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Apr. 24th, 2016

frippery

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.

Apr. 1st, 2016

mee

digital textile design for Mrs Lovett

In Bill Brewer's designs for Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, her second look has a very specific stripe to it. He'd found a swatch of fabric at a New York vendor which he loved, but there were two problems: the vendor sold out of the fabric before the swatches were approved, and in order to match the fabric up the center front in this inverse chevron, one half of the skirt would have had to be cut inverted, which creates a visual anomaly in textiles with satin weaves.


Concept slide and design rendering by Bill Brewer


Image of silk yardage - the fabric we couldn't buy

In order to achieve this look, my assistant and first-year grad student Erin Torkelson took the above research image of the fabric Bill liked, rendered the stripe as a TIFF, and uploaded it to Spoonflower. We ordered sample swatches of it in a couple different substrate fabrics and Bill chose the fabric he liked best (the poly satin). He also elected to change the stripe to feature more whitespace. Then, because the stripe design is not a balanced mirror of itself, we had two versions of the stripe printed so that the skirt could be cut with that matching chevron up the front with the directional nap accommodated for.

Lovett Stripe
Lovett Stripe Reversed

Pretty cool, eh?

Mar. 29th, 2016

mee

Faceted masquerade masks for Sweeney Todd

We're working on Sweeney Todd at PlayMakers right now, which is largely why i haven't posted anything in a while. Busy! But here's a quick look at just one of the many cool costume projects we've had in-house: the animal.masks for the masquerade scene.

Our costume designer, Bill Brewer, and our director, Jen Wineman, were really drawn to the mask designs of an artist named Steve Wintercroft. Wintercroft creates masks which look like the faceted shapes of 3D digital character designs before they have their "skins"--shapes reduced to planes. When i saw the images, i was so excited about the look of that scene and i couldn't wait to start work on them. For the scene, we would need a total of thirteen different masks, so my concern was how we could make this quantity of masks from something durable enough to survive a 25-show run, but which we could produce in under a month, alongside all the other craftwork i needed to stay on top of.

Wintercroft sells his designs as PDFs on Etsy, so Bill chose 13 masks he liked and we bought the patterns. Upon looking at the structures of the masks (which based on the instructions are intended to be printed on paper or cardstock and glued together for parties or children's play) and considering how we might adapt them to our needs, i came up with our process plan:



This spreadsheet was how we kept track of the project. With 12 different processes happening to 13 different masks, you have to devise good record-keeping strategies! (This pic was taken when we were close to being done, clearly.)
I printed the patterns off onto heavy cardstock, and then several undergraduates got trained on the industrial heat press, which they used in backing the cardstock with a heavy-weight fusible non-woven felt (think Pellon). Since each mask was between 10 and 20 pages worth of cardstock, this took a few hourrs. Then my assistant, first-year graduate student Erin Torkelson, began to cut these things out and assemble them.



Erin used Fabric-Tac in a curved-tip syringe to apply the glue to the tabs of each piece.


Clamps and clips secured each join while the adhesive cured.


Once the masks were in 3D form, we painted them with two coats of gesso and a sealer called Sculpt-or-Coat, inside and out, for stability. We also reinforced some of the joins around eyeholes and ears/mouths with papier-mache.


Several more in progress...


Then all the masks were painted with grey acrylic, except the Minotaur for the character of the Judge (top row right, hiding behind the Boar), which was painted deep red to match his costume.


Then, the masks were fit on the performers, interior padding constructed and added in, and now they're off to tech rehearsal to be waltzed in!

If you want to follow these kinds of projects in real-time, find me on Instagram or Twitter.

Feb. 16th, 2016

design

Book review: Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee


Winterhalter's 1865 portrait of Empress Elizabeth of Austria
in a gown by Charles Worth and diamond star ornaments dressed into her hair

While book reviews are a fairly common feature in La Bricoleuse, i should preface this one with a bit of a caveat, because it’s highly irregular that the subject of such a review would be a novel. The book features have typically addressed nonfiction of a costume-related bent, such as Shoes: An Illustrate History by Rebecca Shawcross or The Spoonflower Handbook.

However, it is for entirely topical reasons that I draw your attention to Alexander Chee’s new release, Queen of the Night.


I was perhaps predisposed to pick up this novel—it is set in a place and time (Paris during the Second Empire/Third Republic) which are among my pet research topics and follows the tumultuous career of an operatic soprano. As I’ve worked as a costumer for companies like the LA Opera, i’m intrigued by opera history and familiar with its canon, and i do love the soaring drama of those storylines. And, well do i know that historically, the lives of opera singers often might well be the plot lines of operas themselves—the tragic death of La Malibran, for example, or the dramatic onstage shattering of Cornélie Falcon’s voice.

But whether you have any familiarity with opera or not, if you enjoy the focus of this blog, you ought to grab a copy of this book and check it out, and here’s why: costume and couture of the period is a significant thematic element. From the Parisian ateliers of Worth and Félix [1] to the subterranean storehouse of Empress Eugénie’s fur collection, there’s so much to love for the costume academic or enthusiast.

For example, when was the last time you read a contemporary historical novel in which an author acknowledged the fact that women dressed wiglets and switches into their hair when creating elaborate hairstyles? Given the general flimsiness of women’s silk slippers for society parties, you’ll appreciate Chee’s tip of the hat to special pairs of cancan boots—wooden heeled, leather uppers—transgressively structured footwear made for stamping and kicking all night. And when you hit the section in which a courtesan advises her protegée on the conversion of various types of jewelry into ready money, if you’re of my nitpicky mindset, you’ll love to see that type of information codified on the page.

In fact, clothing is often a sticking point for me in terms of the enjoyment of historical fiction—even moreso than the snark the ladies of Frock Flicks dish on with respect to film/TV—because in fiction, you have no limitations on budget and shooting schedule, nor must you contend with petulant A-list talent who insist on choosing their own jankity clothes, history be damned. There is quite literally NO REASON why an author of a novel should get the details of fashion so deeply wrong, but (speaking as someone who once put down a book in disgust when the protagonist pulled a corset off over her head like a tee-shirt) it happens. Often.

So i felt like metaphorically high-fiving Chee from the moment his narrator began to describe a custom dressform in the Worth atelier as essential to the sartorial panache of an arriviste. I loved the way at one point Chee detailed the embroidery techniques designed to hide structural seamlines on the bodice of a gown, and i wished i had a colleague reading along with me to share my thumbs-ups when he mentioned in passing the stitching of weights into the hems of voluminous skirts to influence their motion in performance. In fact, with that in mind, this would be a fantastic discussion book for a group of costumers, and an excellent audiobook to listen to while, say, tatting, pad-stitching, or tambour-beading.

And yet, i don't wish to imply that the story is merely an excuse for pornagraphically-intricate fashion descriptions--these sorts of details are seamlessly incorporated into the writing, the same as any other bit of scene-setting. It all exists in there to serve the plot, which brings me to...well, the plot in all its glorious sprawl.

I’ve read some criticism of the implausibility of the characters’ lives in a few traditional book-review marketplaces. I would argue that they are perhaps implausible to those with no familiarity with the memoirs of mid-19th-century demimondaines, courtesans, and opera singers; but scholars of those women’s lives, however, will discern the inspiration of real people and events throughout Queen of the Night. I don’t just mean the obvious ones—Napoleon III and his appetite for mistresses or Pauline Viardot-García and her “two husbands”—but the cameos of or tributes to lesser-known filles de joie like Cora Pearl, La Païva, and Mogador, too.


Should you feel the need to read a more traditional review before taking on a novel just for the clothing descriptions, take a pass through Ilana Masad's review on Electric Literature. It provides a good overview of the epic, circuitous story. You don’t need to be a fan of opera to follow along (Chee often synopsizes the storylines of the operas which feature in the soprano’s career) but if you are, you will recognize that the novel itself follows operatic tropes of melodrama and tragedy.

Like many operas, it’s long—over 500 pages—and it does shift around in time and place, so if you prefer your novels to have linear plots in which A leads to B which is followed by C, you’ll struggle. Me, i love a complex puzzle box of a book, and Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night is one i’ll return to again, much like a favorite libretto or score.


[1] If you're a fan of Worth but Maison Félix doesn't ring a bell, check out this great feature on the FIDM blog with loads of droolworthy images!

Feb. 5th, 2016

mee

Mask class projects!

My grad students in Masks and Armor this semester have just presented their first round of projects. At this point, we've covered a range of different maskmaking media, and the students have proposed basic mask projects for which they may choose which type of media to use. These masks are meant to be fairly simple, in that they don't require a life cast or any full-head structural elements.

Check out what they made!




Fosshape/buckram/kanakelon Noh theatre mask by first year grad Michelle Bentley



Wonderflex mask by first year grad Robin Ankerich


Wonderflex Scandinavian mask by second year grad Max Hilsabeck


Embroidered textile mache mask by first year grad Erin Torkelson


Wonderflex/TerraFlex Witch King mask/helm by second year grad Emily Plonski


Hardened leather maquette and full size Bioshock mask by PlayMakers Repertory Company stock supervisor Alex Ruba

Jan. 27th, 2016

mee

3D printed St. Stanislaus medal

For our current production of Three Sisters at PlayMakers Repertory Company, we had to make the Order of St. Stanislaus medal for the character of Kulyegin.

Our costume designer, Tracy Christiansen, provided me with this great research image of what the medal looks like:

Read more...Collapse )
I did the manip using Photoshop and Tinkercad, and you can grab the file off of Thingiverse, here, if you want one of your own!

Jan. 16th, 2016

safety

Book review: Fashion Victims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present

I recently finished reading the excellent new book from fashion historian Alison Matthews Davis, Fashion Victims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, and my advice to the readership of this blog is, in short, get your hands on a copy. It's fantastic.

I'm not sure which came first, he book or the eponymous exhibit which ran at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto recently--the book is much more than an exhibit catalogue, though it does contain a substantial number of illustrations (129 full color ones!). So perhaps the book begat the exhibit? Regardless, it's an imminently readable volume, hardcover, full-color, a coffeetable book of sorts, well worth the $40 retail price. I'll defer to a quote from the press release for an excellent summary:

A boldly gory and thoroughly illustrated history of death by clothing, from blazing crinolines to mercury-laden fur.

As a major proponent of safe work practices and an instructor who incorporates OSHA/EHS compliance topics into my classes, i found this book at turns fascinating, heartbreaking, gruesome, inspiring, and at times downright disturbing. Yes, the example cases mentioned within are sometimes horrible on their own, but more horrifying are the bits where the author discusses having lab techs at her university run tests on modern-day products easily bought in stores in your own neighborhood--lead content in lipsticks, for example, or radioactive metal used to ornament imported studded belts.

The book is structured so that each chapter focuses on a different class of danger--there's a chapter devoted to the hazards of the hatting industry, then one on flammable tutu net and flannelette, etc. As a sometime-hatmaker, the hatting chapter was particularly sad--one illustration showed examples of hatters' legible signatures as young apprentices contrasted with the unreadable trembling scribbles they signed with after a decade in the trade.

I highly recommend the book in general, but it's a particularly significant read and reference volume for those working in costume archives and in vintage clothing houses, as well as those in academia with study collections or large stocks of antique/vintage clothing.
Tags: ,

Dec. 9th, 2015

mee

Decorative Arts class: footwear projects!

Wow, i can tell it's been a busy season and semester--no posts since October! But, the semester's winding down and i found some time to blog. Today, a survey of some of my students' footwear projects for the class i'm teaching this semester! (If you follow me on Instagram, you'll have gotten a realtime peek at some of these already...)



IMG_0465.JPG
Button-boot spats by first year grad Michelle Bentley

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Crossweave faille button boots by first year grad Robin Ankerich

IMG_0463.JPG
Top left: velvet spats by undergraduate Natalie Carney
Bottom left: plaid wool spats by undergraduate Athene Wright
Right: wool spats by first year grad Robin Ankerich

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Heels with appliqued leather/suede "wings" by undergraduate Athene Wright

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Heels with 3D printed dinosaur skull toecaps and foot/claw heel ornaments by first year grad Erin Torkelson

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3D printed platform sole prototype by first year grad Michelle Bentley

Oct. 9th, 2015

mee

Decorative Arts class: gloves and period accessories!

I've been lax at sharing student projects, probably due to having taken up Instagram, but hopefully this post will remedy that a bit. This semester's graduate crafts course is Decorative Arts, but what that tends to mean is a catch-all for craft topics that don't fit neatly into one of my other three classes (Millinery, Dyeing/Surface Design, Masks/Armor). So far, we've made it through two projects--gloves and period accessories. Check them out!




Top: ultrasuede gloves with beaded trim by first year grad Erin Torkelson
Bottom: burgundy leather gloves (replica of antique pair) by second year grad Emily Plonski


Left: blue knit gloves by second year grad Max Hilsabeck
Top right: crepe knit gloves by first year grad Robin Ankerich
Bottom right: rick-rack inset gloves by first year grad Erin Torkelson


Top: royal leather gloves with cutwork by first year grad Robin Ankerich
Bottom: coral leather gloves with cutwork and ruffly by first year grad Michelle Bentley



Sequin lace fan by second year grad Max Hilsabeck


Beaded reticule by first year grad Michelle Bentley


second year grad Emily Plonski designed the frame for this velvet reticule and had it 3D printed by the makerspace at the Kenan Science Library here at UNC. This purse is now featured in a display at the library on using 3D fabrication technologies across arts and science disciplines.



First year grad Erin Torkelson designed the rigid base for a gambling purse and had it 3D printed by the makerspace at the Kenan Science Library here at UNC. She then ombre-dyed the print to get the blue halo at the bottom shown here.

IMG_0319.JPG
Then, she created a crochet pattern and made this sweet gambling purse!

Oct. 3rd, 2015

ass head mask

3D printed bear mask for Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls

This past couple weeks, i've been working with the undergraduates of the Kenan Theatre Company to produce a bearskin cape costume for their upcoming play, Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls. When the costume designer, Ashley Owen, expressed a desire for the cape to feature a hood which incorporated a bear head mask structure (kind of like a bearskin rug), i thought this would be a great opportunity for us to partner with the Research Hub on campus and 3D print the base structure for this piece.

Traditionally, we might carve or sculpt the rigid foundation support for such a mask, but in this case we had limited time, money, and labor--i knew that if we could print the base structure, we would save an enormous amount of time in terms of available labor to work on the piece, and because our campus has a grant which underwrites the cost of the filament for 3D printed objects through the end of the semester (within reason), we could in theory get this done for only the cost of the fur.

So i took a look around Thingiverse for a shareware animal head file which could be modified for our bear and i found this great file for a puppet or fursuit head, in this case a fox/wolf shape but i thought we could make it work for our bear hood with some minimal tweaks in ear/nose shape and the fur skin patterning itself. I spoke with the librarians at the Research Hub, placed a request for a print of the file, and in a few days, i had our base structure!



The file prints in three pieces: the face, the back of the head, and the jaw. We didn't need a movable jaw so i only requested the cranium pieces, which here have been glued together with Super Glue along the radial seam. I love how the file already has openwork designed into the topography to minimize weight and to give anchor areas for stitching if need be.

Working with me on the project was undergraduate assistant Glennda Campbell. Glennda used a Valspar primer formulated specifically to adhere to plastic to prime the 3D printed mask base and then painted the whole thing with a brown enamel. Glennda also began to sculpt the nose and teeth from Wonderflex thermoplastic.

Meanwhile, i began working on the fur "skin," creating the ears from a layer of pink suede and the fur Ashley provided us, and patterning out the shapes for covering our "skull."

Here you can see the mask with one ear and some of the fur attached.

The finished mask sitting on a head form, after we stitched it into the hood of the cape.
(The cape's hood has some inset pieces of brown felt in a dagged shape, visible here.)

Side view, better illustration of the nose and teeth.

The show doesn't open until October 9th, but we had to have this finished last week so that they could work with the cape in rehearsal. All in all, this was a great opportunity to incorporate 3D printing into the production process to serve a costume need which would have been much more difficult to turn around in the time needed with more traditional mask-structural techniques.

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