Draper’s Choice: The Creative Process of a Costume Technician

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By Megan Turner

With tape measures at the ready, Lissa Lamona (the designer), my fellow technicians and I start the first day of costume build for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by taking the cast’s measurements. Each sheet lists every necessary body measurement that a costume technician might need. One by one each actor arrives for his or her scheduled time slot. Lissa calls out each specific body part, I measure, read the number back and she jots it down. As soon as the last actor leaves the shop, the building can begin.

I rip off a long sheet of brown paper to start flat patterning Louie Rinaldi’s knee breeches. Flat patterning is the creation of a basic pants pattern (the sloper). It is made by using the actor’s measurements and pattern instructions. At this point in my costuming career I know the sloper by heart and start marking all the initial lines without the draft instructions. By referencing Louie’s measurement sheet and transferring the appropriate measurements to the paper, I create both a pant front and back sloper. Studying Lissa’s renderings and the draft I am basing the costume on, (Fig. 1), I shorten the pants and curve the end of the leg around the knee, which will ease into the knee band. I determine where the pocket is placed and draft the corresponding inside pocket and outside pocket.  I add the fly to the front and draft a separate identical piece for finishing off the fly on the inside of the pants. Finally, I draft a waist facing– this is the pattern piece that will hide the raw edge of the waistline. It matches the shape of the waist on the pants but it is only three inches wide. On the back piece, I pencil in where the draft instructs to place a welt pocket however I anticipate that the placement will change in the fitting (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3). The pants draft is now done and I move onto the vest.

For the matching double-breasted vest, I decide to try a tailor’s draft. Another patterning method that could be used is called draping. This process consists of laying the fabric over a dress form that

Fig. 1- Finished pants draft patterns

Fig. 1- Finished pants draft patterns

matches Louie’s body and creating the pattern three dimensionally. Draping the vest could also work, however I decide to try the more challenging drafting approach. Instructions given by tailor’s drafts are very technical and precise. One misplaced step can drastically alter the pattern, ensuring that the costume won’t fit I lay down the initial numbers and letters and begin mapping out the basic front vest outline. Making ratios from the original draft to match Louie’s measurements, I

create a custom pattern. Finally, sketching on the placement for the lapels, pockets and buttons (Fig. 4) I am able to move on to the back piece, which in comparison to the front of the vest, is fairly simple. By lining up all the seams that will ultimately be sewn together and ensuring that they match perfectly, I true up all the pattern pieces, cutting and adding small sections to the seams that don’t match up. Since tailors use drafting as their primary way to begin construction, trying out the more challenging of the two techniques introduced me to skills that I would not have learned through draping. It was my first time working with this type of draft and it took me nearly all day to complete.

Fig. 2- Finished pants draft

Fig. 2- Finished pants draft

Using muslin, a basic white cotton fabric, I cut out all my pieces and begin to stitch them together. These practice pieces are referred to as mock ups. I prepare these mock ups for a fitting by finishing hem edges and basting in the lapels on the vest. The fitting includes Louie who will be performing in the costume, Lissa, Jessica Vodnik, Myron Elliot and me. Lissa provides the

accessories and other garments I am not creating, her assistant will take fitting notes and my shop manager will help me determine my alterations. Working from the basic layer up, Louie tries on the pants first. After I pin them up the back it is clear that they fit well, the waist is sitting right where it should and the suspenders hold them up. Lissa is happy with the length, the fullness at the knee and where the pockets are placed. Using a sharpie, I draw in the new placement for the back pockets and we continue with the fitting. I slowly help Louie put on my mock up vest. As I attempt to pin up the front where it will ultimately close it becomes obvious that my drafting of the vest is going to be more of a challenge.  It is too small, too tight and the lapels were too big. It is upsetting how off I was, but I was able to learn how to fix the problem efficiently. Myron and I quickly open the side seams and shoulder seams and piece in muslin to fill in the gaps. We pin the new fabric inserts to the original garment and we mark where the new vest pieces should finish. We are then able to close the vest and continue with the fitting. After Lissa draws on where she wanted the lapels to end and the placement of the welt pockets, she was satisfied, the act or was excited and I had everything I needed to continue.

Garments in hand, I head back to my workspace and begin all my alterations. I lengthen the vest, shorten the lapels and make small adjustments so that seams on all

Fig 3- Inside/Outside pocket, knee band, fly and waist facing patterns

Fig 3- Inside/Outside pocket, knee band, fly and waist facing patterns

my pieces will match. At this point I am ready to start cutting out my final fabric. Weeks earlier, or some such, Lissa chose a black, white and blue hounds tooth plaid, which only had 2 7/8 yards left on the bolt. It was 100% wool and $50 dollars a yard. Although a costume technician must work carefully when cutting out fabric as to not place a pattern piece incorrectly, the quality of this fabric heightened these issues- especially since I was planning to pattern match all the lines woven in the fabric. If I were to cut out a piece incorrectly we would not have the time, money or resources to purchase more. Carefully, I lay out my fabric using a whole shop table making sure that both my straight and crosswise grains are perfectly perpendicular. These lines are important because they are my reference points for where I will place my patterns. I position my front pant pattern on the straight and make a conscious choice to line up the edge of the pocket on the out seam with the horizontal blue line. This placement makes it easier to match the pocket and fly pieces because of the specific reference point I have chosen. Moving on to the vest I make another conscious choice to line up the straight grain plaid lines with the pant plaid lines so that the vest fabric pattern matches the pants fabric pattern. Using the center front of the pants and vest I mark where the lines should match up directly on the paper. Since the original vest pattern was greatly altered, I anticipate other alterations in my fabric fitting by leaving extra seam allowance at the side seams and shoulders. The placement and cutting of all the outer pieces, interfacings, facings and linings took me almost three days to finish.

I spend the rest of the build stitching pieces together. I begin by sewing the pattern matched front and pocket to make one complete pant front. Then, I finish the

Fig. 4- Finished Vest and lapel patterns

Fig. 4- Finished Vest and lapel patterns

fly and connect the front legs.  After constructing the double welt pockets on the separate back pieces I attach the front and back panels. I am able to ease and gather the fullness into the knee band and stitch on the waist facing (Fig. 5). Final touches include sewing on all the suspender buttons and fastenings. For the vest, I sew welt pockets on the separate pieces. The fabric vest and the lining are constructed separately and bagged out. The lapels are stitched on and the lining is hand sewn to the inside of the vest. Buttons and button-holes are added for show but the whole vest is quick rigged to make quick changes easier (Fig. 6). After all the hand sewing work is done, I give a final press to both garments and they are ready for the stage (Fig. 6).

During tech week and performances reports are sent out by stage management to update everyone involved with the show about what happened during each particular run. The part I pay the most attention to is costume notes. In a few recent reports, the shop had been notified that my pants had ripped in the knees. Although I had prepped the garment by lining the pants front with a stiffer fabric to support fragile wool, my shop manager informed me that the problem wasn’t my construction but the

Fig. 5- Example of pattern matching on pants front, unfinished

Fig. 5- Example of pattern matching on pants front, unfinished

delicate fabric. The pants had come back to the shop and Myron and I strategically assessed the rip and patched the knees twice during the run. The only thing that could be done is to pattern match a section of fabric to the rip in the knees. I heavily stitched over the patch to keep it in place and cover the hole.

The majority of my creative process involves expanding and mastering my execution of techniques. Each show I work on, I learn a new set of skills. Whether a more experienced stitch er is showing me step by step or whether I am learning through independent trial and error, the process I go through can be quite varied. There is never a dull moment in the costume shop. I find it fascinating that everyone in this industry has his or her own ideas and techniques for accomplishing the end result. There are no wrong steps or techniques, but there are more efficient ways to get to the final garment. Taking a two-dimensional drawing and crafting a three dimensional, wearable garment is incredibly gratifying to me. Whether it is tailoring a costume for a main stage production or hemming a pair of pants for a friend, both require a level of creativity that I enjoy practicing. I understand that an audience member is unable to see the work that goes into each individual piece from stage. The welt pockets, hand-sewn button holes and pattern matching on the pockets and front of the pants, coordinating with the front of the vest, all get lost in the distance. But, it’s these little details, which the untrained eye doesn’t notice and probably will never see, that really excite me. So the next time you are observing from the audience, wearing the costumes as an actor or carrying them off stage as a crew member, take a moment to look at the costumes. Put yourself in the shoes of a costume tech and find the small details that went into building the garments, ask questions about the stitching that you don’t understand and acknowledge this element of theatre that is typically never seen.

Fig. 7- Complete pattern matched vest and knee breeches

Fig. 6- Complete pattern matched vest and knee breeches

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