Rules For a Happy Costume Manager

Recently, my director and I sat down to write up some rules for our young thespians.  They are often so caught up in the excitement of the performance that they forget about caring for the props and costumes.  Here are the rules that we have drafted (but not yet put into play):

Costume Rules

As we start the new theater season, we will have new rules for the handling of costumes.

  • All actors must have bin that can hold their costumes, clothing, make-up, etc. This needs to have your name on it.  It needs to be easily accessible and organized so that you can get what you need when you need it.  We recommend hard plastic bins with lids.  You may also consider adding smaller bins or bags to keep it organized: on for makeup, hair accessories, street clothes, etc.  If you do not have a bin, you may borrow one from the costume manager; there will be a $5 rental fee charged to your account.
  • Costumes will be checked out and checked in. Too many pieces go missing after productions-they are often just thrown on the floor.  See Miss Tori to check out and check in the costumes.  Your costume will not be considered checked in unless all the pieces are there.
  • If you need help pinning your costume to fit better, please do this prior to 30 minutes before curtain. Find an adult to help you if you need assistance.
  • If you are not wearing it, keep it in the bin. You may have multiple costumes assigned to you at the beginning of the show.  Keep those you are not currently using, along with your street clothes, in your bin.  This will prevent it from getting lost or someone else accidentally grabbing the wrong shirt/pants/dress.  Many costumes look similar and only differ in size.  If all the black pirate pants are on the floor or table, how are you to know which one is yours?  You will waste precious time looking for your costume piece and may not find it in time.  Please also keep your personal clothing in the bin so you can easily find the clothes after the show.
  • All actors must have makeup, hair combs/brushes, bobby pins and elastic bands if needed for long hair, baby wipes or makeup remover, safety pins and appropriate ‘character’ shoes. Actors also need a large button-up shirt to put over their costumes between or before shows.  If your character requires false eyelashes, you must provide your own false eyelashes.  Please bring large and medium safety pins to pin your costume when needed.  It is also good to have safety pins in case of emergency: a bow falls off, a seam tears, the zipper breaks.
  • If wearing a wig and you have long hair, it must be in a low bun, milkmaid braids, ‘Heidi’ braids or Swedish braids. You must also have a bald cap.
  • All actors must wear covering clothing that will not been seen under costumes. Generally, for girls this is a leotard with either tights or shorts.  For boys, a pair of shorts and a t-shirt or tank top is preferred.  If the articles of clothing are not skin tone, pay attention to what can be worn under the costume.  If you have a lightweight white costume, do not wear a black shirt or dark purple shorts.  Your clothing should either be skin tone, white or black depending on what will work with your costume.  You need to wear clothing that will allow for quick changes during productions.  Shoes must be appropriate for the costume; for most, character shoes work.
  • You may need to purchase items for your character’s costume. Usually these are small items such as socks or gloves.  You will be notified well in advanced.  These items need to be purchased before the dress rehearsals.
  • Pay attention to hygiene. Even if you do not normally wear deodorant, wear it before all dress rehearsals and performances.  Brush your teeth-you will be meeting with your audience after wards.
  • Do not put your costume on any earlier than two hours before the show. If there are multiple shows that day and you are wearing the same costumes, take them off between the shows and put them in your bin.  Between shows, we usually eat or snack and you do not want to mess up the costume.  If you must have a snack or drink (other than water), cover the costume with the large button-up shirt.  You must provide the large button-up shirt; keep it in your bin.
  • Food is never allowed on stage, back stage or in the green room. Only water is allowed and it must be in a container that prevents spills, not an open cup.  Red or purple drinks are strongly discouraged during dress rehearsals or shows due to their amazing ability to stain anything on contact.  Just leave them at home.  Foods that are sticky are also discouraged.  This includes candy, honey, caramel, oranges, etc.
  • Be courteous. If someone can’t find something, needs help with their hair, needs a zipper pulled, help out.  If you need help, don’t panic.  There are usually about 40 kids and at least 10 adults who can help.
  • If there is a problem with your costume, ask Miss Tori for help. Do not wait until 5 minutes before you need to go on the stage to discover there is a problem.  You should be wearing your costume no later than 30 minutes before curtain.  That leaves plenty of time to fix any emergencies.
  • Go to the bathroom before getting into your costume. Even if you think you don’t have to go-you do.  Just trust me on this one.

Finally….these costumes consist of many hours of planning, designing, and sewing.  Many of them are handmade, sewn in by volunteers during free time after working a “regular” job.  Please take care of them.

 

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The angle remains the same

I have discussed how to find discounted fabrics, now let’s discuss patterns.  I can’t draft patterns; it’s not in my skill set.  I can take existing patterns and piece them together, a sleeve from one or the bodice from another, to make a new garment.  But if in making a costume, I need to start with a pattern of some type.

Patterns are expensive, it’s a simple fact.  However, there are ways around that.  If I purchase a commercial pattern, I rarely pay full price.  The major companies frequently have sales at your local fabric store.  I usually keep a list of patterns that I want from each company (McCalls, Butterick, Simplicity, Burda and Vogue) so that when they are on sale for 40% off or $1.99 a pattern, I know exactly what patterns to buy.

Patterns from the smaller historical companies, Past Patterns, Folkwear or Truly Victorian to name a view, can be harder to find.  You can find good deals on sites like eBay or Half.com.  These patterns are normally priced around $20 a pattern.  While I feel the price is worth it, my budget disagrees.  Most of these patterns that are multiple sized patterns not only come with the pattern pieces and reconstructed instructions, but also a bit of history regarding the time period and the original garment used for the pattern.  Some historical patterns are duplicates, meaning that they are only one size and usually contain the original sewing instructions.  Unless you are an experienced sewer, I would stay away from the patterns that state they are simply a duplicate, even though the price can be significantly less.

There are also pattern books, usually containing historical garments and their pattern pieces, that can usually be purchased for under $20.These books contain anywhere from 20-100 illustrations and the accompanying pattern pieces.  These are also for the experienced sewer as the book will contain only the patterns and no instructions.  Sometimes the pieces will have a guideline for matching them up: match corner “a” on one piece to corner “a” on another, but you will still need to understand what the basic shapes mean (how to tell a sleeve from a yoke, for instance) and how to sew without written instructions.

Of course, free is best and there are quite a few free patterns out there. Any Google or Pinterest search will return hundreds of free patterns, all ready for the taking.  There’s just one problem: the pattern is sized to print on the standard 8.5” x 11” paper, which will fit no one except maybe the fashion dolls tucked in the toy box.

Even if you do find standard patterns on sale for $1.99 or 50¢, they may not be the right size.  Remember the Irish dress from Orphan Train?  The one made from a plaid tablecloth and a green sheet?  This dress was created using a pattern purchased from Savers.  The pattern was cut to size 3T.  It needed to fit a middle school child.  The price was right-about $12 for the dress.  But the pattern was all wrong.

Never fear, math is here to save the day.  Wait, come back, it’s not scary math, I promise.  Just a bunch of triangles.  Remember the concept of similar triangles?  No?  Here’s a refresher: Similar Triangles.

Basically, here’s what Sal is saying: the angles remain the same.  So, if I have a vest pattern, which is made up of a set of rectangles (or two triangles), if I need it to be smaller or larger, I change the length of the sides of triangles that make up that vest.  I can take any pattern from a doll pattern (except for fashion doll patterns, which follow no body sense) to a plus size pattern and re-size it to the size I need.

So how to do this?  Threads magazine has so kindly published a detailed instruction set, along with diagrams.  How to Enlarge a Pattern.  Download the pdf and start with that.  It works as the pattern piece shown below illustrates.  This method is particularly useful when making costumes for middle school students as there are very few patterns for that age range.  Small children usually have patterns for costumes from infant to 5T.  And many high school students can wear small or medium adult sizes.  But middle school patterns, from 6 to 14, seem to be a sort of lost opportunity and scarce, particularly historical based patterns.

PatternResizeTo the left is the back bodice to the Irish dress, re-sized from a 3T to a 10.  It might be a little hard to see, but if you look closely you can see the lines and the measurements for each line along with the original pattern piece in the middle.

A few things to remember when sizing patterns…

Small patterns are best when creating middle school costumes, large patterns are best for high school costumes.  The reason that small patterns are best for middle school students is that there are no darts and limited difference between the chest/bust and the waist.  For the average middle school student, there is not that much difference between those two measurements.  Doll dresses are great for historical garments because they already have the darts removed, are simply designed (for both the construction and the dressing) and there are quite a few historical costume patterns thanks to the popularity of American Girl dolls. If you do need to use an adult sized pattern scaled down, do not cut out or sew in the darts.  Create the garment as though there are no darts.  This will help make up the difference in general body types.
Likewise, if you are creating a costume for a high school student and using a doll or small child pattern, you may need to add darts to the waist area to create the curved shapes for the hips, waist or bust.  This can be done when fitting the pattern.  It is best to create muslin or practice garment when sizing up like this so that you can properly place the darts where needed.

A few more examples…

PatternResize2     SleeveResize

The front piece…and the sleeve.

And the final product:

Orphan1

Cutting the fabric

Last month I discussed using unusual fabric sources such as curtains, sheets and tablecloths.  This month we will start a project using three sheets: a Victorian outfit.  For the pattern, I have chosen two Truly Victorian patterns: TV410, 1873 Polonaise and TV221, 1878 Tie-Back Underskirt.

Fabric for 1873 polonaise.

Fabric for 1873 polonaise.

The fabrics are a cotton/polyester mix.  For the polonaise, I chose a striped fabric containing a brown base and blue, navy, and purple stripes.  The polonaise will be flat lined, a historical method to line a garment and provide structure.  More on flat lining later.  The lining will be a plain brown fabric.  To bring out the light blue stripe, I chose a bright blue for the underskirt.

Next step: tracing the pattern.  I don’t think I have a problem yet, but I collect patterns.  I have nearly 500 patterns, most of them uncut.  If I am lucky enough to have the appropriate size, I can easily trace the pattern.  This was the case with the polonaise; the Truly Victorian patterns usually have a wide range of sizes.  The polonaise sizes range from a 30” bust to 56”.  I buy tracing paper on rolls so I have plenty of it.  I realize that the extra step takes time, but it means that I have an uncut

Tracing the pattern pieces.

Tracing the pattern pieces.

original pattern so I can easily create additional sizes if needed.  I also have a tissue paper pattern that I can save and reuse.  As a bonus, the created tissue paper pattern is easier to pin on the fabric.  Many historical patterns are printed on standard copier weight paper instead of tissue paper.  Many pattern companies, such as Simplicity, are offering pattern downloads which will allow you to print a pattern on your own printer using standard weight paper.  These patterns may last longer than the standard tissue paper pattern, but they can be more difficult to pin them to the fabric.

Now, I have to warn you, cutting a pattern from a sheet or curtain is not like using commercial fabric.  The layout diagram that is included with most commercial patterns will not work

Laying out the pattern pieces

Laying out the pattern pieces on the striped sheet.

when using sheets and curtains.  Those layouts are designed for fabric that is 45” or 60”.  It may take a few attempts to fit all the pieces while using the least amount of fabric.  It helps if you have a very large table; this will let you lay out the pattern pieces without having to pin them down.  After a few attempts, I was able to determine the best layout for the pattern.  Here’s a hint: you really want to iron your fabric so that it lays flat in a double layer.  This simulates the layout of the commercial fabric so that you have the grain lines aligned, the selvages matched and a fold line for those pieces that need to be cut on a fold.  If you are using cotton or a cotton blend, pre-washing the fabric can create quite a few wrinkles and ironing will take care of that.

From this point, it is similar to any other garment construction.  You cut the pattern and finish the edges.  Because most of our actors are middle school aged, along with middle school size bodies, I chose not to cut out any darts.  Children ages 8-14 tend not to have the curves that high school teenagers have and need a straighter cut from the bust to the waist.  Eliminating the darts adds a few inches to the waist.

For most period costumes, you will want to flat line.  This is particularly true when you are not using a corset or steel bones in the dress.  If the production is not a musical and has teenagers, then use a boned corset and/or a boned dress.  However, do not recommend this for middle school kids or musicals.  Boned garments can be tight and restricting, both of which are an issue for singers and middle school kids.  Flat lining the garment with a moderately stiff but thin fabric such as a middle weight cotton or a cotton taffeta.  Once again, when at all possible, use natural fibers.  The main purpose of a flat lining is to provide additional structure to the garment so that it is less likely to fold or buckle on itself.  The fabric lies smoothly against the form.  I will not repeat how to flat line but instead direct you to a very good set of instructions where I learned about it. Jennifer Rosbrugh is a costumer and blogger who has thoughtfully included excellent instructions on a number of topic on her blog, including a flat lining tutorial.  I have flat lined the bodice but not the over skirt (which is part of the jacket) or underskirt of this particular outfit.   Hopefully by next month I will be able to show you the finished product.

Regarding finding period patterns…such patterns are rarely inexpensive, but usually worth it.  If it is an original pattern, such as the 1938 Simplicity pattern I recently purchased on ebay, it will only contain one size but it will, without a doubt, be a correct period pattern as it was produced during and for that time period.  If it is a recreation, such as the Truly Victorian patterns I am currently using, they usually contain a wide range of sizes with modern instructions and sewing techniques.  Buy cautiosly, while on sale, and you will slowly build your pattern library.  I keep a list of patterns I want from the large major pattern companies.  When those patterns go on sale, whether they are the ‘costume’ patterns or historically recreated patterns, I have a ready list of what I want to buy.  My local Hancocks and Joanns frequently has sales for McCalls, Butterick, and Simplicity that allow you to purchase 5 patterns for $10 dollars, which brings the pattern to a mere $2 a piece.  Vogue will lower their price to 2 for $10 which brings it to the manageable price of $5.  It is rarely necessary to pay full price for period patterns.

Additional resources for historical costuming:

Simplicity Creative Group

Butterick Historical Patterns

Reconstructing History Patterns

Amazon Dry Goods

Past Patterns

Folkwear

Also, be sure to check ebay.com for good deals (in particular a lot of multiple period patterns) and pinterest.com for free online patterns.

Supplies in Unusual Places

I admit it…most of our supplies are not acquired in the traditional methods.  Usually, when people think of costumes or clothing, they think of fabric.  Which leads them to the fabric store.  I only go to the fabric store if I need specialty fabric, like glitter satin for fairies or fur for a wolf.  If I need plain old black fabric for peasant pants or red fabric for pirates, I head to any close second hand store.  I visit Goodwill or Savers at least twice a month to purchase patterns, lace and trim and fabric.

Keep in mind, this fabric is cleverly disguised.  Sometimes it is a sheet.  Sometimes a set of drapes.  Sometimes it is a bedspread.  But it is fabric and significantly less than what you would find at a fabric store (unless you happen to have a 50% off coupon).

There are disadvantages and bonuses to using sheets and drapes as fabric.  Let’s cover the bonuses first:

  • Price
  • Extra wide fabric
  • Matching or coordinates
  • Linings
  • Specialty fabrics

Let’s cover price.  For sheets, I pay anywhere between $3.99 and $9.99.  The lower price is usually a twin size sheet, the upper range is a king size set with pillow cases.  A twin size flat sheet is about 66″ x 96″.  I try to buy only flat sheets in the twin size unless the sheet is black, brown, white, navy or red.  Those are colors I try to grab no matter what the size of fabric because they are so versatile.  I can use them to make everything from peasant pants to a Victorian skirt.  A king size, which for a single sheet is usually about $7.99 and only $9.99 for the set, is 108″ x 102″.

That brings us to extra wide fabric.  At the fabric store, there are usually two options: 45″ or 60″.  Yes, some decorator fabrics are wider…have you seen their prices?  Extra wide fabric results in more fabric per yard.  For about the cost of a cheap poly/cotton 45″ wide yard of fabric, I can get 1 5/6 yard of 66″ wide fabric.  Usually in 100% cotton or a decent poly/cotton mix.  Personally, I try to stay with natural fibers as they tend to be easier to care for and cooler to wear.

That’s just the fabric in a single twin sheet.  If I find a set of sheets, a duvet cover or a comforter, then there’s a bonus feature: coordinating fabric.  This means I not only get the original length of fabric, but also a matching coordinating piece. Sometimes there is a bonus: trim or braiding. This is great for creating pants or skirts that match the tops.  When creating a Victorian outfit, I can use one side of the duvet cover for the skirt and the other side for the jacket.  I also have matching fabric for creating trims or contrasting cuffs and collars.

IMAG0216 (1)

Gingham duvet cover

The second layer can also provide a ‘built-in’ lining.  I found a curtain that had a 100% cotton lining.  So, when I cut out the jacket, I also cut out the lining of the jacket.  I paid a single price for both fabrics, which at the fabric store would be two individual cuts.

The outside of the jacket happened to be silk-because that’s what the curtain was made from.  One hundred per cent silk on the outside; one hundred per cent cotton on the lining.  Jackpot!  It’s not often I can afford silk, but I purchased two Ikea curtains, 57″ x 98″ that were a lovely gold silk lined with white cotton.  Silk is not the only pricey fabric I have found.  I have a lovely rose embroidered sheer curtain with a green satin lining that would normally be out of my price range.  It’s just waiting for a costume.

embroidered drape

Rose embroidered sheer curtain

So what are the disadvantages?  Mostly this method of acquiring fabric requires three things: planning, patience, and prep work.  I  ask my director for the plays we are going to do for the next two years.  Well, I try.  Plans change, directors delay…you know the drill.  But when I can get a schedule at least a year out, it allows me to plan.  For instance, I have about half of the fabric required for Mary Poppins and we are at least a year away from production.

That leads into the patience part.  Gathering the fabric for Mary Poppins took at least six months.  That’s six months of going to Goodwill/Savers at least once a month.  And that’s only half of the fabric.  I hope to secure the rest over the next six months.

That leads to prep work. Very rarely will I find a length of fabric that is perfect as is.  It usually needs washing.  If it is a drape or a duvet cover, seams need to be ripped out.  Ironing helps the fabric lie flat during cutting, so I do a lot of ironing.

Orphan Train costume

Silk jacket, cotton blouse, cotton skirt over hoops

But in the end it pays off. It can decrease the required funds for a production by at least half, if not more.  One Victorian dress that I made for “Orphan Train” was only $25 to make.  I found the jacket and shirt pattern online.  The shirt was cut from a white sheet.  The jacket was the gold silk I mentioned early with the built in cotton lining. The skirt was a striped queen size sheet.  We already had the hoop skirt.  Add a $3 dollar pin and a pair of gloves: you have a costume.

So, start planning your shopping trips and visit your local secondhand stores.

Some more examples of tablecloths, curtains, and sheets…

Orphan Train costume

Orphan Train costumes made from curtains and a tablecloth

Orphan Train costumes

Male costume: Purchased shirt, pants made from a linen drape.

Female costume: Pattern up-sized from a 3T used pattern purchased at Savers, along with a green plaid tablecloth and solid green curtain.

 

 

PeterPan

Peter Pan costume made from tablecloth and sheet

 

 

Peter Pan: The top was created from a linen tablecloth.  The pants were made from a green cotton sheet.  The belt and the leaves were also found at a secondhand store.

Hats!

I was involved with theater in high school.  After both the director and I figured out that I was no actress, I volunteered to help with costumes.  Most of my friends were involved with the production of Winnie the Pooh, so it was a way to hang out with my friends.  I now think that the director must have sheltered me from the chaos that is theater.  I don’t remember many frantic moments.

TinyTopHat

Miniature top hat

Before I connected with Mosaic Children’s Theater, I was trying to decide what crafting to do.  Etsy was still a new thing and I briefly toyed with the idea of making dolls and doll clothes and selling them on Etsy.  A hobby that pays for itself!  My husband firmly put his foot down against the idea of making dolls.  Having never seen the multiple Chucky movies, I did not understand his objection.

So I moved onto the backup plan: hats.  I must admit, I really don’t look very good in hats.  Which means I need to make hats for other people.

Hats are a great medium for creativity.  They appeal to my practical side because they are not just ornamental.  The right hat can change the look and feel of a whole outfit.  Picture a man wearing a plain black suit.  Now, add a cowboy hat.  Congratulations, you have created a Wild West costume.  Take away the cowboy hat and add a felted derby; you have moved from western America to downtown London, 1880.  Remove the derby, add wide brim Amish hat and you have created another costume.  And only the hats have changed.

The first hat challenge I have experienced with Mosaic Children’s Theater was our production of Babes in Toyland.  We needed a Victorian top hat.  And not just any top hat – we needed a really tall top hat.  After scanning videos and pictures of Buster Poindexter, I did the math: the hat was over 13 inches tall.

A standard felted top hat can cost between $50-80.  I could not find an extra tall top hat.  Fortunately, I had some experience with knitting top hats.  I created a few steampunk costumes for my family, which included two small top hats.  They were created using a pattern by designer Dark Twist.  The pattern called for knitting the base hat and then felting it.  I still have my small black top hat; we used it in Orphan Train.

There are many top hat patterns out there.  But I knew that just knitting and felting a top hat would not work.  The hat was too tall and would need support for the height.  I needed to create a process.

First I found a good yarn that would felt and created some swatches.  This is a very important step.  I made note of the yarn, row count, stitch count and measurements of the swatch.  I then threw the swatches in the wash with some whites washed in very hot water.  The hot water and agitation felted the swatches, so I took a measurement of the end results.  I now knew how much the yarn would shrink once I felted the hat.

Hat on Form

Tall top hat, blocking

I finished knitting the hat, felted it, started the blocking and continued research.  I happen to have a large cylinder that in a previous life held a roll of paper.  It was perfect for blocking the very tall hat.  You can see the hat still blocking in the image to the left.

The problem with felting hats is that is does not produce a smooth fabric like the old-fashioned methods.  Felted hats were made with animal fibers that were felted into a fabric first and then shaped into a hat using hat forms, lots of pulling and steaming.  I was using the reverse method: creating the shape first and then the felting fabric.  And then I found the solution posted by blogger PieKnit: shave the hat, using cheap men’s razors.  Shaving the fabric removes the small nubs of felted yarn or any stray lint and makes the fabric smooth.  Perfect! No stray fibers to catch the light on stage.

So, my hat was knitted, felted and shaved. Now I just needed a way to support the height of the hat.  Back to research.

Pirate hat

Pirate hat, blocking

I found a fellow steampunker, new knitter and blogger Felix Thadeus Cucumber.  He posted his hat design on his blog.  But, more importantly, he posted a process that stiffened the felted fabric and allowed the hat to keep its shape.  I gathered my supplies: a spray bottle, denatured alcohol and clear shellac.  All of these were purchased at my local hardware store.  (I am always surprised at the fact that I find more theater supplies for costuming at the hardware store than the craft store.)  In the spray bottle, I created a mixture of 2 parts denatured alcohol and one part shellac.  While still on the hat block, I used a fine mist spray to spray the outside of the hat: brim, sides and top.  The fumes of the spray are flammable and should not be breathed, so I accomplished sprayed the hat on the back patio, in plenty of open air.  I left it to dry a few hours and repeated the process twice more.  When I removed the hat from the hat form, it stood up tall and straight.  Just make sure not to spray the bottom of the brim or the inside of the hat or anywhere the hat might touch the skin.  While it is a great hat stiffener, the mixture does make the fabric a little rough and would be uncomfortable.

Smee hat

Smee hat

This process, with or without the stiffening mixture, can be used for any non-woven hat style.  I have used it for tall top hats, regular top hats, miniature top hats, pirate hats, and bowlers.  Don’t forget that regularly knitted hats can also be used.  Our Peter Pan production uses a knitted hat, unfelted, for the character of Smee.  I used a night-cap pattern, slightly modified.  You can also felt crochet hats, but as I don’t crochet I have little experience with felting crochet hats.

There are plenty of free or inexpensive knitted and crochet hat patterns.  If you knit (or crochet) or have a parent volunteer that does, here’s how to create great hats on a limited budget.  There are plenty of hat patterns on Ravelry, Knitty and other pattern sites.

Some links to get you started:

https://ageofsteam.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/a-brief-history-of-the-top-hat/

http://www.pieknits.com/blogmt/2009/10/mini_mini_top_hat.html

http://www.ravelry.com/designers/lara-breese

http://www.thesteampunkempire.com/forum/topics/my-knitted-wool-top-hat

https://sites.google.com/site/crazyknittinglady/nightcap

http://www.knitty.com/archiveHEADS.php

http://knitlikeapirate.com/projects/index.shtml

Sewing a Vest

One yard. It seems so little. Usually a yard of fabric is about from the tips of your fingers to the tips of your nose. One yard can come in all shapes, colors and fabric.

  • One pillow case
  • Fabric remnant
  • A short curtain
  • One crib sheet
  • A small table cloth
  • Man’s large shirt
  • Woman’s skirt or a men’s pair of pants
  • Scraps from a previous project
  • Small blanket
  • Suit coat
  • Sweatshirt

You may think that such a small amount of fabric would amount to nothing, but I am telling you now, always save your scraps. With just one yard of fabric, I have created small green dresses for “poppies” in Wizard of Oz to a size 44 vest for Orphan Train. The poppy dresses were purchased fabric, but each dress only used one yard. The vest was an upholstery remnant (60” wide!) purchased for $6 at a fabric store. For the front of the vest, I only used half a yard of the upholstery fabric; I used a cotton remnant for the back. Whenever possible, I used natural fibers. They cooler under the lights of stage and tend to have less static electricity, which can wreak havoc on wigs and other costume items.

Let’s look at vest options. I usually look for patterns at Goodwill or Savers; they are often less than $1. Additionally, I recommend keeping a list of general patterns and patterns specific to upcoming productions. When the local fabric store has a sale on patterns, go through your list and buy what you can. Recently, patterns were on sale for $1 per pattern, with a limit of 5 per customer. I pulled up my list on my phone and started the treasure hunt. I went back multiple days for that sale, buying 5 patterns each time. Also, don’t overlook the discount patterns such as It’s So Easy and New Look. These patterns are usually only simple garments, but in theater simple is often the best solution
.
And then there are plenty of free patterns on the Internet:

Reversible Vest, size medium (10-12)

Hornpipe (military) Vest scroll down for pattern, there a quite a few free patterns here

Vest, size x-small (4-5)

Sweatshirt vest

Or how to create a pattern:

Double breasted vest

Button down vest

Upcycle vest pattern

Keep in mind; vests do not have to be lined. If you are lining the vest, you will need an additional yard of fabric for middle school and high school sizes. If you are not lining the vest, you will simply need to hem to edges or use a bit of seam tape or bias tape for finish the edges.

If you do not want to use a pattern or do not have time for sewing, your best option is to use an old suit coat or a sweatshirt to create a vest. Go to Goodwill/Savers/Salvation Army/Your Local Thrift Shop and buy a suit coat in the chest size needed. Cutting on the ‘body’ side of the garment, cut away the sleeves about one inch away from the seam. Turn under the armhole seam and sew/glue. Easy-peasy vest with collar, buttons, and pockets. This method is shown in the Sweatshirt Vest link above.

However if you need for an eccentric character such as the wealthy man in Orphan Train or Meeko, the winged monkey in Wizard of Oz, a dark, pin stripe or sweatshirt grey just won’t do. You need color, sparkly buttons and possibly a custom fit.

Here is the vest I created for Orphan Train…

Image of man in vest.

Creating a vest.

Materials:
1 yard main fabric (I used ½ yard of 60” wide upholstery fabric remnant)
1 yard lining, optional (I used left over fabric from another project)
4 inches Velcro, optional
4 buttons to match fabric, optional
Fabric glue, optional

I created a lined vest with buttons and Velcro closure. The buttons were decorative, to make the vest look like a button down vest. However, I used Velcro closures for quick change options.

After creating/buying/drafting a pattern, cut two front pieces out of the main fabric. Cut two front pieces and two back pieces out of the lining. You can use the same fabric for both the vest and the lining; this will require a total of 2 yards of fabric at least 30” wide.

If you have a pattern, there will be sewing instructions which you can follow. If you created your own pattern, here are the basic sewing instructions:

Finish the edges of all six pieces using overlock or zigzag. Always finish your edges!

Match the front shoulders to the back shoulders, right sides together on both the vest and the lining. Sew this seam. Do not sew the side seams yet.

Match the vest to the lining, right sides together. Align the shoulder seams. Starting at the lower front corner, sew the lining to the vest from the lower front corner to the other lower front corner.

Next, sew the lower back seam. Finally, sew the armhole seam. The only areas left unsewn are the side seams. The side seams are left open so that you can turn the vest and hide the last sewn seam. This video shows this technique around 8:40..

Clip your curves, turn the garment and press.

Match and sew vest fabric only on side seams. You will need to move the lining fabric out of the way as you sew the top and bottom of this seam, so take your time.

Press under the lining seam allowance, using the vest side seam as a guide. Either machine sew or hand sew the side seams. (Use the video as a guide for this process if you are going to machine sew this seam.)

There are times when the side seam closure is a bit fussy-usually when I am sewing a fabric like satin. In those circumstances, I do sew the side seams after sewing the shoulders. Instead of leaving the side seam open, I leave about 3 inches along the side of the back seam. This still allows me to turn the garment. Then, once the vest is turned, I press the seam under, matching it with the rest of the bottom of the vest. I follow this with a top seam all the way around, including the previously open portion. Sewing the side seam method does allow you to hide the stitching, but it can be tricky when the fabric is sliding all over the place. Rather than hide the stitching, I incorporate the last closure with the top stitching.

If you are going to add buttons, I highly recommend skipping buttonholes and using Velcro. It allows for quick changes and you are less likely to pop a button during the change. I also recommend using a fabric glue (make sure it is washable!) to attach the Velcro. This eliminates small sewn squares running down the front of the vest. You may have perfectly matching thread, but trust me, these squares will be visible under some lights on the stage.

First, position and sew on the buttons. Use this opportunity to embellish! If you are sewing a gender specific vest, here are the rules for the overlap (as viewed when looking at the garment on the hanger)…

Boys/Men: Right over left, right panel on top
Girls/Women: Left over right, left panel on top

Next, position the Velcro behind the buttons. I usually cut out all the Velcro pieces and start with the soft side (loop side). I position this directly under the buttons and glue it in place. This accomplishes two things. First, it hides the button sewing so nothing can catch and break the thread. Additionally, the glue will also glue that thread. Second, when the vest happens to be open, the soft side is facing the skin and/or leotard and will not catch or scratch. Wait at least an hour for the glue to set.

Now for a neat trick. Press the scratchy side (hook side) to the loop side. One at a time, apply glue to the exposed back fabric of the hook side. Carefully align the fabric, lapping one side of the vest over the other, matching top and bottom. I usually start with the top and pin it in place and then glue the first square. After the first square has glue on it, put a pin under that square, between the buttons. Put one more pin above the second square, between the buttons and add glue to the second square. Move on to the next button until the last pin is holding down the bottom edge. Go away and leave it alone until the glue sets, usually about four hours. Do not be tempted to move it or you will undo all your hard work!

Voila! One completed, custom made vest.

Construction time (not including gluing): One hour.