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Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
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.
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:
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:
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.