labricoleuse: (frippery)
I recently came into possession of a fairly sizable collection of hat blocks from an estate sale. The blocks have an interesting story behind them, as well as being interesting in and of themselves.

The original description of the lot mentioned some blocks from Empire Hat Block Company, a blockmaker based in NYC in the early part of the 20th century. Being not only a maker of hats but also a scholar of hatmaking history, I have come across references to Empire in many sources and seen their surviving blocks in many a hatmaking workshop. I don't have exact dates for them, but I have seen their advertisements in old hatters' publications as early as 1914 and as late as 1967.

They started out just after the turn of the century in a space up on W 111th, but by the 20s they operated from a workshop facility on E 22nd large enough to take up two street numbers (312-314). The business seems to have been a partnership between two blockmakers, Joseph Buxbaum and Samuel Gussoff, though how many block-carvers they might have employed in their heyday, i don't know. They manufactured loads of styles for both men's and ladies' hats.

So, anyhow, when i read about an estate sale lot of hat blocks which included styles made by Empire, i knew that if nothing else, those blocks would probably be worth having. I had no clear idea how many blocks were in the lot, or really what they all looked like. There were some photos so i could tell there were brims and crowns, and I knew they ranged from 22 to 22 1/2 in size, and that was about what i knew when i bought them.

The box that came was enormous, so big it took two of us to carry it from the reception area to my car. I couldn't wait, i unpacked it right in the back of my car, and this is what i found inside:
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labricoleuse: (vintage hair)
Theatrical dyers, take note! Sure, you probably are familiar with Pantone color guides, but did you know that they recently released a 110-color skin tone guide? For years I have been working with a home-made skin tone guide, composed of a fat stack of paint sample cards from the hardware store. It's worked fine, but it looks a bit slapdash when you bust it out in a fitting to take a skinton color for a dye job.

So, i was thrilled when our shop manager presented me with the new Pantone Skin Tone Guide, and i'm looking forward to having it for teaching the color match unit in my spring dye class. It's not cheap at $89, but it's not exorbitant and I like how it works much better than the paint-chip one I've been using.

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labricoleuse: (Default)
One of my former graduate students, Randy Handley, recently purchased an antique Allie-Maillard conformateur. I had the good fortune to be able to inspect and photograph it while recently visiting him, and an interesting historical twist presented itself.

I've been researching conformateurs for quite a while, and particularly since i acquired my own. I've gotten pretty good at taxonomizing differences between models and dating their age and original likely retail value based on things like whether they have a brass nameplate or a mother of pearl nameplate, mostly wooden keys or mostly brass keys or even mother-of-pearl-inlaid keys. Randy's conformateur had one element to it that is new to me though. Let's take a look...

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labricoleuse: (me)
I may have said it before: the vacuform is one of the main reasons i became a member at TechShop RDU.

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labricoleuse: (CAD)
Some time ago, i had the incredible good fortune to obtain that most coveted of custom hatter's tools, a conformateur. Mine is handmade of ebony and brass with mother-of-pearl carved fittings; it's a very early model, the Allie Aine invented in France in 1844 (mine has a date stamp of 1846). This conformateur is in amazing condition, with only minimal repairs required.

If you are unfamiliar with exactly what a conformateur is, does, and looks like, check out this great post by Tricia Roush of House of Nines Design about her recent conformateur acquisition, an Argentinian model by a maker named Vega.

But this post is not about the conformateur itself, rather it's about a recent minor repair which definitely makes me feel like i'm living in the future.

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labricoleuse: (CAD)
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for theatrical milliners in terms of creating a wide array of historical shapes is, well, literally the blocks! If you want to do a blocked felt or straw hat, you must have something on which to block the material, so you're limited by the blocks you own or can readily make or rig.

In the past i've posted about a range of options for addressing this issue, from conscripting everyday objects to serve as makeshift blocks, to hand-carving a block in stacked foam, to experiments with the rare blockmaking medium esparterie.

All of these methods are problematic, though. Blocking on a rigid object like a clay pot or ceramic vase is difficult because you can't pin into the base and there's no grooves for ropes to hold the felt in place. Hand-carving a foam block is extremely time-consuming, messy, and sculpturally challenging, not to mention that it means being in a particulate respirator for as long as it takes. And esparterie, well, if you find any for sale, you have lucked out at any price, and if--like me--you own a precious few sheets, you don't just use them up willy-nilly.

Because i'm always on the hunt for new approaches to traditional craftwork, I've begun a journey of experimentation with a new (or new to me, at least) way of creating block shapes using 3D CAD/CAM technology. CAD stands for Computer-Aided Design, and CAM stands for Computer-Aided Machining, so when you see that abbreviation of CAD/CAM, that really just means using computers to help you design and make something cool!

It first occurred to me that CAD/CAM hatblock production was possible back when i took some CAD classes through the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University--we were manipulating 2D pattern shapes for apparel, and 3D renderings of designs, and i found myself thinking about the possibilities for millinery in these technologies, the programs and the robots used to produce the patterns.

I'd begun talking about these possibilities with one of my professors there, but we needed funding for research and both of us had 203948 other responsibilities and besides the machines and software we would need to use were also in use by 34985 students in legitimate classes, and then the economy imploded and a lot of the kind of grants we would have wanted disappeared... My 3D CAD hat blocks went back into the realm of the someday, when i could get my hands on the right technology to begin to work on it.

Then, along came TechShop RDU. The short version is, they're kind of like a think-tank super-tech workshop-studio and inventors' social club, that you buy a membership to the way you do a gym. You can then have access to an enormous quantity of equipment and tools and software (provided you go through the proper Safety and Basic Use (SBU) class for each thing), and also plug into an incredibly creative and skilled group of fellow members. They've got everything from sets of standard screwdrivers and tape measures up to welding stations, woodworking powertools, screenprinting stations, a blacksmith forge, and a full computer lab with 3D software like Autodesk Inventor. They even have a sewing shop with industrial machines and computerized embroidery capabilities. I've posted about it before, and this December i finally had the chance (meaning, the time) to activate my membership and begin taking some classes specific to this hatblocking project.

One of the incredible benefits of membership at a TechShop is that you can take up to 12 hours of Autodesk Inventor software classes completely for free, no extra charge. (Many of the SBU classes have nominal tuition charges, presumably to pay the instructors and cover the materials used.) So, the first thing i did with my membership was to take 9 hours worth of those classes--enough to grasp the basics of 3D part drafting in Inventor. I have some long-term plans to do a series of block designs by this means, probably over the first 6 months of 2012.

But, you may be wondering, how do you go from a 3D design for a hat block, to the block itself?

That's where the ShopBot comes in. Basically, a ShopBot is like a robot assistant in the wood shop--if you can tell it what you want cut and carved, it'll do it. TechShop offers an 8-hour class which combines some CAD/CAM software instruction and guided drafting help with the standard ShopBot SBU certification.

ShopBot uses a kind of software called PartWorks, though you can import files from other drafting programs like Inventor, AutoCAD, Inkscape, Illustrator, etc. If you have any kind of familiarity with vector-based drawing programs, you can probably pick up PartWorks quickly. It was clear to me when i began fiddling with it, i could be prototyping very simple block shapes by the end of the night.

I decided to start as basic as basic can be: band blocks and maybe a brim or two. I went down to the scrap pile in the wood shop and found a likely-looking piece of 1.5"-thick medium-density fiberboard (MDF)--since this was to be my very first try at such a thing, i wasn't about to try using a more traditional blockmaker's wood like poplar, that i'd be heartbroken (and broke) if i messed up. Looking at the MDF in the scrap pile, i figured it was a great thickness for a band block if my attempt worked, and could be shellacked and covered in foil to stand up to the steam of a test blocking run. I don't know, longterm, whether MDF makes much sense for non-prototype blocks, since it's basically like some super dense cardboard; it would probably warp and lose its structural integrity with the steam and pressure involved in heavy hatblock use.

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labricoleuse: (Default)
Well, my grand plans for writing up more of the sessions I attended at US ITT certainly fell by the wayside, in favor of some exciting real-life developments! I have all the notes and flyers, and I will eventually get to writing up my thoughts on the conference, but instead, I got involved in some exciting research and development courtesy of the folks at Tech Shop RDU.

If you're not familiar with the idea of a Tech Shop, they are basically like a gym for people who like to make things. You buy a membership for a month, or six months, or a year or more, and the membership allows you access to their facility. The facility is equipped with all manner of industrial equipment, the like of which you probably can't afford to have in your basement workshop–welding stations, CDC routers, shop bots, plasma cutters, screenprinting equipment, laser cutters, industrial sewing machines, rapid prototype machines, and a computer lab full of all kinds of design software. In order to use a piece of equipment, you have to take a training class first; once you are on record as having taken the training, you may book time on the equipment and use it for whatever project you need it for.

I initially became interested in getting involved with our local Tech Shop because I knew they had a computerized embroidery machine, something we do not have access to at work, but something I can imagine we might need–not often, not often enough to invest in one of our own, but worth having access to. Then, I learned a bit more about some of their other equipment which I could envision being similarly useful. We can screen print on a small scale for a small run on site in my dye facility, but knowing I could head over there and use their dedicated screenprinting rig for a job that required dozens of multiples, that's pretty excellent. And, they have a vacuum forming machine, and we'v got armor class coming up in the spring. I could envision millinery projects in which the laser cutter/etcher could be used to create ornaments, and the shop bot to create hat blocks.

Over the past three weeks I have taken several of their training classes, in the course of which, I've met dozens of creative people in my community whose interests and artisanship pursuits mesh well with my own. The brainstorming alone of crossover project potential has been so inspiring, that I will be buying a membership in August and chronicling some of the projects that result in here as well.

From its beginnings in Menlo Park, California, in 2006, Tech Shop is turning into a franchise. There are locations springing up all over the country–three in California, the one here in Raleigh, Detroit, Portland, Brooklyn. All either operational or opening soon. Pretty exciting! You can see some pictures of the equipment at the Menlo Park location on this blog post, though it seems they have a few more things and much more space than the one here in Raleigh.

Before I can begin working on any of my Tech Shop project concepts though, I'll be spending a month in Scotland, Edinburgh to be exact. I'll be doing quite a bit of academic work and research, but that which is topical to this blog, I'll hopefully have time to post about. I'll be visiting some costume collections, some Scottish milliners and costume makers and university programs similar to ours at UNC-Chapel Hill. I will be taking lots of pictures, you can count on that!
labricoleuse: (top hats!)
If you've followed this blog for a while, the name DeCou Studios should ring a bell. Operated by master woodworker and mechanical engineer Mark DeCou, the studio produces a range of hatters tools that you pretty much can't get anywhere else, unless you buy old ones off eBay or specialty used-millinery-tool sites like Homegroan.

I started small, with a runner-down, puller-down, and foot tolliker.

Next up, i saved the money for a custom rounding jack, for cutting uniform brim widths.

And now, i'm apparently the first hatmaker in the country to have commissioned a flange stand. This is excellent news for the hatmaking community, because it means that now, he's figured out the method for manufacture and the pricing, and any of y'all that needs one can buy a brand-new one, too!

If you're asking, "What's a flange stand?", it's possible that you're a novice milliner or casual reader, but it's possible that you're someone who's been waiting for one of these to make your life easier for years and just never known it.

Because a theatrical craftsperson works across a range of disciplines (not just hatmaking but also maskmaking, cordwaining, dyeing, etc), I often block maybe a dozen hats a year, give or take. I worked without a flange stand for ages, just making-do by stacking up books or knocking together something out of scrap wood that only needed to last for a week. I just needed something to support a brim block (or brim flange [1]) long enough to block one or two hats.

Then three years ago, one of my students (Randy Handley of [ profile] handyhatter) got the millinery fever, began bidding on hat blocks and tools like mad, and won an auction on eBay for an old flange stand. We blocked a couple hats on it and i was sold. Even being an antique, it was sturdier than making-do methods, and the oval shape allowed me to get purchase all the way around the brim without worrying about barking my knuckles on some knocked-together box corner. The flange stand was on my list. Then, Randy went and finished his MFA, dangit, and he and his hat blocks were on their way out the door of my studio! Time to stop making-do, and time to invest in one of these.

historical reference image, and comparison photos of old and new flange stands )

I didn't go ahead and block the brim on that cherry red derby, because i'm recovering from a flare-up of RSI in my wrist, and i'm not willing (or probably able) to use my hands with the force required to block the felt until i've fully recovered. I'm also on vacation for a month (as in traveling, starting in a couple days), so i won't actually be blocking hats on this stand until August. One of my students is using it this week to block a Panama fedora brim, though, so she'll have some feedback for me before then, i'm sure.

Having blocked brims on the antique stand of Randy's, i can tell just by handling the DeCou Studio stand that it's dramatically superior, in terms of its sturdiness and ability to withstand the pressure of brim blocking by hand. I could explain the particulars, but i'm not a woodworker so i'd just be paraphrasing Mark, so instead i'll quote him on his item description at his Etsy site:

1. In my design, all wood grain is aligned in the same direction. The major problem I found with the old Flange Stands, is that they were assembled with pieces of wood going in opposing grain directions. Ok, so you make hats, I work in wood, and so you ask, "Why does it matter what direction the grain is aligned?" Wood moves cross-ways significantly more than it moves length-wise. Wood swells and shrinks with humidity and the seasons, so a good woodworker is constantly concerned about every direction that wood moves, and designs accordingly. This grain alignment design means that I used more wood (more scrap), but the end result is the best solution I can figure out that will give better longevity to the flange stand. So, I eliminated places where end grain would be glued to side grain, and avoided all cross grain glueing. Make sense?

2. Modern waterproof PVA wood glue was used. The type of wood glue that is used is critical to how the items will hold together. I used the waterproof formula to hold up to the steam and damp hat felt that is present in a Hat Making process.

3. I used heavy gauge 4" long shank screws to reinforce each glue line. Each screw head is covered up with a glued in dowel end.

4. The last special design detail is the overall look of the Flange Stand. I have found that Hat Makers prefer to use tools that both work well, and have the "look" of the old vintage tools. Hat Makers tell me that they take pride in the way their shop looks with nicely built tools, specifically ones that look like vintage tools. So, no plastic, no plywood, no square boxes, and my design is a flange stand that has the style of an old one.

5. Sizing. Let's face it, if you are making hats with vintage equipment, you already know that people generally have bigger heads than they did one hundred years ago. So, my Flange Stand is designed to hold a size 8 hat. If you need a bigger hat than that, let me know and I will build a bigger flange stand for you.

6. Vintage Pin Sizing. My flange Stand uses 9.75" top pin spacing, and will fit nearly every vintage flange. If your flange doesn't fit this size, let me know and I will make a flange stand that fits your special sizing needs.

7. Stackable Height: For most applications, a 5.25" tall Flange Stand will work just fine, and leaves a nice height for ironing out the brim on top of your flange. However, if you need a taller one, or a shorter one, just let me know and I will eagerly build it for you. To assist those that make tall Top Hats, my Flange Stand design incorporates the ability to stack them. So, there are heavy duty brass pins on the top, and steel reinforced pin holes on the bottom. This allows you to stack them. Typically sizing for the height of the stackable components are 2", 4", and 5.25". If you need something other than that, let me know.

I think his woodgrain description makes perfect sense for theatrical milliners, since we know about the effects of grain orientation in a fabric context--how cutting on the straight of grain or crossgrain or bias allows the fabric to behave differently when sewn, or allows the buckram to mold differently--so it follows that woodgrain would have a similar effect on the finished product.

So, if you've been blocking on an antique stand or makeshift stacks of wood or whatever, rejoice, because now you can buy a brand new one, much improved in design and sturdiness than any old one you might luck into online. I'll probably revisit this topic in a year's time, once i've blocked a season's worth of hats on it... For now though, thanks Mark, for making available yet another "lost" tool of our trade to modern-day milliners and hatters!

[1] Theatrical milliners call these brim blocks. Hatters call them brim flanges. They're two terms for the same thing: wooden doughnuts that you block hat brims on.
labricoleuse: (dye vat)
One of the blogs i read religiously is Kathleen Fasanella's Fashion Incubator; she covers all kinds of fascinating topics from a sustainable fashion patternmaking perspective, from waste reduction to reviews of brands of cutting shears to "pattern puzzle" quizzes. It was from one of her posts that i learned about the 2010 SPESA Expo, held this past week in Atlanta, GA.

SPESA stands for Sewn Product Equipment and Suppliers of the Americas, and their conferences showcase everything related to the production of sewn products, from machinery and equipment to material goods to software systems to supply chain information. Anyone can pre-register to attend the Expo for free, provided you do so in advance online. Free registration plus downtime at work plus location in a neighboring state...I had to go check it out!

The Expo was held in the Georgia World Congress Center, an enormous convention center in downtown Atlanta. Despite the vast venue and huge number of attendees, i found the entire area around the center completely navigable and very easy to find affordable parking in. (Color me impressed.) Inside the Center, there were literally miles of exhibitors on the exposition floor. Glad i wore my walking shoes! I systematically went down every aisle, browsing every booth, and picking up literature from any that seemed potentially relevant to professional theatrical costume production, and from these, i'm passing the info on to y'all as my readership.

Much of the expo featured exhibitors that were fascinating in a larger sense but not applicable to costume production--the software and equipment priced in tens of thousands of dollars for companies who produce runs of 10,000 of a single garment style, for example, or the manufacturers of bulletproof body armor for military and police. Attending the conference was kind of like going to an antique mall with a shopping list--everything's worth looking at and probably cool, but only a few dozen are actually something you might pick up. Photography was prohibited on the expo floor, so i have no images of what it looked like or anything that i saw.

Because there was such a vast amount of stuff to look at and learn about, i'm going to have to break up my conference reporting into a series of posts covering specific topics. This first one is a focus on tools and equipment. There was so much to see in this area that i felt like a kid in a candy store! Almost all of it was applicable to costuming, too, since whether you are making one of a kind of 230948203948 of a style, you have to sew on an industrial machine. There were also vendors of shears and rotary cutters and various machine tables and measuring devices and you name it. Every vendor was offering conference discounts, too, so if i'd been in the market for new industrial machines, the Expo would have been a great opportunity to try out a bunch of different brands, get demos and price quotes from representatives of the companies, and walk away with a new machine at a reduced cost. Every major brand was represented--Juki, Consew, Bernina, SunStar, Durkopp, and dozens more.

So without further ado, here's what i collected in terms of literature on standout products that I'd love to see some day in my own shop.


Wolff had a small booth with all of their scissors and shears styles out for display, and were showing off how they cut through various materials and media. I know costumers are big Gingher advocates, but their high-leverage shears and bent-handle and ball-tip styles looked like tools i want to add to my arsenal of things-that-cut.

Storage Equipment

Vidir Machine Inc. had a cool display booth showing their fabric roll carousels, tall motorized storage towers on which heavy rolls can be stored, and are operated by a single operator pushing a button. The rolls rotate around on a track to be easily accessible. Currently in our shop we have a wall rack constructed from steel rods that holds six large rolls of staples like different weights of muslin, butcher paper, dotty paper, and so forth. It's always a PITA to access the rolls that are located at the top and bottom of the rack, and one of these would not only solve that problem but also would quadruple the number of rolls we could have accessible in that location. Unfortunately, no one was there to tell me a price quote, but it's clear that you can request one on their website. Something to put on the dream list for the future, perhaps.

Specialized Machines and Sewing Equipment

One of the main things i was looking for but was somewhat disappointed at the difficulty in finding, was a single-needle chain stitch hat-stitching machine. These machines have either a post bed or a long narrow arm and an extreme arch to the machine itself, so you can get inside a hat and stitch in a grosgrain, or sculpturally build a spiral-braid hat right on the machine with ease. You can find these secondhand (Singer made all the ones i've ever seen, but i'm sure other brands made them as well), but i was hoping to find someone vending modern ones. Here is a photo of an antique one, for reference:

picture )

The closest i came, i think, was Collier Equipment Parts who had a big display of several machines they carried by the Chinese brand SunStar, include the entire production line of cap-stitching machines, one of which was a post bed machine with a high arch billed as a sweatband-installer. Perfect! Except they didn't have one on the floor to look at in person, and there didn't seem to be anybody there who could tell me much about it beyond how it functioned in a cap production line. They took my name and info and are hopefully going to send me a price quote and spec sheet on the machine, but i sure wish someone had been on-hand that was able to give me a ballpark price or answer questions about it outside of the pitchbook for industrial cap assembly lines.

Southeast Sewing had an enormous Consew booth, showing all their models of pretty much everything, and they also had a single needle post bed machine that would work for hat stitching. It was advertised as intended for construction of structured bras, corsetry, and shoe vamps, but it's not much of a stretch between the fiddly shapes of those to the geometry of millinery structures. I couldn't find the salesman who'd helped me earlier to get a quote on it, but i suspect the machine falls in the $2000 range based on the others they were selling.

Which brings me to their Consew brand industrial patcher machine. My god, y'all, i wish i could have taken a picture of myself kissing it. A patcher is a crafts artisan's savior when it comes to theatrical footwear projects--I've posted about mine, an antique Singer that is literally 100 years old and still going. My shoe-focus grad student, Samantha Coles, also owns an ancient one. In fact, every shop i've worked in that had a patcher, it was one of these old black enamel antique jobs. The crafts shop at the Utah Shakespearean Festival has an old patcher like these, which only two of us in the shop could ever really get to work; the crafts supervisor at the time had a challenge trying to locate a vendor for a new patcher and the machine they ended up with, made by the brand Artisan, has a shorter, thicker arm and no oscillating shuttle. (I haven't been back to that shop since so it is possible they replaced or exchanged it for something more effective in the interim.)

These Southeast Sewing folks had a brand new Consew patcher machine on display and gave me the whole pitch on what's new in the realm of patchers: 12" and 18" arm length options (the 18" being for knee-high boots), and the option for a large bobbin! If you have ever used one of the old patchers with the miniature bobbin sizes, you know how exciting that is, the potential to sew longer without changing bobbins. The mini-size bobbin allows for a narrower bed at the end of the arm, which enables you to get into smaller spaces, but boy, is it frustrating to run out of bobbin so fast.

The salesman who helped me quoted prices on these of $1900 for the 12" arm and $2200 for the 18" arm, with a $300 discount plus no shipping costs for orders placed at the conference. That's not official or guaranteed, me quoting that here, i'm just citing it so you have an idea of what they cost--so, if you want to add a patcher to your shop, that's the ballpark you want to budget for, and if you are located close enough that it makes sense to wait and buy at a future SPESA Expo, it's well worth it for the conference discount and the shipping savings.

Not so much an equipment vendor, per se, but another really impressive machine-related booth was a fully operational and staffed TSS (Toyota Sewing System) unit. This is a way of setting up a shop and cross-training your employees so that garments can be produced faster. Machines are arranged in a U shape and set up to do each task in assembly, so if you are making a pair of jeans in this system, there is a machine for each step in the process, with the right weight needles and threads for the given seam and denim thicknesses, free arm machine bed to go up a pant leg if it's the hemming station, and so forth.

Operators stand at their station, do their task and hand the garment off to the next person right beside them around the U, so the jeans are a pile of pieces at one end of the U and become a fully assembled garment when the come out the other end. All operators know how to use all machines and do all steps, too, so if someone is sick they can all swap out doing that missing person's step, and the whole thing is choreographed so that if one person has a time consuming station, other people cover two steps each so that person with the longer task doesn't get swamped and clog the assembly line.

The most interesting element of it, from a costume shop perspective, is the standing machine convention. In crafts shops, many times we have a stand-up set-up--rivet setters and grommet presses are stand-to-use equipment, and our millinery and shoe sewing machines are often on standing-use tables. I actually prefer sewing standing up after years of having my machines on that height of tables, and it adds to my efficiency since i just walk up and start using them instead of sitting and getting situated just for a quick few sewing steps. It was exciting to watch these TSS operators move through their sewing pod and bang out trousers in record time. Something to consider...

Well, that's it for this topic. I have a big pile of literature yet to cover on software systems and notions suppliers, but that'll have to wait for another day. Maybe tomorrow!
labricoleuse: (safety)
I'm about to head out from the conference for a day's worth of driving, but i'd like to share another photoset from the Stage Expo--the main convention floor where all the vendor booths are located, where the schools set up their info booths, and the location of some of the other curated and juried exhibits.

You can go to the convention on an Expo-only pass for a greatly reduced rate, if your main goals are to get swag, check out schools' displays, and see most of the exhibits. (An Expo-only pass won't get you into any of the sessions or panel discussions, or any of the catered parties.) In fact, i may write a post later next week about the costs of attending USITT, from the "big spender" version down to the shoestring version. Expo-only is one way to do a lot of networking without forking over the top-dollar pass money.

Some vendors and schools on the Expo floor! )

While i'm on the subject of schools, one really cool thing i learned from the folks at the Boston University booth is their new certificate program in Costume Crafts, whereby students with a bachelors degree can take specialized crafts coursework and do practical hands-on work with Boston area theatres like the Huntington as crafts assistants, and in two years' time earn a professional certification credential and get a whole mess of excellent production credits. This struck me as a brilliant way for folks interested in working as freelance crafts artisans to get valuable training and resume-building without the enormous time/money commitment of a graduate program, should they decide that a masters is not something they're interested in or ready for.

This post is by no means approaching a complete overview of the Expo, either--there were literally hundreds of booths on the Expo floor. These were just vendors and schools whose displays caught my camera's eye. I've also got plans for one more photo post, of the special exhibits "Masks of W. T. Benda," the Design Expo, and some of the other non-vendor/non-academic Expo selections, as well as some session writeups. Once i get out of here, that is, and back down Carolina way!

And, unrelated but excellent, please enjoy this wonderful article in the New York Times about the rise of textile arts among long-haul truckers, particularly knitting and quilting. Awesome!

ETA 4/5/10: edited the post to correct some company attributions/links. Thanks for the clarifications, y'all!
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: (top hats!)
Terms for men's late 19th and 20th century hats can be confusing.

I mean, everybody knows what a top hat looks like, with its tall cylindrical crown and proportionally-narrower brim, and most people can identify the dome-crown/curly-brim shape of a bowler or derby. But all those pinched and divoted and dented hats...folks don't know what to call them! By default, it seems like the average person calls anything with a creased or pinched or divoted crown and a narrow brim a "fedora," and if it has a wide brim, a "cowboy hat." There's nothing really wrong with that, i guess, but i'm big on vocabulary and using specific rather than general terms; why just call it a cowboy hat, when you could more accurately describe it and differentiate whether it's a Rancher or a Cattleman? :)

I've recently reblocked a couple of fedoras for All My Sons, the show we've got going up Saturday, and thought, "I should write about this." Then, i bought a beautiful brand-new pinch-crown block on eBay from the vendor millineryezone, and that clinched it, hence this post.

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (CAD)
Looking over the past few posts, i seem to be on a real kick of "crazycraft" interspersed with "computers and costuming"! After all those symposium creature posts, here's another computer-related one.

Remember that i spent part of my summer taking a CAD class at the NCSU College of Textiles? I discussed a bit about some of the topics covered in a previous post on vector-based drawing software like Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW.

In this post, I have a few screencaps of some of the other programs that we used in the class, including the pattern- and marker-making software produced by Gerber Technology, which i'd like to share and discuss!

Click for computer screencaps and photos of the cutter robot! )
labricoleuse: (CAD)
Wow, two weeks since i last updated! I think that's a record for the amount of time this blog has lain fallow.

Part of that's due to the fact that one of my current freelance jobs is not something i'm cleared to write about at all for industry confidentiality reasons. (Wow, doesn't that sound mysterious? It's not something on the level of, "I could tell you, but then i'd have to kill you," i swear! It's just not something i can post about online in public fora.)

But, part of it also is due to a course i'm taking right now, a CAD course aimed at fashion and textiles industry folk over at NC State's Textiles college. NC State's College of Textiles is one of the best in the world--they teach it all, from design to manufacture, and their facilities have a range of state-of-the-art equipment and brand-new technology. This summer, they're offering their introductory CAD for Apparel class, which you normally have to take on-site during a regular semester. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take it, but it's like "CAD on steroids" or something--we're doing 14 weeks of learning in only 5 weeks, so to say that it takes up a lot of my time would be an understatment. However, what i'm learning is invaluable and excellent, and today, i'd like to talk about it a bit!

When many folks talk about "CAD," they actually mean the program AutoCAD, which is heavily used in many industries for a variety of applications (for example, it's pretty much replaced hand-drafting of plans and blueprints in architecture). I've posted in the past about a few options for commercial CAD software aimed at garment-makers, in fact.

The term CAD though is an overall acronym which stands for Computer-Aided Design, and in this course, we're addressing a whole range of programs applicable to different steps in the design process, from compilation of initial research, to rendering of garment designs, to patterning the garments themselves, to establishing efficient cutting layouts. The info is of course all presented in a fashion-industry context, but I'm looking at it all with an eye to how we could utilize elements of their technology for our own purposes in costume production.

I've always suspected that Adobe Illustrator would be of great use to costume designers, particularly in a case where you need to crank out a huge number of design, oh, say, for [ profile] nicknickleby? Sure enough, from the work i've done recently learning to use it for apparel applications, my suspicions are confirmed. If i were a designer, i'd definitely start building a library of digital croquis files and garment shapes, because the sketch-up of initial renderings would be such a breeze, and would create images that could be emailed to directors and design teams and shop staffs in a trice, without worrying about whether a scanner would pick up all the nuances of some jacked-up pencil scribbles or whatev.

We've been focusing on using Illustrator to create apparel flats, which are basically those little images on the backs of sewing patterns which detail the front and back of the garment, showing all the seamlines and major design details.

I started out doing the simple garment styles in a series of textbook projects, like these flats of a tank and long-sleeved knit top:

click for images )

In the course of converting these files to small enough JPGs to make sense on a webpage, some of the clarity of line detail was lost, but i think you can still get a good idea of what they are. I initially had converted them to PDFs, which retained all the detail and would be great to email to a design team, in that they could be printed out if need be and distributed to drapers and would be exactly the clarity desired.

That textbook i mentioned is Fashion Computing: Design Techniques and CAD, by Sandra Burke, from

It's a really good introductory text for learning about garment rendering techniques and covers a range of different programs--not only Illustrator, but also the same techniques in CorelDRAW and Freehand, as well as a bunch of info on using other programs for garment design and construction processes. It walks you through methods for creating a whole range of garment illustrations for women, men, and children, and gives you tips for how to create different style and fabrication looks (like how to render drapey folds, or insert a pattern or print).

So! If you are an utter beginner and want to start using a vector-based drawing program like Illustrator, CorelDRAW, or Freehand to help with rendering, it's a great book to pick up, and the price point is low for a textbook (about $30), which, given that purchasing the program itself will set you back a couple hundred, is a boon.

You know, I was really struck in the course of this section of the class by the fact that, in the costume design and production process, we sometimes don't even have the apparel-flat step, going instead from the stylized rendering directly into the mockup or "sample garment." Maybe a draper will talk about seamlines and construction details in an initial conversation with a designer about renderings, or ask for a more detailed sketch of an element of a garment. Maybe a designer will provide those details in her/his initial rendering even, or send some research pictures noting seamline placements. But, in general, it's a missing step in our process, and how much miscommunication and waste of time and muslin could be avoided were we to begin to incorporate it?

Whether it be that a designer or design assistant sits down with the stylized renderings and bangs out apparel flats in Illustrator before turning in the designs to the shop, or that a draper evaluates a stack of assigned renderings and generates a few quick flats for the purposes of style-line and seam-placement discussion BEFORE going into mockup fabric, it seems like this technology could be of such help to our industry. Because, seriously, once you grasp the way the program works and how to draw flats with it, you can just crank them out in a few minutes! Okay, more than a few for a more complex garment, sure, but still, much faster than sketching by hand, scanning, and tweaking the sketch in Photoshop, and definitely much faster than draping or drafting a mockup and stitching it up in muslin.

I think it's one of those cases like safety regulations--chalk it up to ignorance on behalf of the average theatre practitioner, not willful negligence. The fashion industry and professional costume production have largely diverged, and because of our lower budgets, much smaller production quantities, and lack of access to new fashion technology trends, we're at an innovational disadvantage. But you know, that's one reason i really wanted to take this course: more of us need to cross over there, pick and choose from what they've developed and try to pull some of it into our industry, too.

We're moving into pattern development software so i plan to post about that experience soon, too, and we'll also be covering textile print design and digital portfolio creation, so that's on the horizon as well. And, i do have a millinery post or two brewing, hopefully coming in the next coupla weeks, about this exciting trio of hats i'm making on a bid job for the Williamstown Theatre Festival!
labricoleuse: (top hats!)
One useful tool for milliners--particularly those who block hats--is called a block spinner or head spinner. A spinner is basically a sturdy base with a peg which supports a dolly head or hat block while a milliner works, lifting it up and stabilizing it while allowing her/him to spin the block or dolly head around the peg for 360-degree access.

You can buy new block spinners ranging in design and price--the cheapest most utilitarian are little more than a dowel seated perpendicular in a piece of planking, whereas woodworking artisans like Mark DeCou do beautiful hand-turned, stained, carved bases with wooden or brass pegs. (You can see some images of DeCou Studio block spinners here.)

I just finished a batch of my own handmade spinners made from turned pine buns purchased at a woodworking shop. Pine buns are intended for use as feet for heavy furniture like bureaus and cabinets, and range in cost between $0.50-$5. You can get buns turned from other wood as well, like ash and poplar and walnut.

I stained each bun and covered the top with a leather pad, equipped it with a spinner post, and furnished it with a cork bottom.

Process shots... )
labricoleuse: (Default)
As a special treat, i spent my tax return on a custom professional rounding jack from woodworker/artisan De Cou Studios!

Want to see? Read more... )
labricoleuse: (top hats!)
I can't even begin to express how excited i am to have run across Mark DeCou, an artist and artisan woodworker who has recently begun producing functional reproductions of hard-to-find antique hat blocking tools.

DeCou has been working with some hatters in his community on the development of these tools, and taking his inspiration out of the 1919 text Scientific Hat Finishing and Renovating by Henry Ermatinger, which is a wonderful resource on blocking and finishing of men's hat styles.

check out the tools I received in today's post... )
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: (manga avatar)
There are a couple of companies I've recently ordered from that I'd like to mention in here--Micro-Mark and We've Labels.

Micro-Mark is known as "the small tool specialists," and they cater to industries like miniature and model builders, dollhouse carpenters, jewelrymakers, as well as film/tv/theatre artisan shops. They sell a huge range of tools that are small-scale--everything from miniature tabletop drill presses to needle-files. I recently got a hand bender from them for a very reasonable price ($65).

We've Labels is, i believe, a cottage industry that i stumbled across in a websearch. I had been looking for somewhere to do some basic woven labels for me to put into the hat collection i'm doing this year--i wanted something around an inch wide, basic old-fashioned script font, that said "La Bricoleuse." They got them to me in a prompt fashion for a good price.

Want to see? )
labricoleuse: (dye vat)
Today was the second day of the symposium; while we waited for our output from yesterday's classes to cure/dry/etc., we toured three companies and organizations in the Carolina piedmont whose work is of related interest to costume professionals.

The first stop of the day was a non-profit development and consultancy company called [TC]2. They do a huge range of research and development of technology for the apparel and textile industries. One of their ongoing projects is body-scanners and related software. They market it in a variety of areas (the ImageTwin website being one example, and the online resource archive Tech Exchange), and they are apparently taking a body-scanner to SIGGRAPH this year as well. They also have developed a lot of new products and equipment for the digital textile printing industry and are the folks who conducted the landmark SizeUSA study of anthropometric measurements across a range of USA demographics.

The second stop was at the offices of the non-profit advocacy and development group, Cotton Incorporated, a resource and research organization that furthers the development of the international cotton industry, and the third stop was the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University.

Photographs and more info... )

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