Fourteen keys to success from eight costuming experts
Within these pages you will find the best top tips from a cross-section of today’s top costuming experts. Some specialise; some are skilled in many historical periods. Some make whole outfits; some specialise in corsetry or millinery. Some are professional, working on individual bespoke outfits for private customers or on whole theatrical, TV or film productions; some are dedicated, experienced amateurs. Although they all have prior experience of teaching or answering questions from less experienced designers, makers and seamstresses, none can ever remember having been directly asked to cut to the chase.
I know making that leap took forever for me, and it made all the difference when I did. Kendra Van Cleave
None of them have ever been asked the most probing questions: What is the one thing that sets your work apart from the average costuming effort? What do you wish someone had told you when you were just off the starting blocks, trying to improve, trying to find a way to make professional-quality costumes?
Well, this article dares to ask those most challenging, most basic, most cheeky of questions, knowing that we were all there once, struggling to escape the “home-made” look. Our writer Kendra Van Cleave says it best: “I know making that leap took forever for me, and it made all the difference when I did.”
Now, for the first time you’ll get to pick all of our brains as we get down to the core of the issue, the brass tacks: in a few pages, you will know the most important things that a budding costume designer or seamstress must know in order to make the leap from amateur-quality, home made results to stunning, couture-quality work.
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Congratulations: you are about to take your favourite pastime to a new level!
Before you begin
Costuming is not a precise science. Every expert has her own way of doing things, and you must remember, when reading the following collection of keys to your success, that these are not commandments, handed down from on high for you to ignore at your peril.
These tips are the product of years of experience; they demonstrate not what "must" be done but what works for these costumers every day, and we invite you not only to try them and use them, but to vary and improve upon them.
I have collated the contributions of all the other experts into fourteen overall keys to costuming success, and then added my own comments and interpretations below.
I invite you to read these steps, print them out, try them, use them, work with them, and see what works for you.
I would have to say that my top tip for turning out professional looking garments is the use of quality fabrics. Use the very best that you can afford.
For example, I cringe when I hear that corsetmakers use twill, drill, and denim as an interlining. If you are going to make something which is so time-consuming, do it right. For a professional corset, it *must* be coutil.
The same goes for the fashion fabrics. If the fabric came from the remnant bin of JoAnns, it will most likely look cheap. When I look at fashion fabrics, I carefully examine the weave and thread count. The weight of the fashion fabric is also extremely important. And fiber content, of course.
Identify your materials and treat them accordingly. Laurie Tavan
Choice of suitable fabric comes before any other step in making a great costume. Here, in addition to the comments above, is my own experience of receiving this advice:
Very early in my career I gate-crashed the expensive London boutique of my very favourite wedding gown designer, the imposing Basia Zarzycka. Amongst the acres of tulle and lace and exquisite eighteenth century corsetry I dissolved into a puddle of admiration and admitted that I was just mystery shopping her, but as I was firmly escorted to the door, I had the presence of mind to ask her for a single piece of advice for a young costumer’s work. “Use the very best fabrics you can possibly afford,” she told me, and to this day that is the most pivotal piece of advice I’ve ever received.
It was obvious: her wedding gowns may not have shown any more sewing skill on the surface to the uneducated onlooker, but that special something that set her apart was the exquisite lace, the attention to how the different fabrics matched or contrasted in a single gown; even though you couldn’t necessarily pick out the fact that the fabrics were expensive, they were the je ne sais quoi – the quality of those fabrics, the fact that you didn’t see them everywhere, gave them that magical aura.
A good fabric instantly raises your game, and convinces the onlooker that you’re serious about doing great work. Don’t be fooled by the bargain bin; you do get what you pay for.
If you're trying for a historical look, research very specifically the colors, fibers, patterns, and weights of the fabrics that were in use then.
A heavy synthetic upholstery fabric cannot reproduce the look of a fine silk brocade. While it's possible that 16th-century English folk could have had access to bright teal silk, would they have worn it? And paisley was only fashionable in certain times and places and on certain types of garments.
The wrong fabric choice impacts the look, of course, but more than that, it can make a costume bulky and uncomfortable.
Movement and drape are also an issue. For example, an Elizabethan gown needs a fabric with body rather than something limp and 'drapey', but an 1810 evening gown must be gossamer and fluid.
Melanie raises two issues here. Clearly, if you’re going for historical accuracy you can’t just use any old fabric. It takes time and research to get it right (but never fear, you can guarantee that someone, somewhere, has already done that research for you.) Even if no-one who sees your costume knows the exact ins and outs of 1790s cotton prints, the right one will just look right, feel right, and give you extra confidence when wearing your gown – which gives you the “wow” factor you need.
But even if you couldn’t care less about historical accuracy, you still need to consider what makes an appropriate fabric. The book or pattern envelope you’re using will give you some ideas, but further than that, consider how the costume moves. Does it need to be voluminous like Queen Victoria’s skirts, or does it need to be fluid, aqueous, like the gown of a Grecian goddess or 1930’s screen siren? Look for fabric in a bricks and mortar store, where you can get your grubby paws on it and play with it, wrap it around you, hold it, drape it, get to know it. Does it feel right for this project? Later on, when you’re familiar with fabric names and the qualities of each type of fibre, you’ll be ready to play the lottery of buying online.
Learn to work with interlinings, and not just the crappy "interfacing" sold at standard fabric stores. The book "Bridal Couture" by Susan Khalje was invaluable in explaining different interlinings and what they could do. I swear by silk organza in EVERYTHING. Kendra Van Cleave
Know your interfacings - which type to use with your given fabric. Tanya Rohler
I’m in absolute agreement on this one. If you want to know the great big dirty secret that professional seamstresses and costumiers are keeping from you, we’re here to tell you that it’s interlinings.
Interlinings aren’t the same thing as interfacings. An interlining is an extra layer of fabric laid between the fashion fabric and lining that changes the way that the fashion fabric behaves. You can use interlinings to give a flimsy fabric extra body, to stop creasing, to make a pale fabric denser or more opaque, and to stop the edges of the seam allowances showing on the outside of the garment after you’ve pressed the seams.
Click to see inside this frock coat
Many different fabrics make good interlinings, but as Kendra says, the most common and most useful is silk organza, which is light, natural and gives just a hint of body without stiffness, stopping your costume from drooping like a wet (and very home-made) lettuce. Use it by cutting all your fashion fabric pieces in silk organza as well as the fashion fabric, and then basting the two together, so that you can treat them as one.
Interfacings also lie unseen between fashion fabric and lining, but they appear in small areas only – around a neckline, a cuff, at the front of a jacket. They give stiffness and shape where it’s most needed. As Tanya says, different interfacings are necessary for different types of fabric: clearly you’ll need to interface an Edwardian muslin blouse with something different from a heavy wool surcoat.
Here’s another tip: don’t just consider the manufactured interfacings that the store assistant shows you. (In fact, many experts don’t use these interfacings at all.) Get curious. Who are the most accomplished users of interfacings? The answer has to be bespoke tailors, who need to sculpt their suits into perfectly crafted masterpieces for every distinguished client. How can you find out what sort of interfacings they use?
Here’s a very personal tip of my own that the other experts didn’t mention. People often ask me how I could possibly have made the leap from mathematics teacher to costume designer and maker. What possible link could there be?
Actually, there are many skills that pass over from one to the other, not least of which is spacial awareness. Don’t panic: there are no numbers involved!
Spacial awareness is simply a skill of seeing things fit together in your mind’s eye. When you unwrap a new pattern and look at the pieces, can you take the front, side front, side back and so on and (roughly) see them turn around and fit together in your head? Can you see how it’s going to work? Can you foresee any pitfalls, any parts that don’t work so well? Can you see where the sticking points might be?
It’s a skill you can build with practice, and a very useful one. After my first few outfits, I developed an ability to picture what I was going to make, turn it around and look at it from all angles and ask myself questions. What’s the worst part? I asked myself. Which part won’t work so well? And with the answers to these supposedly negative questions, I was able to solve problems before they happened – or even improve the design. In what way does this look amateur? What would make it more professional – even if I can’t achieve it now? If I did know how to do it, what would I do?
Practice is the key here. Practice it on the bus, or waiting in line. Take a costume you have in mind but have yet to begin work on. Put it on a model in your mind and ask them to turn around. Look at it from every angle. Does it work? Where does it fasten? Which parts need to be strong? Which parts need extra attention? Needless to say, if you can hone this unseen skill of visualisation, you can potentially save yourself a lot of time and money by seeing the sticking points before they happen!
Divide projects into manageable chunks and actually complete them. Avoid saying, "I'll add that later." Decide if it really needs to happen, and if it does, do it. Laurie Tavan
We’ve all done it. There’s an event to costume yourself for. In a flash of unnatural brilliance, you come up with the idea of the century. Yeah! With wings! And a collar that defies gravity! And it’ll be bias cut with an in-built corset and diamante sparkles. Oh – and the hat! You’ll make that too!
Even if you’re not that ambitious, it can still happen. You get a pattern, you get fabric, you cut it out and it’s half made, and then something happens. The muse leaves you with another half-finished project that just won’t get done.
Here and now, I invite you to finish these projects - and all your future projects, too. Use them to learn the lessons they have for you, improve your skills through them, and set yourself free instead of letting them hold you guilty hostage.
You can finish any project, and here the principle is just the same as for any project: break it down. Select the back of a convenient envelope and pick up a pen. Write down the things that need to happen to finish it. You’ll find this satisfying in itself, since the hard parts are just as easy to write down as the easy parts. “Set in sleeves.” “Eyelets.” There’s a strange release in naming the monsters. Even if there’s a huge section that you don’t know how to tackle, just name it: “Ruff.”
You may find it easiest to start with only one or two items, and then begin to break them down into sub-categories. “Finish gown” becomes “1. Finish bodice. 2. Finish skirt.” Keep breaking each one down. “1a. Fit bodice. 1b. Do sleeves. 2a. Waistband. 2b. Hem.”
The key is to break each step down so far that the little steps you end up with become easy. Baby steps; micro-movements, as SARK would say. “Lay out pieces on table.” “Get sewing machine out.” Once you break it down this far, it’ll look a lot easier, and it’ll also become a lot easier to commit to do just a step or two each day or each weekend, one baby step in front of another, until your project is complete.
Laurie’s other point is just as useful. Be realistic about the details. If a final detail is so surplus to requirements that you’re content to do it “later,” then you don’t need it. If you need it, do it; if you don’t, let it go and move on to your next brilliant creation!
I always used to rush through projects and they were never done on time or weren't what I'd imagined. Once I realized it was going to take as long as it took, things got much better. Kendra Van Cleave
Always allocate to projects the time they deserve. Avoid tight deadlines, as rushing (and shortcuts) are the fastest route to mediocre results. Laurie Tavan
Some of the things that helped me out most when starting out were related to pacing. I'd make tons of muslins [practice mock-ups] that didn't work and get frustrated. So, I decided to limit myself to one muslin a day. It took more time, but the frustration went away. I also spent more time thinking about each fix, both when I was doing it and afterwards. I found it made things much easier. Katherine Caron-Greig
If I was going to be grandiose about it, I’d point out that Michaelangelo took more than four years to finish the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Despite that outstanding sacrifice, all we’re aware of now is the towering brilliance of the resulting work.
Your work may be somewhat humbler, but it’s still a work of art. Let it happen on its own timescale.
Ever spoilt a meal by rushing it? Ever created a truly fabulous dish because you took the time and made the ultimate effort for a really special occasion? The same applies to your costumes. Give it your time and your respect and your costume will show off how talented you can be in return.
It's such a simple concept, but so few people do it: I suspect that basting is really about taking the time to get it right. When costumers don’t baste – in other words, tack pieces together loosely by hand or machine before sewing firmly – things can easily go awry.
Sewing two loose pieces together can give shabby results and thus give you the impression that you’re forever an amateur; spare your spirit and baste. Sewing over pins can damage your machine or needle and give you a nasty fright when steel hits steel suddenly; spare your nerves and baste. Don’t just take a leaf out of the books of generations before ours and slow down – don’t skip any steps either.
Buy the best equipment you can afford. If you can't afford one of the top line machines, the vintage Pfaffs and Singers are awesome - especially the ones which do a straight stitch only. Tanya Rohler
You do need a hand crank machine! In addition to being good when there's no power, they're a lot of fun to use. And very good for fiddly bits, actually. I don't do zippers often - just on a few modern skirts - but it's so easy to do them on there. Gussets too. They're almost as easy as by hand. Katherine Caron-Greig
For my first five years of sewing, my mother lent me her sewing machine. It was a heavy, cantankerous old thing, and I was delighted when the chance arose to purchase my own. I forked over a big pile of cash for the top-of-the-range model – I was going pro, after all!
It had hundreds of stitches, fifteen different buttonholes, it could sew sideways; I’ve rarely used any of that. In fact, as Tanya and Katherine both say, you’d be surprised how useful a good old-fashioned basic machine can be – even a model that predates electricity can be a great little workhorse. You don’t need bells and whistles.
Having said that, there are also functions on my fancy new machine that I find indispensable – for me. Having used my mother’s machine for a while I recognised that there were some things about machine sewing that frustrated me, and when my dealer showed me a model with a little widget to solve my biggest machine sewing difficulty, I was delighted and bought it. So for me, that machine works.
In conclusion, we can’t tell you which machine to buy. There’s no shame in having borrowed a machine or bought something fairly humble or second hand to begin with. As you know by now, it’s helped you get used to sewing and it’s let you know whether costuming is for you.
When it comes to investing in a more permanent fixture, though, look for what YOU need. What’s useful to you, for what you make? Don’t assume that the expensive model is the best; don’t be blinded by gadgets unless you really need them. You may find, like many dedicated costumers, that you get the most joy and success from something your great-grandmother might have used.
And needless to say, take care of it. Regular servicing is a good way to ensure your machine enjoys a long and productive life, as is regular oiling. Get to know your machine, treat her well and you’ll not go far wrong.
Press your seams. Don’t just press open, but press all machine-sewn seams flat (each side) before pressing open. I didn't know that for years, and neither do many sewers I know. It smoothes out the stitching. Kendra Van Cleave
By far and away, the thing that would help most costumers move to the next level would be to learn how to make the most of their irons. If they learned how to use things like pressing (tailor's) hams, needle boards or pressing cloths they would see a world of difference in their final products. I have seen classes offered at costume conventions and the like, and these would be well worth the time for most anyone, even intermediate or advanced sewers, because you would be likely to pick up many tips.
A simple and very useful tool most anyone can make for themselves but you don't see in fabric stores is a wooden pressing strip. It is a two to three inch wide strip of hardwood that is between 3/8 to 1/2"(~1cm) thick and about a foot (30cm) or two (60cm) long. The edges on one side of the board can be sanded down giving a smoothly rounded surface. When you iron the seams open on some fabrics like satin and wool the edge of the seam allowance can make an impression on the right side of the fabric. When you press over this piece of wood the iron can only put pressure on the very center of the seam and not the outside edge of the seam allowance and you can get a lot of pressure on the seam (see below). If you need to use steam while you press, cover the wood with aluminium foil.
All you really need is a sander. Most DIY stores sell pieces of 24" (60cm) long oak or maple hardwood of the correct thickness and width. They may even cut it to length for you; I recommend 18" (45cm).
Pressing is as important a part of sewing as the stitching is; you really can’t press too much. My twopenceworth to add to the tips above is this: consider investing in a steam iron that has a special steam button that you can press exactly when you want steam. Mine is a Godsend!
Proper fitting is crucial to getting the right look and to making a costume into clothing that one can really live in comfortably. It's best to do a mock-up first in a cheap fabric and have an initial fitting with that, then make it up in the real fabric and have another fitting before any of the finishing or fastenings are done.
Make sure the person in the costume is wearing the underpinnings and shoes that they will wear with the finished garments.
It is nearly impossible to do a proper fitting on oneself. Find a friend who knows what they're doing, or at least one who can follow detailed instructions, and check the fit of every part of the ensemble and the levels of all the hems. This is most important for fitted garments, whether corsets or those worn over corsetry, but it can also have an enormous impact on garments that are less fitted, like men's coats.
Research very specifically to see how the clothing should fit, where the seams should fall, and how it all goes together on the body. Try not to impose modern standards of beauty or seam placement onto historic garments. Look at portraits or photographs to see what the ideal look was and try to reproduce it.
Take pictures of your mock-ups on the body, especially if you’re fitting on yourself. It's amazing how much more you can see in a picture than on yourself. Fairly obvious idea, but it took me a while to think of it :) Katherine Caron-Greig
Speaking as our theatrical expert, Melanie has great experience of professional costuming, requiring a high level of accuracy in design, technique and fit. But even if you’re just making a bodice to wear whilst visiting a Renaissance faire, there are tips you can pick out here.
Even if you need not ensure 110% historical accuracy, take an interest in the look of the period. Recreating the fit and lines of the original, even just a nod to them, can go a long way to making you look more authentic and less like you lost your way to a Hallowe’en party. If accuracy is more important to you, then Melanie’s advice is even more relevant. Look for fit in your historical sources – is the outfit closely fitted, medium or loose? Where are the areas of closest fit? Look for seams – their position can change the whole shape of the outfit. And notice how those fashions differ from what you’re used to in the 21st century. Notice how tempted you are to make them “look good” in the present day and see whether you can resist.
The importance of a toile, or mock-up, can’t be underestimated. Many a glaring mistake has been rectified at minimum cost by doing a trial run. If you can find the patience to make mistakes in calico or muslin, you’ll notice how confident you become when cutting the fancy fabric – because you’ll already know that the garment works. Mock-ups are rarely a corner worth cutting.
Melanie and Katherine have different views about fitting on the self, but remember that these are two costumers in very different situations. In Melanie’s theatre productions, a high degree of professionalism is required and it would be unheard of for an actor to do his or her own fitting. She advises enlisting a friend to help.
But in Katherine’s workroom, she is designer, cutter, fitter, seamstress, model and client, so she has discovered ways around the difficulty of fitting on oneself by sheer necessity. Experiment with both their ideas; see what works for you.
I used to sew something and if it wasn't perfect, I'd just decide to deal with it -- then end up hating the fit or the finish or whatever. Now I take the time to rip out and re-sew, or re-cut a piece, or remake... whatever is needed. Kendra Van Cleave
It all boils down to two things: time, and care. Care can be summarized as a willingness to do things well, even if it's inconvenient. Laurie Tavan
Inconvenient is one word for it… frustrating is another. How many times have you spent ten minutes, half an hour, half a day working on a costume and then found that the whole thing was just wrong? You’re not alone. I’ve set left sleeves into right armholes many times. Sometimes the offending sleeve was even inside-out.
When the tears dry, the temptation is to deal with it and carry on. There’s no way you’re going to waste your time going back, is there? Life’s too short.
Or is it? Kendra and Laurie have both discovered that there is great satisfaction to be had by retracing your steps, even re-cutting pieces if you have to. Why? Because if you do carry on, even if the mistake is unnoticeable, you’ll always know it’s there. That dress will always be the one with the sleeves in the wrong armholes to you, even if other people sing its praises. It will be spoilt – for you. You’ll consider yourself amateur, even if all around are praising you.
The first time you do take the time to go back and start again, just wait for the feeling you get when you’ve done it correctly. The enormous swell of pride in knowing that it’s been done right is not worth passing up. You will know that you do what most seamstresses don’t. You will have professional pride in your careful work.
So how do you suck it up and go back when all you want to do is scream and incinerate the blasted thing?
Here’s what works for me. When you realise your mistake, put the work down and step away from the fabric and scissors. That’s right, take a break. In fact, put it away and pledge to come back to it tomorrow.
When you come back to the project the next day, have a short session just undoing what you did wrong. Then put it away again. This is a lot less daunting than trying to undo and redo all at the same time. Just do the unpicking – or if it’s a cutting mistake, sort out what’s right and what’s wrong, ditch the bad parts and work out whether you need more fabric. Order what you need and get ready to restart next time.
Then, on the third day, you can come back to the work refreshed and ready to work towards a renewed sense of your own professional pride and skill.
Learn to handsew, and learn to enjoy it. This is totally necessary to have nicely finished garments. Kendra Van Cleave
Perfect your handsewing skills. For a professional-looking corset binding, hand sew the binding on the insides. Tanya Rohler
There is something very special about handsewing. Perhaps it’s the rarity of it. I once bought a vintage dress shirt for a dollar that was completely unwearable. It had been mended and mended and mended, until there was little shirt left between the mends. I loved it. I loved the care that I could almost feel in all those tiny stitches. Later, I had a notion about making a suit completely by hand; it took three years to finish in my spare time, but that suit virtually glowed, there was such love in it.
Books on the great designers will tell you how vital handfinishing is in couture; again, extra care is rare and wonderful, and furthermore, there’s a precision in handsewing that a machine can never rival.
Tanya reminds us that a smooth binding on a corset edge needs to be handsewn to sit perfectly; Kendra extends this to all types of work, knowing that a well-finished costume needs the human touch to achieve professional completion. Where could a few small stitches secure your latest creation just a little more professionally?
Study your references and learn from your own and other peoples' mistakes. Laurie Tavan
It’s obvious. The more you do a thing, the better you will become as long as you continuously strive to improve.
I continue to strive to improve my skills and I continue to problem solve. I have found that working through problems and coming up with my own solutions rather helps keep me on my toes and gives me more satisfaction in my work. I began re-inventing the wheel out of necessity because I started making corsets before I had access to supplies, resources and support. It can be a slow process, but I believe that is what distinguishes a seamstress from a fashion designer. Before I ask a question, I do my best to figure it out myself. Sometimes I arrive at the same answer I could have gotten by asking. Other times I develop a new way of doing things that I may not have considered had I just accepted an easy solution the first time.
Read between the lines of what both Laurie and Alexis have to say and you’ll discover a universal truth: however far down any road we go, there is always further to go, always more to learn. Even a teacher is not someone who has finished learning. In fact, it is often said that if you wish to learn, teach.
The costumer who wishes to go from strength to strength all her life must be continually willing to start again, to go somewhere new, to find the road that she has not yet travelled. By continually exploring new waters, new inspiration can continually be found so that we can continue to grow.
However, new lessons are not only found in new subjects, periods, garments or techniques. The most valuable lessons can be found in old territory, in the continual practice of refining the skills we have. A new way to finish a seam is just as possible after twenty years as it is after twenty weeks in sewing. In fact, to learn a new basic technique after twenty years can give a whole new lease of life to your art. Don’t judge yourself by the relative complexity of your latest lesson. Knowledge is knowledge. Celebrate!
Watch others work, too – there is no better portal through which to do so than the Internet. Read dress diaries; watch others work. Gems can be found in the work of someone less experienced than yourself, as well as in the work of your heroes.
Above all, keep practising. There is no better way to find new things to learn!
I believe the biggest "thing" that distinguishes my corsets from other people’s is attention to detail, and a sense of perfectionism. That is not to say my corsets are perfect, but rather to point out that I always strive to do my very best in every little detail of my work, whether it be a $1000 corset or a $95 corset. My attention to detail is the same. The price point may determine what materials are used, but no matter the price, I will always take care to make every stitch as nice as I can, cut the pieces as smoothly as possible, wrap it up carefully before I ship it, etc. I don't get sloppy just because I have a deadline or a low profit margin because I like to have confidence in every corset I make. Alexis Black
The last word goes to Alexis, and I could not agree with her more. The sum of all the parts of this masterclass is in this final piece of advice.
The religious amongst us like to quote that “God is in the details,” and even without religion, the saying still holds. When you admire an object or a person, you want to look more closely. The closer you look, the more you want to be rewarded. You want to see beauty in the little things, and it is the little things that really captivate you. A pretty lining, a lace that’s been beaded to match the silk, a matching binding – something that conveys the impression that extra care has been lavished on this garment. Someone’s attention and someone’s time has been well spent on it, and attention is care. Attention to detail is what puts a garment into a class of its own, and ultimately, attention to detail is what will make your sewing stand out from the crowd.
These fourteen keys will bring a new lease of life to your sewing, and in addition, we hope that you have been reading between the lines. This masterclass is not just about the fourteen keys; it is about the links between them, the attitude to your art that they encourage. Look for the common thread and you will go beyond the achievements possible from any of the individual keys in themselves.
Each one can take your work to a new level, and we hope that by putting them all together you gain the inspiration and insight to meet, and even surpass, all of our achievements. We look forward to being inspired by you as much as you have been inspired by us, thereby completing the circle and rendering us simply a group of artists learning from each other.
We wish you an inspired new beginning and every success in the future!
In the meantime, we welcome your comments and feedback. Do get in touch via the "contact" page and let us know how this Masterclass has affected your work!