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Oct. 19th, 2016

ass head mask

Book review: Foam Patterning and Construction Techniques


Mary McClung's new book, Foam Patterning and Construction Techniques, is a must-have for costume production artists with an interest in mascot making, theme park walkarounds, and other large-scale creature costumes.

McClung starts out with a section on types of foam, as well as tools, adhesives, and other media for use with foam in production. This section alone will be a godsend if you have some knowledge of working with foam but only know common vocabulary terms like "couch foam" as opposed to descriptors used by vendors like "urethane foam." She includes a thorough section on safety, both in terms of work practices and protective equipment to use when using the adhesives and paints which work on foam. I always love to see a new reference book in our field with current safety information--for too long our industry has gotten by without adequate education in this area, and many of the old "classic" reference texts are from a bygone age in which one might, say, shoot pictures of someone demonstrating a technique with a cigarette burning in an ashtray near an open container of solvent or similar.

She goes on to discuss concepts of design with respect to these kind of character costumes (or other foam-based elements of realizing shapes/structures), and techniques for patterning and construction with foam as a medium. She covers a wide range of techniques and media for "skinning" the forms, too--not only some great stuff on fur and fleece, but also latex/cheesecloth and other surfacing ideas. McClung even talks about elements of finishing like the painting of fur to create a more sophisticated look, which are hard to find documented at all.

The last section of the book documents the process from start to finish on six different foam-based projects, from cute cartoon character heads to sleek superhero armor. It's great to see an artist's procedure from start to finish on such drastically different designs, using the same basic range of techniques.

Full disclosure: this review is written in response to a digital review copy provided to me by the publisher, Focal Press, so that i might decide whether to adopt the book as a text for my graduate level maskmaking class. While i remain undecided as to whether i will adopt the book as a required text, i will definitely consider it a recommended book and I intend to obtain a physical copy for my studio's library of reference books. Unfortunately though, the e-reader i had to use to access the text didn't give me any concept of the size or quality of the photos in a print version of the book or how the text would be laid out, so i suppose i'll ahve to wait til i get my hands on a physical copy to form an opinion on those aspects of the book. The info contained within makes it well worth the purchase regardless, even if the whole thing were printed in Comic Sans.

I received the review copy toward the end of spring semester (when i was in the midst of teaching Masks & Armor, the course for which i would potentially use it) and one of my students elected to try one of the processes described in that final section of examples. The book was helpful, clear, and full of good suggestions for how to modify techniques or further explore media. In fact, i'd say the book would be a great reference not just for those of us working the business of costume production but also for those whose hobbies encompass cosplay and other types of character costuming for fun.

Two large foam thumbs up!

Oct. 7th, 2016


blocked felt hat projects!

Millinery class has just presented their second round of projects. Here's a photographic survey of what they created!

Hat at left by second year grad student Erin Torkelson, wool felt with felt flower spray.
Hat at center back by continuing education student Kim Fraser, wool felt with burnt ostrich spray.
Both created on the puzzle block in foreground.

Hat at center back by continuing education student Athene Wright wool felt with velvet and grosgrain trim.
Hat at right by first year grad student Danielle Soldat, wool felt with felt flower and velvet bands.
Both created on the puzzle block in left foreground.

Fur felt trimmed in silver mink by second year grad Michelle Bentley, blocked on the puzzle block shown.

Fur felt bowler with embossed velvet band by first year grad Sam Reckford.

Free-form hand-draped wool felt projects!
At left, by Playmakers Repertory Company wardrobe supervisor Ana Walton;
at right, by second year grad Robin Ankerich.

Beautiful work, y'all! Next up: wire frame projects...

You can also follow along in real-time on Instagram.

Sep. 19th, 2016


buckram hat projects

My millinery class recently presented their first round of projects, buckram hat shapes. Here is a selection of a few representative projects...

Clockwise from top left: 1920 buckram sun hat by second year grad Robin Ankerich
Top right: spiral straw on a buckram foundation trimmed in hand-dyed sinamay by continuing education milliner Kim Fraser
Bottom right: 1880s perch topper by second year grad Michelle Bentley
Bottom left: 1940s shape by first year grad Danielle Soldat

Left: pillbox by first year grad Danielle Soldat
Center: pillbox by second year grad Erin Torkelson
Right: pillbox by second year grad Michelle Bentley

Top: fascinator by first year grad Danielle Soldat
Bottom left: fascinator by second year grad Michelle Bentley
Bottom right: fascinator by second year grad Robin Ankerich

Origami crane fascinator by first year grad Samantha Reckford

Complex buckram shape in velvet by second year grad Erin Torkelson,
after the midcentury design below from the estate of renowned West End theatrical milliner Madame Sheeta

Great stuff, amirite? On to blocking projects next! Follow me on Instagram, too!

Aug. 4th, 2016


Book review: The First Book of Fashion (Bloomsbury, $45)

The First Book of Fashion (ed. Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward) encompasses two books, in fact: essentially 15th and 16th century "dress diaries" of a father and son, Matthaus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg. The two men hired a series of artists to draw miniature full-color portraits of their clothes, a project which encompassed forty years of the father's life and six years of the son's adolescence. The men were serious clothes-horses and major fashion mavens, with the books serving as amazing windows into the daily clothing choices made by men of their class at the time.

This full-color edition depicts the two volumes in their entireties, along with translations of the Schwarz's accompanying diary text, which is often both illuminating and endearing, describing the materials of the clothing and personal details. Some examples:

  • ...silk from Arras lined with Siberian squirrel fur...

  • The riding gown had 40 pleats.

  • This is when i began to be fat and round.

  • At this time i greatly enjoyed hunting.

In a lengthy section at the back of the book, a scholarly analysis of each plate is appended, in which every element of dress and adornment is discussed, as well as any socially-significant elements shown in the background. Two lengthy scholarly articles by the editors serve as Introductions I & II, which provide a historical background for these men's lives, the town/country in which they lived, the general state of clothing production/techniques/styles at the time, and the larger historical picture of the era.

At only $45 for this 410-page hardback  volume, this is an excellent and reasonably priced resource for costumers seeking primary research for this time period and location. It's also a fun glimpse into these guys' lives, and their witty, self-conscious comments feel as familiar as any fashion blog or social media feed.

Some examples:

In 1512. In my mind, i was a bad-ass, and very keen on horse riding, when my father sent me to Munich for his business. 15 years old.

On 28th November 1519, my father died and I mourned him...

Jun. 22nd, 2016

ominous fancy

Exhibit: Stitching History from the Holocaust, NYC

When i first heard about the story of fashion designer Hedy Strnad, I knew i had to see the exhibit featuring her designs made real. Strnad was murdered by the Nazis in WW2, but eight of her fashion design renderings survived, preserved by extended family living in Wisconsin. In conjunction with the costume shop at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee created an exhibit about the Strnads which includes those designs made up in fabrics, as they would have been, had she survived to enjoy the creative career she ought to have known.

After a stint in Milwaukee the exhibit has come to NYC at the Museum of Jewish Heritage down on Battery Park, and today i went to see it. Here are some highlights:

The coat is arranged to display not only the lining which matches the dress (fabric hand-screened by the Rep's artists) but also the designer label they created for her in the style of the period, using Hedy's actual signature from a letter.

I've used that double-button detail myself in a show! I just love this look.

Irregular pleated inset detail in lavender tailored jacket.

Underneat the full-size painted renderings there are fabric swatchs so you can feel the textiles used without groping the displays. Nice stuff!

A distance shot of one of the displays, showing how the mannequins are juxtaposed against historical photographs of the period, informational text, maps, and so forth. There's also a video running which goes in-depth about the involvement of the Rep's costume professionals.

I don't exagerrate when i say that seeing this exhibit was a cathartic and spiritually touching experience. It is a very particular way of approaching an overwhelming tragedy in our history as humankind, and illuminated exactly, precisely what was lost to the world when Hedwig Strnad was murdered. I absolutely loved seeing it documented how costume professionals worked on this incredible project, using the skills of our trade--draping, stitching, millinery, screenprinting--in bringing these designs to fruition, actualizing them for display.

If you are anywhere near NYC and can see it, go. Take a handkerchief and go. And, the exhibit will at some point return to its permanent home in Milwaukee, so if you missed it the first time, you'll be able to catch it again when it comes back.

Jun. 9th, 2016


Museum of Science Fiction: the Dune Stillsuit, Part One

This post is the first of more-than-one [1] concerning our final costume replica project for the Museum of Science Fiction in Washington, DC: a Stillsuit from the 1984 film, Dune.

So, first let’s consider the costume itself. Within the context of the film (and the numerous novels by Frank Herbert which predate the movie), a Stillsuit is a standard outerwear garment for people on the desert planet of Arrakis. It basically collects a person’s sweat and bodily wastes, filters/distills/purifies them, keeps the wearer’s body at a reasonable temperature, and turns all the waste into sustenance. It also makes everybody look kind of like a superhero in a black rubber union suit.

You can check out our Pinboard of research images here, to get a good overview of what we’re creating. In addition to my collection of these photos to work from, the Museum also provided us a DVD of the film to view and screencap as needed. We even held a viewing party at the theatre early on in the process, for those faculty, staff, and students who would be working on the projects—in addition to the Stillsuit, our props department is creating a replica of the Maker Hook (a kind of weapon-tool people use on Arrakis…it’s a long story involving huge sandworms that secrete a drug called the Spice and how that drug is harvested).

There are a variety of different Stillsuits in the film, all minor variations on the same basic look. They differ depending on whether the wearer is an adult or child, man or woman, and according to how the wearer’s frame is built. So, a Stillsuit for a tall skinny person might differ from a Stillsuit for a short broad person in minor details like, say, the arrangement of the pad shapes and tubing details down the length of the limbs. There are dozens and dozens of these costumes in the film, similar to how there are loads of the same military uniform in a war movie, all slightly different. And much like with the Neo coat we made from The Matrix, you can find some visual example of any slight variation in style-line because there simply were so many of the original.

For the Stillsuit we’ve been asked to create, we have a display mannequin which it must fit; and just as we dealt with in terms of our prior projects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix, display mannequins have unusual, exaggerated bodies. They’re elongated, posed in an odd presentational stance, and their measurements are…well, outside the norm compared to human actors. (You also have to twist their arms and legs off to put their clothes on, which presents its own set of challenges…but more on that later perhaps.)

In the case of this costume, the original concept by costume designer Bob Ringwood  incorporated the pad structures in such a configuration as to boost and "feature" the musculature of the wearers—all the guys in Dune give the impression of being incredibly fit because the Stillsuits augment their shoulder breadth, pecs/abs, biceps/thighs/calves. We’re working off of a mannequin though who already has substantial shape in those areas, so we knew we’d need to approach this project with a mind to proportion in the pad shapes which took into account the idealized body underneath.

We were also asked to specifically look at the Stillsuit worn by Max von Sydow, who played the character Dr. Liet Kynes (on the far left in the photo above). Dr. Kynes has been stationed on Arrakis for much longer than some other characters, and as such his Stillsuits [2] are not shiny-black and brand-new like many of the other characters’ costumes. Dr. Kynes’s suit has been sandblasted and sun-baked so that it’s got an aged, distressed look. It’s dusty, it’s well-worn, it’s been keeping him alive for a long time. In some lights it even appears to have a brown cast. That’s the surface look we’re going for in our replica: a suit which would have been worn by an experienced veteran of life on Arrakis.

But when you look at these costumes, you may ask yourself: what am I looking at? Are they leather? Rubber? Vinyl? What are those things made of? How do they move like they do when the actors run across the desert or execute complex fight choreography? On our research Pinboard, you’ll also find a link to this video, which is a behind-the-scenes look at how the original artisans made the original Stillsuits back in the early 1980s: a complicated process involving full-body life-casts, latex rubber, and so forth. It provided excellent insight into exactly what we’re seeing when we watch the film and observe these costumes in action.

And for us as the costume artisans developing this display piece, it was an excellent document of methodology illustrating exactly why we shouldn’t create our replica for the Museum using the same process used by the original creators!

I’ll explain why in the next post in the series...

[1] I’m not sure yet how many posts it’ll take to fully cover this project. I’m going to guess, at least three For now, let’s just say that this is definitely not the only one!

[2] I use the plural here for a couple of reasons.

First, conceptually, I would not want to wear the same Stillsuit every single day on Arrakis. I’d want to rotate through a few because it just seems more sanitary, the way you don’t want to wear the same clothes every day. So i’m choosing to think that Dr. Kynes has several Stillsuits.

But second, in actual fact, it’s standard for there to be duplicates of costumes in film particularly of the stars, for any number of reasons—recall the Neo coat for which over twenty different versions were used. Unlike for The Matrix, we don’t have confirmation of the exact number of suits each performer might have worn, but just inspecting the film stills, press photographs, and the DVD, there appear to have been more than one created for Mr. von Sydow.
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May. 28th, 2016


Millinery: Esparterie Resources Cont’d

After my prior post on resources for working with esparterie [1], some helpful milliners and scholars commented or PM’d me with two other titles of books which feature chapters or sections on the material.


Madame Eva Ritcher's lovely author photo

The ABC of Millinery by Madame Eva Ritcher was published in 1950, and positions itself as an introductory handbook for “every woman” with an interest in learning millinery techniques. I absolutely adore the photography in this book—glamorous images of various hats created and modeled by the author, interspersed with detail shots of various techniques she describes in the book.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that Ritchie is using the word “sparterie” to describe the two-ply material composed of a layer of esparto and a layer of crinoline. Based on her description of it—a material sold in rolls, in both black and white—and the detail shots throughout the text, it appears that she’s using the term to refer to what I know as buckram: a single-ply woven material stiffened with starch. Nowhere does she mention the technique of skinned joins, nor does she discuss any precautions for avoiding damage to the esparto straw layer as in other references like the Denise Dreher book. And, in all of the detail shots, the material she’s using is clearly one-ply and looks to be standard buckram.

Ritcher's book has great illustrations and as a handbook for basic buckram structures, straw, and felt, it’s a solid resource with lovely period examples, but as an esparterie reference, it’s puzzling at best when taken alongside the other available information out there.

Hats on Heads: the Art of Creative Millinery by Mildred Anlezark was first published in 1965, but went through several reprinting in the 1990s. It’s clear that Anlezark is talking about a two-ply straw/cotton material in her book, because she gives an excellent descriptive definition of it in her “Materials” section, though she describes the straw layer as hemp instead of esparto, and cites it as coming from Hong Kong instead of Japan or Spain.

As the book contains no close-up photographs of the material Anzelark calls “willow,” I have no way to know whether the use of the word “hemp” is a misnomer (and thus what she’s talking about is similar to the vintage esparto-based willow I’ve acquired from the estate of Madame Sheeta), or if it’s a different esparterie substitute which is/was literally made from hemp instead of esparto grass.

Anlezark’s book has several sections which deal with using the material—Moulded Willow Brim, Willow Crown in Two Sections, Willow Breton, Willow Brims, Willow Pillbox, and Willow Whimsy. In none of them does she mention the skinned join technique, or any techniques which take advantage of the two-layer nature of the material such as the edge-wiring technique mentioned in the Denise Dreher text in which one cuts away some of the esparto layer but leaves the crinoline layer longer to encase the wire after attaching.

For the most part, Anlezark treats it like other one-ply foundation materials in terms of the methods described. The “Moulded Willow Brim” section is interesting for how it addresses creating a brim foundation with a rounded edge by folding the willow back on itself, but I’m not sold on her using the material in the most advantageous way to do this, because she doesn’t have you drop the wire inside the fold to obfuscate its presence when covering, and she doesn’t address techniques for grading the headsize opening when you’re working with four layers of material before you’ve even set your crown on.

There’s a lot of other information in this book on both structured and soft stitched hat styles in a range of materials, so it seems like a solid reference book in general, but IMO there are better references for working with esparterie/willow out there which cover a broader range of techniques specific to it as a medium.

Thank you so much to those who pointed me toward these and several prior-mentioned books: Dirk Seegmüller, Rachel Worboys, and leebee7.

I would love to hear from anyone else who knows of books in any language which feature information on working with this material. I feel certain there have to be some French resources i’ve yet to locate, and probably Spanish and Japanese as well. My goal is to wind up with a series of posts which are easily findable via online search-engines, evaluating and comparing primary source material on the subject of esparterie techniques.

[1] A.k.a. willow, spartre, sparterie, spatra, esparto-cloth…how many names does this stuff have? Geez. :)

May. 15th, 2016


Madame Sheeta's Millinery Legacy - Resources for working with esparterie/spartre/willow

Esparteríe has long been a research interest of mine, pretty much ever since i heard about its existence in my very first millinery class (1992), but actively since I took the position of crafts artisan at PlayMakers Repertory Company and discovered the four sheets of it in the stock here. Now that our graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill is the proud owner of 77 more, thanks to what i’ve begun to think of as the Madame Sheeta Legacy, I set about collecting the extant documentation i know of for working with it. That’s the subject of today’s post.

First, let’s take a look at written references, millinery manuals which address techniques for working with esparterie/willow/spartre/etc. You can find the term popping up in many glossaries of millinery materials, but if a reference only mentions its existence and features no additional information on working with it, i’ve put it aside. We know it was once a commonly used and beloved millinery material, but what about the HOW of its use?

The book i used as my guide back when i made the brim block from a portion of one of my sheets in 2010 was Denise Dreher’s From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking. This book is also the required textbook for the graduate level course i teach in theatrical millinery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—it’s worth owning for many other reasons beyond its sections on esparterie, which she refers to exclusively by the term “willow.”

It’s clear that esparterie was already scarce when Dreher wrote her textbook, because she starts out advising milliners not to use it as a flat-pattern foundation material or as a blocking material, but to conserve it to use exclusively as a material shaped in the hand, free-form. She goes on to talk about the material’s properties and specific techniques for working with it—how to activate the willow with moisture/steam without damaging it, how to patch a damaged area, how to create a skinned join, how to wire an edge.

Specific instructional sections follow: Shaping the Sideband in Willow, Shaping the Tip in Willow, Shaping Narrow Brims in Willow, Shaping Wide Brims in Willow. She goes on to discuss both sizing and Spartalac as stabilizing products, though the information about Spartalac only serves to help a modern milliner conjecture as to what might serve as a good substitute, since that’s not a product one might run out and buy anymore.

All this information fills about five pages of her book (pages which are 8.5” x 11” in size and printed with two columns) and includes a few black-and-white photographs. Unfortunately, because the book is printed on essentially card stock, the quality of the images is not great. Nevertheless, if you have a sheet or few of esparterie and want to read up on it before working with it, Dreher’s book is a great reference.

Eve Borrett’s How to Make Hats is the second book i’ll mention. It features a 17-page chapter called “Tackling Esparterie and Shape Making.” Borrett essentially covers much of the same ground Denise Dreher does (and not as clearly), but i mention her book because it has an excellent hand-drawn diagram of a skinned join, which makes the process for it much clearer than simply relying on the description and fuzzed-out photography in the Dreher text.

A Textbook of Model Millinery by Ethel Langridge was a pearl of a find. It includes a ten-page chapter entitled “Esparterie Work, including Shape-Making,” full of detailed hand-drawn illustrations concerning a process called “taking the print” of a hat or a block. This involves using the esparterie (or as Langridge tends to call it, the spartre) to make a topographical copy of an existing hat or block, in order to create replicas of it or commission a wood block copy. The book includes a black-and-white photo printed on good-quality glossy paper depicting examples of these esparterie hat-prints. Langridge has stitched them in contrasting thread, as i have done in past posts, to better illustrate the type/size of stitches used in reinforcement sections. This is a technique i’m very excited to practice using the esparterie we acquired from Madame Sheeta’s estate, and be sure i’ll document it fully here.

In Studio Secrets: Millinery by Estelle Ramousse and Fabienne Gambrelle, there’s no specific technique documentation of esparterie work, but there are some beautiful, high-quality, full-color photographs of the surviving esparterie blocks in the studio of Madame Galanter, a Parisian milliner who’s been in business for decades.

There are also some photos of esparterie shapes in Paula Reed's biography Philip Treacy, which features text in both English and Italian. You can also see some of Treacy's esparterie block maquettes in two earlier blog posts of mine: Photoessay Part 1 of 2 - Philip Treacy's Hat Blocks, and Photoessay Part 2 of 2.

And, in L'arte di fare i cappelli by Anna Maria Nicolini there’s a chapter on esparterie work also written in both English and Italian. There’s not any new material there, but the bilingual nature of the book and its full-color photography make it worth a mention in this post as well. Milliners more comfortable with Italian than English would find it to be a good starting place for the basics, perhaps?

At one point, an Australian company called Ascot School of Millinery was offering a DVD of a master class in hand-formed esparterie, but they seem to have gone out of business or otherwise disappeared from the internet. All that remains is this preview video which has some spliced together fast-motion examples of the artisan working. If anyone reading has information on how to contact the folks at ASM to obtain a copy of the DVD in question, or owns a copy who might speak to its contents, please do drop a comment on this post!

Should you know of a reference book in any language which features well-documented instruction on working with esparterie/willow/spartre/espatra/etc., please do leave me a comment with the title and author name! I’d also love to see links to any other resources—photos, videos, etc. If you're hosting an upcoming workshop in working with esparterie (such as the one at Millinery Meetup 2016 with Jane Stoddart, please do also drop a comment!

Thanks to Dirk Seegmüller of Les Incroyables for his invaluable input in tracking down some of these sources.

ETA: Many thanks to milliner Rachael Worboys, who has drawn my attention to the book Hats on Heads: The Art of Creative Millinery, by Mildred Anlezark, with several sections on esparterie. This book was published in New South Wales, Australia, and i've requested it through Interlibrary Loan, so as soon as I receive that, i'll report back here my thoughts on how its contents compare to what i've already mentioned above!

May. 5th, 2016


Museum of Science Fiction Replica #2: The Matrix

You may recall that last year, i wrote up our first costume replica project for the Museum of Science Fiction, the flight attendant costume from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Today i've got the next project installment to share, the Neo costume from 1999's The Matrix.

This one came about because a donor gave the museum a pair of Airwalk buckle boots which were purportedly used in the making of the film, and they wanted to create an exhibit around those boots, a display of the full costume look for the character of Neo (played by Keanu Reeves). Here's what we did:

First up, I created a Pinterest board for research images for the project, and rising second year grad student Erin Torkelson began to add specific screencaps to it, on top of all the extant imagery i found for the costume. Erin also worked with the folks at the Museum to set up a conference call with the film's costume designer, Kym Barrett, who generously took the time to talk with us about the original costumes. She gave us a lot of wonderful information about her concept for Neo's clothing, and also told us some fun facts, like that there were over 20 versions of the iconic Neo coat, made up in many different types of materials so that they would behave differently in various conditions--linen ones, wool ones, screenprinted ones, coats designed to be shot underwater, etc.

So ironically, our conundrum was, how do you make a replica of a costume for which there is no single costume to copy, something for which there were numerous iterations, all both identical and yet very different, and for which the icon itself doesn't exist other than as an impression in the mind of the viewer? (Isn't that so perfect, given the film in question?) So as we determined in our conversation with Kym, we were making a representation of the icon, a costume which anyone who walked into a room with it would know from 50' away: "That's the Neo costume from The Matrix."

We worked with a friend of mine, Katie Straker, who is an employee of Mood Fabrics, to swatch wools for the coat, and our assistant costume director, Jenn Guadagno, drafted the pattern for it following traditional tailoring methods. She then supervised its construction with a team of our graduate and undergraduate students serving as her first-hands and stitchers:

Rising second year grad Michelle Bentley works on sewing the coat lining.

There's one close-up shot in the film where we thought we caught a glimpse of the digital drift imagery on the lining of the coat, and sure enough, when we asked Kym Barrett about it, she confirmed that that was true.

So using a still from the film, MFA '16 grad Erin Abbenante did the digital drift textile design you see here, which we had printed at Spoonflower.

Rising third year grad Emily Plonski adjusts the capelet at the shoulder seam before the sleeves go in.

Look how beautiful that turned out!

Local news WRAL did a feature on us! Here they're filming rising third-year Max Hilsabeck working on the gun holsters, which were patterned and overseen by rising second-year Erin Torkelson.

The donated boots were definitely not the ones worn by Keanu Reeves in the film--they were likely a stuntman or distance double or similar, because among other things they did not feature the iconic chainmail toecaps of Neo's boots, so famous from the giant closeup shot in the film. MOSF wanted theirs to have that aesthetic element though, so above you see a sheet of chainmail and the boot in question.

Here's the finished toes! I worked on these with rising third year grad Emily Plonski and rising second year Robin Ankerich.

UNC undergraduate Glennda Campbell sewing one of our custom printed MOSF labels into the completed coat

Obligatory mirror selfie with Neo in the PlayMakers Repertory Company fitting room. When the WRAL camera crew looked at him and said "It's like he looks MORE real than the one in the movie," I knew we'd succeeded.

You can see this costume debut on display at the upcoming MOSF extravaganza, Escape Velocity, coming to DC In July!

Apr. 24th, 2016


Madame Sheeta's Millinery Legacy - Part One

Back in 2010, i wrote a post in this blog about making a brim block out of esparterie, the rarest millinery material out there. At the time, i had four vintage-1950s sheets of it, which i had found in the bottom of a drawer upon beginning my job at PlayMakers Repertory Company and UNC-Chapel Hill. Because esparterie (aka willow, spartre, esparta, sparterie, espatra, etc.) is so rare, that comprised the one and only time i'd worked with it. I'd also provided a portion of a piece to one graduate student once who wanted to form a top-hat sideband with it as part of my millinery class.

Then, a couple weeks ago, thanks to that post, I was contacted by a woman whose dear friend had passed away; she'd been a milliner in the 1940s and 50s. Was i interested in acquiring 77 sheets of esparterie in nearly-new condition, salvaged from this milliner's studio?

After i stopped jumping up and down and freaking out, i composed a grateful reply and--to make a long story short--the deal was made. The willow arrived and this marks the first of several posts i'll be making regarding it and Madame Sheeta, the talented milliner whose legacy now includes the preservation of the art of esparterie in academic and theatrical millinery practice. I intend to document my own use of the material, that of my future students, any workshops i might conduct with it, and to write about this extraordinary woman herself, to whom I owe this amazing good fortune. (An interview with Madame Sheeta's friend and former millinery student is in the works.)

Before i proceed here, too, i should say that this esparterie is not for resale. It was provided to us as a tribute to Madame Sheeta, and is to be used for theatrical and educational purposes only. My millinery students will have the opportunity to work with it, and if we host any future workshops with it which might be open to more general enrollment, i will post about that here inlabricoleuse first.

For now, though, I'm starting out by writing about the material from an investigative standpoint, to document techniques for others who might acquire or currently possess sheets of it on their own recognizance. Inevitably when i talk to fellow milliners about esparterie, there are a few folks who say they have a sheet (or five, or a dozen) but are waiting to use it, or afraid to use it because it's so rare. And friends, I HEAR YOU. Back when i made my block in 2010 with it, i was terrified. It was worse than cutting into a piece of $500/yd lace because of the rarity of the material. A mistake with esparterie isn't just costly, it might be irreparable. Now though, i have the luxury to experiment. I can practice with it. I can learn from the material, and i can document it here.

There aren't many sources of information on working with esparterie, but so far, the best one i've found is Denise Dreher's From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking. Dreher and others (Eva Borrett's How to Make Hats and Ethel Langridge's Textbook of Model Millinery) talk about the technique of the "skinned join," which i mentioned in passing back in 2010 and which is what i'm writing about today. These writers all suggest that you practice your skinned joins with scraps...but who has scraps of willow? [1]

Well, i can tell you that if you want to practice a skinned join but don't want to use your actual esparterie to do it, you can spray-starch a layer of lightweight buckram (the kind you get at JoAnn's or Hancock Fabrics) to a layer of raffia cloth or sinamay or toyo or similar straight-weave straw, then use that. It will give you a similar experience in the practicing, that you can then feel confident about when making a skinned join in actual willow.

Here's some visuals for what makes a skinned join:

I started with a 2.5" bias strip of esparterie, which i misted with an atomizer of water and wiped with a damp cloth on the esparto side, to moisten the material. Then i carefully separated the crinoline from the esparto on either side of my join, as above.

Here you see what's going to be my overlap for the skinned join. The crinoline layer is pulled back on each side, and i'm about to stab-stitch through the two layers of esparto, backstitching for strength. Once you do that...

...you smooth the crinoline layers back down over top of your stitching (here i did it in black thread so you could see it, because this is meant as a teaching tool). In this way, you wind up with a really smooth join.

A few more bonus images...

Box of esparterie when i first opened it.

These 30 coils of millinery wire were included in the box! What a wonderful acquisition.

Madame Sheeta in the 1940s, making a wire-frame headdress for the Sheffield Pageant.
Isn't she inspirationally fabulous?!

That's it for now. As i said, this is to be the first in a series, with future installments to include using esparterie to do something called "taking a print," forming esparterie in the hand, and a biographical profile of the extraordinary Madame Sheeta.

[1] I realize there's "paper esparterie" coming out of Japan now, and i admit i haven't worked with it, so it may or may not compare to the old-style esparterie in which one layer is crinoline and the second is esparto grass.

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