labricoleuse: (design)
I've said it before and i'll say it again. One of the things i really love about the teaching component of a Teaching Artist job is, the cycle of my classes forces me to revisit specific topics on a regular basis, remind myself what i know about them and do more research into both historical methods and new technologies. It's not that i didn't love my previous jobs of being a non-teaching artist, but in those jobs my opportunities for doing research and development were attached to the requirements of the theatres and designers for which i worked.

The class i teach this semester is called Decorative Arts, which is to say that it encompasses all the crafts artisanship topics which aren't covered by Millinery/Wigs, Dyeing/Surface Design, or Masks/Armor. So, for example, right now my students are well into the first project, gloves. I'll have images of their work to share next week when they present, but i'm a step ahead and am focusing on the next project.

In previous years, i've taught a jewelry unit. It focused on jewelry production and rigging for stage and we covered topics like soldering, types of frequently-used stageworthy hardware like split rings or magnetic clasps, and media like polymer clay and silicone molds/resin casting. I've never really been satisfied with the fairly narrow scope of that project/unit though, and this year i've decided to switch it out for a new project focus, which i'm calling Small Hand Props for the Crafts Artisan.

Since Decorative Arts is the class in which we address parasol production (which IME often falls to the craftsperson because the parasols usually match the dresses and are designed by the costume designer rather than the scenic designer), I thought, why not do a unit on the OTHER things that are technically props, but which costume production artists are often asked to create for similar reasons? Namely, reticules and other period purses, chatelaines and other functional-but-worn jewelry items, and fans.

Fans! What fun! As someone who carries a fan in her purse all summer, you could say i'm a fan. Hur.

Anyhow, I've made quite a few fans to match gowns, and even written a blog post on the topic with a ton of useful links. Today's post is similar, but involves the services of the excellent digital fabric printer Spoonflower.

When thinking about this project and what sorts of options my students might wish to consider, i figured, clearly you can take a fabulous fine fabric and make a fan with it, but the more i researched period fan designs and read about historical fan production and the incredible popularity of fan painting as an art, the more i thought, I have to do a sample fan to show them which incorporates that element.

I found all kinds of wonderful images of elaborate fan leaf designs (even some by famous artists like Gaugin and Degas), but i decided upon an image from 1885, painted by Jean Beraud, depicting a crowded city street cluttered with bowler-hatted men sheltering bustle-dressed ladies with large umbrellas from a rain-goddess storming upon them. I found a great image of it in The Fan: Fashion and Femininity Unfolded by Valerie Steele, which is a wonderful resource book for such things.

I scanned the Beraud fan painting at a high resolution and then fiddled with it in Photoshop until i got it to be the proper size and scale for the fan frame. The original is very painterly and precious in its brush-strokes, so i tossed a couple of filters on it as well to sharpen some lines and contrast and "age" the image a bit to make it look better from a distance when mounted on a fan frame. Then I uploaded it to Spoonflower and ordered it centered on a fat quarter of silk crepe de chine. Five days later, I had my beautifully-printed silk Beraud fan leaf! Thanks, Spoonflower!

But, rewind. Another thing i wanted to address in my sample project was the sturdiness and operation of the fan monture (that's the proper term for the frame structure of a fan).

When you're making a decorative fan, or even a delicate fan for a "regular person," the action of the mechanism is not always the primary concern. If a fan is going to hang on a wall, or if someone wants to carry it around at their wedding, it may be the case that the look of the monture is more important than that it withstand violent snaps open and shut.

Actors are a whole different ballgame. If you give an actress a fan, it will become an essential part of her creation of character--she will open it violently to get someone's attention, snap it shut in frustration, even smack someone with the closed fan. I've worked on two productions of The Mikado where fan choreography was employed for an entire chorus, two dozen actors snapping and popping and cracking their fans open and shut on cue over and over and over. You HAVE to work with a monture that can go the distance.

In my experience, the best fans to cannibalize montures from for "ornate looking" designs for stage purposes are these inexpensive plastic-stave fans which you can usually find for around $5 apiece. The sticks are resilient and the hinges are strong enough not to drop apart with dramatic use, but not so stiff you can't firmly snap them open and shut with the flick of a wrist. The leaves (a "leaf" is the term for the fabric portion of the fan) are typically easily peeled free from the frame intact and can be used as a pattern for your replacement fabric. They come in a range of colors and while the gold detailing looks cheesy up close, it actually looks great onstage. If you plan to use the fan in a close-range situation (strolling performers or a house where the audience is very close to the action), you can tone down the metallic ornamentation with a rub-off treatment using some FEV or enamel paint for plastic.

The rest of this is best illustrated in a series of photographs. Read more... )
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!)
Yesterday, in part one of this two-part post, I discussed the process of making a custom hat for the horror hostess “Penny Dreadful,” up to the point where the brim was prepared.

The next step was to make the crown, a fairly straightforward conical shape. Unfortunately, at this point in the process I injured my right wrist--nothing serious, but I needed to rest it and immobilize it, and definitely could not continue hand sewing. Read more... )
labricoleuse: (Default)
Occasionally, I am contacted through this blog (or sometimes as a result of trade journal publications or presentations at professional conferences) about doing contract millinery for various independent clients. I have done these kinds of jobs for regional theaters and dance companies, performance artists, burlesque starlets, television and film, and private clients. It's not a regular sort of thing--I would guess I do may be three or four contracts a year in this vein, typically in summer when I have the free time.

The typical duration of such a contract from initial inquiry to completed product is about two or three months. It can be quicker for things on a short deadline (summer theater companies), or longer depending on a number of factors. I mention that because I think it can be useful to know how long such things take. I get a certain amount of queries, often from potential private clients whose benchmark for purchasing comes from online shopping, order it Friday and it arrives Monday, in which people are surprised that a custom product needs a huge amount of lead time, or requires a rush fee.

I don't take these jobs, because I don't have time or energy to work for clients who do not understand what they are asking of me, and who are unwilling to pay for what the work is worth. This is a concession I see frequently made by costumers just getting started in freelance work at this level--because of their willingness and desire to do the work, they take jobs in which they will ultimately wind up being underpaid, overworked and frustrated. Hence this digression, which actually has nothing to do with the project I'm writing about, since this client had no such unreasonable expectations and was actually a dream client!

The project I'm going to begin writing about today has been in the works for several months, and this client clearly understood from the get-go but nature of such a commission in terms of time, for which I am grateful. I have really enjoyed this entire project, from its unusual challenges in terms of millinery structure and the performance needs of the finished product, to the excellent communication with the clients. Because there were some very interesting and unusual needs with respect to this hat, it's a perfect one to write up in this blog.

Some months back, I was contacted by the folks at Shilling Shockers: could I exactly replicate the witch's hat worn by their horror hostess "Penny Dreadful"? Replicate in size and style and cover fabric (black velvet), but at the same time structurally improve it? I was definitely interested in the project.

ETA: She has a blog full of upcoming appearances and fun fan art at [ profile] pennydreadful13!

The original hat was a mass-produced Halloween costume style hat, with an infrastructure of headliner foam. Headliner foam is the stuff covering the roof of your car inside the cab; it's a urethane foam about 1/8 of an inch thick bonded to a nylon knit fabric layer. The foam breaks down over time, which you can observe in old cars, how the roof lining begins to bag out and feel gritty and granular inside. This was happening to the inside of Ms. Dreadful's well-worn hat. In addition, the pointy crown was quite floppy and needed to be stuffed to stand up. Could I make the new hat with some sort of strong interior structure which would not disintegrate like the foam, and which would help the crown stand up better?


First order of the project, was for the folks at Shilling Shockers to ship me the hat to be copied. I measured the hat's dimensions and took an exact pattern from it. I studied its construction (fairly straightforward, mass-produced machine stitched production techniques), made notes about areas of potential structural improvement, and took a deposit towards the work. Then I shipped it back so they might continue to use it in filming and public appearances while I was making its replacement.

Our agreement was, I would source all materials and trimmings, and fold the cost thereof into the price of the hat. I mention that because sometimes a client wishes to provide her or his own fabric and/or trim, but because this hat is such an iconic design and fabric, it was easier for me to just locate some black velvet locally. The original hat was covered in a polyester black velvet, which is a great example of how, for certain applications, a synthetic fiber is the superior choice. This hat was still a dark black color, despite having been worn for years in harsh conditions such as exposure to bright light. Black dyes on natural fibers such as silk or cotton would not have remained so colorfast for so long under those circumstances. Because of the processing of color on synthetic fiber, dark shades such as black will be much more lightfast. For this reason, I sought out and purchased a brand-new piece of black polyester velvet.

Initially, I began thinking of this hat as a buckram structure reinforced with wire. The more I learned about the Shilling Shockers production, though, the less appropriate buckram seemed to be. For example, the actress who portrays Ms. Dreadful obviously performs in filmed segments for the show, but she also has a fairly extensive public appearance schedule, promoting the show or serving as a celebrity guest in a range of different venues--schlock horror fan conventions, parties and nightclub events tied to relevant themes such as Halloween, promo events with a spooky connection like haunted house attractions and so forth.

I realized that the likelihood is high that this hat will, perhaps several times in its life, need to appear under UV light. Regular buckram (and millinery wire, and ice wool, and French elastic) is white, and will most definitely fluoresce, even through a thick black velvet, under UV light. For a moment, I entertained the possibility of using black buckram (and black wire, black ice wool, and black French elastic), but nixed that idea upon further analysis. All buckram softens and reshapes with the application of heat and moisture, so this hat, which will be worn under the bright lights of the film studio, and potentially outdoors in hot sun or adverse weather at a public appearance, cannot be made of buckram, white or black. It would not retain its stability, and black buckram “bleeds" its black color when wet. No good!

So, what to do?

I believe my solution for this hat is the best for the client's needs... Read more... )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
I finally have all the images for a post i've been itching to write for weeks: aborigine masks for Shipwrecked!

And, even though we begin teching the show tomorrow night, today is a holiday that we've all got off, i'm puttering around the house and have a spare moment to write it up. So without further ado, here's an overview of the process.

In the play, the main character Louis de Rougemont at one point meets an initially-hostile tribe of aborigines. Because all the actors play many roles, they needed to be able to "become" aborigines immediately by taking up some simple prop or costume cue and creating the rest of the character through physicality. We settled on a theatrical version of actual aborigine masks.

lots of photographs of how we made them )
labricoleuse: (top hats!)
We're in full swing with production on The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the largest show our theatre has ever produced. If you've been reading [ profile] labricoleuse for a while, you know that it's a huge deal around here--we've gotten a big NEA grant for all the work we're doing above and beyond the show itself under the auspices of the Dickens Initiative via partnerships with our regional libraries, book clubs, businesses, and so forth.

I've been restricting most of my "NickNick-related" blogging about it to our official production blog, Nicholas Nickleby: Page to Stage, which is aggregated on LJ as [ profile] nicknickleby, but those posts have been more for a general audience. This one marks the beginning of a two-part series strictly for y'all here, as it's a lot more technical in its focus.

One of the hats i'm making for the show is a fairly unusual bonnet form, for a character called "Rich Lady," a demanding customer in Madame Mantalini's Millinery salon.

click for photos and more text )
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: (shakespearean alan cumming)
Wow, a whole week has gone by in which i have not gone to a museum to write about or seen some random performance to discuss. (I did go to the American Folk Art Museum, which i decided not to write up because, beyond a scrimshaw corset busk that nearly made me cry [1], it didn't have anything i could argue as even obliquely topical. It was awesome though, i highly recommend going to it if you enjoy folk and outsider art.)

I'm still at the Public through at least Tuesday, hanging around in case there are notes during preview (since the show isn't officially finished until either Opening Night, or whatever point during previews the director tells us it's frozen) and helping with breakdown, packout, and restock.

TheatreMania has an interview with actor Andre Braugher (who plays "Claudius"), accompanied by a press photo depicting some of what i've been working on. You can see--not very clearly--the large medals on his jacket and the order hanging around the queen's neck. Every member of the royal family has around four of those large medals, and many of the royal court characters have at least two or three. I think at the last count my colleague and i made over 60 pieces for this show, of which around 12 wound up not being used. It took us basically a week and half, two people working full time on the jewelry alone, then the rest of the time has been maintenance, adjustments, alterations (i.e., additional or different closures and attachment findings, etc).

I'd thought about writing a post about the position of shopper--i frequently hear folks express a desire to be a professional shopper, and thought i might run up a job description in here. The Public had two full-time shoppers on Hamlet, as well as 3-4 other people who shopped part-time in addition to other duties. I've worked as a shopper but i don't like it much; some folks love it, but most everyone who gets into it is surprised that it is not what they imagined it would be. Maybe i will get it together in the next couple days. For now though, i just wanted to share that press photo and final info on the project, as well as a few more of my own photos.

more pix of NYC architecture, perhaps only of interest to family and friends )

[1] I am a huge fan of folk art in general, but specifically sailor art--knotwork, miniature carving, scrimshaw, etc. The museum had on display a corset busk carved by a sailor for his wife that had some images of hearts and birds and two figures holding hands, and a couple of banners that said, i believe, "Far From Home, Close to Your Heart." I thought about the sailor who made it, spending all this time out on some hellhole of a whaling ship, carving this piece for his wife, and then after he gave it to her, her literally wearing it as close to her heart as a garment would get, maybe taking it out at night before bed to look at the little pictures he carved and think of him. See? Totally emotionally affecting.
labricoleuse: (history)
Remember a while back when i conducted the poll on crossover items, sometimes the responsibility of props and sometimes costumes? I'm doing some silk fans for our upcoming production of Amadeus and i've just finished my prototype.

Images and text on how i did it. )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
The King was a challenging design in our recent production of The Little Prince. I had to work closely with the draper, M. Spencer Henderson, to pull off the extremely stylized effect of the costume.

pictures )

And here are a couple links to fellow bloggers I've come across recently, of related interest:

It's just come to my attention that Emil Kang, the Executive Director for the Arts here at UNC-Chapel Hill maintains a presence on He writes travel-specific blogs for particular trips he goes on, scouting out artists and performers the world over. Check out his most recent one, detailing a trip to Russia, which is full of excellent photos and cool commentary on things he saw and people he met.

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson has been cast as "Lincoln" in our upcoming production of Top Dog/Underdog; he keeps a blog on his acting career and his handcrafting (he knits!). I look forward to meeting him! If you know the play, you know spoilerish comment )
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
Probably the most complex crafts project on The Little Prince was the Fox macropuppet.

The project was largely the province of my assistant, third-year MFA candidate Emily Vandervoort Mason. Emily's degree focus is craftswork, so i asked her what, of the range of projects on the show, did she want to be responsible for (with my oversight and input, of course). I wanted her to have the opportunity for a great portfolio inclusion. Bravely, she picked the Fox.

pix and method )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
Recall if you will back in October when i posted the first installment about the development and creation of the masks for our next mainstage show, The Little Prince. Since we open on Saturday and there are costume renderings of some of the characters up on the official site, i think it's ok for me to post a follow-up!

When last i posted, i had left it at a cliffhanger with me beginning the sculpting process of the mask matrices. Read more... )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
We've begun production on The Little Prince, perhaps the most crafts-heavy show of the season. It features tons of masks, hats, and other crazy stuff (as you would expect, given that you have characters playing flowers and animals).

I've already begun the mask-making process because i'd like for the actors to have their masks in rehearsal from Day One--that way, every bit of the character development is informed by the mask and we avoid the sort of creative dissonance that can come from introducing a mask after the actor has begun to create a physicality for the character.

Check out the first part of the process! )
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
I've mentioned in previous posts that this semester's graduate crafts course is on masks and armor. As we roll up into Fall Break, they're finishing up the section on masks, which culminates in a project i call "Complex Masks." The mask they chose for this project had to have some engineering issue involved in its construction. For example, one student chose to make a dragon whose eyes light up, another made a leather commedia mask using traditional Italian leather maskmaking techniques (for which she made all the traditional tools as well, like a hammer made from a bull's horn), another made a Medusa mask that had actual recoiling snakes, etc etc etc.

Two of the students gave me permission to photograph and share images of their projects here.

Click for pix! )
labricoleuse: (dye vat)
I thought i was done talking about Romeo and Juliet. After all, the show closes this weekend, and i've moved on to working on our next two shows, Crimes of the Heart and The Little Prince. However! Amanda Phillips, the draper who made the Lady Capulet gown and overdress that i ombre-dyed, got some lovely photographs of the effect, which I mentioned back in the overview post but now i can show you the results!

three photographs )
labricoleuse: (opening night gala)
In addition to the silk yardage painting discussed in a post a few days ago, there were quite a few craftwork projects in the current production of Romeo and Juliet, running through October 14th at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC.

click here for photos and explanations )
labricoleuse: (silk painting)
Tonight is the first preview performance of our first mainstage show, Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. I'm super excited about the design of this show, and can't wait for the pictures to come back from photo call so i can do a more comprehensive overview post on all the fun craftwork (like this one on last season's closer The Illusion).

However, i've gotten permission to post some process shots on how my team generated the custom-painted china silk yardage used on one of the costumes.

process images behind the cut )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
In the spring, i oversaw an independent study course in theatrical footwear topics. My student, Grier Coleman, recently turned in all of her research and projects, and i thought i'd share with the readership her final project, which was to make a pair of "blue-footed booby feet."

This image was one of the primary research images Grier used, a booby doing the famous booby-dance. (This project is excellent on many levels, not the least of which is the chance to use phrases like "booby-dance" in a completely innocent context.)

We talked about how, were one making a complete booby costume, you'd have to take into account the shape of the bird and the gait of a performer--often big walkaround costumes like this that portray short-legged animals with a wide gait will have a "saddle" built into them so that the actor walks around in a sort of sumo crouch. A blue-footed booby costume would probably involve just such a saddle, and thus the width of the foot-splay could get a bit wider than it would if it were being worn by a person walking with a normal human gait.

Read more... )

Grier starts this week as an intern in the costume department and Juilliard in NYC. I'll miss her in classes and working with me on mainstage shows, but i can't wait to see where her career goes from here!
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
Today my maskmaking class completed their first project, which was to make polymer clay maquettes.

A maquette is a small clay model created as a guide for a larger sculpture. Since costume craft artisans interpret mask designs which are rendered in 2D by a costume designer, sketching out your ideas in clay by making maquettes can be an invaluable step in the design and construction process of mask creation. In this way, you can have a conversational exchange with the designer about size and scale of the mask in 3D and make changes on a small scale rather than a large one. You can repaint the maquette a number of different ways, too.

I had my class make small maquettes from polymer clay as their first project, to get a feel for sculpting before moving to a larger scale, and to compare how it goes sculpting a "sketch" vs the larger full-size masks they will make next. We used polymer clay because it stays malleable until you fire it, and then it's hard and paintable. (Some brand names are Sculpey and Fimo.)

images )
labricoleuse: (opening night gala)
I know, i have slacked on the second half of the Bryner millinery text. It's on my laptop at home and i am now at work, my contract having commenced today, so rest assured that it is coming, next time i haul my laptop somewheres that has wireless.

However, i was inspired to get cracking on this ongoing project i've had in the works--recovering a vintage bakelite-handled parasol with a ten-panel canopy--by the forecast that we are going to hit 105 in the heat index here in piedmont North Carolina.

whoo, pictures! )

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