Posts by Vanessa Nirode

Vanessa is a writer, solo traveler, cyclist, and runner based in New York City. In her spare time she works as a tailor and pattern maker for television shows and movies. Follow her on twitter @exsetgirl.
Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

The film and television business has many safety precautions in place. Productions almost always have a Stunt Coordinator to supervise and choreograph any type of fight or daredevil action scene. Actors and actresses often have stunt doubles who will perform most of the really ‘dangerous’ bits. Big name actors usually have a regular stunt double who always works with them no matter what show or film they are on.

What this means costume-wise, is that we need to dress the double in exactly the same clothes as the actor. Many times, both the stunt and actor themselves will require multiple outfits of the same thing.

Love / hate

I have a love-hate relationship with multiples. On the one hand, it can be super boring to do the same alteration on the same pair of pants, or jacket, or whatever six to ten times. On the other hand, it can be a very zen experience: doing the same thing over and over kind of puts you into a rhythm where everything flows naturally and without much thought. I prefer to do all the multiples at one time if possible.

When I lived in Austin, TX, I worked as a set costumer on many of the films directed by Robert Rodriguez: Spy Kids, Sin City, Grindhouse. His movies are very stunt heavy which makes his sets very active and interesting. The stunt coordinator for all the films I worked on for Mr. Rodriguez was a lovely and talented man named Jeff Dashnaw. Many of the actors and stunt actors were harnessed for various scenes. A stunt harness is similar, I suppose, to a climbing harness or rig. It’s made of heavy canvas and twill and sometimes has metal jump rings to facilitate the attachment of cables.

There are different types of harnesses, depending on what sort of action is required. Some are full vests and some are just a belt and leg straps. It’s up to the stunt coordinator to determine what harness should be used and where the cables should be attached in order to create the desired effect. There’s quite a bit of physics knowledge in all of that!

What to do when things go wrong

Things can go wrong sometimes and people can be injured. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen all that often. On a show I worked on recently one of the actors tore a ligament in his hand which, in turn, resulted in him having to wear a big, rather awkward cast. The task of trying to disguise this cast fell to the costume department.

The costume designer and I had to figure out how to make a glove of some sort to cover the cast.

Tracing of hands.

Tracing of hands.

First, we traced the actor’s hand in his cast.

Make a pattern.

Make a pattern.

Next, I made a pattern of the tracing. Our idea was to use an existing glove, take it apart, stitch the fingers together (since his fingers are bound together), and add a new neoprene layer on the palm side.

Taking apart an existing glove.

Taking apart an existing glove.

This was the first result: Not too bad.

First attempt at a glove to hide the cast.

First attempt at a glove to hide the cast.

Then we decided that it might look better to have the thumb separate so I did some modifications:

Attempt 2 with separate thumb.

Attempt 2 with separate thumb.

Now, it’s a bit too small across the knuckles so I have to take the neoprene back off and recut a new, wider one, to add some width.

Being flexible is key

Projects like this are fairly normal in my sewing life. And if there’s one thing that seems to be true no matter what show I’m working on it’s that the costume department is almost always the ones tasked with finding solutions to a problem that no one else wants to deal with.

TV magic. It’s a real thing. This actually reminds me of an incident during Boardwalk Empire when I came to work one morning to find a shredded beaded dress on my table with a note that said, “Help! Please work your magic to fix this dress. It works again this evening.”

We did indeed manage to put the dress back together to get through one more night of filming but we sent it back to set with a note that read, “We are all out of magic for the week but did our best to bring this dress back from the dead. Love, The Costume Shop.”

In the Wee Hours of the Morning

In the Wee Hours of the Morning

I’ve always been a morning person, or rather, I’ve never really found it that difficult to get up at before the crack of dawn. I’m usually not ready to actually talk to anyone until after the sun is up but, I actually really like the quiet pre-dawn hours, especially in a big city, like New York.

The bars here close at 4:00 am so the hours between four and six are the transition between last night and this morning; people who work in bars are on their way home (as well as those who were just out drinking) while another whole group of people are on their way to work. The streets are relatively quiet without much traffic – a true rarity in New York City. Cycling through the early morning streets always feels like a special, secret thing. The cabs that are out and about rarely honk this early and we share the roads without incident.

Top of the morning

A lot happens in the city between the hours of 4:00 am and 7:00 am. I’m not the only one out. Central Park is already humming starting at 5:00 am with runners, walkers, cyclists, and dogs. The street vendors are up and opening up their carts. Most bodegas are open already (many of them stay open all night). On the weekends, there are bike races and running races (the NYC half marathon was yesterday) and, all about the city, especially if its Monday morning, film and television crews are going to work, or are already at work.

If you want to work in film and television, you have to be able to get up early. And I mean early, like before 5:00 am, and, if you’re in the wardrobe of hair and makeup departments, often before 4:00 am. It’s not unusual for the costume and wardrobe departments to have to be at work by 5:30am, or 5:00 am. I’ve even had to be at work by 4:30 am before.

Actor call times for this morning, including fitting times.

Actor call times for this morning, including fitting times.

The main reason for this is the sun, and the fact that most shooting days are, at a very minimum, twelve hours long. Mondays usually mean a super early start as the goal is often to start filming outside as soon as the sun is up (you don’t want to miss any of that precious daylight, especially in the winter months when the days are shorter).

It’s all about proper preparation

In order to have the actors ready to go on set when the sun is up, they need to get to work an hour or two beforehand to go through hair and makeup and to get dressed. If it’s day that requires a large amount of background actors to be dressed and ready to go in the first shot, they (and the wardrobe people who are there to help them get ready) often must report to work a couple hours before sunrise.

As the tailor, I often have to be at work for an early morning fitting that happens before an actor goes to hair and makeup. Then I have the hour or so when they’re “in the chair” as we call it in the film business, to complete an alteration. This is also when my fast sewing skills come in handy.

The early bird

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am.

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am.

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am. We were also on the stage most of last week, including Friday, so the crew will be pretty much ready at 7:00 to start shooting. If we’ve been out somewhere on location shooting, sometimes an extra half hour or so is needed to get the lights ready, the cameras out, the props set, etc.

Times the wardrobe, costume, and hair & makeup departments had to be at work this morning.

Times the wardrobe, costume, and hair & makeup departments had to be at work this morning.

The wardrobe crew, though, was here at 5:42 and 6:00 and the first actors arrived by 6:00.

Sometimes people ask how I’m able to get up so early. I honestly don’t know the answer. I will say that I think you do get used to it. I actually hate when I don’t have to be at work until 9:00 or 10:00, mainly because it can take twice as long to get there when you’re in the midst of rush hour traffic. I’d choose the 5:00 and 6:00 am starts every time.

I do my best, focused work early in the morning; things don’t seem as frenetic before the sun is up. There are fewer distractions, the phone doesn’t ring, the only texts are most likely directly related to whatever I’m working on, people aren’t quite awake yet so there’s less chit chat. Things just seem to flow along at a steady, quiet, unencumbered pace.  Also, when you get to work at 6:00 in the morning, you get to have second breakfast at 10:00 – and who wouldn’t be up for that?

Everyone needs an Arm Sometimes

Everyone needs an Arm Sometimes

I rarely use a free arm on a sewing machine, mainly because I sew most often on my industrial Juki straight stitch machine and it doesn’t have one. I sew sleeve and pant cuffs by either leaving the garment right side out and sewing with the wrong side to the top or vice versa (garment wrong side out and sewing with the right side to the top).

I sew most often on my industrial Juki straight stitch machine and it doesn’t have a free arm.

I sew most often on my industrial Juki straight stitch machine and it doesn’t have a free arm.

Most things are easily sewn this way. You basically put the needle and presser foot inside the pant leg or sleeve.

Something up my sleeve

This past week though, I needed to attach a nine and half inch sleeve extension to the top of a cuff – making a sweater look as if there was another layer underneath when in actuality there was only an extra sleeve poking out from the bottom.

I marked and pinned, tried going in from one way, then another but couldn’t get the needle to the right sewing position. The sleeve extension was too long and the existing cuff on the sweater I was attaching it too, far too bulky and heavy.

My little light weight Brother SC9500 was no help either as it doesn’t have a really skinny free arm.

My little light weight Brother SC9500 was no help either as it doesn’t have a really skinny free arm.

My little light weight Brother SC9500 was no help either as it doesn’t have a really skinny free arm.

A sewing machine free arm is the narrow platform you’re usually left with if you remove the flat bed attachment on a domestic machine.

It’s a Bernina Record 830 which is, along with the Bernina 930, one of the best domestic ‘portable’ machines ever made.

It’s a Bernina Record 830 which is, along with the Bernina 930, one of the best domestic ‘portable’ machines ever made.

After some struggling (and cursing), I remembered that my good old trusty heavy metal Bernina was under the cutting table. It’s a Bernina Record 830 which is, along with the Bernina 930, one of the best domestic ‘portable’ machines ever made.

Standing the test of time

The 830 was made in the 1970s and the 930 in the 1980s. Both machines are mechanical (no electronic ‘smart’ stitch settings) and will sew through pretty much anything. They’re also faster than most modern domestic machines. And the 830 has a nice skinny free arm.

The one thing it doesn’t have is extra ‘give’ in the presser foot – which allows you to get really big bulky things under it. In order to get my sweater cuff and extra sleeve under the foot I needed to exert a good amount of what my father always referred to as ‘elbow grease’.

But once under there, the old 830 happily sewed over all the lumpy bulk. Crisis averted.

Bernina reliability

Bernina is still making some great machines, many of them are electronic now.

But, if you ever see an 830 or a 930 at a garage sale, snatch it up. They make excellent all around machines and seem to be virtually indestructible. Mine has taken a dive off the tailgate of a wardrobe truck and it still works great (though I don’t necessarily recommend testing that theory).

My experience with the troublesome sweater reminded me that there is always a solution to a seemingly impossible task. Sometimes that solution only becomes clear after you’ve pretty much given up. I did indeed say out loud (to no one in particular as I’m pretty much always sewing alone in my little sunny corner) “I can’t get in there. I just can’t get in there.” Then, low and behold, I spotted the red plastic case that houses my Bernina and I knew everything was going to be ok.

This also reminds me of something I was told when I first started cycling up steep, long mountains. “Every climb has a gear. You just need to find it.” I wasn’t thoroughly convinced at first but, if history is to be believed, that is absolutely the case. I have yet to find a mountain I couldn’t climb.

There’s always a way. You just have to find it.

The Traveling Tailor

The Traveling Tailor

Sewing machines and supplies aren’t exactly the most portable things. Sometimes, when I’m not working fulltime on a show, I’ll get a one or two day job that requires me to schlep a machine and supplies to a work space. These are my least favorite kind of jobs – for no other reason than I have to transport my machine and a small kit of sewing supplies somewhere.

I live in New York City. I haven’t owned a car in over ten years.

What’s the big deal, you may ask, just throw it all in your car and go. Well, that’s the thing: I live in New York City. I haven’t owned a car in over ten years. The last time I drove was about two years ago. And I’m not a huge fan of Uber or even good old-fashioned yellow cabs. Cars are just not the most efficient way to get around the city. So, I’m usually dragging a sewing machine up and down the subway stairs to get to where I need to go.

On the go

I know I’ve recommended these machines before, but Brother makes some incredibly good and lightweight machines. I have two SC9500s. They are so lightweight that I carry them in a tote bag on my shoulder. I then use a backpack to carry my supplies: scissors, threads, rulers, chalk, a small collection of notions.

Other Brother machines that are very light weight are the CS5055 and the ES2000.

I also bike a lot, which is always the most efficient way to get around the city, and have been known to strap a machine (in a box) to the rear rack on my bicycle.

When going to a job that is only one or two days, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to bring, especially if you’re trying to not lug your entire shop down the length of Manhattan and across the bridge to Brooklyn.

Here’s a list of what I usually bring to a short one-day job:

  • 1 pair of tailor’s points or small scissors
  • 1 pair of medium sized shears
  • 1 pair of pinking shears (because I’m certainly not bringing a serger along to finish seams.)
  • 1 gallon sized Ziploc of thread. Must have colors include black, grey, white, tan, a greeny-brown, nude, and a yellow-orange for topstitching on jeans.
  • 12” see through 2” wide ruler
  • 1 soft tape measure
  • Tailor’s chalk, red marking pencil, pencil, black disappearing ink pen
  • Seam ripper
  • Metal hem gauge ruler
  • Small container of straight pins
  • Extra bobbins for machine
  • Small collection of hand and machine needles (I always bring some leather needles and double needles, just in case.)
  • 1 gallon sized Ziploc of bias tape (black and white), elastics, twill tape, and hem tape.
  • Small containers of snaps and hook & eyes.
  • Muslin pressing cloth
  • Small collection of nude spandex and netting scraps and interfacings

Lighting is key

Sometimes it’s nice to bring along a small light of some kind. I often find myself sewing in inadequately lighted spaces. I tend not to bring a lamp because, well, the subway. I always make sure the light in the machine is working. And the flashlight on an iphone can be extremely helpful in especially dark circumstances.

Gear up

I’m not very high tech with my carrying cases but there are lots of really lovely ones out there if you’re not into backpacks and tote bags.

http://www.sewingmachinesplus.com/sewing-accessories-cases.php

The key is to keep everything super organized. And don’t worry about not having all the thread. Unless you’re topstitching, most things can be sewn with black, white, or tan. I know some tailors that only use those colors of thread. It really is ok if your thread doesn’t match exactly. And sometimes you just have to use what you have, especially if you are a traveling tailor.

Sewing Myths and Sewing Myth Myths

Sewing Myths and Sewing Myth Myths

This week, I decided I’d write a bit about popular sewing myths. I have my own list but thought I’d do a quick Google search to see what others had written about the subject. This brought me to a few sewing myth lists that I found rather odd, and not at all myth-like – meaning I thought the myths were myths. Do you follow me?

I’m going to start with some things I do believe are myths, and then get the myth myths part.

Myth 1: quilting direction

It’s ok to quilt some rows up and some rows down when quilting a garment.

Not true. There will be less possibility of bubbling or puffing if you quilt all the rows in the same direction. Overall, the whole garment will look better.

Myth 2: smaller underlining

The underlining should be smaller than the fashion fabric, especially on a jacket.

Not always true. It really depends on the fabrics being used. Hair canvas should be slightly smaller to prevent buckling but it will also restrict the give or stretch of a fabric it is joined with. Many tailors cut their canvas on the bias to prevent this.

Myth 3: cutting selvage edge

Always cut off the selvage edge.

Not true. If you think the selvage will shrink, clip the edges so it will lie flat. Otherwise, there is no need to cut it off.

Myth 4: basting stitches

Stitch next to basting stitches when sewing a basted seam lines.

Not true. If you do have the need to baste seams together, always sew right on top of the basted lines for accuracy.

Myth 5: necklines

Machine stay stitch necklines to prevent stretching.

Another, more accurate way to prevent any stretching in your necklines (and arms eyes) is to leave a whole bunch of seam allowance until you’ve done your stay stitching.

Another, more accurate way to prevent any stretching in your necklines (and arms eyes) is to leave a whole bunch of seam allowance until you’ve done your stay stitching.

Not always true. You can also hand baste your seam line, also called thread tracing. If you do machine stitch your necklines, take special care not to stretch the fabric as you sew. Another, more accurate way to prevent any stretching in your necklines (and arms eyes) is to leave a whole bunch of seam allowance until you’ve done your stay stitching. When it comes to necklines, I usually cut a straight line from shoulder seam to shoulder, leaving all the extra fabric there. If I’m bias binding the neck edge, I attach my bias without trimming anything away too. This prevents any possibility of the neckline stretching.

Myth 6: top = waistline

The top of your pants or skirt is your waistline.

Very often not true. Your waistline is where your body is the smallest, most times an inch or so above your navel. This is why, often, when you measure a pair of pants that is sized as a 27, the waistband of the pants measures more than 27.

And now, for a few sewing myth myths.

Myth myth 1: $ewing cost too much

Sewing is too expensive.

This really depends on how you look at. Sewing is not necessarily expensive but it isn’t cheap either. Especially, most especially, if you are taking into account your time. I earn my living by sewing. And my years of experience and knowledge aren’t cheap. Sewing is a skill. I always ask people what they pay their car mechanic or plumber an hour. Often, it’s somewhere in the 60 to 100 dollar and hour range. If you don’t want to pay that amount of money, you figure out how to do it yourself. The same goes for sewing.

If you’re making something for yourself or as a gift out of love then it could possibly be cheaper than buying the same thing. But remember, nice high-end fabric and supplies are not cheap, nor should they be. If you want cheap, buy clothing made in Malaysia or Bangladesh sold at Old Navy or someplace like that.

Myth myth 2: sewing is the hardest

Sewing is too hard.

Well isn’t not exactly easy, either. To sew really well takes practice. I find it incredibly annoying when someone says something like, “It’s just an easy alteration, it won’t take long.” If you don’t sew, how do you know? And if you do sew, you should know that sometimes you open a thing up to do what should be an easy alteration and find you’ve just taken the lid off a proverbial can of worms.

Myth myth 3: sewing super powers

Sewers have special creative talents.

I believe everyone, if they put their mind to it, can learn how to sew. But saying that sewers (I actually hate that word) do not have special creative talent is ridiculous. I think I’ve said this before, but really good tailors and pattern makers know the language of fabric. I don’t know how else to put it. And that, is indeed, a special talent.

How to Sew Faster

How to Sew Faster

My job as a tailor on a television show often requires me to complete an alteration in a seemingly impossible amount of time. Not to be overly cocky or self-congratulating but, I can be pretty fast when needed. People frequently ask me how I’m able to do something so quickly.

Don’t hesitate. Just, do.

Honestly, I don’t think so much about it anymore: its pretty much second nature at this point. But, I suppose if I were to break it down, the process would go something like this:

First, don’t panic. Whatever you do, don’t panic. If you do, you could find that suddenly you’re unable to thread a needle, or your needle breaks, or the thread tangles.

Second, don’t hesitate. Just, do.

As you’re working, think about the next step. Plan ahead.

Concentrate fully on what you’re doing. Don’t listen to the conversations going on around you. Pay no mind to whatever random chaos might be happening in another part of the room. Just focus your full attention on the one thing you are doing. That is all that is important.

Whatever you do, don’t thread mark. I know that’s what they teach in sewing school but there is no reason to have to thread mark a pant hem.

A few tips on how to sew faster:

Do as much as you can without stopping to iron.

If I’m really pressed for time, I tend to leave all the ironing until the very end (pun intended).

Learn how to eyeball measurements. Think about it, if you’ve been sewing long enough, you know what a ½” looks like. You honestly do not need to mark every single little line. If you want to measure, go ahead, put use your pins to mark the line. I often work with a metal seam gauge but rarely actually draw a new stitching line. One exception is if I’m re-mitering a suit jacket sleeve corner though I know lots of tailors that do not need to draw that line either.

Whatever you do, don’t thread mark. I know that’s what they teach in sewing school but there is no reason to have to thread mark a pant hem. I once had an additional tailor helping me on a show who insisted on thread marking the fold line on hems for cop pants. Buy some tailor’s chalk and use that to mark your hemline. It’ll disappear when ironed.

Unless you’re topstitching, you really don’t have to have your thread match exactly. Believe me. Whatever thread is in your machine is just fine. I cannot begin to tell you how many black garments I’ve altered quickly with red or yellow or whatever happened to be in the machine colored thread.

Learn how to undo a chain stitch. A lot of manufacturers use chain stitches in clothing construction. This makes it super easy to take them apart when needed. You can only unravel a chain stitch in one direction, the direction it was sewn in. Most of the time, all you need to do is insert a seam ripper and pull in that direction and all the stitching will come undone. The center back seam of men’s pants, often will have two rows of stitching so you’ll need to pull each row separately.

A couple other seam deconstruction tips:

To take apart a serged seam, use a nice sharp seam ripper and run it through the threads that wraps around the edge of a seam. After you do this, the rest of the threads will usually come apart rather quickly. Some serged seams are on a chain as well and you can undo them by pulling the thread on the straight stitch.

One of the fastest ways of taking apart a seam is to, again, use an extremely sharp seam ripper and insert it into the seam from the right side and just pull upwards through the seam. This technique takes a bit of practice (and bravery) though as the potential to accidentally slice through the fabric is ever present. There’s a knack to getting the angle of the seam ripper just right though and once you figure that out, you’re golden.

In the end, the one sure way of becoming a faster tailor is by practice. The more often you repeat the same task, the more efficient at it you become.

As you do an alteration, try to think of ways you could save time: do you really need to flip everything back right side out then inside out then right side out again? Probably not. If you sew this first, will it make it easier to sew this? Or visa versa? Experiment and try things multiple ways until you’ve figured out the quickest sequence of steps for yourself.

I love discovering a new, faster way of doing something I’ve done a million times. Sewing is kind of cool like that: there’s always something more to learn and fresh tactics to uncover.

Costume Department Positions for Movies and Television Shows

Costume Department Positions for Movies and Television Shows

Last week, I wrote about how it takes a whole team of individuals to make a television show or movie, often more than most people realize. Then I got to thinking about all the conversations I’ve had throughout my life trying to explain to family, friends, acquaintances and sometimes strangers, what I do at work and what others in my department do.

One of the daily call sheets for Blindspot which lists the positions with call time (time to report to work). O/C means on call and is what is used for those who do not need to be on the actual shooting set.

One of the daily call sheets for Blindspot which lists the positions with call time (time to report to work). O/C means on call and is what is used for those who do not need to be on the actual shooting set.

Here’s a list of some common positions found in costume and wardrobe departments of films and television shows.

But first, the difference between the costume and wardrobe departments. Theses terms are basically interchangeable but, if a dividing line were to be drawn it would separate the costume and wardrobe departments by union locals.

The labor union for theatre, film, television and live events, founded in 1893, is IATSE or, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories and Canada.

Designers, assistant designers, shoppers and coordinators are normally members of Locals 829 (United Scenic Artists) or 892 (Costume Designers Guild). There are various locals across the country that are wardrobe specific. In New York City, the wardrobe local is 764.

Common costume and wardrobe positions on movies and television shows

Design/Costume Department:

Costume Designer

This is fairly self-explanatory. The costume designer is responsible for developing the look and feel of a show. They usually spend time talking with producers or the creators of a show, reading scripts and discussing character with the actors and actresses, as well as researching. They conduct fittings and manage the entire department.

Assistant Costume Designer

Again, pretty self-explanatory. Often, the assistant designer is the one who dresses the background actors. They also often deal with the budgets.

Shopper

The shopper spends his or her day out in the world, shopping. Being a shopper in NYC is completely different than being a shopper anywhere else because well, you can’t get around NYC efficiently in a car. NYC shoppers spend a lot of time walking, schlepping and taking the subway. There’s often a costume department driver who will meet them to pick up purchases.

Wardrobe Department (764 positions):

Wardrobe Supervisor

This position is the department head. He or she manages the day-to-day execution of the designers vision. They are responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly on set. They spend a lot of time looking ahead and anticipating problems and catastrophes before they arise. They are also very good at putting out fires.

Set Costumer

A set costumer takes care of the actors on set. He or she is responsible for continuity (making sure the correct outfit is worn at the correct time in the proper manner). Shows are rarely, if ever, filmed in order. A set costumer watches during filming and makes adjustments as needed. He or she pays attention to things like: How many buttons are buttoned, are the sleeves of the shirt supposed to be rolled, should that bag be over the right or left shoulder.

There is usually more than one set costumer on a show. Some actors have personal set costumers who only take care of them but most television shows don’t have the budget for this. Some high paid, “famous” actors have a personal costumer written into their contracts.

In Europe, a set costumer is often called a stand by costumer.

Production Assistant

Every department tends to have a production assistants who are usually people just starting out in the business. They do all sorts of things. In the world of television they spend a lot of time returning unused clothing and organizing receipts.

Costume Coordinator

I always think of the Costume Coordinator as the glue that holds the entire department together. They should really be paid more money than what they are.

They are the accountants of the department, the phone call makers, the calmer of nerves, the birthday party planners, the detectives, the soothsayers, the joke makers, the ice cream and alcohol buyers, the lunatic whisperers and the magicians. A costume department with a shoddy coordinator will most certainly fall apart at some point.

On Blindspot, we are very lucky to have an amazing coordinator named Sade.

Tailor

Most contemporary television shows have one full time tailor who is responsible for alterations and clothing construction. Big, costume heavy shows often have a full in house costume shop.

It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

I was thinking about writing a post this week about some of the favorite things that I’ve made throughout the years. But, once I really started trying to decide, I realized I had way too many ‘favorites’ to put in just one post, mainly because I’ve made a ridiculous amount of stuff. Truth be told, I can’t remember a lot of it.

Also, ‘favorite’, is a bit of a shifty word. I have favorites for all kinds of reasons: favorite fabric, favorite pattern, favorite last minute construction miracle, favorite vintage piece, favorite thing made without a pattern, favorite complicated pattern, favorite funky design detail, favorite sewing technique.

So, I decided instead to write a little about some of the most memorable things I’ve made. Most (perhaps all) of them listed here were for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, designed by John Dunn and Lisa Padovani.

And speaking of designers…

I just want to clarify that every show and movie has a Costume Designer. Sometimes, on low budget and indie or college productions, the costume designer is the same person who also makes and shops the clothes. This is not the case on any mid to high budget shows. It takes a village to create the finished product. I didn’t design anything for Boardwalk Empire or any of the other major television shows and movies I’ve worked on as a tailor and pattern maker. I just make what is in the designer’s head.

How do I know what’s in the designer’s head?

Sometimes I get a sketch, sometimes pictures and photos from magazines and catalogues, sometimes vintage garments to use as a starting point, and sometimes it’s just a conversation with a scribbled line drawing on a manila oak tag.

And one other thing about the village: I made the patterns for all of the pieces to follow but, most times, I had the help of very talented tailors in the construction of the finished product.

A (partial) list of most memorables:

Outfit from an existing vintage pattern.

Outfit from an existing vintage pattern.

I used an existing 1930s vintage pattern for this ensemble. I altered the pattern slightly for fit. It’s a bit hard to see in the photo, but the jumper has an asymmetrical over lap opening in the front (that button is functional.) If I recall correctly, I did put together the blouse but I know that the jumper was constructed by one of the tailors in the shop, Amy.

Showgirl ensemble:

Showgirl ensemble.

Showgirl ensemble.

We made quite a few showgirl ensembles for Boardwalk but the sailor girls were my favorite. The trickiest part of any of the showgirl things was always the time constraints. We routinely had a week (at most) to construct the outfits, and this was on top of all the other things we were making and altering. Thankfully, the actresses playing the showgirls remained the same throughout the season so once I had their measurements I was able to pattern (relatively) efficiently and go straight to fabric without doing any sort of mock up. Any showgirl extravaganza was always a true group effort, as in the day before the costumes were needed, almost every single person in the shop was working on them.

Costume involving fish:

Costume involving fish.

Costume involving fish.

We made two of these for the final season of Boardwalk Empire. The fish have batting and wire in them to make them slightly three dimensional, and there are two more on the back. These took an especially long time as all the pearl trim had to sewn on by hand.

Complete outfit in shortest amount of time:

Complete outfit in shortest amount of time.

Complete outfit in shortest amount of time.

I will always remember this one. I had literally two days to get this done. On the morning of the first day, the actor came in for measurements. I started patterning as soon as he walked out the door. John (designer) found fabric he wanted to use that we already had in house so I was able to cut as soon as my patterning was done. I handed off the jacket pieces to one person and the pants to another and I put together the vest. The very next afternoon, I did the fitting. As you can see from the photo, the only changes needed were a sleeve and pant hem. This illustrates the importance of proper (and extensive) measurements.

Strangest costume:

One of the oddest costumes I’ve made were these lobsters, again for Boardwalk.

One of the oddest costumes I’ve made were these lobsters, again for Boardwalk.

One of the oddest costumes I’ve made were these lobsters, again for Boardwalk. I think the over bodice and sleeves were attached to the tail bit and it was put on like a coat, snapping and tying center front. I do remember the use of quite a large amount of wire.

Most adorable:

Most adorable.

Most adorable.

I patterned all of the boys’ things for Boardwalk. The principal men’s suits were made by Greenfield’s in Brooklyn but the in house shop that I ran always did the suits and jackets for the younger boys.

So that’s a short list of some of my most memorable projects. There are definitely many more though. One of the best things about my job is that there is always something new to make.

Funky Design Details in Men's Shirts

Funky Design Details in Men’s Shirts

I alter a lot of men’s long sleeve button front shirts at work. We use a variety of brands, each of which usually has its own little signature detail or cut. I can often tell what designer brand a shirt is without having to look at the tag.

I suppose, though, that as a designer at Rag & Bone or Varvatos, or Paul Smith, or the like, you can find yourself hard pressed to come up with some new, unique detail that makes your shirt special. Contrasting fabric on collars and cuffs has been done, funky buttons have been done.

Sleeve and center front plackets in a different fabric: done. Welt breast pockets. Done. Stand collars, unfinished seams, all of it, has been done. At times, I think there isn’t anything new left to do. I was pretty sure I’d seen it all when it came to cool, weird, and even sometimes bizarre design details on mens shirts.

Varvatos shirt showing collar stand unattached from shirt body.

Varvatos shirt showing collar stand unattached from shirt body.

But, John Varvatos proved me wrong. The newest feature on their long sleeve button front shirts is to leave the part of the collar stand that contains the button – you know, the portion that extends past the collar and is, essentially the center front overlap – unattached from the shirt body. Odd, because, if the shirt is buttoned, it really doesn’t look any different. And if the shirt isn’t buttoned, it kind of looks like a rip or tear.

Varvatos shirt with collar stand pinned and ready to sew.

Varvatos shirt with collar stand pinned and ready to sew.

I spent some time last week sewing collar stands to shirt fronts. I do, though, have to give the designers at Varvatos kudos for coming up with something I hadn’t seen before. It also ensures that, in the future when I see that particular detail, I will automatically know it’s a Varvatos shirt. So, good job on the branding. 🙂

To do list

While I’m on the subject, here’s a short list of design (or construction) element quirks that tend to be slightly annoying to film and television customers.

Rag & Bone with their painted white buttons.

Rag & Bone with their painted white buttons.

Rag & Bone and their painted white buttons.

They put the same painted white buttons on most every shirt. The buttons are kind of cool in a shabby chic-look-at-me kind of way but, the last thing you want when filming are shirt buttons that upstage the person wearing the shirt.

I’ve wasted many an afternoon, replacing those buttons with normal, non-descript ones.

Brooks Brothers and the glue they insist on using in their seams.

Taking apart a Brooks Brothers shirt is no quick and easy task – the stitches are miniscule and, as if that’s no enough, they use some sort of glue in their flat felled seams.

Ralph Lauren Polo.

Ralph Lauren Polo.

Ralph Lauren and the polo horse logo.

We’re rarely able to use any piece of clothing on a film or television show with an obvious logo for legal reasons. Most shows need clearance to use anything that clearly advertises a particular brand.

I can tell you that removing those cute little polo horses takes a really long time.

Any shirt that says it’s a ‘slim fit’ yet still has a back pleat.

I think I’ve written before about removing the back pleat (or pleats) in button front shirts. These are the pleats in the shirt body where it joins the yoke. They exist to add a good amount of ease to the shirt through the body. The only thing is, in the world of film and television they just end up looking bulky, a bit messy, and definitely not slimming. So I take them out. If I have the time, I usually take the entire back off and recut it, moving the armseye and side seams in the appropriate amount. If it’s a quick and dirty thing, I just throw some side back darts in and hope there isn’t a close up of the actor’s back.

That’s all I’ve got today though I’m sure there are more. I’ve got to get some sewing done now.

There’s a pile of Varvatos shirts on my table that need the collar stand stitched to the shirt body.

How to Make a Hidden Button Placket

How to Make a Hidden Button Placket

Last week, I waxed on about all the endearing qualities of my Industrial Juki straight stitch machine and I promised that, next, I’d write a little bit about my other favorite sewing machine, a vintage tan and white Singer 401K.

But then, this week at work, I spent a couple days making women’s button front cotton shirts for the character of Zapata on Blindspot. I’ve made her quite a few shirts over the course of this season. I created the pattern from her measurements and referencing how she liked the fit of a few off the rack shirts. She doesn’t fit into any brand without altering (she has a very small waist but is still curvy) so the costume designer and I decided we might as well make custom shirts for her.

So far it seems to be turning out quite well:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4474344/mediaviewer/rm2804286976

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4474344/mediaviewer/rm3758241792

Shirt making

I am not, by any means, a master shirt-maker (those do exist like the man who wrote Shirtmaking, developing skills for fine sewing). His name is David Page Coffin and he is definitely a shirt-making master. His book is filled with many helpful tips and suggestions. I reference it now mainly for the sleeve placket instructions and pattern. For some reason, no matter how many times I make a shirt, I always need a little reminder as to which way to begin a proper sleeve placket attachment.

Sleeve placket instructions from David Page Coffin’s book.

Sleeve placket instructions from David Page Coffin’s book.

Never feel bad if you need to look something up, especially if it’s a technique you don’t do on a regular basis. There are always new things to learn (or remember).

Concealed buttonhole placket

Another element of shirt making that took me awhile to be able to do without looking up a reference picture was making a concealed buttonhole placket. I’ve finally got it etched in my brain though – at least I think so.

The first step is to decide how wide you want to finished placket to be. I use an inch (1″) for ladies’ shirts but some people do an inch and ¼ (1 ¼”) or an inch and ½ (1 ½”).

Next mark out your fold lines on your pattern or fabric. You’ll need an extra four to six inches past the center fold/finish line.

Fold lines marked a numbered on pattern piece.

Fold lines marked a numbered on pattern piece.

Starting out from the center fold line, measure out ½” and draw a parallel line. This is the seam allowance line. Many commercial patterns use 5/8″ as a standard seam allowance so if you’re adding a hidden placket to a store bought pattern, check to see what they’ve used and do the same.

Then draw three more lines, each 1″ apart. Finally, mark your cutting line ½” from the last line (or whatever seam allowance you’re using).

To help explain and keep track of your folds, number your lines starting with the outermost one: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Press lines 1 and 2, wrong sides together. This is the part that will get the buttonholes. You can mark and do them now or, as I usually do, you can wait until you’ve got everything pressed and secured. I also press the 1/2″ outer seam allowance but do not leave it folded under – it’ll get caught inside the seam once you’re done.

Almost there

Fold along lines 1 and 2.

Fold along lines 1 and 2.

Next, accordion fold the remaining fabric. Fold along line 3, right sides together, then line 4, wrong sides together. Press.

Once you’ve done this, open the placket up so that its double wide with the seam allowance toward the front edge of the shirt. Topstitch along line 3 (which will be 1″ or however wide your placket is from the fold center fold line).

Open the placket up to topstitch.

Open the placket up to topstitch.

Once you’ve done your button holes, you’ll need to sew small hand tacks in between each hole to keep the placket from opening up (and essentially defeating its purpose of being hidden).

Voila!

Shirt almost finished in dress form.

Shirt almost finished in dress form.

And next week, unless something more interesting comes up, I’ll continue on with my favorite sewing machine ruminations.