Friday, July 25, 2014

How I Almost Gave Up Making Costumes

This is the story of how I almost stopped making costume commissions for others.

I'm going to be honest, this has been a brutally hard story both to live and to write. I believe in transparency, and it is only fair to my long-suffering and gracious client that I be open about this saga. But that doesn't make it any easier to share.

First off, let's admire the costume. That is a gorgeous costume. Something that simultaneously makes me go "how did I ever agree to make that?" and also "I am so proud that I made that." Let's be clear, as it is, the costume is elaborate, but not, by any means, the craziest costume I've ever taken on. (Padme's Wedding dress was much crazier.) It's got a lot in common with the Tudor England costumes that got me into costumer in the first place and it was really fun to dip back into my roots.

Yes, friend, I, naive new owner of an awesome embroidery machine, agreed to embroidery purple flowers all over the fabric. I knew it would be intense, but I did not anticipate how intense. 

Each flower took approximately 15 minutes to stitch, and there were about 30 flowers on each of the four skirt panels, plus about 40 more on the bodice. In addition, there was time required for bobbin winding, rehooping for each design, fixing breakdowns with the machine, and clipping 8 threads on each flower. I estimate close to 50 hours of time went into doing the embroidery! (Thankfully I could work on other things while the machine was stitching, but I had to be near it in case the thread snarled). The Machine in Action.

(If I ever embroider something like this again, it'll have to be ordered a year in advance and the customer must be prepared to pay a heck of a lot for it)

As you can imagine, this resulted in the dress taking much, much longer than originally planned. Which meant when another BIG issue came up, we didn't have time to do much about it. 


So what was the big problem? Well, as you can see from above, my customer was plus-sized. Not tremendously so, but enough that even my "large" dress form would need significant padding to assume her figure. I'd worked with plus-sized customers before and wasn't anticipating too many unusual issues - I even had her send me out a coat of her own to draft the Regina pattern from.

Unfortunately, when padding out my dress form, I tried something new. Instead of using fabric (heavy!) I wrapped batting really tightly around the form (much lighter!). I thought this would make the form hold it's weight better and not sink down the pole. Well, that part worked, and I didn't lose vertical inches. However, over the three months it ended up taking to create the costume, the padding compressed. It happened so slowly that I didn't notice it until...

...the day I was sending it in and was measuring out the bodice waist to gather in the skirt waistband.

4 inches had been lost.


Guys, this was the rock bottom of my sewing career. To lose one inch would be mortifying, to lose four was... the apocalypse, to put it mildly.

In a situation like this, offering a full refund just doesn't cut it on either side. This isn't a TV you're ordering off of Amazon that you can exchange if it's broken. It's a dream. Someone's vision of being a queen for a day. Gone, with very little that can be done.

All I can say is that my client is the dearest, kindest, most patient woman in the world and decided that she wanted the dress anyhow, even if she could never wear it. Her graciousness was a response I certainly did not deserve and can never hope to repay. Her empathy helped to give my shattered confidence the ability to look to the future again.

I love costuming. It's a part of my creative soul. To give it up would be devastating. Yet for several hours I wondered "how can I ever make another costume if this has happened to me? How can I take that risk?"

How indeed?

I must remind myself that I had no reason to believe this would happen. I'd never had a padded form collapse like this. Now that this has happened, it never will again. Even so, I will measure compulsively going forwards. The inches don't lie, but the eye can.

I must remind myself that I learn from my mistakes. Last year I had two (much smaller!) fit issues that really came because I was relying too much on my assistants during the craziness of being sick (head. gushing. blood) and planning a wedding. Since then I have cut out 90% of assistant help and weaned my schedule down to only what I, personally, can realistically handle. This has eliminated the stress on my part of worrying about things slipping by if I'm not watching every stitch and cut and measurement.

Note: I am NOT blaming any of those mistakes on my assistants, because they were following my orders under the level of skill they had and I knew that they had. This was due to my own inability to oversee as much as they needed and I took every step I could to fix things for my customers.

What I didn't know is that, even doing everything myself, if I'm trying out a new method of anything, I have to check and double check and triple check. If it's a new technique, it's not tested and true, and it could go wrong. It needs more care.

Going forwards this means that when I next open the queue, I'm going to be taking on smaller projects, preferably ones I've done before. I need to go slower, take more time, and make sure that I can give each piece the care it needs to meet the standards of my customer and myself.

I will not be taking on any commissions that I cannot reasonably set my dress form for. If possible, I am hoping to send muslins of tricky fitting garments to the customers early on in the process to ascertain correct fit. This will add more time, but hopefully less stress on both ends.

This also means that I will be not be opening my queue for a few more weeks yet, as I want to get the next few projects I have on my list properly done without being rushed or distracted.

It is of utmost importance to me that the items I send out meet not just YOUR requirements, but my own standards of quality.

Going back to the Queen Regina dress, the really crazy thing is that, apart from the 4 INCHES, the dress turned out kind of amazing. If I had known to check the measurements and fixed the issue early on, this would have been THE costume of my career so far. Which makes the whole thing that much sadder.

I wanted to get this whole tragic story told first so that I can share the actual construction photos with the focus on what was done right. There is a lot on the dress that I am tremendously proud of and a lot of techniques I used that I hope will be useful to my fellow costumers.

I am far from a perfect seamstress. But costuming is my joy, and fulfilling the cosplay dreams of others brings me so much happiness.Going forwards I hope to provide better service and better costumes.

UPDATE 7/26/2014 - My customer just sent me a photo of her wearing the dress at SDCC!!! Apparently she was able to find a local seamstress to perform some alterations and get the dress to fit. SO THRILLED! I hope I'll be able to share a few of these photos at the end of the photo diary!

Check out what's coming next or just head over to Part 1 of the official construction photo diary.


  1. Took a lot of guts to spill that--and I'm glad you did. What an ordeal! That sinking feeling in your gut must have been so horrible. I know that feeling, and I hate it. It WAS a stunning job though. You showed that you are made of real stuff to share this story with us.

  2. This is definitely a true confession from a seamstress! Thank you for sharing this, as I know it took a lot to do so. The construction entries so far show some really fantastic work that you plunged into, despite the challenges. Absolutely *gorgeous* work. Looking forward to seeing the finished construction entries and the customer's pics from SDCC!

  3. Wow... I agree with Elora, it takes a lot of guts to share that but it's wonderful that you are being so transparent. This piece is GORGEOUS and I am glad that she was able to get the dress altered to fit-- it's stunning.


Welcome to the discussion! Please note that due to chronic illness, I am no longer taking commissions of any kind.

Thank you for being polite and profanity free :)