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March 2017

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Esparterie Workshop: freeform sculpting "in the hand"!

Recall, if you will, the incredible acquisition of a large quantity of vintage esparterie by our department, in what i refer to as the Madame Sheeta Legacy.

Yesterday, I conducted the first workshop with Sheeta's esparterie, with our seven costume production graduate students, two continuing-education students enrolled in my millinery class, and two costume staff members of PlayMakers Repertory Company. I'll be writing up several posts concerning the topics we covered, but i'd like to start with a few photographs from the section of the workshop in which we explored techniques of forming esparterie in the hand.

Esparterie, for those unfamiliar with the word, is a generic term for a two-ply millinery material comprised of one layer of straw and one layer of lightweight fine-weave cotton, starched together. The esparterie we acquired from the estate of Madame Sheeta is vintage stock, produced in Europe in the early to mid-20th century, probably some time around 1940. In this esparterie, the straw layer is made from esparto, a grass which grows primarily in southern Spain and northern Africa. To my knowledge, this esparterie is no longer manufactured.

Esparterie is returning to the marketplace of millinery materials, largely driven by the Australian industry. Several Aussie vendors sell what is often called "nouveau esparterie," which is of Japanese manufacture. Japan has long produced a variety of esparterie in a tradition going back to the early 20th century, with the straw layer comprised of toyo straw (strands of twisted paper, woven into a cloth). I have three sheets of the mid-century vintage Japanese esparterie, and for the purposes of this workshop, i purchased a meter of the new stuff coming out of Australia as well, so that we might compare all three.

The burning question on my mind, prior to my acquisition of the esparto-composite stock from Madame Sheeta's atelier, was this:

How does/did European esparterie differ from Japanese esparterie?

After all, the surviving resources which mention the material were all written during or just after WW2, and I always wondered whether British milliners' disdain for the Japanese product was due to bigotry against the Japanese, as opposed to any appreciable difference in the product itself. Now, i know the answer! The toyo straw behaves differently than the esparto when forming the material. The toyo is a bit more "wiggly" and more inclined to droop, while the esparto retains more of a uniform surface topography across complex curves.

I hesitate to make a value judgement about it--i would not consider one type superior to the other. The case is simply that they behave slightly differently when worked with, and both types have their pros and cons and fiddly qualities. Here's a visual:




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Left: European esparterie, esparto layer facing up
Right: Japanese esparterie, toyo layer facing up
In one section of the workshop, we experimented with the processes of forming esparterie in the hand. This is kind of like free-form blocking of felt or sinamay, in that you activate the material (in this case by misting the straw side of the esparterie with water) and then just...fiddling around with it on a block.

Check out some of the structures the students produced!


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This little fascinatory thing was made by PlayMakers costume stock supervisor Alex Ruba. The discoloration on the top edges is from the age of the esparto.

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Fun bandeau-bow shape by second year grad student Robin Ankerich

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Sweet little perch shape by continuing education student Kim Fraser

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This creation is by PlayMakers wardrobe supervisor Ana Walton.
Those are foam curling rods for wig/hair styling supporting the flutes of the shape while it dries.

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Side view of Ana's piece which shows the curlers better.

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Back view, and more curler details.

Pretty excited about the way this first workshop went! Seems like everyone learned a lot, including me. I'll be posting more soon about the other parts of the workshop and what else we covered in terms of the use of this material.

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