Log in

Log in

icon freeI know a lot of talented costumers. On good days, I consider myself one of them! We all seem to have one thing in common: big dreams of beautiful clothes. We do our research, we fall in love with the fashions of this time or that culture, and we buy the perfect fabric to make our perfect outfit.

And if you're anything like me, the fabric is still sitting in your stash because you haven't done enough research. Or the pieces of the main garment are cut, but are folded and put away until you have time to "do it right". Or you had a deadline for a major event, and you pulled several all-nighters to finish in time but you were heartbroken by the end product because it fell so far short of your original vision.

Sound familiar? If so, you may benefit from some project planning know-how.

Some questions we should answer first: "What do we mean by a project" and "What difference does it make to you"? This article will discuss both the theory of project planning, and cover a specific case study: my own 16th century Morisca outfit for Known World Costuming Symposium (KWCS), 2009.

Simply put, a project is any work effort with a specific outcome. Many projects have pre-determined start and end dates (e.g., finish my garb by KWCS); although some do not (keep working on it until it is done, or I get disgusted and bury the project in my closet for the next three years).

Why bother coming up with a plan?

 Well, maybe you don't need to if the project is:

a) well-defined and small in scope;

b) is something you do regularly;

c) has no hard end-date; or

d) is something that you already know how to sequence in order to have everything come out right in the end.

For instance, since my area of experience is Moorish costumes in 13th century Spain, I wouldn't develop a plan for "sew a new Moorish tunic which is identical to every other Moorish tunic I own".

On the other hand, you might want to develop a plan if:

a) there's many different pieces involved in your project (e.g., five or six different garments or accessories to make a complete outfit);

b) it requires skills you haven't yet developed;

c) you have a hard end date which is WAY too soon (I'm going to make what? By when??); or

d) you have a history of having to pull all-nighters to make your deadline, and/or your finished product typically falls way short of your vision because you ran out of time and had to cut corners (d'oh!).

Why am I bothering to tell you all this? Lo, these many years ago, a reenactment group conceived of a grand event they called St. Luke's Artisan's Fair (St. Luke being the patron saint of artisans). Everyone was inspired by the grandeur of the challenges issued for the Fair. I talked to dozens of clever, creative people with clever, creative ideas, and I couldn't wait to see how awesome everyone's end project was. And then as the actual date of the event drew closer and closer, one challenge after another had to be cancelled because the entries never materialized. They didn't get done or worse yet, they never got started. And while many of these unrealized visions were due to our eternal bane, Real Life, others were hampered because the artisans didn't have a way to take the really great, but extremely complex, ideas in their heads and turn them into reality. That was when I realized that project management, stuff I had to put up with every day at work, could actually be used for Good. And while a good solid plan won't fix everything, it certainly does increase the likelihood of success!

The 5 Steps to Success

At a high level, here are the steps I (try to) follow when planning a big project, costuming or otherwise.

1. Define the job in detail

2. Break it down

3. Estimate Time and Costs

4. Plan for changes

5. Define "done"

Oh yeah, and of course actually executing the project. Can't forget about that!

The other main advantage to the plan – aside from merely increasing your chances for success – is having everything documented for your next project. Each plan will be better than the last, if you take the time to review your previous plans for what worked and what could be improved.

Step 1: You're doing...what? By when?

The most important part of Step 1 – in fact, the entire project planning effort – is figuring out EXACTLY what your project is / will be, and putting it all in writing. Putting it in writing is critical, because reviewing your plan often helps keep you from getting off track.

In fact, this is such an important point I'm going to say it again: write down exactly what you're making with this project. In as much detail as you can visualize.

I use the "SMART" acronym. Yes, I know it's cheesy, but it works. Basically, you want the following from your description.

S – Specific. Get as much information written down up front as you possibly can. Use the five Ws & H (Who / What / When / Where / Why / How), or any other structure that will help you flesh out all the details.

M – Measurable. Is there a certain quantity of items you have to make for the job to be "done"?

A – Achievable. Do you have the technical expertise to do this project? All the necessary skills? This is not a time to be learning a new hobby, or venturing into a whole new field of study! Do you have the all information you need, or do you need to do more research?

R – Research. Ok, this is not part of the traditional "SMART" set, but for historical costumers it is VERY important to know when to stop research. This is actually a leading cause of scope creep, which is Project Killer #1. You have to declare ahead of time when you are going to stop looking for new information – and then stick to it! – or your project may be doomed.

T – Time. Do you have a snowball's chance in you-know-where of actually getting this done by your deadline? If there is some specific event you are trying to prep for, your project has a specific time boundary.

If you have sketches, fabric swatches, a bibliography, and other technical details, those should be documented as well.

Step 1 in Action

My project: Make an outfit for Known World Costuming Symposium. Is this specific and detailed? Um, no. So let's make it better.

By Known World Costuming Symposium (Time), I will make a sixteenth century (When) Morisca's outfit (Who) so that when I teach my class on Morisco costumes, I can show the class what it looks like (Why).

This outfit will include (What, and some How):One of the inspiration miniatures; this one is from Christopher Weidtiz’s costume book.One of the inspiration miniatures; this one is from Christopher Weidtiz’s costume book.

Green marlota. An over tunic closed in front with gold braid frogs, based on the extant marlota which belonged to the last king of Granada. It will be fully lined with cream fabric. The sleeves are long and turned back to show the lining. The length is below the knee. The original was closed up the front with gold frogs, though no buttons remain. Optional: gold trim on the front; side front slits. How many gold braid frogs? (Measurable) I don't know – need to do more research. Also, I don't know how to make frogs, and I won't just buy them premade from my local fabric store. Otherwise I should just use buttons / buttonholes. (Achievable?)

A tunic that goes under the marlota. There are varieties which just end below the waist, but I probably will just go with one of my standard tunics rather than making something special. This tunic may be the same thing as the camisa. I'm not 100% sure, as in the 14th century some evidence suggests that the "camisa" is just any tunic worn as the layer closest to the skin. Either way, none of my research so far has conclusively revealed what goes under the marlota. (Research)

Camisa. May or may not be the same as the tunic. More research! If this is different, I will try to modify one of my existing camisas, rather than make a whole new one. (Research)

Zaragüelles with "stockings". The zaragüelles, or pants, will be purchased cotton drawstring pants from Dharma Trading Company. The pants are voluminous, with a drawstring, and crazy stockings (medias calzas) designed to make the lower leg look humongous! The medias calzas could be the hardest part of this whole project; it may take several mockups to get the "look". These may be stuffed with some kind of roving or batting, or perhaps just pleated to create the shape. (Achievable?)

Shoes. Morisco slippers have a distinctive decorative curved flap that comes up from the vamp. The slippers will be black cotton velveteen, lined with linen, with leather (or pleather) soles. This will require making a pattern (which luckily I learned to do at a previous event), and hopefully only one mockup. (Achievable?)

A veil of some variety. I haven't decided whether to make an "indoor" veil, which is short with a fabric filet, or an "outdoor" veil, which is a voluminous white wrap which envelops the whole body. Either way, I will probably have to make something new rather than adapting one of my current veils since I think a semi-circular veil will give a better shape than the rectangles I normally use. (Research)

Time: I've only got one event between now and KWCS, but I have Real Life commitments too, so hopefully I will have enough time! Additionally, I need to make the handout and prepare my class! All in all, I have just less than six weeks to pull this outfit together.

Research: Since I am developing a complete outfit to go with a new class, I will probably be researching up until the point where I print out my class handouts! This is dangerous for my plan, because I may change my mind (frequently) about the outfit I am making.


Step 2: Break it down! Uh-oh, uh-oh: Hammer time!

Step 2 is where you start making your plans "real" by figuring out what you actually have to do to turn your dreams into reality. For every item we identified in Step 1, what are the atomic units of action that must be done? By "atomic", I mean the smallest chunk of work that can still be considered one logical, coherent unit. A costuming example: cutting out the pattern pieces is a chunk of work, involving laying the fabric out, marking the pattern somehow on the fabric, and then cutting. Laying the fabric out on the cutting surface (floor, table, or otherwise) is not a chunk of work on its own. At least, it's not for me. Perhaps it is if you are working with 10 yards of silk-pile velvet! Identifying your chunks is a very personal thing, based on your own work style, and often no two projects – even for identical items –will have the same atomic steps.

These steps will be used to come up with your schedule in step 3, so it might be helpful to think in terms of "What can I get done in an average amount of working time?" Other questions that help identify chunks include: "What unit of work lets me feel like I have taken a major step forward in my project?" "What level of detail do I need to go to in order to make sure I am doing the steps in the right order?"

Once you've identified the steps – your steps – to making your end product, lay them out in sequence. I find this is easiest to do with each step written on a Post It® Note, so I can rearrange the order as needed until the flow represents the actual sequence of steps that must occur. This stage allows you to spot any logical dependencies that exist between steps. For instance, before you can sew your garment, you need to cut out the pattern from the fabric; but before you can do that, do you need to buy the fabric? Prewash it? Fit a mockup? Fit several mockups? (Ask me how many deadlines I've missed because I underestimated the number of mockups I needed to get the fit I wanted...)

This is also the time to start identifying what supplies you still have to buy. If you haven't already, assemble your raw materials (things that get transformed into your final products) and tools to see what's missing based on your detailed description (Step 1) and individual steps (Step 2). This will figure heavily into the next step, estimating your time and costs.

Step 2 In Action

Here are my atomic steps as I see my project. These are already organized in terms of the sequence in which I need to do them. Also, notice there are still some unknowns!

1. Marlota

1.1. Mockup

1.2. Cut outer fabric

1.3. Order lining

1.4. Cut lining

1.5. Sew green fabric (center back, shoulders, sides, sleeves)

1.6. Sew lining (center back, shoulders, sides, sleeves)

1.7. Machine sew lining to green around neck and center front opening

1.8. Hand sew sleeve hems & tunic hem

1.9. Make frogs

1.10. Sew frogs onto gown

1.11. Optional: make side slits

1.12. Optional: attach braid all around opening, hem, and sleeve hems

2. Short tunic under the marlota (decided to make new, rather than reuse)

2.1. Check stash for suitable fabric

2.1.1. If not, order fabric

2.2. Cut fabric

2.3. Machine sew garment

2.4. Hand finish neck and sleeves hems

2.5. Machine sew button holes

2.6. Hand sew buttons

3. Camisa

3.1. Modify an old 16th c. camisa, because it already has square neck and narrower sleeves (as opposed to any of my regular Moorish camisas)

3.1.1. Cut and sew on new, plain cuffs to replace mini-ruff -cuff

3.1.2. Shorten length and machine sew hem


4. Zaragüelles

4.1. Order white cotton pants from Dharma

4.1.1. If those don't work, cut white linen fabric Machine sew seams Hand sew hem @ ankles

4.2. Figure out how to make medias calzas

4.2.1. Option 1: they are cut long, on the bias, and the extra fabric of the zaragüelles is what makes them stick out

4.2.2. Option 2: there's an "outer" stocking and "inner" stocking; the inner is leg-shaped, and the outer is much fuller, and it is stitched down at regular intervals to the inner. The voluminous shape is achieved by Nothing but the skill of pleating A layer of linen interfacing (not entirely incompatible with previous) Roving stuffing (possibly wool; not entirely incompatible with first two) Rolled batting (wool or cotton; again, not incompatible with the first two)

4.2.3. Make at least two, maybe three mockups of medias calzas

4.2.4. Cut and sew final medias calzas

5. Shoes

5.1. Make pattern with craft felt

5.2. Cut and sew black cotton velveteen upper and heavy-weight linen sole

5.3. Glue on pleather sole

5.4. Cut and sew black linen lining

5.5. Insert lining into velveteen, and sew velveteen and lining together at edges


In hindsight, I forgot to include steps for "Figure out if we can make kick ass gold braid to use for frogs/trim" and "Make kick ass gold braid".

Step 3: The “B” Word

Yep.  Budget.  I can hear you groaning now.

Step 3 is hard.  But estimating the time and money necessary to finish the project is one of the hardest steps in building a successful plan. If you are doing something completely new, you might not have the prior experience to know how long it will take to, say, make thread-wrapped buttons or covered cord for trim. Consider budgeting extra time for doing a prototype and revise your schedule once you have a better idea of what’s involved.

The first part to developing a schedule is to clearly define your non-working time – other events, real life activities, or other time obligations. Once the non-working time has been identified, work backwards on a calendar (electronic or paper, whatever you prefer) filling in days on the calendar with your chunks of work from Step 2. Again, Post It Notes® might be handy here if you are working on a paper calendar, because you might find yourself moving things around a lot. Some people work best on a daily schedule, where every free day is tagged with its own “To Do”. I find working to a daily list works best for extremely short time frames (two months or less). Some people will prefer to manage their work on a weekly basis. Either way is fine, as long as you have the level of detail you need to look at the calendar and know if you’re still on track, or starting to fall behind and need mid-course corrections.

Bear in mind that your schedule can and will change. Change happens! Maybe you will get bored of working on something, maybe you need a mental health day, maybe it takes longer for a supply to come in, maybe you add (gasp!) or take away from the scope of the project. (More on that later!) But by having the actual schedule, and being able to refer to it, you will know EXACTLY what the impact will be if you go see a movie Friday night instead of sewing. And you won’t be there at the finish line wondering what happened to all the free time you thought you had.

Once you’ve stuffed all your work onto that calendar, please revisit the “A” from Step 1. You thought this project was achievable, or you wouldn’t have ever gotten to Step 3. Looking back, now that you have your schedule, is it still feasible to try to do this project by your deadline?  (I told you to write it down, didn’t I?)

One thing to bear in mind is whether you have any writing to go with your project – some kind of research paper, documentation, or (as in my case) a class handout. Blogging, whether in the form of dress diaries or posts to social networking sites, can be a great way to keep track of what you do as you're doing it. If you write your blog posts with the eventual documentation in mind, at the end your job may be as simple as editing the collection of posts, and voilà.

(As a side note: if you share your living quarters with roommates and/or a significant other, you may want to let them know about the schedule once you get the basics put together. For one thing, they may notice something you've accidentally overlooked in your time commitments between now and your due date. But more importantly, it will help them understand what you're facing to get your project done on time.)


Step 3 in Action

Time: I opted to use a simple electronic calendar – just a template for Microsoft Word – to track my schedule. I've marked "Non-Working Days" with "NWD". You'll notice that the "units of work" I used don't exactly match up with what I identified for Step 2. However, everything from Step 2 should be represented in some manner on the calendar. This calendar was updated as the project progressed, so what you see here is the end result. Notice some of the time sinks, such as trying to find the perfect buttons for the marlota and two separate mockups for the medias calzas.

Money: In my original plan, I had identified several items that either definitely or possibly needed to be purchased. Original Plan:

1) Pants from Dharma

2) Lining fabric from Dharma

3) Maybe fabric for undertunic

4) Maybe fabric for stockings

5) Buttons for tunic

6) Something to make the braid for frogs for marlota

In my world, this is a trifling amount of shopping. I had been planning for this outfit for a while, so I already had most of the raw materials in my stash.


Step 4: Change Happens

If there is one thing we know about projects – irrespective of the type of project, or our years of experience – it is that change will happen. No battle plan survives its first encounter with the enemy, which is why you need to plan now for what steps you will take when change rears its mischievous head in the middle of your well-planned project.

The single biggest category of change is "Scope Creep", and it is Project Killer # 1. You're merrily working along, making progress, marking off the days on your calendar when suddenly...you have a doubt. Are you really doing this the best way possible? Maybe you have been comparing notes with friends, or caught yourself flipping through a book or browsing some internet sites, and a new idea pops into your head. What if I...? Well, if I want to do this right, I ought to... I'm slightly ahead of schedule so I should have time to...

Scope creep happens any time you start adding additional tasks to your already carefully laid-out plan. If you have a plan for dealing with change, you have some protection against all these wayward ideas. The first step is recognizing that scope creep is a-happening. Go back and look at your original plan, and your calendar. If your new idea might make your schedule slip by a day, or two, you must carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of giving in to the temptation. Is there some other aspect of the project that you could sacrifice to make room for this new item? If you stayed up a little later, or simplified or removed some of the "nice-to-haves" in your project, does that make up the difference?

If the change requires tracking down and purchasing items you don't already have, or involves a craft with which you are not already proficient, DEFINITELY consider putting it off until the next time around. Relegating the new item to the next project, or a future improvement to the current project, is often a good compromise to satisfy the need to do it "right" as well as the need to get it "done."


Step 4 In Action

Luckily, this idea had been brewing long enough that I didn't face any major scope creep. But changes still impacted both my time and budget.

Time: Learning new techniques took longer than I expected. When I first put the plan together, I thought the only thing I needed to learn was how to make the frog closures for the marlota.

In actuality, I had to learn:One of the frogs and buttons that cost me so much time!One of the frogs and buttons that cost me so much time!

1) How to make thread wrapped buttons

2) How to wrap the "bead" buttons for the marlota – because researching 16th century frogs revealed that the "button" parts were separate from the "braid" part (as opposed to modern Chinese-style frogs), so I decided on fluted crystal beads to be the buttons...which were nearly impossible to find, which ALSO cost a lot of time

3) Guilloche braid - how to weave and sew on trim at the same time

4) Buttonhole stitch to sew shoes and lining together at the edge

The woven trim and the buttonhole stitch on the shoe ended up being MAJOR time sinks. Additionally, I lost more time when making the zaragüelles, because I chose to cartridge pleat the fullness of the pants into a separate waistband to minimize the fabric bulk.

Expense: I saved some money by using stash fabric for the stockings. And I made my own thread-wrapped button for the undertunic (only one) and gold braid for the frogs (although I still had to buy the string to go in the braid). On the other hand, I bought some other things that weren't on my original plan:

1) Beads for the buttons for the marlota

2) Scarves for the filet which hold the veil on, and the scarf under the veil

3) Veil fabric

There was a LOT here which wasn't part of the original plan. But I was prepared for changes!

Step 5: Define Done

This probably sounds silly: the project is done when it's done, right? If you've already gone through the previous four steps, how could you not know what "done" means? Well, yes. And no. The image in your head is beautiful and it's perfect and you can't wait to get started. But if you're working with a deadline, it's a good idea to know ahead of time exactly what has to be done versus what you want to get done. Is there some decoration or embellishment you could add on later? Some accessories you can't live without and others that could wait until you have some extra time? Hand finished seams – which do need to be done – maybe just not immediately?

This step also reinforces your change management strategy from Step 4, because it gives you some flexibility to adapt your plan as long as the basics (however you've defined them) get done!

Step 5 In Action

 There were a few aspects of the outfit I knew I could live without. But only a few! The extant marlota had side front slits (although no studies have said if they were to access pockets or maybe a pouch worn under the marlota), and I considered these "optional" from the very beginning. I also chose not to make the voluminous wrap that Morisca woman wore out of the home.



Just do it!

I don't have to tell you how to actually do your project. In fact, I probably can't! But here are a few parting thoughts on effectively managing your work going forward.

Buy early. If you have raw materials to order – fabric, beads, trim, whatever – don't wait until the last minute. There's always the chance the item won't be quite right, and you'll have to return it and order something different.

Don't multitask. There's no doubt about it: ours is a multitasking age. Any spare downtime, however small, is spent doing something else to make the most of all available time. We watch TV and surf the internet at the same time, we text while walking (not driving!) and carve out a few seconds here or there all in the name of efficiency.

Well, stop. At least with your costume projects! Multitasking, unless very carefully planned, can lead to burnout, frustration, and a pile of shredded fabric that was supposed to be a gown. Whenever you switch your attention between tasks, recollecting your thoughts, focus, and attention results in more mental strain and more lost time. If you find yourself flitting from one article to another because you're getting bored working on one thing at a time, STOP RIGHT NOW. Put down the sewing and step away from your project. Half way through your schedule, you'll be surrounded by a dozen separate items, all in various states of completion, with nothing done, time ticking, and despair looming.

Despite the potential dire consequences, from my experience, there are three times when multitasking does pay off over focusing on one item at a time.

1) If you've ordered some raw material, and are waiting for it to arrive;

2) If you have a significant amount of work all of the same type – for instance, cutting all the fabric at once and sewing all at once, versus cutting and sewing each garment or accessory individually; or

3) If you have a particular tool which takes a lot of time or energy to change over from one use to another – for instance, a home embroidery machine, or a serger for several articles that all use the same color of thread.

Otherwise, discipline yourself to focus on one item at a time.

Productivity management...or not. If you're anything like me (and I guess you must be if you've stuck with me this long!), you are always on the hunt for ways to do your voodoo a little smarter. So many costumes, so little time! But the search for efficiency can kill your productivity. If you are constantly revising how you organize your notions, or find yourself cataloging your fabric stash, you are falling into a productivity trap. How you organize your work and your time will never be perfect. Don't let the best become the enemy of the "good enough". Stop and back away slowly from the label maker.

Did you write down your plan? Good. Then go back and reread it often. Once a week may seem like overkill, but it will inspire you and keep you focused.

And if you didn't, please reread step 1.


Final Observations

Some observations on how my project actually turned out:

1) I never budget enough time for hand sewing.

2) Shoemaking is not my forté.

3) The kickass gold braid for the frogs was made on my portable foam marudai. I used a kumihimo braiding pattern that allowed the gold threads to be wrapped around a cotton core, making the braid bigger while maximizing the amount of gold on display. While the technique (kumihimo) may not have been "right", the resulting product (a gold cord made by interlacing the pretty materials around a plain core) was. Braiding time does not appear on my schedule because I braided during my daily commute.

4) The undertunic – which originally called for "buttons" and "machine sewn buttonholes", ended up with just one thread-wrapped button and thread button loop at the neckline. I attempted a fancy woven button first, but settled on a much more modest button after much (MUCH!) frustration getting the first wrapping to evenly cover the wooden core.

5) I settled for tapered on-grain-cut tubes of Great Length for the medias calzas. There are drawstrings at the top of each to help hold them up over my calves.

6) I modified one of my "traditional" Moorish camisas to work as a Morisca camisa; I shortened it, and narrowed the sleeves. This dodged the question of cuffs, which are the only part of the camisa which would normally be seen.

Project Planning for Success
So true...I should have read this 5 months ago :-[ when I I promised myself I would enter ( and by that I mean FINISH) my double period costume.... which presently in various stages of completion on my work table.
project planning
This is an amasingly helpful article - thanks so much for thinking through your process and sharing. it is so easy to be discouraged part-way through a project. This is almost like ways i've seen to organise writing, but with sewing, so much more fun! i hope sometime you'll write about medieval Moorish costuming: i love medieval Spanish music & would love to learn more about their dress.
Iris Lorenz-Fife
If I had read this when I first noticed it, a month ago, I wouldn't be in such a fret about a due date of 9/20 with six weeks of research AFTER I order the parts, which I DIDN'T do up front because I didn't plan.

Well they do say fauling to plan is the same as planning to fail.

Thanks for your in-depth documenting the process.

Very helpful! I didn't start planning my projects until last year when I realized that I had next to 30 ongoing projects and kept adding. I am now on years two with a careful planning that both allows me to finish these long-standing projects as well as starting a few, carefully chosen, new projects. I have finished more projects the ladt 20 months than I did in the 10 tears before it! Planning is golden!

1000 Characters left

Go to top