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.




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.


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.