‘Tis the season! Costume season, that is. In the fabric stores, the waiting line at the cutting-table is backed up with moms and their kids, planning Halloween costumes. I love this….there are many great reasons to sew (rather than purchase) a costume. How else are you going to get “one-of-a-kind” like this lil’ winged dragon? (from a dozen years ago….my “baby” is 20 now!):
Why sew Halloween costumes?
- Creativity: what better time to go wild? Go visit a big-box store, or a Halloween pop-up shop, and you’ll see the same costumes over and over again. Sewing let’s you have something truly unique. Whether for yourself, your kids, or a client, that’s amazing. (The feathered cocktail dress that almost got Erin eliminated from Project Runway this week because it was “too costume-y”? How about YES as a costume!)
- Breaking out of your sewing comfort zone. Maybe it’s using a fabric you’ve never used or a sewing technique that’s been intriguing you to try. A Halloween costume could be a good time: it’s not an investment wardrobe piece, and it’s mostly going to be worn in the dark…so if your stitches are a bit wonky, no big deal!
- Bonding with your kids. Shopping with them for a costume is great, for sure, but taking the time to make a costume shows that you really care about their ideas and personality. Some of my fondest memories of my mom involve Halloween costumes she made for us: nothing was out of bounds. If we could dream it up, she’d make it.
I’ve sewn a dozen Halloween costumes for my daughter, plus plenty of theater costumes and anime-cosplay outfits…. she’s now a student in design college, fully capable of designing and creating her own costumes. Currently I sew costumes for customers, often long-distance…and I’ve learned quite a bit in the process. So here are some tips for sewing costumes, along with examples from a special costume I’ve just finished for Halloween 2016:
- Give yourself time. Some people work very well under pressure, for others the stress takes all of the fun out of the process. And this should be fun! So, know your limits, plan as far as possible in advance, and allow extra time for “glitches” (like not having power for 2 days this week while we had solar panels installed). When sewing for kids, give them a firm deadline for deciding who/what they want to be for Halloween. Like this weekend would be good.
- Be flexible (creatively). Get your ideas together but be realistic: the color, or fabric quality that you want may not be available this season. Color palettes in fabric-production change every year. I made an Eliza Schuyler Hamilton costume this year for a wonderful customer who sent me a photo of a teal/aqua gown. The photo is of a highly structured adult theater costume, and she wanted a similar gown but for a high-school student to wear for Halloween:
The closest fabric I could find seemed more aqua (although it changes in every light, from fluorescent to sunlight). She approved it right away! If I’d had to go back and keep searching, that would add to the time invested and still may not have resulted in finding anything different. So, just as when planning home-improvements or landscaping, you can avoid frustration by understanding that it’s a process (not an event) and there may be bumps in the road, and you may need to change direction.
- Think “Silhouette before Color before Fabric”. This is a lesson I learned in college merchandising class; it is true for all fashion design but even more-so for costuming. What it means is that if the silhouette is wrong, the right color and fabric won’t save the garment. In everyday fashion, silhouette tells you instantly whether a style looks on-trend or old-fashioned…even in black-and-white photos, even if you cannot feel the fabric. In costuming, silhouette explains who the character is. On-stage, the audience can’t touch the fabric….on Halloween at dusk, colors are diminished. So concentrate on silhouette, and if necessary, exaggerate it. This particular costume required extra nylon horsehair at the skirt-hem, and interfacing at the center-front bodice panel for structure. (That dragon costume for my daughter used 1/2″ home-dec foam to create the wings.)
- If possible, use a commercial pattern. No matter how much I love drafting patterns and draping, it’s just not cost-effective for costumes, or really anything you’ll be making just once (okay, a wedding dress is the exception!). The “Big Four” pattern companies have an astonishing number of costume designs, far more than when I was a kid. And if they don’t currently have what you want, check online for out-of-print patterns. I bought this pattern on eBay, and then only had to tweak the bodice:
- Take up-to-date measurements. Whether for yourself, your kids, or a client…don’t rely on old measurements (especially for kids….they grow fast!). The more closely-fitted the design, the more important accurate measurements are. For very fitted designs, a quick muslin is helpful…especially when sewing for a client long-distance. For this project, my client emailed me her daughter body measurements, and I made a simple muslin of just the bodice and mailed it out for fit approval, before cutting into the actual fabric.
- Measure the pattern. Costume patterns from the major pattern companies often have measurements all over the place. For whatever reason, kids’ paper patterns tend to have far too much length and ease. I’ve used toddler patterns that could fit a 6-year old. Especially if you are using a seriously costly fabric such as fake fur, consider buying the pattern and taking it home to re-check the fit, and the yardage required, before purchasing materials.
- Buy the appropriate-quality fabric. I’m all for a bargain, and never pass up an opportunity to shop for discounts, end-of-season markdowns, and fabric outlets selling end-of-production-run fabrics. But there’s a difference between low price, and low quality. Not only is low-quality fabric very frustrating to work with, it may end up costing you more in the long run. It may take more time to sew ….some fabrics “fight” with you, others unravel “when you look at them”( eg; JoAnn’s “Costume Satin”). And of course time = money. Sometimes cheap fabrics are too sheer/limp and require a lining/underlining, or a slip/underlayer. Your savings could go own the drain. Just like the saying “what is cheap becomes expensive.”
- I’m not saying that you should invest in the highest-quality fabrics out there, as you would for your everyday wardrobe….consider how much time is going into the sewing: in general, the more time sewing, the better quality the fabric should be. A quick cape with just hemming and a neckband can be done with inexpensive loosely-woven fabric, while more structured costumes need sturdier fabrics. Also, is the costume a classic that can be re-used? Or a quirky/trendy one-time fling? A high quality costume can be handed down, worn for dress-up play, donated to a school theater program, or resold online (I’ve sold most of my daughter’s Halloween costumes on eBay).
- For the Eliza costume, I used poly-taffeta from JoAnn’s private label “Casa” formal-wear line:
- Use sturdy construction methods (especially if the costume is for stage). If you would typically sew with a clean-finish lining, consider that for costumes an underlining might be more appropriate: theatrical costumes are generally made with front and back completed separately, then leaving the side-seams ’til last, for easier alterations. If you normally hand-stitch hems, for costumes a machine-stitch may be more sensible for hard use….like pounding the pavement for Trick-or-Treat.
- Although it’s tempting to “jump right in”, it saves time in the long run to plan your construction first, especially if you have tweaked a commercial pattern. Sit down with a cup of tea and write a sequence-of-stitching plan:
- Have fun with details. Unlike everyday-wear, costumes allow you to play with trims to your heart’s content. Stuff you can’t wear to the office, or to school…Halloween is the annual outlet for your fantasies!
Here is my client’s finished Eliza Schuyler Hamilton costume….she just received it, and although I have a week’s “cushion” for alterations, it fits!
Happy Halloween to all….do tell about your costume adventures!