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Tips & Techniques > Large scale costuming

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Posted by: moonfleur

About moonfleur star
Member since: 9/11/03
Reviews: 14 (tips: 1)
Skill level:Beginner
Favored by: 2 people
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Posted on: 11/13/03 9:53 AM
Review Rating: Helpful by 1 people   Very Helpful by 6 people   
Recently, I was asked to create 20 costumes in 2 weeks time for my sorority. I would have done it too, had it not been for the last minute cancellation of the play. Anyway, I'm taking this as a learning experience, and passing what I learned on to you, in the way of time and cost-cutting measures.

--Make sure you know what you're getting into ahead of time. I was initially asked to do just 2 costumes, and this literally overnight blossomed into 20. Sit down and discuss with the director what you want, and get it in writing. I was doing this for free, but warned my director that if she'd be doing this to be again next year, she has to sign a contract.
--Make sure all the directors understand what the costumes would allow and not allow movement-wise. The pattern the head director decided on had a pencil skirt with a slight ventilation slit in the back. I then heard the choreographer discussing putting a cancan into one song. (As silly as this sounds, something similar happened in the troupe I was in years ago that I assisted costuming, leading to the famous "Everybody trips and falls down" scene during one musical number on opening night of Once Upon a Mattress. The audience thought it was on purpose and laughed, but some actors were actually pretty well banged up)
--Especially if creating costumes for younger women (like myself, lol) measure for them. I let two of the sisters measure themselves, and then pondered over the weirdness of the numbers. Turns out they had the tape drooped down in the back for their bust measurements, and were measuring their waist as their hips. Especially considering this was a 1960s costuming endeavour, low riders were not an option. ("waist here, not down here, if you feel like your waistband is attacking your armpits, it's probably right" was on a note pinned to each skirt, including diagram)
--Take the time to figure out who has the most similar sizes. I had a bunch of girls who were within 1" of each other in bust and torso, so they both got the same size cut out by folding the fabric in half. I did my figuring out in an Excel spreadsheet.
--Buy a modern pattern, and buy one in each of the sizes offered. Although there is an allure to working with vintage patterns, you won't be able to get more than one or two sizes out of it. If I had to start over, I'd be cruising Vintage Vogue, or Past Patterns rather than "vintage patterns" on Ebay. Because of the 2 dress to 20 deal, I had only one pattern that was close to the 2 leads' measurements. Suddenly I had to redraft that one pattern into everyone's size. To give you an idea, the pattern was for a 36" bust, and I had everything from a 30" to 48" busts in the cast. Same basic idea for all the other measurements.
--If you do have to do redrafts like I did, god bless you. I found a really easy way to keep things straight. I bought a big roll of newsprint, and drew each size pattern on it. Each one got a different color pencil (30" bust was red, with two different waists built into the pattern, 31" was orange, 32" was yellow....) and on the pattern I also wrote who would be wearing that particular size, and which alteration to make (eg: "Sarah W. long torso, larger waist, Chastity short torso, smaller waist") Newsprint is cheap, especially if you're a nonprofit organization. I got ours for $5, and another buck or two for a box of colored pencils.
--When buying fabric, you will never have so much leeway with bargains. I pretty much walked into the store and asked to see the manager, explaining that I was buying 78 yards of fabric, could we work out a deal? Between the discount I got off of her, the 50% coupon for one piece of fabric, and the 10% nonprofit discount, I was getting suedecloth for about $1.50/yard, and this satiny stuff for blouses at $2/yard. Some was more expensive, but overall, the whole order of 78 yards of fabric, thread, velcro, sewing machine needles, hand stitching needles, trim for lead's costumes, hooks and eyes, and other miscellany, it was only $179 total!
--If you're doing it for free, demand that they buy you sewing machine needles and bobbins. I went through two needles on this project, and I was NOT paying for them. ;)
--Velcro will work great for holding skirts together. It's cheaper and quicker than installing zippers, and you can even glue it in with a bit of Fabric Tac. For them to not pop open though, you do need a hook and eye at the top, which can be hand sewn by your army. (see below)
--Recruit an army. At rehearsals, whenever my sisters weren't rehearsing, they were required to be helping me. Those who could sew (or in more cases, were willing to learn) stitched on buttons, and I taught to hand sew button holes. They tacked in hook and eyes on the skirts, wound bobbins and pinned pattern pieces together (I was one of three with any machine experience, so that job was mostly mine).
--Members of your army will claim they can't sew (more to the point, they're not willing to learn even the basics). Have a list, literally written down of what else they can do. They could cut out the newprint patterns, cut out the actual fabric pieces once they were traced, sort buttons (see below), cut velcro to size, iron (I had someone claim they couldn't do this!) vaccuum the threads and scraps and go buy the rest of us food. Pretty much if you wouldn't learn to sew, you got the boring jobs, lol.
--There's a tip in here about using white gel pens. Please do so. We bought 5 at $0.40 apiece, and a bunch of us could be marking at once, and they work like a dream.
--When you're in your cutting stages, you're going to have pieces of cloth scattered EVERYWHERE, especially if you have a few people cutting out the pieces. I quickly figured out a quick way to keep them straight, as to which pieces belong to who. I had someone cut index cards into small pieces, and write a sister's name on several of these pieces. As soon as the pattern piece was traced onto the paper, the sister's to whom it belonged's name was safety pinned onto the middle of the uncut piece. It stayed pinned there throughout the cutting and sewing process, at which point we'd reduce it to only one piece of paper, so that girls knew which was theres. We didn't have a single problem with figuring out which piece was whose, even when there were 80 pieces of blouses on a pile.
--Buttons are expensive when you are buying a LOT of them. As the blouses the director wanted were button-up, I couldn't figure out how to do this with my $300 budget (which I beat by $100, woot!) By coincidence, I heard about a factory which makes buttons. I called them up and asked what deals they could give me. Pretty much, we ended up driving out there and getting a 10 gallon bucket of buttons for $10. Mind you, some of these were "buttons" in the vaguest sense. Many were factory rejects, some were just piles of plastic, and there were clods of factory dust mixed in that we had to rinse out. The other half were perfectly useable, but the designs were all mixed in together. Guess what the people in my army who wouldn't learn to sew got to do??? I gave them a bunch of cups, and they sorted out the matching buttons into the cups. None of the costumes will match EXACTLY like this, but the variety was fun. Note: Some of the buttons are weird. For instance, my sorority is now the proud owner of about 40 half-dollar sized, bright neon orange buttons shaped like trout. You explain the market for these, because I don't get it.
--The single smartest thing I may have done is personal. I asked that, considering that I'm not being paid, might I have the spare fabric? Of course they said yes, and when a girl dropped out, I gained a large piece of green satiny material that will be the sash and lining of my Xmas dress. (when the costuming ended early, I also got about 6 feet of navy moleskin, but that wasn't supposed to happen.)
--Above all else, remember that the audience will be seeing these from a distance. If you can't see it from 10 feet away, it's pretty much not there. I had to remind myself this when I cut some corners. No way were all of these blouses going to get nice rolled hems around the neckline, I didn't have time.
--Along the same lines, fit does not have to be perfect on all of the chorus members. While I was exacting on my leads, my chorus just had to be approximate. Would you believe that someone had the gall to ask me why I wasn't "tailoring" all of the 18 chorus members? Suuuure... no problem... I'll just do that in 2 weeks while I finish off the costumes... (the other girls present stared at her like she was nuts. They knew)
--If you can, beg, borrow, steal, or do what you can to get your grimy little hands on a serger. I didn't have one, and could have used one. (sadly, after the cancellation, one of the people I asked if I could borrow from got back to me. ARGH!)
--After your group is done with them, see about selling or donating the costumes to other groups, if you don't have a large costume closet. Community theatres, high school drama clubs, etc are always desperate for costuming. (I know, I was in them!) Ours ended up being donated, not quite finished as they were, to a group that does charity plays for children. At least someone got to wear them!

That's all I can think of for now. Hope it helps someone along the way

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PaperSmyth said... (2/16/07 11:56 AM) Reply
I will probably be "drafted" into doing something like this in the future. Thanks so much for the tip about the multi-size patterns (get one of each); I know I never would have thought of that!
funsewer said... (5/14/06 0:07 AM) Reply
I, too, sew costumes. Currently I am working on fourteen dresses ranging in size from 32 to 54. We have a set of basic dress patterns that come in a big range that form the basis and then we modify them. These dresses are lined. Another woman and I work on these costumes intermittently. So we cut out one dress at a time, mark it and put all the pieces together in a bag with the person's name on it. We make one costume from start to nearly finnish as a "test run" keeping alert to what we think will be an efficient sewing order for the rest of them. Then we do, say, all the darts at once; then all the assembly; then all the zippers etc. Though this takes more handling, we get pretty efficient this way and the quality is usually improved. And for costumes, the "ten foot rule" applies -- if you can't see it from ten feet away, leave it alone!!
candyo said... (2/23/04 2:45 AM) Reply
Thanks for reminding me why I don't regret dropping out of the theater costuming program I was enrolled in.
Mary Reed said... (11/16/03 9:42 PM) Reply
moonfleur - I, too, an a costumer who has worked on multiple non-profit theatre productions. I have a couple of questions about your recommendations - I am not sure about the index cards with names on them. I usually label each pattern piece (I also use tracings on paper) with the person's name and what costume it is. I am not clear on what you sounds like you have a system of management that rivals a Fortune 500 company!! Secondly, some advice. As for fabric...if you have lead time on a production, put an ad in the local paper "NON-profit theatre needs fabric, trims, etc. for costuming." It works every time for me - I have received 100s of yards of fabric this way - some very strange. One woman donated 72 yards of very stiff polyester double knit in an avocado and orange hounds tooth plaid. It made a great back drop! I also received dozens and dozens of vintage hats! I loved your tips about corralling your army. I wish you had taken picture of any final pieces. I would recommend that you begin a portfolio NOW. It is hard to remember all of the costumes I have sewn and share those costume ideas or images.
Georgene said... (11/15/03 3:39 AM) Reply
Moonfleur, its great that you got this experience that money can't buy! Sounds like you can take your own show on the road....when you do your own collection, you'll be spending a lot of days and nights in precisely the same state of organized chaos. Invaluable, you can use these skills in a number of different places. Bravo!
kathi s said... (11/14/03 10:08 PM) Reply
What a good sport you are! I read yur report with amusement and with the saying "no good deed goes unpunished" running through my mind. Great advice-
Stitchology said... (11/13/03 3:52 PM) Reply
What a Herculean achievement, bravo. This confirms why I usually agree to help someone who is in charge of an event but always say NO to being responsible.
NancyDaQ said... (11/13/03 2:49 PM) Reply
I have an idea for the trout buttons! Since the experience ended up being such a team building exercise, I suggest making some sort of award with the buttons and left over fabric scraps (fire up the hot glue gun, these don't have to be finely crafted), then have a ceremony to hand them out. It will be a fun way to recognize your helpers.
Lisa Laree said... (11/13/03 10:20 AM) Reply
What a great attitude you've got! After what happened with this production, the words 'next year' wouldn't even be in most people's vocabulary! Thanks for sharing what you learned! It doesn't hurt the actors to share a bit of the costume process, either. On the Pajama Project I just did I had most of the girls sew on their own buttons. The only ones I did were the shirts I finished the day of the dress rehearsal... I shuddered at some of the stitches but they were on... ;)
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