The Costumer's Toolkit

Article by Andrea Gross

Costume Designer Andrea Gross is a well-known and highly regarded designer around the Twin Cities. A company member with Nimbus Theater, Andrea and I have worked together at the Jungle Theater. She is a sharp thinker and a frequent contributor to this newsletter; I always look forward to her essays. - Wu Chen Khoo

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Costume designers in the Twin Cities do a remarkable variety of work. We shop, we build, we rent, we alter; we create costumes for every kind of theatrical experience on every kind of budget. And over the years, we’ve collected techniques and tools we employ over and over for all kinds of effects. I asked a few costumers who work in all areas and types of theatre to share their favorites with me. The best answer by far: A HEALTHY SENSE OF HUMOR.

The design tricks and techniques that these great designers shared with me varied from the hands-on practical to the high-level philosophical, and I loved all of them.

In the larger philosophical sense, some good practice techniques: letting actors use shoes in rehearsal from fittings forward helps allows a character to be built literally from the feet up, and informs us of potential pitfalls from ill-fitting shoes, to shoes that won’t work on the set as designed. Treating first dress as opening night allows one to focus more completely on the notes the tech process generates. Keeping current on the nitty-gritty details in the show binder is at the core of sanity for some designers.

When it comes time to apply the design, the foundation of a look is exactly that: undergarments, undergarments, undergarments are indispensable for setting the period or the world of the play. A. Emily Heaney employs a technique (usually with skirts that hang from a yoke) where the inside of the pleat is a contrasting color: when standing still, the actor appears to be wearing a skirt of a single color; when the actor moves the surprise of contrasting color makes the garment and the character more dynamic. In my world, Barb Portinga and Rich Hamson are the masters of unconventional materials: the doily that becomes a crown, the kitchen gadget that becomes a hat, the sun-bleached velvet curtains from a thrift store that would be ruined to anyone else but become a purposefully streaked vest on stage. Kathy Kohl, who often works on expressionistic plays, loves to use markers and paint directly on clothes. I like to do distressing work with rasps and sandpaper, but also with spray paint as a poorman’s airbrush.


While the thing I really can’t live without is a 60” measuring tape which counts up from either end (double sided, so no matter which end you grab you have 1” on one of the sides), my favorite tools also include a 1”x 6” see-thru ruler. When I’m working as a pattern maker, it’s perfect for adding seam allowance, especially in tight curves. When I’m rendering designs with textures and patterns, it’s a great way to keep the scale of things similar across the body.

Other specialty tools in my kit include tailor’s chalk, brought to me by a former student from Taipei. And a favorite technique with that tool I learned from Carol Lane: using a cheap toothbrush as an eraser to lift the chalk off the fabric.

And I do love my knife-edge tailor’s points: 4” scissors with a tip that can cause injury (ask me at a bar sometime about the time I thought I’d pierced my lower lip with them while exuberantly celebrating a pants crotch seam….). I can use them as a seam ripper, an awl, and scissors.

Heaney loves the walking foot on her sewing machine, and I agree: its grippy teeth add leverage to the machine’s foot by sandwiching materials between the feed dogs and the walking foot to allow more grip for stitching through slippery or otherwise difficult fabrics.

Kathy Kohl’s favorite tools include the 1 ½” sized safety pins that are large enough to use easily but thin enough not to mar fabrics; both scalpel-style seam rippers and single-edge razor blades are speedy ways to open up seams no matter how small the stitches were. (As a side note, Kathy raises a good point: “Isn't it interesting that costumers tend to be an accommodating, rather friendly if not downright shy breed that carry very sharp tools?”)

Lane loves her “old crappy dented, turn-my-finger-green open-top tailor thimble.” I love how often the tools we’re most attached to are the ones we couldn’t replace, or which wouldn’t serve us as well brand new as they do broken in.

Portinga’s favorite tool is “this irreplaceable needle. It is about 6" long and several millimeters thick. I use it for ALL sorts of weird ‘push that into there’ sorts of jobs, as well as ‘dig that out/apart’ things. It is slightly bent from its years of service and if I ever saw another I would TOTALLY grab it and pass it out as the best present ever to my pals.”

Which brings us to the idea that, as I suspect is true for all disciplines of theater, we often find the best success with a tool that wasn’t necessarily designed for the job. A carpenter’s chalk line will serve when a long enough ruler isn’t available. When I don’t have access to curved rulers, I’ve been known (or maybe this is a terrible secret I’m about to air) to true a curve with a coffee cup or dinner plate. One of Kohl’s favorite tools is a hem marker, but when I don’t have one, I’ve fashioned a standing measurement device out of a yardstick and a binder clip. Not ideal in every setting but a good way to get a consistent distance off the ground, especially in a large circumference garment.

A few things that came up that were combinations of technique and tool: Amy Kaufmann uses a cloth-covered headband as an anchor for all kinds of head dresses and animal heads on performers. “Flippy bones” are fabric covered short bones (3-5” of boning covered in fabric that matches the garment) at the neck, waist or arms’ edge; the “flip” into the actor’s undergarments to keep a garment in place. Known as a “Dior Belt” from its application in the waists of post-WWII “New Look,” a piece of belting or grosgrain ribbon sewn to the inside seam allowances of a garment gives a remarkable amount of control, and is a technique I like to apply whether it’s at the waist or somewhere else.

Favorite larger scale tools included an industrial serger (although I’m a fan of my old-school all metal home-ec-class style serger that I can toss in its case and take with me when I need to), a blind hemmer, a dye washer (a designer can dream….or make messes and clean up carefully), and sturdy collapsible rolling racks.  The prize for best large scale favorite tool, however, goes to Kaufman: “My favorite tool is Collective Spaces ( a community of costumers and fashion designers who work together in a shared costume shop space have a wealth of knowledge and resources on how to solve the sewing challenges you run into on any project.”

And what a prize it is: a work space of our own might be carved out of a corner of our homes, or used after hours at whatever shop we’re otherwise employed in, but when it comes with a team of people who can help you think outside the box, or teach you a technique you’ve never considered, its value increases ten-fold. I think it’s the reason so many of us stay to work in the Twin Cities: the resources available to us include not only the number of companies producing work that we can be a part of, but also the number of people who are able to help us think about our work critically, and to continue to grow and evolve our skills as designers.

With special thanks to A. Emily Heaney, Amy Kaufman, Barb Portinga, Carol Lane, Kathy Kohl for participating in my small survey, and to all the shops I’ve worked in for teaching me so much, especially Rich Hamson.