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. 🙂

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.

https://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.

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.

All I Want for Christmas

All I Want for Christmas

There’s not all that much I need these days. Often, I feel as if I have entirely too much stuff. A year and half ago, I bought my apartment in New York City moved from Brooklyn (where I had lived for fifteen) up to Harlem.

There’s not all that much I need these days.

There’s not all that much I need these days.

I had accumulated a lot of stuff in those fifteen years and almost half of it seemed to be sewing related. This wasn’t even counting the storage space I had. Storage spaces are quite common in NYC as the apartments are notoriously small and no one ever seems to have enough room to keep all their stuff.

I literally had more fabric than I could ever, ever, use in my lifetime.

I literally had more fabric than I could ever, ever, use in my lifetime.

It’s not a problem

I decide that instead of moving all of my stuff, I was gong to get rid of some of it and I was going to empty my storage space so that everything I owned actually fit in one 800 square foot apartment.

I managed to get everything I owned to fit in one 800 square foot apartment.

I managed to get everything I owned to fit in one 800 square foot apartment.

It took some doing but I managed to accomplish this task. The biggest challenge was figuring out what to do with all the sewing related things. I really didn’t need fifteen pairs of scissors, four bins of bias tape, an entire box of rick rack and eight foot by ten foot cubicle packed to the ceiling with box after box of fabric.

Good places to donate fabric to are universities or schools with arts’ programs or assisted living homes.

Of course, I kept some things. I do, after all, possess that fabric-hoarding tendency that most tailors and pattern makers do. But I literally had more fabric than I could ever, ever, use in my lifetime – even if all I did for the next thirty years was sit in my apartment and make things. I kept the truly special stuff, the pieces that I might never be able to find (or afford) again. But the bulk of it I donated.

Giving back

Good places to donate fabric to are universities or schools with arts’ programs or assisted living homes. Even some prisons accept fabric donations.

One of the best organizations like this in New York City is Material For the Arts. They accept unneeded items from businesses and individuals, and make the donations available for free to nonprofit organizations with arts programming, government agencies and public schools. If you have a large donation (like an entire SUV full), call ahead to schedule a time to drop off.

Some other places that accept fabric donations are GrowNYC and Quilts of Valor.

The Humane Society and the ASPCA will take linens and clothing for bedding and bathing animals – especially towels.

GrowNYC used to take bags of fabric scraps of any size (that’s where most of the small scraps from Boardwalk Empire ended up) but their website now says they only want large usable pieces.

Quilts for Valor makes quilts for service members and will take most remnants as long as they are clean and free from oil stains & the like.

A few companies that offer take back and reuse options are:

  • Design Tex can provide ship-to information for recycling or reclamation of many of their upholstery, panel and drapery fabrics.
  • The Nike Reuse-A-Shoe Program recycles the rubber, foam and fabric from any brand of used sneakers into padded flooring.
  • The Patagonia Common Threads Garment Recycling Program recycles Polartec fleece, Patagonia organic t-shirts and Capilene Performance Baselayers into new Patagonia clothing.

If you’re doing some clearing out of your fabric stash this season, there are lots of opportunities to send your unwanted textiles somewhere they’ll be wanted. Please donate.

I do have to confess though, that there is one sewing related thing I’m hoping to purchase in the next year: A Juki MF 7923 Coverstitch Machine.

I figure I’ve donated just about enough fabric and other supplies to make room for a new machine.

And so the cycle continues 🙂

Costume Shops I Have Known

Costume Shops I Have Known

I’ve worked in a variety of costume and tailor shops over the past twenty-five years – some of them very permanent spaces, others makeshift and temporary. Some of them have been hellholes, some of them heavenly, and most of them somewhere in between.

One of the worst “shops” I’ve worked in actually happened this past summer. I was working on a new period Netflix show that was going to be filming for a few weeks in Savannah, GA. Now, Savannah itself is a very lovely city with a beautiful historical district, a properly chilling Ghost Tour and interesting & welcoming people. Sadly though, the space that I was told was mine to work in was an inner room of a sprawling low industrial type building. There were no windows, the air conditioning vents in the room didn’t work (think Georgia summer humidity), and none of the overhead lighting was functional. The room was essentially a hallway, providing the only path between the front and back of the building.

You Can’t Touch This

Long ago, in Houston, TX, I worked on a VH1 movie about MC Hammer (Yes, we made many pairs of Hammer pants). The Costume Shop was housed in a vault (as in a bank vault). We had so many lights rigged up in the space that I was sure one day we were going to start an electrical fire. That never happened but Tropical Storm Allison did. The Friday when the storm began, we were doing iron on letter transfers on t-shirts and sweatshirts – the kind where you peel off the backs and then stick the letters to the fabric. The Monday after the storm we opened the vault door to find about a foot of water and all the letter backs floating around like some giant pot of alphabet soup.

I spent most of my twenties at The Alley Theatre in Houston, TX. The original Costume Shop there was deep in the basement. As far as underground shops went, it was actually a very nice one with adequate lighting, three huge cutting tables, and lots of floor space. Sadly, that shop didn’t fare so well during Allison as the entire basement floors of the Alley filled with water when some underground bayou retaining walls broke.

All Washed Up

The only real ‘good’ thing about Tropical Storm Allison is that it hit late on a Friday night so most of downtown Houston was empty of people. The Alley was dark that night (meaning no show was scheduled). A few of the actors had been out and decided to stop in to The Alley on their way home. They were the first to discover that something had gone horribly awry in the underground tunnel system of Houston. Water was almost to the top of the steps and ramps that led down to the tunnel and shops. They immediately called the Production Manager who was sound asleep and had no idea yet what was going on. Her response, which since then has been immortalized in a very exclusive, limited run t-shirt, was, “Just put some towels down.”

It took a few years but, after the storm, The Alley built one of the best Costume Shops I’ve seen in my life. My friend Alice, who ran the shop for many years, called it “The Costume Shop in The Sky.” The shop (along with the rest of production) is up on one of the two top floors of the parking garage attached the theatre. There are huge windows and tons of space. It is truly a spectacular thing.

Another exemplary shop is the one at Troublemaker Studios (Robert Rodriguez’s studio) in Austin, TX. Again, it has large windows all along one wall. The windows are especially cool because they are the kind that, although the people inside can see out, folks outside can’t see in (perfect spy conditions).

Boardwalk Empire Refugee Camp

The Boardwalk Empire Shop was in a quanset hut – one of those dome shaped metal buildings – and essentially (no matter how hard we tried) always looked like a refugee camp. It was in the back of the ‘hut’ near a big rolling metal garage door. In an effort to provide sunlight and some sort of energy efficiency, the set construction guys made us wooden frames stretched with plexiglass that we set up in the doorway. We’d raise the rolling garage door to just above our “windows”. I saw lots of beautiful sunsets over the East River from those rickety plexiglass windows.

Brooklyn Blindspot

One of my favorite shops is the one I have now at Blindspot, mainly because of the big windows that look out over a busy Brooklyn intersection. For me, natural light and windows are one of the key things that make a good shop. If I have that, I can usually make the space work. The second thing would be proper electricity/power. I like to be able to plug all the things in at the same time without blowing a breaker.

What is the one essential thing for your dream shop?

What I Do At Work All Day (Part 2)

What I Do At Work All Day (Part 1)

Just a view of my shop.

Just a view of my shop.

I’m currently the Key Tailor on a New York City based major network crime-procedural drama television show (Blindspot on NBC). I work mainly out of one of the Brooklyn studios with occasional on-set last minute fittings. Most of the work I do each day is for things that need to be ready for the actors to wear the next day on camera. What this means is that, over the years, I’ve become pretty fast at doing a variety of alterations (as well as patterning and constructing from thin air). In my industry, there are certainly a lot of excellent tailors but there aren’t all that many excellent and fast tailors. Here are a few of the tricks I’ve discovered along tQuhe way that help speed up some common alterations.

Shortening the Sleeves of a Men’s Suit Jacket (without fancy functioning buttonholes)

Topstitching on sleeve lining.

Topstitching on sleeve lining.

First, just go ahead and remove all the buttons. They’ll just be in your way. Turn the sleeve inside out and find the topstitching along the sleeve-lining seam. This is how the sleeve was originally put together. Open up that seam and turn your sleeve inside out. Take apart the mitered and straight corners but do not undo the lining from the rest of the hem. (Go ahead and release any stitching holding the actual hem up though.) Undo any fake buttonhole stitching that you need to. These should be on a chain stitch and easy to undo.

Press miter corner with point turner inside out.

Press miter corner with point turner inside out.

Measure up or down the distance you want to shorten or lengthen at your corners and redraw your miter line if you need it.

Re-stitch all corners at new hem marks. I flip everything back right side out at this time and press my corners and the new hemline. Use a handy point turner

Don’t undo original stitching at hem.

Don’t undo original stitching at hem.

and please don’t trim anything away from the mitered corner. If you press inside out first with the point turner inserted the fabric will go where it needs to. No need for trimming. One of the most annoying things is to go and alter a jacket sleeve only to find that someone has trimmed the miter corner, meaning I can’t lengthen the sleeve properly.

(Still don’t unattach the lining)

Redraw miter line.

Redraw miter line.

After pressing, turn inside out again. Then simply measure up or down (I use an old fashioned metal seam gauge) from the current stitching line the desired amount and sew along that line. If you are shortening, there is no need to undo the original stitching line. If you are lengthening, you will need to. Machine tack the seam allowances together at the seam to keep the hem up.

Sew new stitching line shortening hem.

Sew new stitching line shortening hem.

Turn everything back right side out and topstitch the seam of the sleeve lining closed, put your buttons back on and you’re done!

There are of course a few situations that will make this alteration a bit more challenging – such as functioning buttonholes or having to add fabric to the hem seam allowance because of lengthening. If I’m having a good day and nothing strange is going on inside the sleeve, I can usually do this alteration in 30 minutes.

Center Back or Side Back Alterations on a Suit Jacket

The time saving trick on this one is pretty simple. Open up the under vent seam and turn everything inside out through there. When done, just topstitch the vent closed again, no opening up the lining and sewing it back by hand.

Men’s Vest Alterations – Center Back or Side Seams

I’m a huge fan of bagging things out. Men’s vests are one of my favorite things because you can bag everything out through a mere 2 inches on one of the side seam linings. First, find the opening where the vest was bagged out originally, probably a small hand stitched couple inches on one of the inside side seams. If its not there (if the vest was bagged through the neck, make your own. Then pull the entire vest inside out through those two inches. It will fit.

Vest side seams are most usually put together with one stitching line through all 4 layers (fronts and backs with linings). On the side without the opening just stitch a new line taking in (or out, though most commercial vests don’t have a lot of seam allowance to let out) the desired amount. If the amount is significant, you may need to re-stitch the arms eye curve so that everything lines up properly under the arm.

If you need to take in the center back seams, undo at the neck and bottom hem, alter as desired, the re-sew what you released.

On the side with the opening, stitch in two sections, above and below the opening. In the 2 inch gap, sew through all layers except the back inside lining.

Pull everything back through your opening, press and voila!

I just topstitch my opening from the right side of the vest, hiding the stitches in the seam line.

Check out Part 2 here!

My next post will tell you about the one of the sneakier men’s suit alteration tricks – the old dart and drop! So keep a look out for the follow up and as always – keep sewing!