What is Extreme Costuming? Well, everyone has a different definition, but I define it as any garment that other people have looked at and said "Oh, I wish I could do that, but it's too hard", but you’re willing to try and make. From a home spun, hand woven Viking apron to an embroidered Elizabethan jacket, extreme costuming is the willingness to commit to projects that scare you. It's about the details, the research, the materials, and most of all, getting it right. Obviously, it applies the most to period reproduction costume.
Making the jump from regular costuming to EC means giving up the idea that you can make an outfit in a couple of days, or a week (at least for that piece). You’ll change from being someone who brags about how little time it took you to make something to how long it took. In EC, we value time, care, and quality over speed.
“But I can make a high quality outfit really fast!” you might say. Maybe you can, but that’s not the point. When you move into EC, your idea of “quality” might change. Quality is something found in the details, and taking all the time you need allows you to focus on those details at a level you haven’t considered before.
Any project that takes over 300 hours of actual work time to make probably qualifies, too.
1. Get your planning done first.
The planning stage is the most important part of your project. Without proper groundwork, you may put hundreds of hours into recreating a piece that never actually existed, or didn’t exist in that form. If that’s what you want, that’s great. If it’s not, good planning will avert disaster.
Planning is the foundation of a good piece; choose your project carefully - for the amount of work you put into it, you want to be sure it's exactly what you intend to create. More importantly, perhaps, the idea of doing the project needs to make your heart sing. It is essential to love what you do - if you're doing it because you think you have to, but don't enjoy it, what's the point? This is your hobby - make the best use of your time.
Make an outline of your project before you start - decide what you want to make, set your budget, note the books and pictures you'll get your documentation from, plan your pattern, materials, and tools. A sample planning worksheet is included at the end of this article.
Once you know what you want to make, start with your documentation. Verifying each element in the project before you start prevents the need to backtrack later. You don't want to find out halfway through that you've made a vital mistake - do all the research first. Find all your pictures, references, material information and colour information before you even buy any of the materials. Time taken at the start saves time and bother later. Keep everything together in a folder or a binder - make notes about where your pictures and information come from, so you don't have to go hunting later for something you half-remember seeing in a book… somewhere.
Get to know your project intimately - find lots of pictures, not just one, if possible. Find any extant garments that might help you. Find references in texts to your garment. Get to know the details, from material choices to finishing techniques. It can also help to get to know the period your garment hails from - who would wear it? What country is it from? Is it cutting edge fashion or typical daily dress? Knowing the context of your garment will help you make the right choices when questions come up. It will also make your documentation more enjoyable to read if you decide to display/compete with your project.
Now, decide how extreme you want to be. Are you weaving the fabric and dyeing it yourself, using hand-made material from someone else, or purchasing commercially made fabric? Will you use period tools or modern ones? How about construction - will it be all by hand, or just hand finished? Whichever option you choose, make sure you take copious notes - the information may be useful to you and interesting to others.
2. Choose your materials wisely.
Take the time to research the correct materials for your project – my first embroidered coif was made from cheap cotton and embroidered with DMC thread. Hundreds of hours went into the project. Do you want something that’s okay, or do you want it to be right? What class level is your outfit? Do you have the money to invest in the proper materials to make a convincing court gown, or would you be better off creating a simpler outfit? Take your budget seriously, and don’t try and cut corners to make something more expensive-looking; too often, that kind of cost-saving makes an outfit look cheap.
Before you start sewing, you should gather all your materials and tools. You want everything at hand from the very beginning so that you don't get delayed by needing to order more things, or worse, discovering that they no longer make the one thing you need for the next vital step in your project. Make sure you buy enough of everything - it's better to have materials left over than run out of things before you're finished. If you need to save up for special thing, save up - but don't start until you have everything you need. There's nothing worse than finding out that a dye lot has changed, or a company has gone out of business. It can also be more expensive if you end up having to buy a bunch of something different because you can't finish with the amount of materials you have.
Make a list of materials and projected quantities, if you can - keep notes as you go along on how much of each thing you used - people like to know that sort of thing, and it will give you a feeling of accomplishment. Get a camera to keep track of the different stages of creation. Keep all of this in your project binder.
3. Where’s your pattern?
The next step is making a pattern, if you don't have one already. In my experience, even the projects that are based on patterns you already have can always use a little pattern drafting or fine-tuning. Unless you know with absolute certainty that the fabric and the pattern you already have will combine to make a garment that fits and looks perfectly right, now's the time to sit down and perfect that pattern. If you have to create the pattern from scratch, take your time with this bit, like all the others - a good pattern is vital to the success of your project. No matter how good your needlework, a poorly-fitting garment will sabotage your project's success.
Make mock-ups from a similarly weighted (but much cheaper!) fabric, and explore different fitting options. If the garment you're making hasn't been done before (excitement!), really get into the different possible construction techniques - you may discover something that works better than the method you previously planned. Look at your pictures again - is the garment fitted? Loose? Somewhere in between? Where do the sleeves hit the wrist/hand/arm? How high/low is the hem? Is anything pleated, or is it smoothly fitted? Is it one layer, or three? Is the decoration separate or attached? Knowing all these things will make a difference.
Try as hard as you can to stick to the historical facts - if something doesn't make sense, don't just try and re-create it however you can. Play with the pieces and what you know of period construction technique, rather than resort to 20th century costume construction. The odds are the simplest method of construction is the right one. Now is also the time to start asking other people about their knowledge, if you can find them. Pooled information is often more valuable than working in a vacuum, and there's no need to reinvent the wheel if someone can save you time on a step.
4. It’s time to start creating!
Well, you actually started creating as soon as you envisioned the project, but now you get to put scissors to fabric. Take lots of notes; you can decide later whether they're useful or not. It is much harder to go back afterwards and recreate what you thought about any particular stage. I keep a journal for my thoughts while I sew - ideas about context, what I want to write about, notes for articles and the web site, what works, what doesn't, and other things. I also keep track of my hours worked - not to the exact minute, but in hour increments, by date. This works well enough that by the end, I'm accurate to within an hour or two, and I can keep track of my hours as I go along. For the embroidered jacket, I tracked not only my total hours, but how long it took me to do each segment.
Your camera comes into play again here - it's great to have a visual record of where you started, how the project looked at different stages, and where you ended up.
Each project presents its own problems during the creative process - if you did your homework at the start, it will be easier to solve each issue as it comes up. The most important thing at this stage is PATIENCE. I can't say it strongly enough; the process of creation is as important as the finished piece. What you learn during this time will inform every subsequent project, and now is not the time to cut corners or rush. The time you take to fix any mistakes and solve any problems as they occur means a better garment at the end. Don't fudge - you're creating a beautiful thing, so give it the respect it deserves.
A note about “burnout”: You may find at points during a long project that you are longing for the damn thing to be done. If this happens, STOP. Give yourself a week's rest. If you don't, you, your project, and your household companions will suffer (if even the cat is wringing his hands over your obsession, you need to stop). Any time you find yourself pushing to get something done at the expense of everyday needs, take a break. When you're in "push" mode, you're more likely to make mistakes and less likely to fix them properly. Never give yourself a rigid deadline for a project like this; it will be done when it's done, and never start a project the night before the event you want to wear it. Skip speed and choose quality. Trust me, it's worth it. Let the project set the pace, not outside expectations.
In other words, never say "This has to be done by ___". As sure as night follows day, you will miss the deadline. Why stress yourself out like that?
5. It’s done! What do I do now?
When you're done, celebrate. You've earned it. Plan your debut. Will you be wearing it to a party? A historical event? Will you enter it into competitions? (No matter your chosen period, there will be a venue for competition, if you want one.) Put it in a glass box and charge people a fee to stare at it in wonder?
Whatever you choose, you have a right to be proud of the time and work you put into your project. Welcome to the world of Extreme Costuming!
Table 1. Sample Project Worksheet
Name your project, and where it comes from.
The day you start really working on the project (not the day you first thought of it).
Once all the finishing touches are done, and you are about to hang it up in your closet.
From the day you started cutting out the pattern. Most people track from the start date of sewing/cutting out the garment.
What materials are you using? Where did you get them from?
Are you substituting anything, and why?
Detail your budget here.
Books, web sites, pictures, manuscripts, museums, etc. attach pictures of the original piece, your concept sketches, and material swatches.
Where did you find the idea? Did you make any changes?
What did you learn while researching and making the piece? Techniques? (embroidery, sewing, pattern drafting/cutting, etc.)
Did you create the pattern or adapt an existing one? How did you do the construction?
Is it hand-made? Hand finished? Machine sewn?
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.