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The Stays of My Life

There are few classes I find as rewarding as Costume Construction I. So often this is the first time many students are putting need and thread to fabric and learning a skill set that is vanishing from the general population. Not all my students will become constructionists, and that is o, but most of them will learn basic skills that they can employ in their own homes and lives. The immediate applicability of what is taught in this course is satisfying. I am reminded of this today as I have come back from my fabric store outing with my class and a proud former student who informed me that she successfully changed out a zipper in one of her dresses.

Costume construction courses are far from standardized and can take many forms depending on the instructor(s) and institution they are being taught at. When discussing these classes I am always amazed when a fellow costumer comments on how Construction I is really just Home Ec for college. I understand the comment on one level: this is the first time students are dealing with this subject and realistic expectations should be kept. At the same time, I think the comment diminished what we can teach and the opportunities that our students might face in the semester.

Over the last four years and ten classes I have continued to tweak the curriculum of Costume Construction I to be doable but challenging to my undergraduate students and now my graduate students. I have kept what many of us would believe to be a stable of the construction course, the sewing sampler. At its current incarnation, the sewing sample shows off the most common hand stitches, seams, closures, and seam bindings, while still including techniques to test the more advance student. From this point on, the course is all about practical experience and problem solving through guided projects.

In the past, I have lead the class through the recommended projects such as pillow cases, pajama pants or boxers, tea towels, and draw string bags. Although each of the aforementioned projects can be used to help and instruction beginning students I have never found a class to elicit excitement over them. I am a firm believe that if the student is interested the course material and the course itself will be better served.

This semester’s class of six students offered me the opportunity of reworking the projects in a more controllable environment. I wanted to take a number of factors into consideration on these projects: what would stretch each student, how could these projects be used to build their portfolios, how do I make it applicable for both theatre and dance students, and how do I make it cost effective? In the end, I chose to use Simplicity Patterns 1139 and 4059 for the guided projects.

Project 1 will be all about a Victorian Corset (Simplicity Pattern 1139). I have worked with this corset/stay pattern in the past and like the fact that it is similar to a corset in “Corsets and Crinolines” by Norah Waugh, the seams have no hard curves, and the students will be learning about how to use bone casings and channel stitching. The students have been given access to the shop’s scrap fabric stores with the understanding that I have to approve the chosen fabric to ensure it is an appropriate fab

ric and not one of the pricier pieces we keep for trim or decorative work.

I meet up with my students this morning to purchases the canvas, pattern, and boning that they would need for the project. The average out of pocket cost for the class was $12.00-15.00. Two factors helped to keep the cost down 1) the $0.99 pattern sale and 2) the use of a plastic boning rather than steel boning. I am sure that the purest will say that only steal boning will do, but at this stage I find students are more relaxed working with a material that they feel they can make mistakes on rather than consuming an expensive item that they may not be able to afford.

Project 2 will be about the Men’s Doublet (Simplicity Pattern 4059). This garment still has fairly straight seems, but offers the challenge of setting in sleeves, different closures, and applying trim or fabric decoration if desired. Both projects consist of garments that we commonly use in theatre and allow students to gain a familiarity with them or at least that is what I am hoping for.

Although this is a construction course, there is still an element of design that each student has to face. Students will need to choose their fashion fabrics, trims and closures and with each choose they will develop the aesthetics of the garment. Beginning students are often hesitant to make these chooses and so often ask for guidance. In this case I have one hard and fast rule, I will instruct them on the proper fabric and materials, but the design choses are up to each of them to make and explore. The only way I influence them is in the fabric and trim choses for the teaching samples.

Here’s hoping this exploration goes well.

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