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Articles > From the Designer's Diary [Kathleen Cheetham]

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From the Designer's Diary  Free  (04/29/10)

From the Designer's Diary
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About the Author
Kathleen Cheetham is known for her fit expertise and for producing Petite Plus Patterns, a line of patterns designed especially to fit full-figured petites from size 12-24. She teaches classes on fitting, tailoring and design and has worked on film sets, in the factory and in ready to wear.

Kathleen is a member of the Independent Pattern Company Alliance (IPCA), a group of independently owned and operated fashion pattern companies. To be a member, a company must produce patterns that are professionally drafted, graded and packaged, and include thorough, well-written and illustrated instructions. To meet other IPCA designers, visit

Kathleen has written numerous articles for SewNews, Threads and SewStylish.

From Las Vegas Runway to Salmon Hatchery

by Kathleen Cheetham
Kathleen Cheetham wearing Petite Plus Patterns #250 Swing Coat shown here backstage at the 2010 International Textiles Expo in Las Vegas

Kathleen Cheetham is known for her fit expertise and for producing Petite Plus Patterns, a line of patterns designed especially to fit full-figured petites from size 12-24. She teaches classes on fitting, tailoring and design and has worked on film sets, in the factory and in ready to wear.

What does Kathleen work on when she's looking for a change?

Last summer, Kathleen was contracted to create children's costumes for the Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre in Port Hardy, British Columbia. This beautiful centre includes an interpretive area, a salmon hatchery and an educational facility. The centre plays an important role in the Fisheries and Oceans' Salmonids in the Classroom program. Students participate in egg takes during September and October. The centre incubates and raises the eggs to an eyed stage, after which the young growing fish are raised in aquaria for several months before being released to their home stream in the spring. The program director planned to enhance the educational component of the centre by incorporating a special story and skit component to the curriculum for 3 to 10 year olds. She believes there's a lot to be learned by acting out the life of an animal and asked for costumes.

It was required that the costumes be cartoon-like with exaggerated anatomical details. The costumes had to be sturdy enough for active little boys, washable, non-toxic, comfortable, and quick and easy to put on any size of child.

After poring through books and photos, visiting web sites and aquarium to collect information, Kathleen proposed depicting the life cycle of coho salmon. She decided to use applique and attach the fish characteristics to a basic hooded vest. With open sides, this garment could easily be popped over the head and worn by different-sized children.

Here's her account of the project.

The first costume I made was an alevin -- the newly hatched baby fish, so young it still carries a yolk sac. Kids are quite amused with this tiny salmon, referring to its yolk sac as a lunch bucket.


Head, tail and body sections were constructed separately. Here, the CB seam of the hood is only partially sewn so that it can be laid flat. The eyes were made using four layers of fabric - polar fleece, poly metallic and poly moire. I wanted the eyes to be as large as possible and to bulge. The layers were machine sewn one on top of the other, then hand stitched to the hood. A little poly batting was stuffed in behind the eye as well for the bulge factor.


Simple strips of orange polar fleece were zigzagged onto the throat of the hood for gills.

Taking a break, I thought this fish head might make a pretty cute bustier. Charlie, our standard poodle appears to question my logic!


The dorsal fin and the tail were interlined, sewn face to face, turned and, stitched for detail, then gathered slightly. The blood line was zigzagged onto each side of the long body. Then the tail and dorsal fin were sandwiched between the long body pieces.


The use of polar fleece made for simple seam treatments, eliminating bulky seams. Note here how the body sections are simply stitched wrong sides together.

The long body of the alevin was stuffed with lightweight, hypoallergenic, nonflammable material. I discovered that stuffing is an exercise in patience. You have to take your time with the little narrow parts or they'll look lumpy!


Stuffing completed, the alevin's body was first hand basted on to the back of the vest, then it was zigzagged by machine. It's not visible here, but a separate reinforcing layer of fabric was attached to the underside of the vest. I wanted to be sure that a child tugging on this fish tail wouldn't create tears in the vest back.


The yoke sac, also known as the lunch bucket, began as a large circular piece of polar fleece. It was gathered up to create the pooch, hand basted onto the vest front, then zigzagged by machine. A small section was left open for stuffing and later stitched in place.



Here's the finished coho alevin. Note that there is buttonhole elastic and buttons at the sides for custom fitting. After some neighborhood kids tried on the costume, I decided to remove the elastic and buttons. The costume "worked" better without them.


The alevin was the first costume delivered to the centre. In projects such as this, you can expect to have your work critiqued closely. Should it have a longer tail section, a bigger yoke sac? What about the color? Alevins are not really that color.

It was an interesting exercise fielding these questions, not being offended but discussing why I'd chosen the detail sizes and colors.

My responses went something like this: First, we give the "message" of the anatomy. Based on the responses I received here in my neighborhood, the kids "got the body parts". I cautioned about size -- a tail too long becomes a swinging apparatus and a tummy too big becomes a punching bag for rambunctious little boys. Costumes can only be made so resilient before they become heavy and tank-like. Plus, this costume is meant to be worn by different sized kids. What's a small yoke sac on one child is overwhelming on another. So the size of tail and yoke sac was deemed to be ok. The color had to be defended by the fact that alevins are translucent. That's why I chose the blue -- it's watery. As there was no expert willing to make further color suggestions, we stayed with the color I'd chosen.

Continuing with stages in the salmon's life cycle, more of the costumes follow.

Here are the coho fingerlings. I bought this shimmery vest fabric from the drapery department of Fabricland. The silver fingerlings are tubes made from bathing suit fabric. One long tube was filled with grey polar fleece, machine stitched down the center then cut to short lengths. The fingerlings' eyes are large black sequins.



The ocean-going coho was the prettiest fish. Most of the fabrics came either from my stash or the stash of friends. Memories of previous school plays and dance competitions abounded as people brought in bits of this and that. Each piece was tested for washing and durability.


Here is the body of the spawning coho.


It looks nice here with its red tummy and ultra-suede tail. But wait. Not done yet.


To make it look as authentic as possible, the spawning coho had to be distressed. The tail was slashed, black paint was smudged on and white-out was streaked -- all to simulate a fish that's battled its way up river to spawn and die.


For me, this project was an exciting change from the usual ladies' wear. And I love to hear that the kids really have fun wearing the costumes as they perform skits and hear stories at the interpretive center.

This is Erin Wright, Educational Programs Coordinator holding the marine coho costume at Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre.


You may visit their web site at

Copyright © 2009-2010® and Kathleen Cheetham All rights reserved.