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Unintentionally Going Underground

Umm…hi!

I honestly did not mean to take such a long break (a full year!) from blogging – where did 2015 go??

For the first few months of the year, I was finishing up the second half of the season at The Dallas Opera and the long commute across town eats about 3 hours each day. So, needless to say, blogging at the end of a day didn’t hold much appeal.

When the opera season wrapped up at the end of April, I unexpectedly found the motivation to do a bunch of sewing for myself – I was whipping up a lot of things I had been wanting to make myself and didn’t want to risk losing enthusiasm by stopping to blog. (I did Instagram most of it though so I have a few crummy selfies & construction shots.)

2015-Makes

(as usual, click to enlarge)

My husband and I were also slowly working our way through a home office makeover on the weekends from the middle of February to the end of May. So the computer wasn’t properly set up at times during the DIY mess.

Home-Office-Makeover

We now have a large standing desk instead of two separate desks on opposite sides of the room.

And then the phone rang with a job offer and I was driving over to Louisiana on Memorial Day to work on a TV series filming in Baton Rouge.

Louisiana

I was promised a week of work. I packed for a month.

Television shooting schedules are a bit insane. I worked at least 12 hours a day and even worked one 18-hour day in the costume shop at the production office. (So glad I wasn’t working on set in the humid Louisiana summer heat!)

It was the middle of week 5 before I found myself driving home. I’ve worked in the film world long enough to know that once someone puts you to work and you don’t fail spectacularly, they will try to keep you as long as possible.

The day after I got home, a collarless pug showed up at my door. Luckily, I was able to track down the owner by the next afternoon thanks to DFW Pug Rescue. (If she had been chipped, it would have been easier – please have your pets micro-chipped!)

Wensley&VisitingPug

Wensley wasn’t pleased to have a visitor but he tolerated her.

I think I spent about a week just staring at the wall after everything got back to normal.

And a couple weeks later, I found myself going back to Baton Rouge. Good thing I hadn’t bothered to unpack my sewing machine from the first trip!

I only let them have me 2 weeks, and then I came home again.

I had about a month before the new opera season started, so I tried to finish up a bedroom makeover I had started between Louisiana trips.

Bedroom-Makeover

I recently made myself a new wool coat during daily breaks at the opera. And I even managed to get photos! I’ve been working on a blog post about the coat, but I decided to briefly put it aside because I found a TV promo of the show I worked on in Louisiana.

So here’s the first tiny (and I mean tiny) peek at a ball gown I miraculously cranked out in only 6 days, at about the 0:27 mark. You mostly just see the petticoat someone else made.

UPDATE 6/4/16: The original teaser I linked to disappeared, but I found a full length trailer instead. The ball gown is now at about the 1:48 mark:

Underground premieres March 9, 2016 on WGN for those of you who are interested in watching it.

Aside from a couple other projects that I’ll be able to talk more about in the coming months, that pretty much sums up my 2015.

I promise my next blog post will not be a year away!

Happy New Year, everyone!

White Christmas Dresses for The Fantasy of Lights

There was a little blood (on the white fur, of course! but easy to fix), a lot of sweat (heavy upholstery fabric is hard to wrangle!), but thankfully, no tears for this build!

I ended up having to sort through 415 photos for this post! Needless to say, I have reduced that number down a little bit. (Click photos to enlarge.)

1-White-Christmas-Santa-Dresses

Back at the end of September, I was hired to build dresses for two identical mannequins for a revamped outdoor Christmas display in Wichita Falls. The request was for something that resembled the red satin dresses with white fur trim seen at the end of the 1954 movie White Christmas.

2-DVD-and-Printed-Screenshots

Luckily, it’s a movie I love and own so I was able to re-watch the end a bunch of times and grab some good screenshots to work from.

One of the mannequins was brought to my house.

I called her Keira. She was about the same dress size as I am – but 6 feet tall! A GIANT Barbie.

Keira-the-Mannequin

Her old outfit was sad and her wig was scraggly. So I threw away her clothes and let her borrow some of mine after a bit of a spa day.

3-Spa-Day

I ordered a swatch of the Sunbrella brand red outdoor upholstery velvet. It ended up being the perfect color and had a decent drape, so I ordered 16 yards (but it seems to be sold out at the moment – not sure if they will restock it, but I hope they do!).

I bought some rip-stop nylon for lining and some white acrylic fur with an olefin backing at my local Hancock Fabrics. I also purchased outdoor upholstery thread, acrylic rhinestones (JoAnn Fabrics), and fabric glitter glue (Hobby Lobby).

I ordered hoop skirt petticoats from Petticoat Junction and the client ordered ice skates for shoes. I bought some red “parade gloves” at a Halloween store (perfect timing of a project!).

My really good friend Marlene, who is a professional film & television makeup artist, was tasked with finding and styling some appropriate wigs that could stand up to the elements.

4-Sitting-Fail

I thought Keira might like to sit down for once in her life. Not sure it worked out so well for her.

Wensley did not like Keira and hated it when I touched her or moved her around. I think she bothered him because she wouldn’t look at him, hehe. (My dress forms don’t have faces so he just ignores them.)

There was growling and barking for many days after she arrived. Just when he had gotten a little used to Keira visiting, the big roll of velvet fabric arrived and he greeted that with the same suspicious “intruder alert!” and I caught it on video:

A package was delivered while Wensley was outside. BIG fabric roll #intruderalert! #jrt #jackrussell #dog

A post shared by Brooke Wilkerson (@sewbrooke) on

My husband and our brother-in-law helped me rig a stand for her, and then I was able to start working on a mockup.

5-Mannequin-Stand

My starting point for both bodices was Vogue 2979 that looks like a reproduction of Grace Kelly’s wedding dress (pictured in this old post). But the sleeve caps as drafted were too short and caused all kinds of fit issues until I popped the seam open at the shoulder. (I tried the bodice on myself and had similar problems with the fit, so beware if you are trying to use this pattern straight from the envelope.) I also lowered the underarm curve a slightly like I usually need to do for myself.

6-Sleeve-Cap-Too-Short

Therefore, I drafted my own sleeve from scratch and made it a two-piece sleeve while I was at it. This allowed me to include better elbow ease for Keira’s perpetually bent arms. It also made it so much easier to dress her.

7-New-Sleeve-Draft

8-Old-and-New-Sleeve-Comparison

Original sleeve (left) and new self-drafted 2-piece sleeve (right).

My friend used glossy red model paint to repaint Keira’s outdated ‘80s lips (check out that unbelievably sharp line!) and Keira got her lovely new hair. So much better!

9-New-Lips-and-Hair

The skirts were just basic full circles (but huge! because she’s so tall!) and I draped & drew the cape pattern on Keira. I was really surprised that the upholstery velvet cooperated and did what I wanted it to do for the most part.

I didn’t have enough fur (I bought all there was at the store) to double fold it like I wanted to on the capelet and skirts, so I lined it with some white polyester utility fabric and did a lot of picking to pull the fur out of the seams.

10-Pinned-Darts

Assembly-line dart sewing in my usual way of marking & stitching darts.

11-Circle-Skirt-Cut

12-Quality-Control-Dog

Quality Control Dog inspects my work.

13-This-One-Is-Empty

14-Helping

15-Evened-Hem

16-Samples-and-Machine-Blind-Hem

After making stitch samples, I determined that hand-stitching looked no better than a machine stitched blind-hem. Machine sewing FTW! Much more convenient than sewing miles of circle by hand!

17-Husband-in-Wig

My husband found Keira’s old hairdo.

18-Picking-Fur-From-Seam

19-Attaching-Fur-Trim-To-Skirt

Attaching the fur trim to the skirt. And then starting again for skirt number 2.

20-Trilby-Hat

So I’m hemming the 2nd skirt while listening to Glee Madonna album and I come out to find this. It’s 1983 all over again! I took Keira’s wig off to remove her skirt & my husband put his hat on her head.

21-Springy-Santa-Hat

Husband stikes again but with a silly hat.

22-Draping-the-Capelette

23-Bored

24-Scattered-Notions

25-Bars-Attached-to-Bodice-for-Skirt-Hooks

The skirts ended up being so heavy I had to add bars to the bodices and corresponding hooks on the skirts to hold them in place.

26-Gluing-Rhinestones

27-Rosemary-Mannequin-Comparison

28-Dress-Back-Comparison

29-Fur-Ring-Headpiece

30-Muff

31-White-Christmas-Dresses-Front-and-Back

If you have questions or would like to know about specific details, ask me in the comments. =)

Overall, I probably spent about 3 weeks total on this project but the work was spread out over about 6 weeks. It was a huge build to complete on my own and I was so glad when it was finished! So was Wensley.

32-Emtpy-Mannequin-Stand

“Good, that weird lady who wouldn’t look at me is gone!”

 

Merry Christmas to all, and my all your Christmases be white!

And My Resume Gets More Convoluted

I have so many things to share! This is going to be a bit of a hodgepodge post.

Some of you may already know from talking to me directly or seeing it on Twitter, I no longer work part-time at Fabrique Fabrics. It was fun for the year and a half it lasted and I’ll miss my coworkers, but since it was never really my “career” I’m not really upset about it. (I think everyone who knows the details is more upset about it than I am.) The short explanation is my boss decided to reduce my hours to “none” to save some money, so I’m moving on to other things instead of waiting around.

On to more exciting things (and LOTS of links)…

  • Something I worked on last summer will finally be on display at the Dallas Arboretum for the holidays! The 12 Days of Christmas exhibit is “an elaborate collection of life-size Victorian gazebos filled with the charming costumed characters made famous by the beloved Christmas carol.”** You can see it for yourself from November 16, 2014–January 4, 2015. Since the opening was delayed a year, I’m looking forward to remembering what I did. I can’t wait to see it installed and share some photos (and possibly video) once it opens!
  • I helped make some youth circus costumes back in May. Lots and lots of tiny appliqué (spandex on spandex) and ruffles… and thread! I really blew through the thread on this project:
Circus-Costume-Appliques

Circus costumes with detailed appliqué designs and what the trashcan next to my machine looked like halfway through.

And here’s a teaser video of this year’s show, in which you can see some of the costumes in motion:

  • If you will be in San Antonio this weekend (September 26-28), you can see some of the fun costumes I helped build this summer in the opera The Fantastic Mr. Fox put on by the new Opera San Antonio.
  • More of my summer sewing work will be in a Christmas parade at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri this year.

Hopefully, I will have more photos of both the opera and the parade to share later. (I’m crossing my fingers that someone will post a video of the parade on YouTube at some point!) Update: Post about the parade.

  • If you will be in Dallas, TX anytime now until October 5, go see the Oscar de la Renta exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. It’s fashion inspiration! I went and took a ton of photos a few weeks ago, so if you aren’t able to see it yourself, I promise a detailed blog post about it soon. Here’s a teaser:
Oscar-de-la-Renta_5-Decades-of-Style

Oscar de la Renta – Five Decades of Style exhibit

Recent freelancing has suddenly gone from “absolutely nothing” to “I’m booked into the beginning of next year!” Such is my career.

Keira-the-Mannequin

Meet Keira, one of the mannequins I’ll be making a custom dress for. She’s had a hard life and it’s time for new hair and better clothes.

  • Then it looks like I’ll be finishing out the year working at The Dallas Opera. They have a few new costumes to build. =)

And just because I’ve been looking for a place to share a couple of great costuming videos, I’m going to include them here.

I found the first video because of the second one. It is a really nice overview of what it’s like in any professional costume shop – whether it’s opera, theatre, dance, or film – when there are costumes to construct and fit. “Recreating a Tutu” at the New York City Ballet:

And if you have the time to watch (it’s over 26 minutes long), the following is a truly fascinating video on how a ballet pointe shoe is made (teaser-not-quite-spoiler: inside out!). If you don’t have time to watch it now, come back and watch it later when you do! I promise you will enjoy it.

They use some cool sewing machines and do an amazing amount of the work by hand. And to think that all shoes used to be made this well! “What’s in a Ballet Shoe”:

** What my husband/editor read at first glance: “An elaborate collection of life-size Vulcan gizmos filled with charred costumed characters made famous by the beloved Christmas carrots”  ??

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.

For Those Who Love To Sew

Recently, I’ve been enjoying some random blog surfing and finding some interesting new blogs to follow. I’ve been inspired by many and glad to see so many others learning to sew or improving their skills.

The common theme right now seems to be people questioning their abilities and/or idiosyncrasies.

So here’s a little encouragement for all my fellow stitchers, seamstresses, costumers, sewists, seamsters, and crafters:

  • Remember: you can’t will inspiration and you can’t force creativity (those who knew me in high school will recall this was one of “Brooke’s Rules”)
  • You will always be your own worst critic.
  • Being a perfectionist is how artist types are wired – trust me, it’s a normal side-effect of a creative brain, and I’ve never met a crafty person in the professional world who isn’t a perfectionist in some way. You aren’t weird. =)
  • There will always be at least one little thing you wish you had time to do or fix when you have a deadline (even if it’s a self-imposed deadline!).
  • There will almost always be a never-ending pile of unfinished projects and you will always want to add new projects to your list.
  • When you get frustrated with a difficult project, put it down and walk away for a while.
  • Everyone who sews, no matter how experienced, will need encouragement to stick with it periodically – being creative is HARD!
  • You will learn at least one thing from every person you work with and from every project you do.
  • There will always be those people who just don’t understand your need to create (but never forget there are plenty of others who completely get it!).

May your scissors always be sharp and all your thread stay tangle-free! Happy sewing & crafting!

And here’s a video I found inspiring, hope you do too:

Alterations – What’s the Big Deal?

Misconception: Altering a store-bought garment is easier for the seamstress than sewing one from “scratch.”

This is a common belief that is easy to accept because it seems so logical.  After all, it makes sense to think that since half the work is already done, lots of time will be saved by not having to cut and sew the garment.

In reality, however, alterations to a finished piece of clothing can actually be twice the work of starting at the beginning.  This is because the garment must first be taken apart before the alteration can be made (unless the alteration is simply shortening a hem).  Once the outfit has been taken apart, the alteration can be made and the outfit must then be re-assembled.  Any detail, like beadwork, must be redone.  This is why bridal alterations can double the price of a store-bought dress.

When clothing is made from “scratch,” a seamstress can control the number of alterations by making a mock-up first and doing the alterations during the stages of construction before the garment is completed.

Alterations are often an annoyance to a professional seamstress who enjoys building clothing from the beginning of the process.  A tailor shop usually employs a group of seamstresses that specializes in alterations and may be more experienced at building custom suits for men.  In most cases, those employed in a tailor shop are paid a flat rate per alteration, making it more profitable for them to be exceptionally fast with alterations and repairs.

See also Does a custom dress cost less than store-bought? and other FAQ.

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