groups and dance studios. My first costume (for As You Like It) for San Jose Youth Shakespeare led to me becoming the costume mistress. My real start came through a homeschool choir that used to put on a musical a year. I learned to take thrift shop finds and turn them into costumes that gave the illusion of the right time period. Now I’ve branched into dance costumes. This year I made my oldest’s Rudolph costume out of stretch velvet – tail coat and skirt. Like you, I fell into it because I had the skill of sewing and costumes were needed! 🙂

  3. Chuck December 13, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Maybe I should brag that your team won the OM state championship and went on to the national competition at the Univ. of Maryland. That was a fun trip. I always thought that the rubber band idea was very clever way to get the job done quickly since you had the backdrops to build and rehearsals. You guys did an amazing job all by yourselves. PS. I liked your short hair.

    • Brooke December 13, 2012 at 9:00 am

      It was a fun trip, and we got to see so many things, including Colonial Williamsburg. (I just realized the wooden fife I got there was used in the college play, and you can see me holding it in the photo! Another weird connection!)

      I liked the short hair until I kept getting mistaken for a boy over and over during that trip. (So I liked it for maybe a week.) Short hair requires way too much upkeep and takes forever to grow back out – never again. Sorry, Dad. =)

  4. Cation Designs December 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Love the costume parallels…that is an adorable picture of you in your first costume! And I totally knew guys in high school that did the rubberband trick to keep their pants from dragging on the floor; your application seems much more reasonable, given that it was for a costume and theirs was for real life everyday wear.

    I would’ve loved to have known you as a kid! I was always making things too, but I don’t think I have any of my makes anymore. Boo.

    • Brooke December 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      With as many times as I have moved (18!), I’m surprised I have anything I made from my childhood! I’ve thrown so many things away before and after moves, I don’t know how I managed to keep the doll and all the accessories (and together as a set)! It’s also amazing that I was able to find that one photo of my costume in my parents’ boxes and boxes of pictures.

      I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of anyone using the rubber band trick for jeans – lol! Of course, I had a weird private school dress code in high school.

  5. Theresa in Mérida December 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    I loved reading about your childhood. I made stuff too, but not clothes. I loved a series called the Borrowers. My best friend and I furnished a Borrower house in the backyard, complete with a teapot made from a hazelnut. We were also tent builders, one time we tented over the whole back yard using all my mom’s sheets, we had rooms and hall ways. My mom was always so good about that stuff.
    regards,
    Theresa

    • Brooke December 13, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      I remember the Borrowers too! (I think they even did a movie based on the books a few years ago.) My sister and I did the tent thing inside every once in a while when we were little – but nothing nearly as cool sounding as your backyard creation!

  6. thevintagetraveler December 17, 2012 at 8:02 am

    What a great story! It’s interesting to see how you started on this path so early in life.

    (But my favorite part about this post is your Dad’s bragging comments. Sweet!)

  7. missparayim April 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Wow! That little doll set is so cute!

    • Brooke April 12, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      Thanks! I love that my 4 year old niece came over and saw it on my table and immediately knew the doll needed to be “tucked into bed”. Glad I managed to hang onto it for all these years. =)

  8. Chuleenan - C Sews April 8, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    OMG – your doll set is adorable! I can’t believe you still have it. Amazing. I love the photo of you in your grade-school costume. Wow – I guess you were destined to be in costuming!

    • Brooke April 8, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      Thank you! Yeah, with all the moving around I did as a kid, it’s surprising I have any of those first sewing projects! It does seem I was meant to be a costumer. =)

  9. Pingback: Craft Table Chats – Who’s at the table? | The Fabric Alchemist

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