labricoleuse: (vintage hair)
Recently i was contacted by Rachel Herrick, a senior in Theatre Design at James Madison University, asking whether she might interview me as part of a capstone project on costume craftwork. I was happy to oblige, and asked her permission to share the responses here, as i thought some of the answers might be of interest to the readership, and perhaps spark interesting discussions with others in the field who have had similar or different experiences than i.

Here's the interview:

Herrick: Do costume shop directors/managers hire individuals that are specialized in crafting? Do they prefer to hire persons who have sewing AND crafting skills?

[ profile] labricoleuse: I think that depends on the size of the shop and the nature of the workroom. When I was just starting out, there were a lot more stitching jobs than crafts assistant jobs, and I found that shop managers were pleased that I was willing and able to go work in crafts if needed, but I also knew they were hiring me primarily for stitching work, that their staff craftspeople would be doing the majority of the craftwork.

Once I began getting work as a crafts assistant or a lead crafts artisan, no, I never stitched in the main workroom. I do see dual-responsibility positions come up on Artsearch for stitcher/crafts, but I myself have never held one or worked at a theatre/shop where that was expected.

Herrick: Where is the best place to look for shops/theatres looking for craft artisans?

[ profile] labricoleuse: Do you mean where are the jobs listed, or geographically where are they concentrated?

The jobs get posted on industry boards like Artsearch and, and sometimes on the USITT costumers-info Yahoo group. Geographically speaking, of course there are more craftwork jobs in the entertainment-industry hubs of NYC and LA, but there are also genre-specific concentrations, too.

Shakespeare companies tend to have larger crafts teams due to the high incidence of crafts demands in the Shakespearean canon. The same can be said for children's theatre, and for opera companies. Regional/LORT theaters do tend to have a craftsperson on staff, or at least the bigger ones, but those are generally very stable jobs and people land them and stick with them; [...] those jobs exist but they can be hard to land because they don't turn over very fast.

Herrick: How did you discover you were talented at crafting? How did you break into the biz?

[ profile] labricoleuse: It was a process of progressive narrowing. I grew up with parents who were big theatre buffs, who took me to plays a lot as a child, and I felt very drawn to theatre, not just as an audience member like my parents, but as a participant. So I started acting, because that's I think the most obvious way to participate in theatre, but I quickly realized that I didn't enjoy acting.

In college, I took some intro theatre classes and that's where I really learned about all the backstage jobs that were possible and I found those more interesting and compelling than acting. So, I narrowed it down to costumes—sewing had been a hobby through my teen years and I liked fashion and making things and all that. Because our dramatic academia seems to focus on design as an "end goal career" for theatre practitioners in the technical arts, I pursued a degree in costume design. And in the course of it came to understand that I didn't care for many of the aspects of the designer's job either. But, that was okay, because once I entered the workforce most of the jobs I could actually get that would pay me, were not design jobs.

My first professional job outside of undergrad was as a stitcher at the Boston Ballet and I was able to observe on the job exactly what was required of all the different positions in a  big professional costume shop—stitchers and first-hands and drapers and tailors and shop management and crafts. And as soon as I saw what a craftsperson did, I knew I wanted to do that some day. But I also knew that I couldn't land those jobs exclusively, so I began to work towards that as an eventual goal.

Because I lived in Boston at the time and they have several professional theatre companies and universities with large theatre programs, I was able to get a string of freelance jobs--stitching, running wardrobe, shopping fabrics, first-handing—and I always let the manager know that I would gladly do craftwork as needed. They began to hire me as a crafts assistant, millinery assistant, etc.

I couldn't pay the bills on just these jobs though, so I did take second jobs to help pay the bills, many of which were helpful in the long run—I worked as an interior effects painter for a home decorator, and as a product assembly worker at a leathercraft shop. Eventually, I happened to be assisting the crafts artisan at the American Repertory Theatre when he turned in his resignation, and I was in the right place at the right time, and they offered me the promotion. So, it was a combination of dedication and luck.

Herrick: What skills do you feel are absolutely necessary in order to be taken seriously as an artisan?

[ profile] labricoleuse: I'm going to answer this assuming you mean specific to crafts, since I think there are a lot of skills that apply to costumers across the boards in terms of being taken seriously, like good time management, accurate and respectful communication, successful collaboration, and the ability to meet deadlines.

A commitment to the safety of the performer is paramount. Crafts items are often unusual pieces which directly impact an actor's performance and physicality—masks or weird footwear or armor pieces. If the actor cannot work with the item, the director will cut the costume piece, not recast the role, so a smart craftsperson makes sure the actor can do what s/he needs in the costume.

A commitment to the quality of the work I think is also something that makes colleagues take you and your work seriously. I cannot stand the old saw about "If it looks good from 20 feet away, it's fine," because often people use that as an excuse for making slapped-together crap. I feel that if you don't take your work seriously enough to make it look nice for the actor wearing it, how can you expect that actor or the wardrobe crew to treat the hat/mask/breastplate with respect and care? Yes, as long as a plastic-rhinestone necklace reads like diamonds from 20 feet away, it's fine, but if a hat is covered with smears of hot glue and stapled-on trim, that's unprofessional work fit for Halloween, not quality costume craftwork.

You absolutely have to be able to think about the work abstractly and flexibly—a craftsperson is working with a much more diverse set of skills than, say, a tailor, and often has to come up with solutions to design demands which require actual invention of method. A tailor can consult a reference book or seek advice from a more experienced colleague on how to do, say, an M-notch lapel on a jacket. But a craftsperson can't always consult a reference or colleague for how to create something like "a peg-leg appliance for a 300-lb. actor who needs to be able to dance a can-can in it." (Actual problem we had once.) So you have to be able to draw upon all the knowledge you have, to seek out knowledge you don't, and to think analytically about what is the best way to proceed, but you also have to be willing to completely abandon something if it is not working, and figure out something new.

A good crafts artisan has an unending desire to learn new skills and work with new equipment, and a dedication to safe work practice is essential—many of the tools and substances crafts artisans work with can be dangerous if not used properly, and because we are often teaching ourselves on the fly how to use them, a keen mind for our own safety is a must.

And I think a good crafts artisan is someone whose instinctive response to truly bizarre design challenges is "I'll figure something out" instead of "That's not possible."

Herrick: How would you recommend acquiring those skills?

[ profile] labricoleuse: I think one can acquire a commitment to the quality of the work by seeking out good mentors. Assisting a really talented milliner for a show or a season will be an eye-opener in how a really good hat should be formed and finished, for example. And those ppl might not always be in the theatre. I consider myself a really exacting leatherworker in the quality of my output, and I lay that at the feet of the retail leatherworker that I did product assembly for one summer—I learned an enormous amount from him about working in that medium, tips and tricks and methods I never would have learned on my own and which I have never seen in any leatherworking book.

In terms of learning about safe work practices (so that one might be committed to that), the best book out there is Monona Rossol's Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theatre. It's an eye-opener and can give you a good ground for thinking analytically about safe work practices. How do you decide if you need to wear gloves when you work with a new paint or dye? Or a respirator? Or safety goggles? That book will help point you in the right direction. And of course, once you learn these things, you also have to put them into practice. Use the respirator, wear the gloves, turn on the ventilation, etc.

Abstract thinking, I don't know how someone acquires that skill, but I do think the more random things you learn, the more tools you have in your mental toolbox. To be honest, I have done things like audited a basic physics class and an intro to engineering workshop, and I have taken a Polymer Chemistry course to improve my ability as a fabric dyer. But doing those things hasn't made me able to solve some of the weird problems this job has laid at my doorstep. It has only made me trust myself that I will come up with something that works. And when that happens, an answer to a craft problem, it's often completely off the wall.

For example, a couple seasons ago we were doing a production of Henry IV and we'd rented some banded leather armor for Hotspur, but it was a bit too big in the waist and the designer wanted me to take it in 1". But, because it was rented and due to the way it was constructed, I couldn't move the closures or shorten the bands. I had no idea how I would make this happen but I took down the note and just thought, well, something will occur to me. And two nights later I dreamed about a fat armadillo that lost weight, and when I woke up it was clear to me that even if I couldn't alter the bands themselves, I could reshape the look of the armor for a thinner physique by taking in the canvas understructure that supported the bands. You can't learn that, the armadillo-dream revelation, but you can learn to trust your subconscious to supply some ideas. Which might sound flaky, but it's what I think. :)
labricoleuse: (Default)
Haven't had a post of this sort in a while, but the question came up on the USITT costumer's email list about rehearsal garments. In the interest of formulating a policy guideline for her own employer, the querant wondered, what were the policies for providing rehearsal garments at various theatres and academic departments?

The chain of responses has yielded an interesting overview of different kinds of policies at different levels of theatre, so i thought i'd post my response here, as well as some further musings on the topic. I replied:

Here is a general overview of what we provide at PlayMakers Repertory, which is a LORT-D theatre in residence on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, operating with a 6-show mainstage season and a 3-show second-stage track running concurrently.

I am speaking here only as the staff craftsperson, not as the shop manager, so my list is not official and may not be complete. I do wind up dealing with many of the rehearsal items as part of my job responsibility, like rubberizing shoes ASAP so they can go in when asked for, so that's where i'm coming from in answering this query. We typically send in a combination of rehearsal pieces and the actual pieces, but when the actual pieces are desired we often build that into our calendar in the shop in terms of what gets made when. (More on that after my list.)

Rehearsal items--stand-ins for action development only, not the real things since we are often making them:

--Ladies petticoats or rehearsal skirts for period shows where the women need to get used to negotiating more volume and length than a modern skirt.
--Hats which need to be donned/doffed onstage.
--Accessories if they ask for them like gloves/scarves.
--Occasionally we will send in the muslin of a made-to-order costume if it is a special case show (such as when we recently did In the Next Room and sent in the muslins of bustled-up overskirts, as the women must learn to disrobe completely onstage and pace the dialogue with the actions).
--And, men's coats/jackets occasionally, especially full-skirted frock coats or tailcoats, since like rehearsal skirts the actors sometimes want to get used to negotiating those unfamiliar garment shapes/volumes.

Actual items--the costumes they will use in the run of the show:

--Shoes if they ask for them, though only after the soles have been rubberized if they need it.
--"Propstumes" which might involve action/business like a handbag, parasol, or fan. I am usually the one making these if they are made, and i try to get the real deal to them if possible since small hand props usually need to fit into handbags, parasols' handle shapes and dimensions affect blocking and action, and folding fans have their own quirks of opening and closing which the actress needs to feel comfortable with.

And, we will send in items requested for safe movement/choreography purposes, such as knee pads, fighting gauntlets, baldrics/swordbelts, joint braces, and restrictive undergarments like corsetry.

I can think of a couple occasions on which I had to schedule my production calendar in advance to accommodate the use of specific real costume pieces from the first day of rehearsal. We have done a couple shows involving many masked characters, in which the designers/directors settled on the mask designs far enough in advance for my team to make them and have them available from the beginning of rehearsal. And, once we had to make a body-puppet, for which we sent in a simplified rehearsal version (think cardboard and tape and wire) until the real one was ready.

For the drama department's student shows, i honestly have no idea what the policy is on rehearsal garments. Each year there are both "official"/departmentally-sponsored student shows and several student troupes producing their own work in our spaces, and i have the impression that for many of them, they don't work with rehearsal items given the quick turnaround between their costume pulls and their shows opening. Only in very rare cases, such as a recent masked show where the director pulled her complement of masks for the performers at the start of their rehearsal process, do they work with clothes.

I'm glad you asked this question, i am very interested to hear what others' policies are and what people provide as a matter of course at different theatres and institutions!

I should add that I'm working at a theatre which operates under an Equity contract, and union rules stipulate specific requirements of rehearsal items, which a theatre may choose to exceed (meaning, offer more than the minimum required by the contract) but may not choose to disregard.

The most salient of these requirements for crafts artisans is the provision of footwear. AEA's official agreement with resident theatres stipulates that costumes provide "professional dance shoes at least one week prior to rehearsal" [1]. This is topical to crafts artisans since shoe repair and alterations are crafts responsibilities.

If you are working for a production/company which involves dancers en pointe, AEA's agreement is much more broad in its stipulation: "The Theatre shall furnish pointe shoes with ribbons for all rehearsals and performances requiring pointe shoes. The Theatre shall furnish at least one pair of pointe shoes for each member of the cast called upon to dance in pointe shoes. New pointe shoes shall be provided sufficiently in advance of their use to allow the Actor adequate time to break in the shoes." [Ibid.] From a crafts perspective, you need to really be on top of this stipulation since, should the shoes need to be dyed, that can affect the fit and feel of the shoe so ideally you can troubleshoot this from the beginning with the input of the designer and the dancer both.

When shoes go into rehearsal early, they are often worn out before the show closes, and a good designer will know this stipulation and build it into her/his purchasing calendar and production budget disbursement for a certain number of shoe replacement pairs. Designers who aren't as experienced at the Equity level may not know this and a good shop manager or crafts artisan can save the shop and the show a world of hurt by knowing rules like this and bringing them up early in the process.

Another element which an Equity house is required to provide in rehearsal from the beginning is knee pads, elbow pads, and other protective clothing [Ibid, p. 14].

One area where our on-list discussion highlighted a difference between academic/non-Equity performance and Equity houses is in the use of performer's own clothes--character shoes, for example. Academic and non-Equity costumers have been chiming in about stressing to their actors the importance of owning a "kit" of basic costume items--character shoes and rehearsal skirts for women, dress shoes and rehearsal jackets for men, and so forth. And, it is true that an actor who can provide these items for him/herself in non-Equity and academic shows will cultivate a sense of professionalism and goodwill from the costumers with whom s/he works, but there's a longterm sense to it as well.

Equity contracts require the costume team to pay a rental fee to the actor for use of her/his personal property in a production. The fee is paid weekly over and above the Equity actor's contractual pay and varies based on the garment ($8/week for character shoes, $20/week for a 2- or 3-piece suit). These fees are paid at full price for the first two weeks of use, then at half-price for each subsequent week. {Ibid, p. 115]

I think it's great for academic programs to establish the habit with their acting students of owning a "kit" of standard rental items, especially for performers with specialized needs such as very wide feet. I have worked with several Equity actors with EEE feet who had several "standard" pairs of shoes/boots on which they would earn rental fees, and designers often loved having the option to just rent a pair from a performer which they knew would fit. The actors appreciated receiving the rental fees, as they could reinvest them into preferred well-fitting footwear as their shoes wore out.

For schools training actors whom they hope will succeed and become working union members at the Equity houses, a kit can be a wise initial investment which will later shift to a useful professional resource which pays for itself or even makes a bit of extra money for the actor.

What are your theatre's policies on rehearsal garments? How do you feel about actor-provided rehearsal or actual costumes?
labricoleuse: (safety)
I have been rubberizing tons of shoes for Big River, and i recalled a post that came up on the USITT costumers' email list; i thought it might be a good idea to post my answer here for Googlability's sake.

Basically, someone asked where to order "dance rubber," and what were some brands folks would recommend. Here's my response:

I stock the Vibram ProTania in black and natural, and the 3.5 grid soling in black, oak, and white (the white will take dye)..

The 3.5 grid sole is what folks have called "dance rubber" in many of the shops i've worked at, and the Vibram ProTania is the stuff that's got the word "Vibram" printed across the tread.

I use the Pro Tania on most of the shoes i rubberize (like Stacy Adams boots and other leather sole shoes) for performers who will not be dancing or doing fight choreography, and the 3.5 on shoes where the designer or actor specifically requests "dance rubber".

I've worked in shops where they stocked the Chevron and Herringbone sole rubbers Frankford sells on that same page and liked them, they're grippy with directional treads a bit beefier in texture than the 3.5 grid sole and the Pro Tania.

We also stock something that I hear called "fight rubber" which has SUPER grippy directional treads. It's a product called Maxi-Grip, and you can order it from National Shoe. I use this to rubberize shoes for actors who are doing something like swordfight choreography.

I don't care for the Topy, it doesn't seem to provide as good a gripping surface for the kind of activity actors typically require, and is harder/denser (thus seems slipperier) than the two linked up there.

Incidentally, here's a pro tip for rubberizing a LOT of shoes: learn some work songs with a good driving rhythm. Hammering with your mind not engaged gets boring really fast, but if you sing something like, say, Pete Seeger's "The Hammer Song," you can maintain a good rhythm hammering the soles efficiently, and it really does make it go faster.
labricoleuse: (Default)
From now through February, because it's the time when people who are applying to graduate school are getting their portfolios up-to-date, sending in applications and scheduling interviews, i'll be addressing relevant topics now and then.

I typically start these types of posts off with links to my series of prior topical posts on costume-related graduate school subjects, so this one will stay in keeping with that tradition. Here they are:

First up, why do i write these posts? I mean, i'm not getting paid to write this blog. It's not something i'm required to do by the program for which i teach, or by the theatre for whom i work.

I remember all too well how lost in the woods i felt when i graduated with my bachelors and was considering graduate study. At that time, literally NONE of the resources i have mentioned in prior posts existed. No Survey of Costume Programs, no reference books on career options and paths or how one might assemble a relevant portfolio. You asked your professors and hoped they had the time and inclination to give you what advice they could. You asked anyone who knew anything about theatre. You maybe went to USITT or a regional conference (if you had the time and money to do so), and maybe that's the best that it got.

There was no way for, say, a student at a Pacific Northwest small state school in the back of beyond BFE to ever even know that someone like me existed over here in the Carolina piedmont, much less access their advice and experience. So, for those folks, people seeking information on this field with no really excellent local resources, i post these things and i hope to god it's useful.

I hope it helps some folks find the schools that are right for them (and, eliminate those that aren't before they even go through the full application process).

I hope it helps some folks to decide that actually, no, this career field maybe isn't for them--maybe it's an interest better kept as a hobby. or channeled into fashion design or stylist work.

And i hope it helps some folks realize that yes, this is exactly the field for them, whether they want to be a draper or a shop manager or a designer or a crafts artisan, run their own shop or work on a team at a large production facility or whatever! If just one person is helped by the posts, great, it's all been worth my time.

Statements of Purpose

So, with respect to Statements of Purpose, i have a few thoughts. I'm writing this post from purely my own perspective, what *I* think about how a statement of purpose should be written. I don't make acceptance decisions here, but i do read all the applications and occasionally offer feedback, so i've seen dozens of statements of purpose. Bear in mind as you read it, this is only my opinion and is not to be considered any kind of stone-carved hard-rule on the subject.

I can't tell you what your Statement of Purpose should be, really, because it's YOUR statement of YOUR purpose, and how could i know what that might be? I can tell you for sure what it shouldn't be though.

It shouldn't be a rehash of your resume. You've sent that, they've got it. Don't waste anybody's time--yours or theirs--restating info they already can check out (and have). If you have a great example of how a specific experience was revelatory in terms of your decision to pursue graduate study, then that's ok. For example, we had an applicant who mentioned in her statement of purpose that she realized she needed to pursue graduate study when she was hired as a wardrobe crew member for the Broadway tour of Lion King and had the opportunity to see the interior structures of the Hyena costumes; she she wanted to learn how a costume that unusually-structured was conceived and created, and felt that graduate study in a Costume Production program was the best way to achieve that goal. The statement wouldn't have been nearly as compelling if she had just said something like, "I knew from the moment i worked wardrobe on Lion King, this was the path for me." See the difference?

Your statement also shouldn't dwell overmuch on how you supposedly have always wanted to be a costumer, used to dress up your dolls as a kid, or play with fabric instead of toys, or whatever. This may all be true, but it reads like cliche and makes it seem as if you don't have much of a grasp on the field beyond a child's idealism. It's great if you loved dressup as a kid, or sewing or whatever, but how has that carried through in mature expressions of the pursuit since you became an adult? I spent about six years of my childhood drawing pictures of elaborate Southern-Belle-style formal gown designs on the bodies of women with cat's faces and mall hair. I now see a direct line between that and my career choice, but i would never, ever, ever mention that in any kind of professional context (well, except clearly in this blog just now as a negative example).

It shouldn't be vague in terms of what you communicate about the field. The specific example i mentioned up there is the best way to approach it. Have there been specific shows, or theatre companies, or a particular professor or designer you have worked with or learned from that helped you come to the decision to pursue graduate study? Explain how!

That said, don't name-drop without purpose and connection. If your statement says something like, "When i was in high school, i knew as soon as i saw William Ivey Long's costumes for Hairspray, theatre was my passion!" people are likely going to roll their eyes. Unless your next sentence is something like, "That conviction was confirmed two summers ago when i interned with Mr. Long himself, swatching and learning about fiber content, weave structure, and levels of fabric quality," it's maybe not the best choice for inclusion.

(Small digression: do you know how many people say that theatre/drama/costuming is their passion? Verbatim? Nearly all. Nearly ALL.)

If you have any specific areas of interest, by all means mention them. "I am particularly interested in the challenges and requirements of costuming for professional dance." Or maybe "Tailoring systems for menswear are my primary focus in the construction field." If you don't yet have any specific interest, that's ok, but maybe you want to work more to get a better idea of where your interests lie before applying to graduate school. And, many applicants have more than one--"This program will expand my knowledge of shop management and millinery, areas in which I hope to work professionally after graduate school."

It doesn't reflect a mature understanding though to profess that you "love everything to do with costumes." No one loves everything to do with costumes. Seriously. There is a huge difference between being willing to accept employment in which you must hand-wash dirty dance belts, and LOVING to hand-wash dirty dance belts. One is a career choice to add a relevant wardrobe credit to your resume, and the other is...well, definitely a private matter. (Whoa, pun.)

Another thing that's worth mentioning if it's applicable: is there anything specific to the program to which you are applying that appeals to you? Suppose that the program functions within a learning-lab paradigm with productions entirely student-produced--student actors, directors, designers, technologies, stage management, etc.--and that really appeals to you, then mention it. Or suppose the program works in tandem with a professional company in residence and you are drawn to that aspect, mention it. Or perhaps the program is partnered with a museum archive and involves a component of restoration or reproduction of antique garments; you love this, so mention it. Maybe you're enthused about their teaching assistantships, or some specific outreach program in which they participate, etc etc and so forth.

And a last piece of advice: ask someone to read the finished draft over for you who is likely to know their stuff. What about whoever's writing your letters of recommendation? Or someone in your department in the costume faculty? Someone besides your friends, your mom, or the person you're dating.

So, for readers considering graduate applications this year or in future, hopefully the statement of purpose doesn't seem so daunting and formless and nebulously-weird now. Maybe this post will jog a few ideas loose for how to compose yours, what you might include (and not include).

And as ever, good luck!
labricoleuse: (dye vat)
On the USITT costumers' email list, one member recently asked some relevant questions about dye vats. She's got budget approval to buy one, and wondered whether anyone had strong feelings about wooden paddles (length, type of wood, etc), or had any experience with the Blodgett brand of steam-jacketed vats.

I decided to transcribe my response here, so it'd be Googleable for future researchers of the topic.

On wood paddles:

I have four $12 wood paddles that i use in my two steam-jacketed vats. One of them predates my tenure here so i have no idea how old it is--it has a thin crack running along the wide part of the paddle, which is why i purchased more, thinking it might break off soon. I've been here five years and counting and it hasn't broken yet. I wouldn't use it to paddle delicate fabric down into a bath, just in case it might snag something, but i do use it still on sturdier jobs.

That's the only reason i could think of to justify a costlier hardwood paddle, the lower likelihood of the wood cracking over time after repeated exposure to heat/chemicals, but it's not something on my dream list of equipment or anything. My cheapo paddles work fine, and when they do go, it's easier to find $12 to replace them than $100.

Lengthwise, all four of mine are 36" paddles, and they are fine in the 60-gal Groen.

On vats:

I can't help you on personal experience with the Blodgett brand, in that everywhere i've worked that had a functional vat had Groens or Hamiltons, or used soup tureens on giant heating elements. One shop i worked in had a Blodgett (IIRC) that someone had donated to the facility without investigating whether there was sufficient space/plumbing/ventilation, so it sat sadly in the basement because no one wanted to get rid of it, but no one knew how to find a way (physically or budgetarily) to install it either. I count this as a negative statement about the vat donor and facilities director in that case, rather than the Blodgett brand. :)

I'm going to repost this topic to my blog, since due to my posts on buying dye vats and vent hoods, sometimes it catches some relevant eyes that this email list doesn't--maybe some of the readership will chime in with Blodgett product reviews. In general, if you can find a restaurant surplus supply in your area, you might be able to get a second-hand vat in good condition from them for much less $$$ than brand-new.

Because, not only do you need to plan for the vat but also for ventilation! Which, you may have already investigated that so forgive me if i'm stating the obvious, but it is something that slips people's minds, as evidenced by my tale of the Blodgett in the basement--no plan had been made for plumbing it in/out, wiring a switchbox for it, or locating it somewhere that a vent hood could be installed. That said, you can be creative with this sort of thing, depending on where you are. I know of a shop in the Los Angeles area which has their dye vat outside under a carport roof--utilizing natural ventilation. Of course, i don't know how their neighbors might feel about that choice.

And, just in case you haven't come across them in your research, here are links to my two prior blog posts on this, which are sort of buyer guides for the theatrical dyer, to help with research and asking the right questions of vendors and facilities folks:

Dye vat sourcing:
Ventilation options:

Honestly, if you can't get both the size vat you want and a good vent system, paddles, goggles/gauntlets/etc out of your $10,000 budget, you might save a bundle but still really upgrade your dye facility by looking at 40gal or 60gal non-steam-jacketed tureens and an industrial-sized heating element. That's the route they chose at the LA Opera when they moved into a new costume facility the year before i worked there--tureen/element rather than steam-jacketed vat--and it's what they've got in the dyeshop at Parsons-Meares and at the American Repertory Theatre (or had when i worked there 2 and 6 years ago, respectively). If you want to consider that and price it out, research around about hot plates for drums and stock pots, like these:

The difference between the dyebath you get from a tureen and one you get with a steam-jacket is temperature gradation--the heat from the element makes the bath tend to be warmer the deeper it is, so your dyer just needs to be more vigilant and vigorous about stirring to circulate the bath and maintain a more uniform temperature. Which, you want to stir baths anyhow for more uniform color uptake, so that's not a huge deal, really.

I recommend, if you go that route, getting a tureen with a stopcock/spigot at the base, so you can drain it without lifting it.
labricoleuse: (CAD)
From now through February, because it's the time when people who are applying to graduate school are getting their portfolios up-to-date, sending in applications and scheduling interviews, i'll be addressing relevant topics now and then.

In the interest of covering all the bases, i'll start this off with links to my series of prior topical posts on costume-related graduate school subjects:

Today's topic: letters of recommendation.

I get asked to write letters of recommendation by former students fairly often--for jobs and fellowship applications in the case of former grad students, but because on rare occasions i have undergraduates in my courses, occasionally for grad school applications as well. And clearly, I see dozens of them when I look through the files of applicants to our own program each year. (I don't make any of the acceptance decisions here, BTW, i just read through the applications and offer feedback when asked.) Graduate programs and scholarship committees and the like pay particular note of these letters; just as your statement of purpose and your portfolio represent how you professionally present yourself, the letters represent the impression you have left on others in your professional and academic career thusfar.

In terms of who you should ask, i've mentioned in earlier posts in this series that you need to choose people who have nothing but the most glowing opinions of you, who have not a single bad thing to say about you, but also who are not your own mom/spouse/BFF. If you don't have three people whom you are certain can write letters to this effect, you need to evaluate why, and work on acquiring those references before applying.

If you have more than three people you are considering (and i say "three," as that's the common number of recommendations requested, though maybe you need two or four, depending on the application), i advise making a spreadsheet or a chart with the following categories for each applicant, to help in choosing which three:

  • Length of Acquaintance: How long has this person known you? Have you stayed in contact? Someone you took a class with for three months five years ago may not be able to write as extensive a recommendation as someone you have worked for over the past year. Then again, the professor from five years ago might be someone you've kept up with who really champions your career, while the boss from the last year's job might still be bitter about when you showed up hungover the day after your birthday last month. Use your judgement; it's just one factor to consider.

  • Relationship to the Program: Do you know anyone who's an alum of the program? Or who is a former classmate or colleague of the department head? Again, this is a case where you need to use your judgment. It's no good having a recommendation from someone with a connection to the program who barely knows you and can't say much about your worthiness as a candidate, and it's definitely no good having a recommendation from someone who's an alum that didn't do very well in the program! And, even a glowing recommendation from a colleague of the department head won't automatically get you in if your personal statement and portfolio aren't up to snuff, or if you interview poorly, etc etc. If it's an option you have though, it can be a good augmentation.

  • Experience in the Field: Ideally, you have three recommendation letters from people who are professionals or academics in the field of professional costuming. If you do not but you still feel that you are ready for graduate school and determined to apply, consider carefully who to ask. Is there someone who can speak to your work in a related area from a professional standpoint, say perhaps a supervisor at a bridal alterations shop you worked at who can talk about your sewing skills, fine fabrics knowledge, and responsibility as an employee? How about a director with whom you worked as a stage manager, who can speak to your organizational skills, devotion to the creative process, and excellent time management abilities?

    If you choose to ask someone outside the field, make certain they are willing and able to write the type of letter you need--several paragraphs with specific examples, not just the one-paragraph form-letter references that people request in the corporate workplace. Those form letters don't hurt you ("Ms. Smith is punctual and reliable employee of 2 years at our company. She has never been late to work."), but they're a waste of an opportunity to communicate anything of depth about you as a candidate.

But the point of this post is not really about choosing WHO to ask; it's about the etiquette of asking. I will assume that you can look at your academic and professional history and choose three people who'd be glad to recommend you for your diligence, dedication, maturity, intelligence, creativity, skill, and so forth, and none of whom would describe your performance as "adequate" or "sufficient" (red-flags for a "recommendation" that someone has written for an applicant they find unremarkable or don't remember well enough to speak about). Once you know who to ask though, how do you go about it?

If they are someone you currently work with or take a course with, ask in person. Stop by their office during open office hours or make an actual appointment. Sit down and ask them face to face rather than shooting an email. When you do so, explain in serious, professional terms why you are making your application, how the grad program or scholarship or fellowship will further your career goals, and ask whether they feel willing and able to write you a recommendation. Provided they agree, give them a copy of your personal statement, your resume or CV, and an info sheet with details from the application--when the recommendations are due, any guidelines they might have cited as to content, and anything they need to submit it with ease (if the program wants online recommendations, then the submission form URL or proper email address; if they want standard mail letters, then a SASE).

If they are someone you cannot go visit in person to ask--a former supervisor who lives in a different state, for example--then a call or an email is acceptable. Clearly this is a generalization, but even if you have a fairly informal/casual rapport with the person, you should still word this particular email or phone call in a professional manner (i.e., no LOLs or nicknames or inside jokes, etc.), and no matter how well you know them you should still provide a copy of your resume/CV and your statement of purpose. You need to leave a professional documentation-trail on this.

Give them as much lead time as you possibly can. If you can ask a couple months in advance, do so. It takes time and effort to write a really good, effective recommendation letter, and you should be mindful of the fact that your former professors, current supervisors, and fellow colleagues have busy lives with many obligations, and that what you are asking them to do is a big favor. I probably spend at least 2-3 hours writing a really good recommendation letter, and those are hours i'm not getting paid; that's what you are essentially asking for--someone to give up some of their free time for no other reason than to help you out. Chances are, if you ask for a letter a couple weeks (or a couple days) before your deadline, you won't get as good of a letter as if you ask a month or more ahead of time. You may even have trouble finding someone able to write you one if the turnaround is too fast--a professor who would have written you a glowing letter a month ago might actually resent your presumption at asking with a super-fast turnaround time during midterms or their family vacation.

Do not expect to read these letters. Whether that is formalized is contingent on the expectations of the program--some have a form both you and the recommendation writer need to sign stating that you relinquished the right to read the letter, some ask that the letters be sent separately from your other materials and request disclosure as to whether you read them or not. Recommendations carry more weight if they are confidential; if you insist on reading them, the presumption is that the author may not have felt free to speak as openly as s/he might otherwise. Basically, if you have asked the right people, you ought not need to read them; you know they'll be great!

Good recommendation letter-writers will notify you when they've sent the letter off, but even the best of us forget sometimes. If the deadline's approaching and you haven't heard back as to whether they sent it or not, it's okay to ask politely whether they've mailed it, with a gentle reminder of the cutoff date.

And, once the deadline has passed and you know the your letters have been received, send actual real thank-you cards to the people who wrote them. These folks have just done you a huge favor on their own time for which there can be no compensation whatsoever beyond the nebulous idea of good karma or paying-it-forward; you owe them a formal acknowledgment of that and expression of your gratitude.

There you have it, my recommendation recommendations. If you are applying for graduate admission or for a new job or fellowship in the coming year, the best of luck to you!
labricoleuse: (Default)
It's the time of year when people who are applying to graduate school are starting to get their portfolios up-to-date, schedule visits and interviews; as such, i'll start this off with links to my series of topical posts on costume-related graduate school subjects:

Today's post though answers the frequently-asked question, Should I go to U/RTA?

U/RTA stands for the University/Resident Theatres Association, a collective of professional theatres in residence at universities which offer masters study in theatrical disciplines, with significant crossover between the professional and the academic. Prospective graduate students in both performance and production foci take note of U/RTA because of their sponsorship of the National Unified Auditions/Interviews (NUA/I), held annually in NYC, Chicago, and San Fransisco or Las Vegas, where graduate applicants can meet representatives from member schools, and in some cases audition or interview for admission to their programs.

So, undergrads and prospective applicants often ask me, should I go to U/RTA?

As with everything else relating to graduate study, there is no cut-and-dried answer. It depends on what you hope to gain from it.

Clearly, if you are interested in a graduate program which operates within an "academic lab" paradigm (i.e., all productions are done with student actors, student directors, and student designers overseeing student-run production shops, all under the auspices of faculty advisors/mentors), or with a costume/fashion/textile hybrid focus, U/RTA won't be of much help to you as those programs aren't members. If you want a program where there's a professional theatre or conservatory component and are interested in more than one of the programs offered at member universities though, it's something to consider.

Some students are under the impression that attending one of the NUA/I event is akin to a "one-stop grad-school shop," that they can show up with a portfolio in a nice outfit and meet all the relevant faculty of every member organization, schedule a passel of interviews, and bam, find the perfect grad program. That *can* perhaps happen, but it's not a reasonable expectation for most.

Going to a NUA/I event can be a great place to get a lot of information fast and quick, in terms of the research-arc of deciding whether to go to grad school and if so, whether a program with a resident company is for you. You *will* be able to get information on several programs at once, and have the opportunity of discussing your portfolio with some programs' faculty, and also to see the portfolios of other prospective students from other undergraduate programs. You will be able to network, meet and talk to people in your area of focus, as well as those in other performance and production disciplines. These will be valuable experiences, especially the experience of showing your portfolio. That is something you can't do too many times, and which gets exponentially easier each time, i think.

For these reasons alone i would say that, if you live in or within a reasonable drive of a NUA/I hub city, or have the budget to attend one as part of your graduate school research, do so!

However, go with the foreknowledge of what you can expect.

First, if you are going with a preconceived list of programs in mind that you want to connect with, contact the heads of those programs in advance and make sure that someone will be in attendance who can talk to you. Though U/RTA has a pretty long membership list, it's only a small section of all the schools out there with costume-focus degrees, and not every discipline from every program will attend every NUA/I event. For example, our school is a member, but only our MFA Acting faculty attend any NUA/I event, and not every one in every city every year. So, if you were hoping to hit the NYC event and talk to someone about our Technical Production MFA program, maybe interview and show your'd be disappointed, because our TD wouldn't be there. (Which, had you contacted him in advance, you'd know.) Same for costumes--we don't send a rep to U/RTA NUA/Is, rather our Costume Director attends SETC and the national USITT conference, as those offer "more bang for the buck" visibility.

Second, be aware that you may go and not find any program that feels like a good fit, or that you may have no one indicate interest in your portfolio...and that doesn't mean you're a failure and you suck, or grad school's not for you and you'll never get into one, it just means that of the handful of programs who attended, none were a mutual match. See, U/RTA's NUA/Is are like grad-school speed dating--you get a little bit of time to interact with whatever handful of programs by chance happen to be there the same time you are. You won't get to know any of them as well as you would if you went on a real date (i.e., scheduled an on-site visit to the program), but if you don't click with any of them, that doesn't mean you are unlovably doomed to a life of dateless hermitude. It just means none of these ten folks set your pants afire in five minutes flat, and you should just keep casting your net because there are a lot of fish in the sea. (Ah, the mixed-metaphor. Or maybe it's a meta-metaphor! I digress.)

If you live somewhere too far to easily drive to a NUA/I, you're better off starting out your research by attending a regional conference like SETC or USITT-Regional, or hitting USITT's national conference. Granted, USITT is held too late in the year to go there expecting to find a graduate program to enter that fall; you will want to attend it figuring on narrowing your choices over the next few months, with a mind to applying for the following fall, 15-16 months down the line.

And, don't let that be a discouragement--it's actually a good thing, as it gives you that much more time to prepare, add to your portfolio and resume, and learn more about every program you think might interest you! That is my actual ultimate advice on applying to graduate school: don't rush it. I have seen so many folks come to a decision about grad school and want everything to happen too fast. It's a HUGE decision, and often people are like, "Hey, i think i want to go to grad school in this! Starting this fall! OMG i have to do this now OMG if i don't get in what will i dooooo?!?" Grad school is not going anywhere, and many programs will actually be more impressed by you taking the time to do long-term legwork.

Especially in these economic times, no university can afford to take a risk on admitting a poorly-informed, impulsive incoming grad student who *might* become disenchanted and drop out upon realizing s/he's actually in the wrong program or not cut out for the school's expectations and workload. We invest a lot of responsibility in our students--they have teaching or research workloads as part of their assistantship funding, and if they can't hack it and drop out, it's a domino effect: the undergraduate students in the courses they teach or grant-driven programs that depend on them will falter. So take your time and if you realize you need to put it off another year, no worries! It can only work in your favor to do so.

As always, i am a big proponent of "open-source costume education" and welcome inquiries about costume-career graduate study in general, our program in particular, or really any crafts-centric topic, so feel free to contact me and "Ask La Bricoleuse" any questions you have that you think i might be able to answer. I am happy to do so.

And, if you are one of the many folks who will be seeking admission to graduate programs for Fall 2010, i wish you the best of luck in your application process!
labricoleuse: (CAD)
It's the time of year when we start getting lots of inquiries from prospective applicants to the graduate program, people beginning to express interest and book visits and so forth.

Many readers come across this blog while doing their own research on applying to costume programs, thanks to my series of FAQ posts on topics related to graduate education. (Which, if you are thinking of applying to an MFA program in costume production, or costume design and technology, you might want to peruse those for info on portfolios, application processes, and so forth!)

These questions come from a reader named Kate, who is beginning her application process:

As I apply to graduate schools, I wonder how densely costume plot and design oriented my portfolio must be? I have only designed one show (since I did not major in costume in college), but have assisted on many and built many pieces. Can images from shows I have assisted on be used? Perhaps if I detail pieces that I worked on? Or worked on as a stitcher or shopper? For example I was a shopper for a costume atelier finding and purchasing materials. Can pieces made with that fabric be included if I detail what they are?

Though not specified, it seems that these questions are in reference to a portfolio to be used in applying to design-centered programs, due to the emphasis on design in your language. So, since my field of specialty is production and technology programs, take my advice with that caveat--we don't have a design track at our school, so my feedback on design-focus portfolios is purely professional conjecture and not grounded in a context applicable to our own program. (And, as an aside for readers who may be uncertain of the difference in foci, i've written about Design vs Production MFAs here.)

One major goal of a portfolio is to illustrate your experience in your chosen field of study, and the more fully it reveals the breadth and/or focus of your experience, the more effective it is. Inclusion of costume plots is a good idea--that's an important part of bringing a show from concept to reality, and program heads will see that you have the facility for generating those documents.

For shows on which you were a design assistant, i think it is definitely appropriate to include some stage shots, with sections of text explaining your involvement. So, say you have three photos in there, or a couple renderings with corresponding stage shots, and a little text block that reads something like this:

Primary Assistant to Costume Designer Jane Doe
Guys and Dolls - State Theatre, NY - July 2007
Responsibilities: chorus fittings, materials sourcing, purchases/returns and budget tracking
Renderings courtesy of Jane Doe

It is key that you ask permission to include designers' renderings in your portfolio and give clear proper credit if that permission is granted. You don't want people thinking that you are trying to pass their rendering off as your own work, but part of the collaborative process IS definitely being able to look at someone else's rendering and help turn it into an actualized costume. Most designers are glad to give production artisans and design assistants permission to show their renderings in a properly-credited portfolio juxtaposition.

The same goes for shows on which you stitched and shopped--i feel you definitely should include photos of those shows, with your contribution clearly labeled. An example for the atelier job you mention being a shopper on might have a couple stage shots, maybe some fabric swatches, with a text label that looks like this:

Shopper - Costume World Rentals - March 2008
Wicked rental production package
Responsibilities: swatching and purchase of yardage and notions for Emerald City costumes

Ultimately, all of these things show a prospective graduate program that you have experience in several areas of costuming and are exactly the kind of thing it is appropriate to include. It shows that you actually know what the field is like from several job perspectives, which (i think, at least) is more valuable in an incoming student than say, an applicant with a portfolio full of nothing but beautifully rendered costume designs for shows that never happened.

Also! If you haven't already, check out my earlier post on portfolio assembly, too. For another perspective from someone who sees tons more portfolios than i ever will, you might also peruse these online resources by Rafael Jaen, Portfolio Review Chair for the USITT Costume Design and Technology Commission:

Mr. Jaen has also written a book on the subject, Developing and Maintaining a Design-Tech Portfolio, which is previewable on Google Books or available through your preferred bookseller.

Kate continues:

I have also seen that many schools want a varied portfolio, which is great! However, some schools like Yale seem to want more costume work than anything. Do you think it is well received to design costumes for a show that won't be realized just to show designing ability and interest?

I know it seems like i just kind of bagged on hypothetical or "paper projects" (collections of designs for unrealized shows), but i don't want to imply that such things don't have a place in a portfolio.

A design program likely wants to see that you are well-rounded in costuming, cognizant and capable of everything it takes to take costume designs from page to stage, but definitely focused on design as a career path. So, just in the same way that it is important to show you are capable of generating costume plots, sourcing materials, and that you have construction competency/experience, you also want to illustrate your rendering and designing skills as well. You mention that you have only designed one actualized show, so i definitely think that including a set of paper project renderings serves a useful purpose as well--it will further highlight your drawing/sketching ability and your effectiveness at communicating your ideas in illustrative form.

If you were applying to a production program like ours in which you wouldn't be studying design, then i'd say, perhaps leave out the hypothetical design projects in favor of, say, a production project that's outside of the realm of theatre (such as photographs of a friend's bridal gown you made, or a mask you sculpted for a holiday parade). But for applying to Yale's design MFA program, yes, put in the paper projects, too.

In general, i think you can't get too much input on your portfolio. Once you have something pulled together, i recommend asking colleagues whether they would look at it and give you honest feedback. If your regional theatre conferences are coming up (for example, the USITT-Southeast conference is in the fall, not sure when other regions host theirs), you might take the portfolio there and solicit feedback. Sometimes there are formal portfolio review sessions, but even if not, many people will be glad to give it a look and offer constructive criticism.

Best of luck with your round of applications, and i hope you find a program that is a perfect fit!
labricoleuse: (dye vat)
This topic came up recently on the USITT Costumers e-list, and i had just been studying it for another of the textiles courses i've been taking at the NCSU College of Textiles. I thought i'd repost my response and elaborate on it a bit more here, to create a public googlable resource as well.

Essentially, someone asked how to quickly remove the heavy-duty crisp OMG NEW! sizing that you find in some modern textiles, whether there was some speedier process than "wash and wear the item 3098520985 times." She wanted to soften the hand of the fabrics for the purposes of making a costume that's supposed to look lived-in and not crisp-tastic. This is a fairly common issue in the field, when you have new fabric or a new garment, but a character whose clothes are supposed to be well-worn. It can also be a big issue for dyers, as fabrics with sizing in them will often dye irregularly or with undesirable gradations and uptake levels. Hence this post!

Basically, there is not just one type of sizing. Different fabrics, fibers, and weave structures require different types of sizing. A process which removes one type of sizing efficiently may not have as good of an effect on another type of sizing.

A lot of modern fabrics are sized with PVA (aka PVOH or polyvinyl alcohol, which is basically white glue). It's technically water-soluble, but can take multiple standard domestic launderings to totally come out. If PVA sizing is particularly tenacious, adding a very small amount of sodium hydroxide (NaOH)--aka lye or caustic soda--to your laundry load will help with removing it faster, but it can also act as a breakdown agent, which in fact might be desirable if you want the fabric(s) to look old, faded/distressed, etc.

Lye is highly corrosive and easily splashed in liquid form, so be sure to use gloves, splashproof goggles, and great care when working with it, rather than just dumping some into the machine carelessly.

In fact, it'll be a lot safer (and probably easier to purchase, handle, and store) if you use lye soap flakes instead of NaOH solution. Also, maximum agitation and higher heat of the wash bath (above 75F/25C) will help, too. If you have some particularly tenacious PVA sizing, you can even boil the fabric to get it out.

Two other common sizing agents used are a compound called CMC and traditional starch.

If your fabric is sized with CMC (which stands for carboxymethylcellulose), that's the easiest to remove--just running a hot laundry load will usually do it. If you have soda ash or washing soda on-hand for dyeshop purposes, tossing a little into the bath will desize CMC from a fabric even more efficiently.

Traditional starch is actually often the most difficult to fully remove. Like PVA, it requires high heat and agitation, and will come out quickest if you boost the laundry bath with the enzyme amylase, which is found in some enzymatic cleaners. Detergents with amylase don't always feature the word "enzymatic" in their ad copy, so it pays to read the labels. Often ones that cater to the Green market share will have it as a component--Seventh Generation and Nature's Miracle, etc. (Amylase is also found in saliva, but your coworkers might look askance if you go ask everyone in the company to come spit in your washing machine.) Peroxide bleach will also remove starch, but also tends to weaken cotton and linen fibers so use care if you go that route.

How do you know what something is sized with?

Unfortunately, there's no way to really find out unless it's printed on the tag or bolt end or whatever. Here are a few tips to help with your guesswork though.

  • Starch is typically only used in cotton processing, so if you have a non-cotton fiber, it's unlikely to be sized with starch.
  • Cotton doesn't automatically mean "starch" though--it could be PVA or CMC.
  • Nylon fabric is often sized with an acrylic sizing, which can be removed with a cold or warm (not hot) cycle and lye soap.
  • Polyesters are usually sized with water-dispersable synthetic sizes which are susceptible to lye soap.

In general, when i'm desizing fabric to prepare it for dyeing, i start with a hot laundry cycle, high agitation, and using an enzymatic detergent plus washing soda. If it's still stiff after that, then i start troubleshooting with other methods.

Also, on a totally unrelated note, my former employer, the LA Opera, is hosting the first costume sale in their history this weekend, October 10th. If you are in the southern California area, i HIGHLY recommend going to check it out. The LA Opera produces top-quality costumes for internationally-renowned performers so this really is a one-of-a-kind opportunity. You can download the press release with all the details here:
labricoleuse: (manga avatar)
Two posts in one day! You can tell i'm in a holding pattern, can't you?

In the past week i've had several emails from people asking not only about our MFA program here at UNC-Chapel Hill, but about the existence of similar programs at other universities. The fact is, it's easy to find graduate programs offering a concentration in costume design, or a split-focus between design and technology, but not so easy to locate the few that offer or allow a strict specialization in technology alone. Ironic, since every production only has one costume designer (who granted may have an assistant or few) but a multitude of costume production artists.

Our program is easy to find info about due to this blog (forgive my hubris!), but where, several of you ask, might one look for other programs? After all, not every student's goals are going to be congruent with the focus of our program, and it's good to "shop around" when looking for the right fit in a graduate school. So, I encourage those with an interest in the field to check out our program, but to check out the others out there, as well! As such, i've made up a list of the other programs i'm aware of out there that offer masters degrees in costume production/technology.

Alphebetical Listing of Graduate Programs with a Concentration in Costume Production/Technology:
(links go to the specific program page or PDF where possible)

Now, of course these aren't all "like ours," in that every program has its own areas of expertise and focus, different course offerings and faculty, theory vs practice foci, etc etc. It's a list in flux, as other programs pop up i'll add them, and if (knock wood, heaven forbid) any fall casualty to the economy, i'll cross them off. And, if you know of another costume-production-centric program that offers concentrations in areas like draping, tailoring, costume crafts, and shop management i don't have listed yet, let me know and i'll add it here!

(I'm not listing design/technology combination degree programs, as those are quite common, and i'm not listing focus programs in related disciplines like fiber art or puppetry.)

Most programs' application deadlines are past or approaching so fast that it'd be unreasonable to expect to submit a competitive application at this point for the fall. If you're beginning to look into graduate school for the 2010-11 academic year or beyond, be sure to ask about how the economy is affecting funding of graduate positions and the academic programs themselves for the immediate future. I know that we lost our management track in budget cuts, and I've heard that other universities are also taking similar or heavier hits. (For example, it's been widely publicized in the media that Brandeis' endowment took an enormous loss in the Madoff investment implosion.) Best to find out up-front how that's going to affect the programs you care about.

And, for more of my posts on applying to graduate school in the field of professional costume, check out the FAQ tag in the sidebar.

ETA: It also seems like a useful thing to aggregate certificate programs, which are not MFAs/graduate degrees, but which offer shorter-term concentrated study in costume production.

Any more you know of, please drop a note in the comments!
labricoleuse: (manga avatar)
Today i'm answering another query about costume production grad school, and i am--as always--prefacing it with my disclaimer: I don't run a graduate program, nor do I speak in an official capacity on behalf of the one for which i teach. I have a more informed perspective than the average layperson, but for wholly accurate info specific to a particular program, you should definitely contact that program's director. For links to previous posts on related topics, skip to the bottom of this post.

With that disclaimer in mind, i'll address this new question (via email from a prospective future applicant):

What is a typical "visit" like? How much time should I set aside and what can I expect to see/do?

With this answer, i can only talk about what we encourage our applicants to plan for--other programs may have different expectations or requirements in a visit. (And, i would love to hear comments from other programs' participants, how your interviews/visits are structured!) Obviously, your visit can be longer or shorter depending on your availability/interest, and can be customized to a degree, to accommodate your interests, but in general our applicants should plan to spend an entire workday (9am-5pm, M-F) on-site.

Upon arrival, after meeting with one of our faculty or staff (usually either myself or our Costume Director), applicants head off to sit in on classes with the current grad students, whichever courses are being taught the day of the visit. Usually, this winds up being two classes, a 9am class and an 11am class. Where possible the visiting students participate in the coursework--so, if it is a draping class and the students are draping a particular garment in-class, the visitor is provided with a dress form and fabric and encouraged to drape along with everybody else.

After class, we all go to lunch together. Usually, this is an opportunity for the visiting applicant to see some of our campus, and we walk to a local restaurant. (So heads-up--wear shoes you can walk in, and bring some pocket-money for lunch!) Sometimes, if an applicant visits at a particularly busy time, such as during fittings or tech week, we bring lunch in and order pizzas or subs or similar. (Another heads-up: tell us if you have special dietary needs so we can make sure to accommodate them!)

In the afternoon, the applicant has a formal interview with our costume director, and a bit more informal interviews/chats with myself and some of the other faculty and staff. They also have the opportunity to speak with the current grad students one-on-one, and peruse information like our compendium of course syllabi for all offered classes, or our department scrapbook (an informal collection of photos from special events like professional conferences, academic competitions, departmental charity work, and our yearly winter-break party). Our Costume Director takes them on a complete tour of our facility, including our theatre spaces, storage and archive stockrooms, fitting and dressing rooms, etc.

Another event that happens in the afternoon is portfolio presentation, where the applicant is given the opportunity to show her/his portfolio to the group. Unless there's some extenuating circumstance, we all attend that presentation--faculty, staff, and current graduate students. We often ask questions about the portfolio during or following the presentation, and about the candidate's goals and aspirations.

And if there's a show on our mainstage that evening, the applicant is given comp tickets to go see it, so s/he can get a look at our professional work in practice.

It's a full day, and some folks choose to do it in two days, either to see the full complement of classes (MWF/TTh), or to make certain s/he has time to fully experience the program and get to speak with all the students/faculty at length. Some are only able to come a half-day, so clearly those folks get the condensed version of this and have to skip some elements of it.

Hopefully, that provides a good overview of what to expect, and maybe a structure to go from when talking to other programs about visiting and what to plan for.

And, because pictures are worth a thousand words, some images of a recent period pattern class project:

1920s day dresses, half form projects for period patterning )

Costume Production MFA FAQ link-collection:

labricoleuse: (milliner)
It's that time of year again, when i tend to get more queries about topics relating to graduate study in costuming. It's also the time when we have a glut of applicants to our program coming to visit, show their portfolios, do interviews, etc., which means it's time for me first and foremost to trot out my link-list to hopefully-helpful past posts on related subjects, in which i answer many of the most common questions (i suppose that makes this a FAQ of sorts):

This year, i've gotten a new question though, and it's a good one! Well, i guess technically, it's two. [ profile] devikat inquired (in a comment to a past post) about what sort of timeline the application process ideally follows, and what the requirements of graduate assistantships might be.


Okay, so first my usual disclaimer: I don't run a graduate program, nor do I speak in an official capacity on behalf of the one for which i teach. I make these posts from the perspective of someone who has worked in an overhire/freelance capacity for graduate program productions and for professional theatres in residence at universities with graduate programs, and as someone who has done graduate coursework at three such universities. I have a more informed perspective than the average layperson, but for wholly accurate info specific to a particular program, you should definitely contact that program's director. Just so we're all on the same page, y'know.

Anyway, if i were to apply to graduate school, here's the timeline i'd follow. Let's say i want to apply for admission in the fall of 2010 (it currently being early 2009).

First, I would begin the process of going through my portfolio, bringing it up-to-date, busting out the old resume and combing it for mistakes. I'd make myself a spreadsheet of the schools to which i wanted to apply, listing relevant info like what the applications should contain (GRE scores? personal artistic statement? interview? etc.), and when deadlines were for various things, contact names and numbers, tuition costs, etc. I would use this spring and summer to work on getting all that stuff written, proofed, tests taken, etc.

In the fall of 2009, i would contact the heads of the programs to which i wanted to apply, stating my interest in applying to the program for the following year and asking any pertinent questions (such as, "What sort of work would you like to see in a portfolio?" and, "When is a good time to come visit the program?"). I'd start talking to potential references now, and i'd ask them to be brutally honest with me--if they didn't feel they could write me a glowing recommendation, to please let me know where they felt my shortcomings were so i could improve. If I found myself with only two references, i'd make for darn sure that i got a great summer gig this year and bend over backward doing a wonderful, professional job, to acquire that 3rd reference.

I would plan to visit the program some time in the winter. I would plan that visit for more than one day--even if you are only able to schedule one day on campus visiting the classes and meeting the faculty and touring the facilities, the second day allows you time to poke around the town/city that might be your home for the next 3 years.

I would inquire about sitting in on classes, and if the program offered particular courses of interest on a rotating basis, plan accordingly. (Say, if tailoring is my primary interest and their tailoring courses are only offered in fall semesters, then i'd want to try to visit in Nov/Dec, so i could observe that class, whereas if i am particularly interested in dyeing and that's a spring class, i'd try to schedule a visit for Jan/Feb.) This is another good reason to see about a two-day visit--you can potentially sit in on both MWF and TTh classes.

Often, assistantships and scholarships have much earlier deadlines than just the normal graduate school application deadlines--ours is in March. Sometimes we have great candidates apply, but just too late for the assistantship deadline, or just under the wire. I would make certain i was not one of those folks, and get all my stuff in well in advance.

Then, i'd cross my fingers and wait, and try not to have the squirmy fantods about it. :D


With respect to the nature of assistantships, I can only speak for the assistantships in my own program, but at least that'll hopefully give you a basis for how to phrase informed questions about those in other prospective programs as well.

We have several types of assistantships, and they all fall under two categories: the teaching assistantship and the research assistantship.

Teaching assistantships may involve helping a senior faculty member with the workload of a large undergraduate theatre class (this usually means grading papers or exams), teaching a smaller undergraduate costume intro course, or co-teaching a lab course (like makeup) with a senior faculty member. In our program, your assistantship only applies to one class at a time, so you'd never be assisting with a full courseload of teaching AND taking a full courseload of classes.

Research assistantships in our program are tied to our collections and archives, so you might be serving as an acquisitions coordinator (related to the intake of costume/clothing donations from benefactors and issuance of tax letters related to those donations) or loan supervisor (helping outside organizations wishing to borrow from our collection), or with the documentation and taxonomy of the CoStar Vintage Clothing Archive. Research assistantships also usually entail some supervision of undergraduate work-study students who help out with the documentation, preservation, and storage-related labor.

The rule of thumb with us is that students spend an average of 10 hours per week working on their assistantship duties, though clearly this depends on the nature of the assistantship (so, someone working in the archive really would probably spend about that a week on a regular basis, whereas someone whose teaching assistantship involved grading papers for a large class might go weeks without doing anything and then have a pile of papers to grade over the course of a couple weeks' time). We generally make it known in advance what sorts of time commitments are required for which assistantships, so students have the info they need to manage their time.

One thing to inquire about, if there is a LORT theatre in residence at the program, is whether the graduate program is involved with the LORT productions, and how that interfaces with coursework and assistantships. In our program, students work on the mainstage productions as part of a Practicum course, for which they receive credit; it's not a part of their assistantships. Some places, the assistantship may consist of working on LORT shows.

If you are applying to schools for the fall, good luck! And, if you are thinking about it for a future year, hopefully this was of use.
labricoleuse: (safety)
A question came up recently on the USITT Costumers' e-group about sourcing, pricing, and installation of dye vat hoods and ventilation systems. I thought i'd cross-post my response here as an "Ask LaBricoleuse" entry. This is one of those questions like "Where do i buy a dye vat?" that comes up again and again, and one that's close to my shop-safety-advocating heart.

The two main types of vendors to check out are restaurant/kitchen supply places and lab supply places.

For restaurant/kitchen places, search for "range vent hoods," which come in several styles and are designed to suck away steam, fumes, smoke, grease, heat, etc. Here are some vendors of this type. (this one has prices on the splash page)

The good thing about the range hoods is, you can look them up on "Consumer Reports"-style sites and read feedback on various brands before you purchase them, find out what's the best bet for your buck and what's got reliability issues. Some of them even have cool features like temperature-sensitive intakes that suck away faster at higher temps, and flame sensitive sprinkler attachments and such.

Lab supply places, you're looking for "laboratory canopy hoods." They're like range hoods, but designed for industrial lab usage so they often have extra features like corrosive-resistant coatings.

When you are pricing out options, talk with your facilities folks and find out what sort of budget/process you need to allot for installation--a wall- or ceiling-mounted hood requires ductwork that vents to the outside, away from any A/C intakes or windows and doors. (There are ductless range hoods, which push your fumes through a charcoal filter and then recycle the air into your dyespace--probably better than nothing but won't filter contaminants not trapped by charcoal.)

When i've helped coordinate projects like this, the budget/cost got divvied up between departments--the installation costs got divided out to facilities/safety, while the cost of the hood itself went to the area in which it was being installed, so i can't be of much help on a total cost guesstimate. If your facilities folks are of no help, call up some kitchen remodeling businesses in your area and ask what they estimate to install a range hood and ask whether that includes additional ductwork supplies (the actual duct, vent screen or louvered cover, etc) and if not, add those in as well.

A third option if you don't have the budget, space, or construction ability to install the ductwork for a wall- or ceiling-mounted hood is a portable fume extractor like these:

(There are short videos on these pages showing how, er, much they suck...which in this case is a good thing!)

You could push them around and use them in other applications in addition to functioning as makeshift dye hoods--sucking away jewelry soldering fumes, solvent-based paint fumes (like during FEV application), hat sizing fumes, etc. They won't help with heat control the way a duct hood that vents to the outside can, but otherwise, they're a great option as long as you stay on top of filter replacement!

In other news, here's a photo of some hurricane action around these parts, a radar image from earlier this morning:

here i am, rock me like a tropical storm! )
labricoleuse: (milliner)
This post comes from an email query; i thought it would be helpful to share my response here though where it could be Googlable in future for others with a similar situation! Here's the inquiry (edited from the original):

I recently acquired an older ladies Panama hat likely from the 1940's. It is a very fine weave & somewhat soiled, as well. It has a 1 1/4" crease where the straw has now gone through from both sides creating this tear, so to speak. What can I do or anyone you know that is able to restore this wonderful piece? How would you suggest cleaning it?

My response:

It sounds like a difficult repair, particularly if this is a hat you plan to wear on the street (i.e., not for a stage play). It sounds like the weave is very fine, such that a net patch would be difficult to do invisibly. I do have a post that shows the basics of doing a net patch on straw, but demonstrated on a very coarse weave hat. I've also posted about machine patching of torn straws for stage (scroll down to the 2nd hat), which is another repair technique though also quite visible.

Is the hat style such that you could retrim it in such a way as to hide a more visible patch repair where the tear is? That could be an option.

As for cleaning, the Village Hat Shop site has a good quick overview of cleaning and basic refurb of straw hats.

For a professional reweaving style repair, you could ship it to Worth & Worth, who are the only folks i know of who do fine Panama repairs.

Good luck, and i hope you find a way to fix your hat! It sounds lovely!
labricoleuse: (hats!)
Okay, so the title of this post is a total misnomer, because nobody actually directly asked me about this; however, there's been a discussion on the USITT costumers' e-list about Baer Fabrics closing its doors and various other industry suppliers going out of business, and Manny's Millinery Supply, a staple of the NYC Garment District for decades, was mentioned. I wrote a long post to the email group about millinery sourcing in the wake of Manny's demise (the store, not the proprietor), which i thought i'd share here as well so that it would be a googleable resource.

Recall that i spent a portion of my summer as a millinery assistant at Cha Cha's House of Ill Repute, a NY-based couture millinery studio in Brooklyn. (I've got a forthcoming post on just that with some studio and equipment shots to share, but i digress.) The proprietress passed on to me a few suppliers' contact info from a recent NY Milliners' Guild meeting regarding the impending closure of Manny's, which i will gladly share.

As theatrical costumers all across the continent, many of us are probably already familiar with mail-order millinery supply vendors like Hats By Leko and Judith M and CA Millinery, but if not, those three are good to check out for a range of supplies.

Also mentioned for hatbodies--particularly for good prices on straws (though he carries velours as well)--was World Hat Company, based in Florida. World Hat is the US importer for all panama hatbodies (or so they said at the Guild meeting) and the supplier for all other mail-order vendors in the US. He also does batch discounts and they don't all need to be the same color, so if you need a dozen straw hatbodies, say, for a class or a particular show, try World Hat.

Taking over a lot of Manny's merchandise (such as hatbodies, braids, hatboxes, sizing, etc.) will be Manhatco, which is owned by a man named Raymond Agard. I spoke with him by phone recently--he is in the process of moving shop, with a retail location opening at 124 W 30th street, 212-764-2218. If you do any shopping trips to NYC in the course of your season or academic year, you can pick stuff up, and if mail order is your only option, it's worth giving him a call, or emailing him at < manhatco at >. I know he has a website in the works, so presumably that will more easily facilitate mail order sales at some point.

I also made mention of Tinsel Trading as a resource for vintage flowers and trims, but since i've profiled them recently in here i won't repeat myself.

Hope this is of some consolation to those feeling the loss of Manny's as a millinery supply resource!
labricoleuse: (Default)
Again with the ongoing discussion in the last-lecture vein, today's topic is trade union membership in costuming careers.

One question that comes up over and over for costume professionals is, Should I join the union? As with everything, there is no across-the-board answer, but there's information to consider and weigh. It's been my experience that many, many people have little or no information about union options in general. Most people don't even know the name of their local union, how to contact them, or what it would entail to join.

Let's go over what union options there are for professional costumers. This post is going to apply to costumers in North America. I know there are equivalent unions in other nations, and if you are one of my readers overseas, i'd love to hear your take on unions in your own country in the comments!

What union applies to me?

The main union you should know about in terms of serving North American production specialists is IATSE. That acronym is short for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada... )
labricoleuse: (hats!)
This is another part of my ongoing series of posts in which i attempt to answer the Hard Questions: What do i wish my professors had told me when i got out of school? What advice would i go back and give myself, if i could, and what knowledge do i want to impart that i haven't already?

All of these posts pertain to costume production work in a professional context--some of the info will apply to regional theatre work, some will apply to university production, some will apply to working in commercial for-profit shops, some will apply to film and television production, and some to union work (or non-union shops running on a union model). Everything i say won't be applicable to every job, of course, and some of it may contradict what some employers' expectations and requirements are. Consider this riffage to be taken with salt-grains.

Today i'm talking about the benefits of record-keeping to the costume production specialist. For the sake of continuity, i'll phrase it as a bold-faced distillation of a piece of advice:

Keep accurate written records of your work and processes... )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
I said yesterday that the main subject i wanted to address next was apprenticeships versus sole-artisanships, so here we go with that. This is another part of my ongoing series of posts in which i attempt to answer the Hard Questions: What do i wish my professors had told me when i got out of school? What advice would i go back and give myself, if i could, and what knowledge do i want to impart that i haven't already?

Everyone remembers from like, 3rd grade social studies class, the idea of the tradesman training model, back when you do that unit on Medieval Guilds and stuff, yes? How, used to be, young folks would learn a trade by first apprenticing to a master of the trade, where they'd do whatever was asked--grunt work, brute labor, cleaning the shop, inventory, finishing work, etc.--all the while learning the trade in a hands-on scenario. And of course, then after the apprenticeship, they'd become a journeyman, where they traveled around from town to town, picking up extra work with masters or on their own if there was no resident master of the trade. And, finally they'd settle down somewhere, join a guild, and be a master wheelwright or stonemason or vintner or whatever their trade was.

I believe that concept is a good lens through which to view a costuming career, in a sense, in that whenever you are working under another costume professional, your role is like an apprenticeship. Read more... )
labricoleuse: (opening night gala)
So earlier today i was blibbering about how our 3rd-years are graduating, how they're my first class of students who are going out into the job market having taken craftwork classes with me, and generally getting all overwrought with questions like, What do i wish my professors had told me when i got out of school? What advice would i go back and give myself, if i could, and what knowledge do i want to impart that i haven't already?

I've started writing a big manifesto-ey sort of thing with exactly that slant. I'm writing it with the understanding that I don't know everything about everything in my field, that i'm only 15 years into my career and that my career is an ever-evolving creature pertaining ultimately only to myself and my own job-satisfaction. In those 15 years though, i've worked for world-class opera and ballet, regional theatre at all levels from tiny to internationally-known, for film and television production, theme park costuming, touring shows, university productions, you name it. As such, I do think i'm allowed some meta-discussion indulgence, especially now as i send some grad students out into the rest of their lives.

Take what i've got to say in the context and spirit that it's meant: the best of intentions, and without hubris--my experience and opinions are not universal, and in some things i fully acknowledge that i might be, in the vernacular, completely full of BS. (I'll offset my professionalism with my wine-drinking Opening Night icon. Classy!) So, without further ado, the first of several such posts to come...

Advice for Aspiring Professional Costumers, Part One: Jobs and Compensation


Shakespeare got to get paid, son

Let me start with a bold declaration, but by no means a unique one. In fact, it's trotting out a warhorse, and that is that the First Rule of Professional Costuming is, Never Work for Free... )
labricoleuse: (dye vat)
This post started as a response to a comment made by [ profile] sageincave, who asked:

Hi! I am an amateur costumer, and I was wondering how you learned to custom-dye. I found you via a (not very helpful) google search.

Dyeing is such a huge, complex topic--it's part artistry, part chemistry, part color theory, and if you ask me, part luck! My comment got so long that i figured i'd make it into a post instead.

I got my start in college, where i took courses in dyeing and other fabric surface design. You might try contacting local universities and adult education centers and see if any of them offer any dyeing courses or, if you are in school, see if you could do one as an elective or similar. The courses i took were split between the costume classes offered by the theatre department and fiber arts classes through the art department; if you have a local college with a textiles department, they will probably have them as well. Some of the courses i took were graduate-level courses, and the one i teach presently is as well, so don't look only at undergraduate offerings; i know we'll sometimes allow undergraduates or community professionals to audit our grad courses, so you may be able to arrange something without, you know, actually going to grad school. (Unless you want to, in which case, that's a-whole-nother post!) :) You could also keep an eye out for traveling dye professionals who conduct workshops around the country (such as Carol Soderlund) and plan a trip around taking a workshop.

Or, if you are wanting to go the route of trial and error, exploration and self-teaching, i can recommend a couple books to start with.

The textbook i use in my class is Fabric Painting and Dyeing for the Theatre by Deborah M. Dryden. Its most recent edition is from 1993, so some of the specific brand names of dyes and fabric paints mentioned aren't up-to-date (for example, Deka has gone out of business so you can't get their products anymore), but it's a handy basic text that approaches dyeing and other fabric treatments from a costumer's perspective. There are a lot of other specific books out there that go into detail about various dyeing techniques (like silk painting, or batik, or shibori) but Dryden's is a good overview that covers everything from what equipment you need to what types of dyes to use to how you can use dyes to get different visual effects.

I also recommend getting a basic color theory textbook as well--for most people color-blending theory is not intuitive, and a good reference on the subject is particularly helpful in troubleshooting color-match dyeing jobs. The first time i taught my course, i used Betty Edwards' Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors, which i will probably use again. I've been considering Feisner's Color Studies, but it's too in-depth for my needs as a class text--it's a great reference though. There's a TON of good color theory books out there--i'd just swing by the library and wander the stacks in the color theory section til you find one that appeals to you.

And, the other text i require my students to buy (which i highly recommend for anyone getting into costuming on any level) is Costumes and Chemistry by Sylvia Moss. I make my dyeing students buy it for the first section of the book, in which Moss surveys hundreds of brands and types of chemical products costumers use--not just dyes, but also adhesives, paints, solvents, etc.--and provides analyses of their effectiveness in various applications and what safety precautions to take when working with them. Her book allows you to look up easily whether, say, you need a dust mask or a respirator, latex or butyl gloves, what special materials to use to clean up a spilled product, etc.

I don't know if you are approaching costuming from a design perspective as well, but just in case you are, i'll mention a couple of other books i have and love (not so much related to dyeing, but color from a historical and design-related perspective. Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette is a fascinating study of the origins of different pigments, trends in color in various historical societies, and the cultural significance of the range of the spectrum.

Another cool book, less academic and more of a reference volume, is Living Colors: The Definitive Guide to Color Palettes Through the Ages, by Margaret Walch and Augustine Hope, which covers historical color palettes--what colors were fashionable or significant to various cultures throughout history. It's a weirdly constructed book (a double spiral binding in a hardcover box-like exterior), so you fold some of the leaves out to the left and some out to the right, making it hard to read if you are laying on a divan or something--you have to really flip through it flat on a table or desk.

I hope this gives you some leads on where to start with learning about dyeing. Have fun and be safe!

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