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.


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:









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.

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.