What I Do At Work: Part XX

What I Do At Work: Part XX

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench … a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs…

– Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve had a couple extremely busy and rather annoying weeks at work. This past week, I altered somewhere close to twenty-five suits. That’s twenty-five suits while also doing a ridiculous number of fittings and a whole slew of other alterations as well. None of that is necessarily annoying on its own. What is annoying is when people aren’t good at scheduling and neglect to take into account the time it’ll take to complete an alteration.

As a TV and film tailor, I’m often the one who has a particular garment last, right before it goes off to set for an actor to wear. Which means, if someone didn’t schedule a fitting early enough or if they showed up late to a fitting, or they forgot about a fitting altogether, I’m the one who is under the gun. And I’m also the one who’ll get blamed if the clothes aren’t ready on time. Seems rather silly but that’s the way things normally work (no one ever said the film and TV business was a pretty or fair place).

As Hunter S. Thompson said, "The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason."

As Hunter S. Thompson said, “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”

Often when I tell people that I work on television shows and movies, they say something like, “Oh that must be so much fun!” I suppose it has its moments but after the couple weeks I’ve just had, none of those moments seem all that fun.

So what can be done when you find yourself in work situations that are less than ideal? Here’s a short list of the things I do, or at least try to do when things are chaotic and disorganized around me.

Ask lots and lots of questions

 If I’m in a fitting and I know the actor is scheduled to work the next day and the designers are putting multiple outfits on him, I ask things like, “So, this is what he’s wearing tomorrow?” or “For the courtroom scene, he should wear this?”

The only way you’ll be able to ask lots of questions, is if you read all the paperwork. Which leads to the next thing on the list (which perhaps should be the first thing…)

Read all the scheduling paperwork production puts out

For every episode, the assistant directors put out a schedule called a One Liner. A One Liner is organized by shoot day, starting with shoot day one. It lists every scene to be shot that day, and which actors are in that scene. Every actor in a show is assigned a cast number and that’s how they’re listed on the One Liner. At the end (or beginning) of the One liner, all the characters are listed in numerical order so you don’t have to know off the top of your head what number each actor is. It’s called a One Liner because the scene descriptions are traditionally one line.

You probably already know this but, tv shows and movies are not shot in the order of what you see as the final product. Also, remember that sometimes things change at the last minute. Double check everything. Read the daily call sheet. Check in with the Wardrobe Supervisor to make sure they have everything they need for the next day.

Some TV and film tailors rely on the Wardrobe Supervisor or Costume Designer to let them know what garments to complete when. I like to be a lot more proactive than that, mainly because I hate last minute, “Oh I forgot I needed this tomorrow. Can you alter this before you leave?”

These types of requests at the end of a ten hour day can often be avoided if you’re informed about the schedule and who works the next day and ask questions early on. People get tired and overwhelmed and forget things (I do sometimes, too!) but one thing I dislike a lot is when someone else’s forgetfulness or disorganization means I have to stay at work late. Because, believe me, most Costume Designers, after dropping a big late afternoon alteration in your lap, aren’t going to hang around at work with you while complete it.

So, I just try and stay super organized and prevent those types of situations. Also…

Know when to say no

This is always difficult for me (and likely for most people) but, if a designer puts, say,  a suit jacket on an actor that doesn’t fit him in the shoulders (and it’s a contemporary suit they just purchased in a store), the answer to, “Can you move the sleeves?” is, “I can but it’ll look a lot better if you buy a suit in the proper size. And we really don’t have time for that extensive of an alteration.”

Same goes for men’s shirts that don’t fit correctly in the neck. Buy a shirt in the proper neck size.

There are a lot of things I like about the film and television business but, one of the things I don’t, is the delusion that making TV shows is akin to something as important as curing cancer or launching rocket ships. TV is great and all but, it’s not world and peril stuff.

Which is always something worth remembering.

French Alterations and a Wee Rant

French Alterations and a Wee Rant

French Alteration: Pinning a garment with a note about something you never intend to actually do – and no one ever knows or realizes!

At this point in my tailoring and patternmaking career, I tend to work with the same five or six designers. Mainly, because I enjoy working with them and our fitting styles and fitting room etiquette mesh.

“Fitting styles and fitting room etiquette?” you might ask, “I didn’t know that was a thing.”

Well, when it comes to TV and film fitting rooms, it is definitely a thing. I prefer to work with designers I know and respect because they, in turn, know and respect me. And, most importantly, they let me do my job. Which is to fit a garment on a specific person’s body.

Take it in

My fitting style is to survey the situation for a few minutes, to let the clothing settle on a person so I can see what it’s doing or what it wants to do. Then I go in and start pinning if I need to. Sometimes, I don’t need to, sometimes I can tell what needs to happen just by looking at it.

On the rare occasions these days when I work with someone who doesn’t know me very well, they often want me to rush right in and start pinning away before I’ve had a chance to actually look at things. Or, one of my big annoyances, they yank in the center back waist of a thing so the side seams are pulled all wonky and tell me I need to “take it in”.

Well, yes, it does need to be taken in, but not like that.

Fit preference

Sometimes they’ll even do this to a jacket without buttoning the front buttons, which means if I did take it in the amount they’ve grabbed, the jacket would never, ever, in a million years, be able to close.

I try to be as nice as possible and say, yes, I see that. Now, can you please let go so I can see what’s going on?

Costume Designers definitely have their own preferences when it comes to fit and hem lengths and stuff. I’m completely ok with that and will fit things how they like them fit but I’m not going to do something that will end up looking bad in the end (and for which, I’ll be the one who is blamed because, as in most things, people tend to blame the last person who touched a thing if something is wrong with said thing).

We tailors have this little term we use called a French Alteration. It’s when you pin something or write a note about something as if you’re going to do it but never actually do and no one ever knows or realizes.

Anyway, so back to fitting room etiquette. If there’s a designer in the room, I let them do all the talking and or schmoozing about how good something looks on someone. I just like to concentrate and do my job. Some tailors like to chat (which is perfectly cool if that’s your thing) but I like to listen to what the clothes are trying to tell me.

Brand fitting

One thing I’ve noticed about some designers is that they don’t always seem to understand that brands are cut differently and certain labels look better on certain people. Sometimes, you need to go through a whole slew of suit jackets to find the one that fits a specific body type the best. I can do pretty much any alteration but after a point its sort of foolish to spend a crazy amount of time altering a thing when you could possibly find a cut of jacket that works with minimal alterations. Like, if you need to shorten the body of a suit jacket, maybe you should buy a short (as in a 40short or something). Men’s suit jackets come in longs, regulars, and shorts for a reason. Use them.

I know I’ve mentioned this before but, one of my favorite designers to work for is Frank Fleming who, among all sorts of other things, is the Costume Designer for the show Power. Frank is the master at finding which suit brand and cut fits best on which actor. He can even usually tell which one is going to be best by just looking at an actor. I love that, ‘cause as much as I enjoy taking a suit jacket sleeve out, re-cutting the back and or shoulders and resetting the sleeve (not really), why not just start with a suit jacket that works on a specific body type and not do that?

I never went to school for costume design so I don’t know if they teach this little idea but, they should. It’s a huge time saver. And it really just makes sense.

The Problem with Over Fitting

The Problem with Over Fitting

In my almost 30 years in the film and television business, I’ve worked with a lot of different designers. Every designer has a specific way they like things to fit, at least in the film and television world. Tailors at men’s suit stores like Brooks Brothers, or department stores like Nordstroms, have standard fit and length parameters they follow.

They’ll tell you that a suit jacket hem must end at a certain point on the wrist and the proper length of the jacket is determined by whether or not you can curl your hand around the hem in a certain way. They’ll also tell you that a pant hem needs to have a specific amount of break over the front of the shoe (the amount the hem buckles in when you’re standing straight up).

In television and film, these things can vary depending on what designer you’re working with. I have five or six different designers I work with fairly regularly and they all have specific ways they want things to fit. I’ve worked with them enough to know what each of them like. One of them likes suit pant hems on the short side but lots and lots of ‘stack’ when it comes to jean hems. Another always wants a rake in the hem because they hate to see an actor’s socks showing in the back when he walks. One likes the shirt sleeves to show a ¼” below the suit jacket. Another tends to want things very slim fitted.

One size fits all

As a tailor, one of the most annoying fit attributes is when a designer wants you to, essentially, over fit something (none of the designers I work with regularly do this). By over fitting I mean, they want me to fit something so tightly that there are absolutely no wrinkles present anywhere at anytime. The main problem with this is that it’s only achievable if the actor or actress happens to be a non-moving, stationary dress form or mannequin. And, as I’m sure you know, most are not.

Actors move, clothing wrinkles. If you fit a dress too tightly, it’s going to ride up at the slightest provocation. If you fit a man’s suit jacket within an inch of its life, the actor won’t be able to lift his arms.

There are a lot of wrinkles I can fix, but I can’t get rid of them all. An over fitted garment looks just as bad on camera as one that isn’t fitted enough. Unless you start putting all kinds of extra seams into a thing, you’ll never be able to get something that isn’t spandex, completely wrinkle free all the time. Wrinkle free-ness is only completely achievable when the actor stands in one specific way and doesn’t move at all, ever.

Oxygen is overrated

I can’t tell you how many times a designer has insisted I take something in so tightly that after it’s done, the actor complains about not being able to breathe. I usually don’t take anything in as much as I pinned in a fitting if I’m working with a designer like this. I honestly find it ridiculous that there are costume designers who don’t understand that when humans move, the clothes they are wearing also move. Sometimes there are wrinkles, and this does not mean that the garment is not fitted correctly.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement. In a photo shoot for print, there is no movement so you can over fit to your heart’s content. That’s why clothing never fits you like it does the model in the catalogue or on the website. And this is not a bad thing.

I’ve also worked with designers who do this thing where they grab a whole wad of fabric center back to demonstrate how something should be taken in. Well, first, when you do that, you’re pulling the side seams into a weird place that they shouldn’t be. Unless its men’s pants, I rarely take something in just from the center back, especially if it’s a wad-full of fabric. One reason is that I like to avoid having to reset the zipper if possible and secondly, it probably needs to come in from the side seams and the side back seams anyway. Or, if it’s four to six inches, it might make sense to purchase the garment in a smaller size. If I were building the garment from scratch, I’d want to recut it if possible.

Stress fractures & signs you are doing it wrong

I don’t know if other people notice this but when I see a dress with side seams that swing backward instead of hanging straight, I think that someone who didn’t really know what they were doing did that alteration. Costume Designers don’t necessarily need to know all the nuances of fit and balance but they should know enough to trust a good tailor when they have one.

Sadly, it normally doesn’t do any good to try and explain yourself to a designer who tends toward over fitting. They’ll just assume you don’t know what you’re talking about.

When I find myself in a situation with a center-back-wad-pulling designer, I just nod and pin it, then alter it in the way I think is best.

Because, as any tailor who’s been in the television and film business for awhile knows, “alter as pinned” is simply a suggestion (and a way to appease an over zealous fitting designer).

When Alterations Go Wrong

When Alterations Go Wrong

Things don’t always go as expected. Sometimes you do something and it fails to turn out like you imagined it would. Or it just doesn’t look as good as you wanted. Sometimes you unintentionally execute a crappy alteration.

There’s no reason to panic or get upset when this happens. You simply fix whatever it is. A problem only arises when you don’t see that something has gone awry or you try and convince someone that nothing is wrong; the garment just needs a good press.

twisting sleeves

twisting sleeves

Ironing and a healthy dose of steam can right all kinds of wrongs but neither of those things can make a bad alteration, good.

The old distraction trick

This past week, a Costume Designer friend of mine, Lauren, called to ask if I could look at a suit jacket for a friend of hers. He’s getting married in a few weeks and had purchased a Brooks Brothers suit. Brooks Brothers had recommended a tailor for him to go to for alterations.

The suit didn’t need all that much, just a little taking in on the sides to slim it a bit. When my friend’s friend – I’ll call him Dan – went to pick up his suit and tried on the jacket, he noticed some strange twisting in the sleeve. His fiancé (I’ll call her Kate), was with him.

They both pointed out the twisting to the tailor, but the man kept insisting that all they needed to do was send the suit out to be pressed and they should take a look at the back because it was smooth. You know, the old distraction trick.

Well, Dan and Kate weren’t really buying it, but they paid the man and took the suit to the dry cleaners to be pressed professionally. As they suspected, when they picked up the suit, nothing had changed. The sleeves were still hanging in a sort of corkscrew way. That’s when they asked Lauren if she knew someone who could help and they ended up calling me.

Its much easier to fix your own alteration snafus than it is to remedy the ones of others, mainly because you know what you did to get to where you are. When you’re not the one that started the whole thing, you have to use a bit of detective work.

Before I told Kate and Dan that I could fix the twisting sleeves, I opened the lining of the jacket to see what I could see. Men’s suit jacket sleeve linings are stitched in by hand at the armseye so that’s where to open them up.

I took out the sleeve lining from the back notch to the front notch, then unattached the lining body from the jacket body at the armseye.

Suit jackets are constructed fairly standardly when it comes to seam allowances. I could see that the side back seam of the jacket had been taken in, but just in the back, as well as the side front seam above the pocket. All of that had been done quite nicely, and the shoulder part of the sleeve was smooth and lovely. The problem was with how the bottom portion of the sleeve had been put back in.

Fitted Armholes

Men’s suit jackets, as a rule, have pretty fitted and constricting armholes. When you take in the side back and side front seams, you make the armhole smaller. If you don’t take in the seams equally front and back, you change where the bottom of the sleeve is (where a side seam would be if men’s suit jackets had side seams). You have to compensate for this in some way or your sleeve will be off balance and hang in a weird way.

Which is what happened in this instance. There are a couple ways the original tailor could have prevented this.

He could have taken in the sleeve itself the same amount he took in the body of the jacket. I don’t normally do this, though, unless the entire sleeve really does need to be slimmed. A better, more accurate way, to solve the twisting sleeve problem (in my opinion, at least) is to drop the armseye, starting from the back notch and ending at the front notch. What this does is make the armhole bigger and, essentially, the same size it was before you took in those jacket seams.

Oh boy…

In this particular jacket, not only did the tailor neglect to lower the armhole, but, when he eased the too big sleeve into the smaller jacket armseye, he rotated the whole bottom part of the sleeve too far forward.

Once I dropped the armseye, the sleeve, once again, fit perfectly and I was able to line up the bottom of the jacket body with the bottom of the sleeve. No more twisting!

Dan and Kate are happy now – though they’re asking the first tailor for some money back. I don’t think the man is necessarily a bad tailor because his alteration didn’t turn out so well (everyone does a wonky alteration every now and again) but, I do think he maybe doesn’t know what he’s doing because he didn’t see that something was wrong when Dan tried the jacket on.

It’s ok to make mistakes and have to do something over. It’s not ok to tell someone that nothing is wrong and not offer to fix it. Even if you think they’re wrong. And especially if it’s a suit they’re going to wear at their wedding.

Sewing With Voices

Sewing With Voices

As is my custom, this weekend, I was out with the guys riding bikes up mountains and we got to talking about podcasts and television shows and books and stuff. One of them said he didn’t really ever have time to listen to podcasts and was surprised I had time to do so.

“I listen while I sew at work,” I said.

“Really? You can pay attention to both of those things at once?” he asked.

“Yes, I really can,” I answered. And I can.

Listen while you work

I hadn’t ever really thought about it before, though. I’ve always been able to listen to radio shows or audiobooks or podcasts while sewing. I’ve even been known to watch Netflix if I’m not in a super time crunch. By “watch”, I really mean listen to a show I’ve already seen and don’t have to pay that close attention to. Or something like Law and Order that you don’t need to see the whole thing to get the gist of. Or something really cheesy like The Ghost Whisperer that only requires half your brain, at best.

Long ago, when I worked at The Alley Theatre in Houston, TX, we’d listen to audio books on the shop stereo in the afternoon. It was actually a really cool way to “read” a book. Then we’d get into lengthy debates and discussions about whatever we were listening to. We had our own sewing book club down there in the costume shop.

Hammer time

My friend Kassandra and I used to watch the morning talk shows while we made costumes for the VH1 special on MC Hammer. And these days, if I’m at work and not in a fitting, I’m listening to something like This American Life, StarTalk , Stuff You Should Know, Undisclosed, Radiolab, Ear Hustle – my list goes on and on.

Every once in awhile I come across an article that claims that humans are, in general, unable to do more than one thing at once and anyone who says they are a multi-tasker is not being completely truthful. Usually, the author will then go on to explain that people can’t really concentrate on more than one thing at once, that its scientifically impossible.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But I just don’t think that’s true. I can listen to Neil Degrasse Tyson talk about black holes and the speed of light and measure, cut, pin, and sew at the same time. I can even pattern or drape while listening to something. I guess because, at this point, a lot of what I do sewing-wise I’ve done countless times before so its kind of second nature and I don’t need my full concentration to do it correctly.

In contrast, though, I can’t talk on the phone while sewing and if someone has questions or needs to have a conversation with me, I have to stop what I’m doing (and its not just because I think its rude to not look someone in the eye when conversing). I have worked with people though, who seem to be able to video chat or skype while sewing. One of the ladies who worked for me on Boardwalk Empire was always skyping Russia.

Which reminds me of one particular day during Boardwalk. It was the afternoon and we were super busy. There was music on the background. We always had music on, just some Pandora station that we’d take turns choosing. Everyone was working away steadily on different projects, immersed in their own little worlds. I was patterning something, I don’t remember what, when I paused for a minute to look up and listen to the conversations going on in the shop.

There was one in Russian, another in Turkish, still another in French, a couple in English (obviously), one in Spanish and one in Arabic. It was all quite wonderful and made me really proud of the amazing diverse shop full of talented people I had around me.

And speaking of languages; that’s another thing you can do while sewing. You can listen to a language learning app or book.

I love that I can learn something new or get lost in someone else’s story while still creating something with my hands. I think it’s a wonderful ability to have, a gift even.

I think most of us who sew are true multi-taskers. (We’re pretty cool like that). I’d love to know what other people listen to or watch while working on projects.

I’m also in search of any new and interesting podcasts to listen to if you have any suggestions.

Happy sewing! (and listening).

Flat Patterning: Nothing to Fear

Flat Patterning: Nothing to Fear

I spent part of last week flat patterning a period vest and coat for a ten year old actor for a new Amazon series based on the book Dangerous Book For Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden.

Let’s get technical

Flat patterning is one of my most favorite things to do. It’s very mathematical & systematic.

Flat patterning is one of my most favorite things to do. It’s very mathematical & systematic.

Flat patterning is one of my most favorite things to do. It’s very mathematical and systematic. I find it strangely soothing. Many people are intimidated by flat patterning and don’t think it’s something they would ever be able to do themselves. But, the thing about flat patterning is, if you’re good at following directions, anyone can do it.

Have you ever seen the opening sequence for the movie Tailor of Panama? In it, you see a hand drawing in chalk on a piece of fabric. The hand presumably belongs to the tailor who appears to be free handing the outline of a suit jacket front. Now, that’s something you probably won’t be able to do until you’ve drafted some thousands of suit jacket fronts but, flat patterning onto a piece of brown paper by following the instructions in a flat patterning system book is something you can do.

Take a look – it’s in a book

Every person who starts out flat patterning is following someone else’s directions on how to do so.

Every person who starts out flat patterning is following someone else’s directions on how to do so.

Every person who starts out flat patterning is following someone else’s directions on how to do so. If you take a flat patterning class you’ll work from whatever book the instructor likes. A flat patterning book provides step by step instructions for drawing specific pieces of clothing – things like draw a line equal to back neck to waist and square off from both ends (a and b).

What this means is you need to know the measurement from the neck to the waist of the person you’re drafting for. You can also use standardized measurement charts (which is how commercial patterns are made). Most flat patterning books include such charts, or you can do a search online for them. The instructions for drawing the pattern will continue with the labeling of points by letters using measurements. Directions will say things like: connect e and f with a curved line or mark a point 3/8″ from g and square out.

The right pattern book for the right job

Each flat patterning will produce slightly different results as they are each based on a system developed by the author. Some systems factor in more ease than others, depending on what period the clothing is. For instance, a book on flat patterning a man’s suit jacket from the 1880s will produce a garment different than one written for patterning contemporary men’s suit jackets.

You can also use standardized measurement charts (which is how commercial patterns are made).

You can also use standardized measurement charts (which is how commercial patterns are made).

So, how do you know which book to work from? It honestly doesn’t matter all that much when you’re first starting out. But as you get more comfortable with it, you can try different books to see what end results you like better.

One of my most favorite patterning books is Dress Design: Draping and Flat Patterning Method by Hillhouse and Mansfield. The book, written in 1948, gives instructions for a variety of really cool 1940s dresses and suits. It’s not always useful if I’m making something that isn’t a 1940s garment but it’s a wonderful book to study and try out different techniques.

Some other excellent patterning books that are used often in colleges are Norma R. Hollin’s Pattern Making by the Flat Pattern Method and Designing Apparel through the Flat Pattern by Rolfo, Kopp, Gross, and Zelin.

I also like Metric Pattern Cutting books by Winifred Aldrich, though these do require being able to convert your measurements into the metric system. Some pattern makers believe that the metric system allows for increased accuracy when patterning.

Pattern Making by Tomoko Nakamichi is a creative non-traditional approach to patterning and gives instructions for unique geometric Japanese garments.

Tools

A few other tools that are handy to have when you’re flat patterning are a clear see-through ruler, a curved ruler, & an L-shaped ruler.

A few other tools that are handy to have when you’re flat patterning are a clear see-through ruler, a curved ruler, & an L-shaped ruler.

A few other tools that are handy to have when you’re flat patterning are a clear see-through ruler, a curved ruler, and an L-shaped ruler.

Most pattern makers use a regular old pencil to draft the initial pattern. If they need to go back and make corrections, they’ll often use a red or blue pencil so they’ll know which line is the new line. I, personally, am a fan of the red pencil for corrections as it’s easier to see than a blue one.

If you’ve been wanting to try your hand at flat patterning but didn’t know where to start now’s the time to get yourself a book and start learning! If you don’t want to purchase a book (some of them can be quite expensive), check out your local library. You can, also, of course find used pattern books on Ebay – just don’t get too caught up in auction frenzy and pay too much.

Happy patterning!

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

Last week, I spent a couple days making six silk dresses for a freelance client. I did the work at home, in my fifth floor walkup apartment in New York City. I only mention this because the dresses were made from silk charmeuse and I don’t, interestingly enough, have a proper cutting table at home. This really isn’t so much interesting as it is unfortunate and slightly annoying. Because, as anyone who has ever cut silk charmeuse knows, it’s a slippery sliding thing.

I cut the first dress out on the floor. Not ideal but it does work, as long as you use enough weights to keep it from shifting around. I usually cut things on the double with the fabric folded, selvedge edge to selvedge edge, which is how most consumer patterns instruct you to cut. Silk charmeuse can be a bit woodgy (yes, that’s a technical term) but the weave tends to be tight enough that you can confidently cut on the fold.

Some fabrics with an especially loose weave where it’s hard to keep the lengthwise grain line (and cross grain) straight are best cut in a single layer.

Shall we

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

To begin cutting, I tear a straight cross grain so I have a right angle to work from. Almost all fabric can be torn in this way. The cross grain of a fabric is made from the yarns woven over and under the lengthwise fabric grain at a 90 degree angle. The over under weaving provides less tension so crosswise grains have a tiny bit more stretch than the lengthwise grain. They normally run around a person’s body.

The lengthwise grain is the one that runs parallel to the selvedge edge and is the grain marked by the arrow on every pattern piece.

After tearing the the cross grain so I have a straight line, I fold my fabric in half right sides together, selvedge to selvedge. Once I have the fabric relatively flat and smooth on my cutting surface, I place a long metal ruler about an inch or two from my torn crosswise edge. I use a metal ruler because they’re heavy enough to act like a weight.

I line up the edge of the ruler perpendicular to the selvedge edge and across the full width of both layers of fabric. Then I make sure that the edge of the fabric that extends past the ruler is even. I do this to ensure that my cross grain is lined up correctly and not sloping down or up in relation to the selvedge.

I cut the next five dresses out on my old wood dining room table. It has leaves that fold up to make it almost six feet wide. At about 39” high, my cutting tables at work are higher than a standard dining room table. This height means I don’t have to bend so far over a table when cutting and, ultimately saves my back from hurting. If you don’t spend entire days cutting out garments, a dining room table usually works just as well.

You can also buy one of the cool folding style cutting tables available.

Grain line

So, what about grain line? Do you need to always pay attention to it?

That depends. At Boardwalk Empire, we would sometimes jest (when we didn’t have enough fabric and had to get creative with our cutting layouts), “Grain lines are for suckers.”

What we really meant, though, was “As long as you know what you’re doing, you can manipulate and vary the placement of your pattern pieces.”

If you happen to have a striped fabric, playing with the grain line can be fun. Thomas Pink, who makes high end men’s dress shirts will sometimes cut one side of the front on the lengthwise grain and the other on the cross for a quirky asymmetrical look.

Striped fabrics will also naturally chevron at the side seams if you match them up correctly when cutting and sewing.

You can also turn collars, cuff pieces, and/or pockets of striped fabrics on a different grain to add an interesting design effect.

All of these things are most easily done with a fabric that doesn’t have a lot of give, like a tightly woven cotton.

Measure up

If you’re interested in getting a little creative with your next project, you may want to invest in a quilter’s ruler. These rulers have 45 and 30-degree angles marked which is helpful when adjusting grain lines.

If you’re matching stripes or other patterns, you’ll find it much easier to cut in a single layer so you see everything clearly.

This may seem obvious, but if you’re experimenting, it’s always good practice to test things out first. If you have plenty of fabric, you can use some of it to do a little practice run. If not, you can use muslin or something similar to try out your idea. If you’re using a striped fabric, you can mark lines on your muslin before cutting to show you how everything will line up.

Bias

Bias is the diagonal angle across your fabric. The bias grain has quite a bit of stretch. A dress that clings to the body closely without having multiple seams is very likely cut on the bias. When you’re making a bias garment, especially a dress or slip, you’ll want to let the bias hang out for a while if possible as it will stretch out. You’ll notice that the bottom edge of your pieces will end up uneven if you do this, which is exactly what you want. You’ll need to remark your hemline after you’ve put together the garment.

I usually stay stitch my arm and neck holes, then pin my cut pieces on a form and, if time permits, let them hang over night. It’s also beneficial to then pin the seams together while they are hanging on a form to help alleviate any puckering.

Once you have a good understanding of grain lines, there’s no reason why you can’t try different things. Get creative (just remember that bias does stretch a lot more than something on the straight so you may need to stabilize with a lightweight fusible interfacing).

Sewing on Trucks, Cycling with Sewing Machines

Sewing on Trucks, Cycling with Sewing Machines

This past week, I got a call to tailor and do some fittings for my friend Matthew, who is the Costume Designer for TBS’s Search Party. I love working for Matthew. He’s sweet and fun and his design choices are quirky, a lovely mix of vintage and high end with a bit of funk blended in.

Search Party doesn’t have the budget for a full time tailor, so Matthew only calls me in for days when he’s doing a lot of fittings or he has a pile of alterations that he needs completed for the next couple weeks of filming.

Day playing

Day playing, which is what we in the film business call working for a day or two on a show when extra help is needed, can be an enjoyable experience (it can also be annoying but I try my best to avoid those types of day playing gigs). Search Party is pretty much always a positive experience, mainly because of Matthew and the people he has working for him.

So, I was happy to get the call, even though it involved going all the way to Red Hook (a neighborhood in Brooklyn sadly lacking in convenient public transportation access) and sewing on a cramped Wardrobe Truck.

The inadequate subway connection was easily solvable: I’d ride my bike just as I do most places in the city, except that I needed to bring a sewing machine and basic sewing supplies with me. Tailor day playing assignments almost always involve dragging your machine and kit through the streets, and usually not on a bicycle.

I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack.

I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack.

But, a few months ago, I received an unexpected gift from REI. I’d ordered a tent for some planned bike packing adventures but, instead, received a backpack (definitely not a tent). REI costumer service was very helpful when I called, said they’d send the tent straight away and would email me a pre-paid return label to ship the backpack back (back…). About twenty minutes after I hung up, they called back to say never mind, keep the backpack for free.

I don’t know what made me try it, but a couple weeks after that, I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack. Brilliant! Here are some photos. If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

I packed a few other things in the backpack with the machine (there was still more space!) – shoulder pads, interfacing, and lining scraps, a bag of thread, and some other not very heavy notions. The rest of my supplies, the scissors and more threads and gallon bag of elastics and tapes, I packed into my Revelate Seat Bag that I purchased from my favorite local bike shop. And I was good to go, albeit not very quickly (cause all that gear was a bit heavy)…

The lion, the witch and the Wardrobe truck

Sewing in small spaces on a Wardrobe truck where a whole crew of other people are also trying to do their jobs presents its own set of challenges. Working on the Search Party truck even more so as they use the dreaded split Wardrobe/Hair/Makeup style of 18-wheeler film truck. Most productions have separate trucks for Wardrobe and Hair/Makeup and twice as much space but smaller productions who are trying to save money go with the split trucks. What this means is that there is even less space than normal.

I set up my machine on the front corner, the sink and washer/dryer on my right and the busy Wardrobe Supervisor and her computer on my left. A few feet away, one of the customers steamed and ironed the clothes for the next day and, in the back of the truck Matthew and his assistant did fittings with various cast members. Occasionally, the set costumer was also on the truck gathering things for the next scene, as well as the shopper dropping off or picking up items.

High chair

I had a chair that was too high for the counter. I’d have to crouch in order to sew while sitting in it. Below the counter were drawers so there was no convenient place to put the foot pedal. I ended up standing up to sew, my leg turned out to the right to operate the pedal from a side-saddle angle. The foot kept getting stuck under the lip of the bottom drawer so that the machine would continue to sew even after I’d taken my foot off. I had about two inches of empty space to the left of my machine before the supervisor’s notebooks and computer and the cord from the iron kept falling (along with a bunch of my pins) into the sink to my right. I had to shift position slightly every time someone needed to fill or empty the washer and dryer.

But, it was still a wonderfully pleasant work-day. Because we were all in good spirits and we all worked together, happily jockeying for space, seamlessly adapting to each other’s needs, laughing when we all seemed to need to occupy the same twelve inches of space at the same time, all of us just getting our jobs done.

Things don’t always work this well on a crowded wardrobe truck. Sometimes people forget that everyone’s jobs are important and necessary to the project. Sometimes people are cranky because of lack of sleep, or stress, or just because it’s their nature. But it doesn’t have to be that way and, if you ask me, it shouldn’t. Making TV does not, after all, have anything to do with curing cancer or launching rocket ships (sometimes people forget that!).

One of the most wonderful things is a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. Its also a pretty good way of getting things done! I highly recommend it. 🙂

Common Ground - Women's Sewing Center in Pakistan

Common Ground – Women’s Sewing Center in Pakistan

The road on the way to Chirah.

The road on the way to Chirah.

The road from Gilgit, Pakistan to Chirah in the Bagrote Valley is not an easy one. It starts out easy enough: along the paved Karakorum Highway. But, a few kilometers outside of Gilgit, you take a left directly into the mountains. And then the road is dirt, gravel, large rock, and sand – and steep. Lung wrenchingly steep, if you’re on a bicycle as we were. It winds up and around the mountain, free of guardrails, devoid of almost all traffic except the occasional motorbike. There is nothing to filter the searing sun. The air is heavy and hot and the path always, always, leads upward.

Until finally, the road evens out, becomes almost flat. And green appears – grass, trees, gardens, rows and rows of vegetables spread out on both sides. The air becomes a bit cooler and the winds whistle down from the peaks, circling through the valley in a refreshing heavenly respite.

Chirah Sewing Centre

Chirah is a small village in the Bagrote Valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. The region, self-governing, receives very limited support from the central Pakistani government.

The Chirah Sewing Centre, opened in April of 2012, provides six month courses to the women of the region to learn sewing skills so that they may, if they wish, earn their own income.

The Sewing Centre is housed in a small space provided by a village resident.

The Sewing Centre is housed in a small space provided by a village resident.

The Sewing Centre is housed in a small space provided by a village resident. The room is not very large at all, probably about 12-14 feet by 6-8 feet and there is no electricity. All the machines are treadle or hand operated. Only two of the machines were in cabinets – the rest were on the floor. They were all the old black Singer style machines in wooden cases. The women sit on the floor (or at the limited available tables) to sew, creating all kinds of garments and decorative textiles, a sampling of which hung on the walls of the room.

Little women

The women cooked breakfast for us the day we visited and we ate on the floor surrounded by their machines and sewing projects. The director of the Centre, a man, told us that they were hoping to acquire an overlock machine in the future. I wondered how that would work without electricity but didn’t get a chance to ask my question. Two of the women, the teachers we were told, sat in the corner of the room while we ate. They spoke quietly to each other from time to time but, as is often the case in Pakistan, they never directly addressed us.

I was the only woman in the cycling group of 7 plus 2 male Pakistani guides. We made eye contact, me and the two women in the corner, and they grinned at me when I waved.

After we ate, all the women who were enrolled in the sewing course, filed into the room to sit behind their machines. Everyone took pictures and the Director continued to talk about the women and the centre and what they were learning and what kinds of things they made.

Cultural differences

I tried to convey how I really enjoyed meeting the ladies at the Sewing Centre.

I tried to convey how I really enjoyed meeting the ladies at the Sewing Centre.

The men in my cycling group stood at the doorway and took photos of the women and their machines. I took some too but, after the men had gotten all the pictures they wanted, I went in to talk to the women directly. None of them knew much English and I, unfortunately, know very little Pakistani.

I did have pictures of my sewing machines and my studio on my phone though and I showed them those. One by one, as they scrolled through my photos and realized I sewed also, they smiled and grasped my hands, laughed, and talked excitedly with each other. I desperately wished we could communicate better. I wanted to talk to them about sewing, about the garments they made on machines without electricity. I also sort of wanted to apologize for all of my male companions taking photos of them as if they were in a zoo though I knew that none of them meant it that way. I also wanted to say that I wished they could tell me about the Centre in their own words, without the editing of a male spokesperson. But I couldn’t. So I had to settle for showing them as many pictures as I could and trying to convey how I really enjoyed meeting them and how much respect and admiration I had for them.

I wished that we could all sew together. I wished they were allowed to have their own voices in rooms full of men. I wished there was a way I could tell them how amazing I thought they all were. I wished they lived in a world where it was ok for women to talk to men freely, where they could look anyone they wanted in the eye, speak their minds. I wished they didn’t have to stay silent while someone described their lives. I wished I could spend more time with them but the group was getting ready to cycle on.

And so I got up to say goodbye. And every single one of them got up as well, hugged me as I left, and looked me directly in the eye, one tailor to another.

The (sometimes scary) Life of a Freelancer

The (sometimes scary) Life of a Freelancer

Camel fashion in Petra.

Camel fashion in Petra.

If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been traveling a bit recently (And I’m actually preparing to head out tonight for one more adventure in a far-flung land). I tend to go on trips solo, often joining an organized group expedition that most likely involves riding my bike through some foreign country.

…you can’t keep putting off the things you want to do or the places you want to go on the assumption you’ll have time in the future to do them.

I meet lots of different people on these trips from all sorts of places and backgrounds. But two of the questions that every single person on this planet always seems inclined to ask are:

(1) What do you do for work?

And (2) some variation of How do you get so much time off work?

Different strokes for different folks

How do you get so much time off work?

How do you get so much time off work?

I give different answers to the first question depending on who’s doing the asking. Sometimes I just say I’m a tailor and pattern maker, though this confuses many people, as the fact that such a thing could be a career never occurred to them. Their idea of a ‘tailor’ is someone like their grandmother sitting at home in a rocking chair darning socks and patching jeans.

Sometimes I say I’m a tailor for film and television shows which usually elicits an “oh wow, that’s interesting!” I always answer that sometimes it is but most times it isn’t all that glamorous (I spend a lot of time hemming jeans and shortening men’s jacket sleeves) though I do enjoy what I do.

If the conversation continues from there it usually enters into the murky waters of “so you’re a freelancer?” Well, yes, sort of. But also, sort of no.

Am I a freelancer?

I am a freelancer - in a sense.

I am a freelancer – in a sense.

I’m a freelancer in the sense that I’m never completely sure where my next job might come from but I’m not in the sense that I belong to a union and therefore have excellent benefits and salary protection. Not all movies and television shows are union ones (if they’re not we call them independent films.) My particular local in NYC does not have what they call ‘a hiring hall’, meaning I’m responsible for procuring my own jobs; the union doesn’t send me on jobs or anything like that.

And I’m also not a freelancer in the way I get normally get paid on a project. Almost all film and television jobs use one of two payroll companies: Entertainment Partners or Cast & Crew. I get paid through them with taxes taken out and a W-2 at the end of the year. The nice thing about both of these companies is that they keep track of all your earnings throughout the years with all the different shows you’ve worked on so you can use them for employment and salary verification when you’re applying for things like mortgages (banks like employment verification!). They are, legally and technically, your employer of record.

Each show or movie sets up its own production company (usually an LLC) independent from whatever parent company it may have (NBC Universal, Disney, etc.) that in turn, enters into contracts with the payroll company and the unions.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em & know when to fold ’em

My answer is very simple: “I just say no.”

My answer is very simple: “I just say no.”

If I get through all this mumbo jumbo financial stuff and the person I’m talking to is still actually listening, they’ll then ask about how I get time off.

My answer is very simple: “I just say no.”

…its good not to be available all the time.

It’s taken me a very long time to get to the point where I’m able to say no to things. When I was just starting out, I said ‘yes’ to absolutely everything. You kind of have to when you’re beginning, before you’ve built up your reputation. But now that I’ve been doing this for a bit over 25 years, I can turn down things I don’t necessarily want to work on and say ‘no’ to gigs if I’ve planned a trip or vacation.

Free spirit

It’s a glorious thing to be able to say no to something that sounds horrifying (like, for instance: an over night shoot way out in Queens or a huge period television show that some network executive thinks can be made with half the manpower than what is really needed).

Nancy Reagan just says no - you can too!

Nancy Reagan just says no – you can too!

It can be scary, for sure, because I never truly, completely know if I’ll get another job (freelancing is wrought with all kinds of anxiety!). But, if history is any indication, I will. And I try to trust that.

Another thing I’ve learned is that you can’t keep putting off the things you want to do or the places you want to go on the assumption you’ll have time in the future to do them. Because you won’t. Sometimes you just have to have a little faith.

I’m not saying it’s easy to get to the place I’m at. It’s not. I worked extremely hard for almost 20 years while never taking any sort of vacation or going anywhere. But, in my old(er) age work/life balance has become more important to me and, my connections and work reputation are strong enough to allow me to leave town for a couple weeks without jeopardizing my career.

Plus, its good not to be available all the time. Unless they’re a close friend, I never tell people why I’m not available, I simply say, “Sorry, I’m booked up for the next two weeks.”

Booked up on my own personal vacation maybe,  but they don’t need to know that.

Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.