Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Adventures in Costuming: Craft Day – Felting

Hi everyone – I have to apologize for not posting this yesterday – I have been out of town and it has been kind of crazy.  What I’d like to talk about, though, is a sort of continuing-education vibe for all of us who work in the costume department.  I realize that the following post may be a bit controversial, but you can let me know how you feel about it by posting a comment!

As many of you may know, knowledge of sewing and construction is sadly not required for membership in 705.  There are many costumers who do not know how to thread a sewing machine, much less use a needle and thread to make repairs.  There is no, I repeat, NO union requirement of these skills to hold the job of set costumer, key costumer, or costume supervisor.  The union rules were designed to promote the hiring of a cutter/fitter, or tailor, on every show.  Why would a costumer ever need to sew if there is a tailor on set every day?  That’s the logic behind it.

Furthermore, there is no union requirement that costume designers and assistants in 892 need to know how to sew.  The people that are designing garments are not required to know how to construct them.  In what universe does that make sense?  It is totally absurd, but it is the reality of our work structure.  It’s like saying that an illiterate person can write a book.  An illiterate person may have stories to tell, but s/he can’t write them down without knowing how to read and write.  A costume designer needs to know how to sew, end of story.  I can’t be the only one who thinks this is totally farkakte.  I’m not saying that you need to be a couture-level seamstress to design, but gat dam! You should know how to install a zipper, draft a basic pattern, and how to design a way in and out of a garment, at minimum.

I think it should be a beet-red-faced shame on 705 and 892 as institutions to not strongly suggest (because I am not sure that they can legally mandate) sewing, construction and repair education to all members.  How on earth can you design costumes if you have no effing clue how they are constructed?!?!  How does that work?!  It is illogical, isn’t it?  If any 705 or 892 execs are reading this, please get in touch with me and I will conduct a seminar on basic sewing and repair skills, for free, in a four-hour workshop.  No name tags, no embarrassment.  Sewing, construction and repair are not optional skills for a costumer!  They are necessary, compulsory skills.  I never want to meet another costumer who doesn’t know how to sew!  I especially never want to meet another costumer who refuses to learn how to sew!  It’s insulting to the art form!  OMG, I am hyperventilating.

And for the record, let me state that there are many MORE members of 705 and 892 who do sew, and beautifully, than there are who don’t know how to sew.  I can’t even venture a guess as to what percentage is sewing-illiterate, but it is significant enough for me to raise this as an issue we need to address.  It is embarrassing!!  Come on, people, let’s represent our craft – we can do better than this!!

Okay, so back to the reason I am posting this in the first place: craft day.  Any opportunity to learn a new skill is an opportunity that you should seize.  In this case, I have a friend whose mother is a textile artist of great skill and productivity.  This woman weaves textiles, weaves baskets, knits, quilts, felts, dyes, spins yarn, sews, you name it.  At a dinner party, I talked her into hosting craft day so I could learn from her.  In exchange, I would custom-draft some patterns for her petite frame.  Everybody wins.

So, the craft of the day was FELTING.  Felting can be achieved in three basic ways:  1) Knit felting: knit something (usually using wool), boil it (or wash it on hot in the machine) and throw it in the dryer.  It will shrink up to a nice, tight, thick texture (this is technically called “fulling”, but most people, knitters included, will refer to it as felting);  2) Wet felting: using fleece, arrange into shapes, and massage to meld the fibers; 3) Dry felting (needle felting, needle-punch felting): using needles, or a sewing-machine-type-contraption with a cluster of barbed needles, mash the fleece fibers together to form the felt.

Needle-punch felting machine

Needle-punch felting machine

Working with a textile arts maestro is great.  This particular one, we’ll call her JoAnne, has a stash of like, I dunno, maybe a million pounds of fleece in her garage, just waiting to be felted.  To be honest, she has fleece for spinning into yarn, and then she has fleece that is not up to snuff for spinning, and that is the felting fleece we used.

I wanted to make an eyeglass case (thinking – small object, faster), but I ended up with something the size of a clutch purse.  Every art and craft has its learning curve.  The basic steps were like this:

1) Cut a pattern out of plastic in the shape you’d like your object. Place it on a layer of bubble wrap.

2) Lay out fleece in layers on top of the plastic, one layer in a horizontal direction, the next layer in a vertical direction. The piece will be constructed inside out, so the first layer is actually the “outside” of the piece.

3) Cut out some mesh and some bubble wrap to fit the project.

4) Cover the three layers of fleece with the mesh, pour hot water over it, and press it down so it gets soaked.

5) Flip the piece over, and repeat the process on the other side.  The layers are then separated in the middle by plastic – basically you are making a pillow of felt, and then you cut a slit in the top, extracting the plastic piece, giving you a “pocket”.

6) The exciting part: put bubble wrap over the soaked layers, add some hot water and soap, and massage the piece.  So, you are massaging the bubble wrap, causing the fleece underneath it to felt together.

7) When there’s a nice “skin” on the felt, it’s time to wring it out.  Roll it up in a towel and press down hard until you can hear the plastic crackling inside the felted object.

8) I swear that is the number 8 with a close-parentheses.  NOT a smiley.  Cut a slit in the opening of your project – for a purse, it might be along the wide upper edge; for an eyeglass case, it might be on the short edge.  Remove the plastic.

9) Check the piece for holes or weaknesses in the felt.  A good way to do this is to hold the piece up to the light, and see if you can see through it.  Patch the holes by needle-felting additional fleece into the weak area.

10) Turn the piece right side out and allow to dry.  Apply zipper, purse handles, etc., as needed.

Do not allow your friends to wear the inside-out purse on their head as a hat, even if it is cute and you use the photo as the blog article header.  Furthermore, if you are allergic to cats, do not allow the cat to sit on your felting project, as its fur will be felted in to the rest of the fibers.

You might think, “When, as a costumer/costume designer, will I ever need to know how to felt?”  Well, kids, you might need to make some very cute bear costumes, or you might be working on a film dealing with nomadic tribes of central Asia (where they use this technique for their clothing), or you might want your NYC hipster girl character on your TV show to have a cute, one-of-a-kind purse.  You might, at some point, need to make repairs on garments and objects like this.  Felting is a skill, like crochet, knitting, and embroidery, which you can keep in your arsenal.  Additionally, it’s really fun and a great way to spend an afternoon.

My next adventure in textile arts with maestro JoAnne will be weaving.  I look forward to this immensely, and will bring you my knowledge, and the pictures, when I am done.

So, bottom line – I urge you never to get complacent in your skills.  There is always something new to learn.  Costumers, Costume Designers, we need to branch out in other creative disciplines to enrich our own skills.  Never waste an opportunity to learn something new.  You never know when that skill might come in handy.

Now about that sewing seminar…

— KMB

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