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.

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 🙂

Shopping in the New York City Garment District

Fabric Shopping in the New York City Garment District

Shopping in the New York City Garment DistrictWhen I first moved to NYC a lifetime ago, I worked for very little money as an assistant to a crazy hat designer in the heart of the garment district. The only upside to the job was that I spent a good part of every day out on the streets gathering fabric swatches and button and trim samples. There was another assistant who had been there for almost a year already and she took me around with her and introduced me to all the people and stores. The two of us had a great time digging through bins of buttons, wandering deep into the back corner of NY Elegant Fabrics, and convincing the nice people at Mood to let us into their “secret” warehouse (it really does exist).

I only stayed at that job for about a month, though it felt like a year, and the other assistant (who has since moved back to Korea to head up a fashion company there) and I still keep in touch. I don’t go to the garment district as often as I once did but I do have a list of must visit favorite places.

Mood – 225 West 37th Street

I’ll get this one out of the way first since most people at this point have heard of Mood which lucked into some amazing advertising when it became the fabric store featured on Project Runway. One of the coolest things about Mood is the building its in and the old elevator, still manned by an actual man, that you have to take up to the 3rd floor. Once up there, the rows and rows of fabric reach from floor to ceiling. Things are pretty well organized, the selection is large, and most bolts have swatches already cut and attached to the ends that you can take.

One little note about swatching in most all the stores in New York City: If someone asks if you are a student, say no. They’re asking because most stores have specific hours for student swatching and won’t allow you to do so if its not during those hours.

Also of note: Mood has a public restroom in the back right corner. 😉

NY Elegant – 222 West 40th Street

I love NY Elegant for its selection of light weight cottons, organdies, and batistes. NY Elegant is a family run store and is the last standing fabric store on 40th St. They also get a lot novelty fabrics – fake furs and things with glitter and sparkly threads.

Paron Fabrics – 257 West 39th Street

This is one of my absolute favorite family run fabric stores in the city. Sadly, they closed their doors for good just last month. I’m only including it to remind everyone to try and support their local fabric stores and if, you have the chance, come to NYC and shop in the garment district. You really can find almost any kind of fabric there by visiting the larger stores and just wandering down 39th street and stopping in to the small stores that still remain.

B & J Fabrics – 525 7th Ave #2

B & J is your best bet for high end linens, lace, and silks. The store is extremely well organized and always seems extraordinarily well lit in comparison to other garment stores. They are a little pricier than some of the other stores but the quality of the fabrics they stock is superb.

Lou Lou Buttons – 69 West 38th St

Lou Lou Buttons sells only buttons. They have bins and drawers and barrels full of buttons. They have wood buttons, shell buttons, mother of pearl buttons, and every funky, unique kind of button you could imagine. The people who work there are helpful and friendly and don’t seem to mind if you spend hours looking.

M & J Trimming – 1008 6th Ave

There are a lot of small trim stores in the garment district with beautiful things but M & J has by far the largest selection of trims in the city. And, unlike a lot of the garment district stores, they’re open on Sunday (you know, for those weekend trim emergencies.)

Tinsel Trading – 828 Lexington Ave

Shopping in the New York City Garment DistrictTinsel Trading recently moved out of the garment district to this new location on Lexington. They stock the most amazing unique vintage and new trims you’ll find (unless you’re shopping in India or Southeast Asia). Their stuff is expensive but much of it really is one of a kind. If you like metallic thread, fabrics, and fringes, this is the place to go.

If you’ve never had the chance to shop for fabric in New York City, I encourage you to plan a trip if possible – you won’t regret it. And, if you come during the month of December, you can also go visit the holiday windows at the retail stores along 5th Avenue – Bergdorf’s (always my favorite), Saks, etc.

The Pressing Matter of Irons

The Pressing Matter of Irons

There is something sort of Zen and comforting about it for me.

There is something sort of Zen and comforting about it for me.

I actually kind of like ironing. There is something sort of Zen and comforting about it for me.

One of my first jobs in a professional theatre setting was as a dresser at the Alley Theatre in Houston, TX. Being a backstage dresser means helping actors get dressed (obviously), laundering actors’ costumes, assisting actors in changing their clothing really quickly, seeing in the dark, and a whole lot of steaming and pressing. The Alley does an annual production of A Christmas Carol every holiday season. Almost every main male character in the production wore a white cotton shirt that needed to be ironed before every show. One of my responsibilities was to iron the pile of white cotton shirts every day. Anyone who has ever spent a significant amount

I pretty much always use a sleeve board.

I pretty much always use a sleeve board.

of time ironing shirts has developed their own little system, order.

I do yoke, front, back, sleeves (no creases), collar. I pretty much always use a sleeve board. And a proper iron makes all the difference – whether you are simply ironing to get the creases out or sewing. Everything looks better with a good press.

A gravity feed iron is the one with the plastic water bottle you suspend from above to feed water into to iron that heats it and converts it to steam. I’ve worked places that had nice custom wood ironing tables complete with a wood arm/pole on one corner to hang the water bottle from but an IV stand works just as well.


Reliable makes a system of steam irons and ironing boards with reservoirs and poles attached that I’ve heard are very good though I’ve never used them.

Gravity feed irons are heavier than other irons and made from actual metal. And they produce lots of steam. (I’m a big fan of steam).


makes an excellent, very reasonably priced, and durable iron. The thing about industrial irons is that they don’t have that annoying automatic shut off feature and are made to remain on for a full day. They tend to last for a long time (like 20-30 years) though you may have to replace the water tube that extends from the bottle to the iron (a $5.00 or so repair).

Pacific also makes a nice model.

The first professional shop I ever worked in had two gravity feed steam irons and, to this day, they are still my favorite iron.

The first professional shop I ever worked in had two gravity feed steam irons and, to this day, they are still my favorite iron.

Gravity feed irons usually come with blue de-mineralizing crystals that you put in the bottom of the water bottle. You can forgo the crystals though and simply use distilled water. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using tap water but I will say that I’ve been putting New York City tap water through my industrial irons for years without issue.

The crystals, on the other hand, have been known to occasionally work themselves into the water feed tube and cause havoc. Just saying.

So what if you want a good steam iron but don’t have room, or the means, to hang a water bottle? The prevailing iron of choice on most wardrobe trucks I’ve worked on is the Rowenta Professional Steam iron.

It provides a strong burst of steam without the assistance of gravity: the iron rest and water reservoir are all in one. It does, though, have the automatic shut off feature which can be annoying when you have an ironing emergency (don’t laugh, it happens!) and you run to the iron only to find it cold as ice.

The Rowenta is also self-cleaning and flushes minerals and the like out so you can use tap water without thinking twice.

The Rowenta is a fairly durable iron but they do wear out if you use them ten hours a day every day for months and months on end. We may have killed about four of them the first season of Boardwalk Empire until we finally bought gravity feed ones.

As for portable, domestic irons, I have an old Rowenta of some kind that I dropped once and inadvertently broke the automatic shut off. It’s the one I drag along with me if I’m just doing a short one or two day job.

What’s your favorite iron?

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!