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After a long stretch in various back stage roles, from costuming to directing with props and writing in between, I’m finally going to be on stage again, playing the role of Lady Sybil Ramkin in Scunthorpe Little Theatre Club’s upcoming production of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Fifth Elephant’ at the Plowright Theatre from Wednesday 2nd of October to Saturday 5th of October. Details and booking information can be found here.

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Lady Sybil is a swamp dragon breeder, all round dragon lover and the founder of the Sunshine Sanctuary for Sick Dragons, so when one of the scenes called for her to be sewing, it made sense to get my baby leaf tailed dragon out and underway again.  Last seen, I had finally managed to get his head and chest almost finished.

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Since then, I’ve been working on him through rehearsals. I finished the couching on his head and then all the stitches for his tail were laid over about two sessions…

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…with the couching taking another two. Just a few more stitches to put in before I can start on the leaves.

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I do love Bayeux stitch for the textured result and also the way it works up so quickly. However, that could be an issue as I only have his leaves left to do before the split stitch detailing. I’m a bit concerned that he may peak a little too early and be finished before we get into the theatre for show week!

My other bit of show stitching is adding bats to the pink blouse worn my Lady Margolotta, a vampire who is ‘”on the vagon” and has not bitten a neck for nearly four years. She is brightly dressed to reflect her more modern thinking, but the director, who is also making all the costumes, wanted there to be bats to reference her background.

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Lovely little bats but they all have to be individually cut out of felt and hand stitched on and it is taking forever – still got the sleeves to do yet!

 

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Last week I directed ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ for Scunthorpe Little Theatre Club – hence why I’ve been awol again.

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Everything was going swimmingly until two weeks from show week we discovered that we didn’t have First World War period evening dresses for ‘Bob’ and Lieutenant George in the ‘Major Star’ episode. Nothing in the Club stock and nothing available at the place we were hiring the uniforms from. It was too late to buy the dresses available on eBay as they were in China and so the only option was to make them. That job ended up on my plate.

I can sew. I can use a sewing machine and I made the tree costumes several years ago for one of our pantos, but that was under supervision from my mum, who is an experienced dressmaker. This was going to be flying solo with a deadline and with the memory of my one and only other excursion into making clothes hanging over my head.

My first needlework project at middle school was to make a blouse so my mum equipped me with a paper blouse pattern and some horrible yellow polyester. In the first lesson it obviously didn’t occur to my needlework teacher to tell a class of eleven-year olds that when you have a paper pattern from which you can make different versions of a garment, you only need the pieces for the style you plan to make. I did as I was told: I opened the packet, cut out all the tracing paper pieces, pinned them onto the fabric and cut every one out. I was then promptly held up to ridicule in front of the whole class. I never did finish it and that was the end of my sewing for a long while.

So I bought a pattern, hunted through the Club’s fabric stock for something that would be suitable for evening dresses and ten days before show week, I made a start on the first frock. It was…interesting. And challenging. And thank goodness a) I’m not working at the moment because I ended up pulling some seriously long days and b) I was able to ring my mum and get her advice when I couldn’t make head or tail of the instructions or the pictures. It was not the straightforward pattern I had hoped for as a complete novice.

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My 90 year old Frister and Rossmann coped superbly with taffeta, lace, satin and organza. Multiple layers? No problem? Different fabrics? Easy. I love that machine sooooo much!

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There was a lot of hand stitching and finishing as well – the Friday before our Sunday Get-In I stitched for thirteen hours with breaks for cooking and eating meals, but I am pretty pleased with the results. Firstly, Bob’s dress.

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There wasn’t enough of the floral print for a whole dress but the taffeta matched the turquoise flowers perfectly and she was literally on stage in it for less than three minutes.

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George’s dress had to be made for a very tall and skinny bloke, which was another interesting challenge, but thanks to the purple lace I found in a box while looking for something else, I think this one worked a treat.

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My middle one loves it and had to be dissuaded from taking it back to university with her!

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I’m proud of the back.

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Well out of my comfort zone, but I think I may have finally laid the ghost of that bloody awful yellow blouse. And the show was a triumph too.

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Our upcoming show at Scunthorpe Little Theatre Club is an adaptation of Pinocchio in September and I said I would help with the costumes. My first task was to turn a floppy black felt hat which was styled like a classic musketeer’s hat into one for a carabinieri. The director provided me with a picture from the internet and I made a start.

First I had to unstitch all the ostrich feather plumes and steam the hat to get it back to a neutral shape. It had a nasty hole near the crown but I managed to mend that by needle-felting some black fleece into and around the hole. Then I could stitch both the back and the front of the brim to the crown and make start on the rosette.

The rosette on the front was created from lengths of red, white and blue grosgrain ribbon which I stitched onto individual card circles and then layered together.

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Yes, I know the colour of the inner ring is wrong – in my defence, it wasn’t a close up shot and it looked like blue to me! And having finished it before I realised my mistake, I was not taking something which is only a stage costume for a minor character to bits, so it will have to stay (and annoy me for not having checked my facts before I started…).

The flaming grenade in the middle is made from a picture of one of the cap badges which I stuck onto card and then added layers of gesso to give the impression of something more 3D before finishing it off with silver sharpie. Behind it I used an oddment of silver braid which was a brilliant last minute find at the point where I thought I was going to have to layer several other ribbons and braids together and use the silver sharpie again to get something similar.

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I was able to cut up and lash together two of the original ostrich feathers to make the plume, which is nowhere near as fluffy as the real thing, but again, will be close enough on stage.

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The director was delighted and the guy who will be playing the role was even more pleased that it was a good fit!

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Not sure I’m cut out for making stage costumes. I think I’m too much of a stickler for nailing the sort of detail that you just don’t see on stage. I’m pleased enough with it though, and very pleased that I managed to do it all from stuff I already had!

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Sorry, everyone, but Panto just happened in this neck of the woods and this year I volunteered to costume it. (My middle one was Principal Boy and is the tallest one in the middle of the shot (between the princess and Puss In Boots) with the dodgy medieval hat and my little one is the kitten closest to the camera on the left)

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Even though I’m lucky enough to belong to a club with its own premises and huge stock of costumes, it was still quite an undertaking. Back in November, shortly after casting, I was creating a costume plot, liaising with the director to come to a shared vision of what these characters would look like on the stage. In this scene, the dame is cleaning, so I wanted to make a costume that reflected that. She has a duster bow on her mob cap, washing up sponge/scourer buttons and rosettes of j-cloths with pan scourers centres around her skirt.

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Then there was hunting out and finding/sourcing and making. Luckily I didn’t have too many costumes to physically make, but the 17  children in the cast had 46 separate costumes alone (variously villagers, fairies, kittens, ghosts and skeletons) and they all needed hunting out of stock and fitting.

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Since Christmas it has been crazily busy, and last week I sewed solidly for 4 days,  making accessories and altering a whole load of costumes including this massive and very heavy dame’s dress (which had to have the pink modesty panel stitched into the front as well as a large insert in the back)

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and a boiler suit for the dame’s Ghostbusters costume.

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Unfortunately this is the best of several very poor shots of it – a friend of mine made the most amazing ‘screen-accurate’ proton pack complete with ‘gun’ to wear on the back and with heavy duty elbow pads, the Ghostbusters logos (which are on the tops of the sleeves) on full view, and marabou trimmed heavy gloves in the belt, it looked amazing.

Last Sunday was the get in – two trips from our Guildroom to the theatre to transport all the costumes and three plus hours steaming them (an alternative to ironing). Then I spent all week backstage mending and being the dame’s dresser until the get out last night.

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Normal service will be resumed very soon. Surprisingly enough I’m not sick of a needle yet!

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I’ve been asked to make a tunic and hooded cowl for a friend who is just starting Live Action Role Play (LARP). The cowl will need a fastening and it occurred to me as I was clipping seams and struggling to turn things inside out, that instead of communing with my button box, I actually now have the skills to custom make a metal button!

After consultation with the friend and a bit of a mooch on the internet for outline images, we chose two leaf designs, one oak and one maple, and I scribed them onto a piece of annealed brass.

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Then I set to with the piercing saw. Cutting shapes so small (about an inch across) and so intricate was a real challenge, but much to my delight, I managed it with the loss of only one blade.

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Next, the fun bit: finding a suitable hammer in the garage and using it to texture the leaves.

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It hasn’t given as crisp a hammered look as I can achieve with the tools in the workshop, given that it was a domestic tool against the metal end of the workbench vice, but I actually like the rougher look just as much.

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Then I measured, marked and drilled the holes with one of my new drill bits which is supposed to be resistant to breakage, and actually managed all four holes with a still intact bit which has to be a first as well!

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Both buttons, start to finish in under an hour. All they need now is to sit in the barreller for an evening and they’ll be ready for the recipient to choose which one will be the finishing touch for the cowl.

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To break up the whiteness of the cap I used almost 3 metres of 1cm wide black satin ribbon to make shell edging.

The edging is simply made by using a long piece of thread and sewing a continuous running stitch in a zig zag from edge to edge of the ribbon along its length. Then you gently pull up the thread and it gathers the ribbon into a series of scalloped ‘shells’ as you can see in the photo.

You need about three times as much ribbon as the finished length.

It’s time consuming but very useful as the gathers mean it will ease round all sorts of shapes quite comfortably.

The finished length of shell edging was hand stitched around the line between the spotted voile and the lace and in order to make it easier to put on in a hurry (as I have a couple of quick changes from bonnet to house cap) I left two tails hanging down at the back.

Certainly a much better finishing touch for my costume than a mob cap.

 And here, semi-reluctantly modelled by my 13-yr old daughter.

She much prefers the waistcoat and black tails she wears as the head boy of Dr Strong’s Academy.

The show, “Young Copperfield“,  is going well in spite of the usual disappointing audiences but I will be pleased to see the back of Miss Murdstone on Saturday night – awful woman she is!!

 

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In the end the house cap took a lot less time than I’d anticipated. After searching the internet for images and ideas I settled on this one:

on the grounds that it looked like it was going to be quick to make and wouldn’t need any fitting.

I started with a rounded diamond pattern and cut two pieces of spotted voile from it.

These were machined together, seams clipped, turned right side out and the opening ladder stitched closed.

Next I took a very wide piece of lace and folded it along the middle in a one third: two thirds ratio so the top layer only partly covered the bottom layer.

The picture appears to have the lace gathered only at the points of the diamond so I used four pleats at each corner, rather than gathers, so it would lay flatter. It worked very well, easing the lace nicely around the shape.

Lappets next. These are the bits that hang down either side of the face. The picture shows what might be a pleat but I decided to cut mine simply from two pieces of the spotted voile.

These were sewn together, clipped, turned right side out and then ladder stitched closed before being sewn onto the cap on either side.

Beautifully modelled by my majolica jug!

I was delighted that it only took about 2 hours to get to this point, bearing in mind that it’s part of a stage costume and so isn’t as carefully finished or tightly researched as a reenactment item. However, at the moment it’s a bit white and lacy and needs something else.

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