Thanks for the Fabric, Tahari

Thanks for the Fabric, Tahari

Throughout my career I’ve worked on a variety of projects. People often ask what my favorite show to work was, or what my favorite period is. Both of those questions are difficult for me to answer. I could probably tell you what my least favorite show to work on was but narrowing them all down to one single absolute best and favorite is not possible.

It all depends. Some projects require more creativity than others. Some are relatively simple straightforward gigs that involve hemming a staggeringly large number of pants. Some shows are more stressful than others with a higher than normal rate of last minute changes. Some involve working with difficult people. Others are filled with co-workers that quickly become family.

Whenever I mention any of the period shows or movies I’ve worked on, people usually say, “Oh that must be so much fun!” When I say I work on a contemporary procedural crime drama, the response is more something like, “Oh. The show with the tattoos?” or “That’s interesting.” Meaning: That doesn’t sound interesting at all. Don’t actors just wear store bought clothes? What do you possibly have to tailor on those shows?

To this all I can do is laugh. No major actor or actress on any contemporary procedural crime drama wears clothing that hasn’t been fit and altered specifically for him or her.

There are, always, a few exceptions to this, notably when a talented costume designer knows the cut and style of high-end clothing well enough to know which designer label will fit a particular actor the best with little or no alteration. Frank Fleming who designs Power for Starz Network is an absolute master at this.

I truly enjoy working on Blindspot (my current gig). Everyone in the costume/wardrobe department is absolutely amazing and all the actors are lovely to work with.

One of the lead actresses wears a lot of expensive high-end dresses and skirts and blouses. Most of the dresses I alter for her require alterations in the shoulder, side, and waist seams. Altering the shoulder seams means the neckline will need to be altered and the sleeve taken out and reset. Altering the side seam means (again) the sleeve will need to be removed and put back on. Basically, I must take apart the entire dress and put it back together (Thanks for the fabric, Tahari! or Black Halo or Escada or Nanette Lepore).

We also do things like changing necklines (from a high scoop to a vee) and changing short sleeves to long sleeves or even adding sleeves altogether. Jared B Leese who designs Blindspot comes up with many creative and brilliant ways to alter something so that it no longer is a dress ‘off the rack’. He’ll ask things like, “Can you open this neckline?” or “Will you make sleeves for this dress?” or “What if we turn this into a v-neck – do you think that would look better.”

The answer is always “yes”.

This beautiful suede Tahari dress used to have a high crew neckline and short sleeves:

Tahari dress with new neckline and sleeves.

Tahari dress with new neckline and sleeves.

This lovely dress (also by Tahari, I think) used to be sleeves and all suede. We replaced the center panel and added some sleeves.

Tahari dress with new sleeves and center piece.

Tahari dress with new sleeves and center piece.

And this Black Halo dress used to be navy.

To be honest, this one was a complete rebuild. I copied the pattern from the existing dress, made a few adjustments and cut out and built a whole new dress.

Make of Black halo dress.

Make of Black halo dress.

See, contemporary procedural crime dramas are anything but boring (and often my favorite type of show to work on).

Just a closer view of the Black Halo dress.

Just a closer view of the Black Halo dress.

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.

 

 

I Never Meant to Be a Tailor

I Never Meant to Be a Tailor

‘Tailor’ and ‘Pattern Maker’ never once made an appearance on my list of what I wanted to be when I grew up.

‘Tailor’ and ‘Pattern Maker’ never once made an appearance on my list of what I wanted to be when I grew up.

If someone had told me when I was young that I would end up making a career out of sewing, I would have told him or her they were being ridiculous. ‘Tailor’ and ‘Pattern Maker’ never once made an appearance on my list of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Not that any truly conventional careers were on my list – I wanted to be a professional musician, a flutist, or a writer, and maybe a fashion designer. I wanted to change the world, make it better. I wanted to be remembered.I come from a long line of talented seamstresses and tailors.

I come from a long line of talented seamstresses and tailors. My Mother, part of the Baby Boomer Generation, regularly made outfits for my brothers and me. When I visited my Nana, I slept in her sewing room next to the Singer machine in the brown wood cabinet. I don’t remember learning how to sew though I’m sure my Mother must have taught me. I just always could. Among numerous other projects, I made both my prom dresses in high school. Still, I didn’t consider sewing a marketable career skill.

I’m not even sure how it happened.

Sewing, and especially patterning, are now often, my escape from real life.

Sewing, and especially patterning, are now often, my escape from real life.

In college, I discovered the theatre and the costumes. I started working in the costume shop at Ohio University. Like most theatre costume shops everywhere, it was in the basement with only those small windows way up high on the walls that offered lovely views of feet passing by outside but little light. Then I got a paid summer internship helping two designers in Worcester, Massachusetts. The rest, as they say, is history, or my history at least. It’s all I’ve done workwise for the past 27 years.

The trick is knowing what to do when the fabric or garment or your machine throws you a curve ball.

The trick is knowing what to do when the fabric or garment or your machine throws you a curve ball.

Sewing, and especially patterning, are now often, my escape from real life. They are things that can be done fast or slow but never rushed. One of things I love most about building a garment, or even doing an alteration, is that it takes just as long as it takes. People hate that answer to the question, “How long will take you to x?” But that’s the neat thing about sewing: you just never know what might happen in the process.

The trick is knowing what to do when the fabric or garment or your machine throws you a curve ball.

To be happy in my life, I need both my hands and my mind to be busy. I need to make things. Flat patterning something I’ve never patterned before is my idea of a heavenly day at work. Looking at a picture of a dress in a magazine and working out how they made it do that, brings some of the best kind of joy. Figuring out a new technique that makes something I’ve done over and over easier and better calls for spontaneous furious dancing.

Sewing and tailoring and patterning are art forms, are skills that you can sustain you through life.

Sewing and tailoring and patterning are art forms, are skills that you can sustain you through life.

I think a lot can be learned with practice but I also believe that some people do just have an affinity for sewing and patterning. Some people speak the language of fabric. These are the people with callouses on their scissor fingers who know what an inch or a half inch or two inches looks like without measuring. These are the people who can look at a suit jacket and know exactly what alterations need to be done. My friend Anne and I often joke that we throw some pins in a thing just to make everyone else feel better. These are the people who find comfort in a plain old simple center back alteration and spend hours pouring over thread color charts. These are the people always looking for new ways to do and create things.

I worry that fewer and fewer young people are getting into tailoring and sewing. I think it’s a shame. Sewing and tailoring and patterning are art forms, are skills that you can sustain you through life. And the pride in creating something that you, or someone you love, or someone you don’t even know, can wear is simply priceless. I think it’s a pretty neat way to leave behind a bit of a legacy and be remembered