All in the Family

All in the Family

One of my work colleagues is currently in the process of setting up a costume shop for a new period television show. Setting up a new shop is a pretty big job. There is so much to do and lots of decisions to make.

Setting up a new shop is a pretty big job.

Setting up a new shop is a pretty big job.

My colleague asked about sourcing options for rolls of muslin and whether buying online or locally in the city made more sense. I actually have some very strong opinions on the subject. I believe very much in supporting local and family owned businesses. Sewing Machines Plus is a family owned company in San Marcos, California and I am happy to contribute to their blog. If you are local to that area, or if you live in a place where sewing supplies are not plentiful, or your only choice is a big name chain store, I encourage you to check out the Sewing Machines Plus website as an alternative.

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere

I happen to be lucky enough to live in New York City where there is still a garment district. In the city, it is still possible to get pretty much anything you need sewing-wise from the garment district or other local businesses, though it does sometimes take a bit more time/legwork and actually talking to a real live human in person to procure what you need.

I always get my muslin from Steinlauf and Stoller on 39th Street. It’s a small, narrow store with not much of a traditional showroom. You have to ask one of the crotchety older gentlemen behind the counter for what you need. He’ll probably grumble a bit at you and ask you what you’re making and what you need the thing for but he’ll eventually reach into some drawer or cupboard, or disappear into the depths of the storeroom and pull out the thing you need. All in all, it makes for a very authentic New York experience.

Another one of my favorite supply places in the city is Oshman Brothers in the Lower East Side. They’re a third generation family business and are always super helpful with digging out the specific supplies you’re looking for. They are, though, closed on Saturdays.


In true NYC style, Andy’s is not actually a store but rather a workshop in the back of another store (True Hair Company) at the end of a hallway lined with random dress form parts.

In true NYC style, Andy’s is not actually a store but rather a workshop in the back of another store (True Hair Company) at the end of a hallway lined with random dress form parts.

Andy’s dress forms is the last dress form manufacturer left in New York City. They also repair forms. Their website cautions you to call before coming by the store. In true NYC style, Andy’s is not actually a store but rather a workshop in the back of another store (True Hair Company) at the end of a hallway lined with random dress form parts. Going for a visit is always an adventure. But if you’ve been once, they are likely to recall your name and know what show, or shows you work on, and treat you like one of the family.

Another store with limited hours and a recommendation to call before stopping by. Manny’s was once one of the most magical stores in the city, with shelves stuffed full of amazing millinery trims and notions. The place used to offer a bit of a treasure hunt. Now, they are much more streamlined and organized and don’t stock as many things as they once did. Sadly, this is the result of the decreasing demand for millinery supplies and the consumer trend of shopping at big name “convenient” outlets.

The New York City garment district isn’t dead yet but it has certainly suffered somewhat of a decline, as have many family owned and run businesses in the U.S. If you can, get out and support your local fabric and sewing supply store. And if there isn’t one nearby, check out an online family owned store such as Sewing Machines Plus who still believe in the personal touch. You’ll be glad you did.

Getting In

Getting In

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living (Tailor and Pattern Maker for film and television) they inevitably say one of two things.

“Wow. How did you get into that?” or “What a cool job!” Sometimes acquaintances will ask me if I can talk to their niece or son or daughter’s friend or cousin or something and give them advice on how to ‘break into’ the business.

I’m never entirely sure what sort of advice to give. As Hunter S. Thompson said (or maybe didn’t say depending on who you ask),

The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.

There is some truth in that Hunter quote. Especially now when the major networks are increasingly concerned with cost and ratings and everyone wants to do more (and more) with less money. Period television is quite popular right now. The only problem with that is that period television is hard, perhaps the hardest genre.

“But, why?” you may ask, “It looks like so much fun!”

The Devil is in the details

Here’s the thing: period TV is expensive. You have to dress every single background actor and actress as well as the principals. On shows such as Law and Order, often the background (BG) performers are wearing something selected from their own personal closet. What generally happens is that the BG will come to work with a few clothing options. An assistant designer will usually pick which of these options is best and that’s what the actor will wear. Most people don’t have closets full of 1920s or 1880s clothing so, on a period show, the entire costume is provided, fit, and altered. This takes more time and manpower which, in turn, takes more money.

TV is also fast – faster than filming a movie. Most shows shoot an episode in 8 to 10 days, with at least a day or two when they are shooting two episodes at once. (We call those tandem days.) Because of this, you never really get any down time. On a movie, there is most always a point where you’re over the hump – you’ve established all the costumes needed. Or you’re working on something where all the action takes place on the same day and no one changes their clothes. Then, all you need to worry about is multiples and the rest of the work is up to the set costume crew who keep track of continuity and make sure everyone looks how they should in front of camera.

Do your thing & do it GREAT

I guess if I were to give one piece of advice I would say to become really good at the thing you want to do. Then, figure out how to do it very quickly if needed. I may have said this before (I say it a lot) but there are lots of good tailors and pattern makers out there. What there isn’t a lot of are exceptional tailors and pattern makers who can also work really fast. If you want to work in TV and film that will definitely give you an advantage.

As far as finding TV and film jobs, talk to people, contact your city’s (or state’s) film commission. Word of mouth is still the best way to find a job in this business.

Mind your manners

And be nice to everyone, even if you think they have no ‘influence’ or are looking for the same kind of job as you are. You never know who knows who and you never know when someone might need help because they have more work than they can handle on their own.

Oh, and that “What a cool job!” comment… Some days it is and some days it isn’t. I can assure you there is nothing glamorous about it but, at the same time, it is also rarely boring.