In the first year of my small slow-fashion business, I was commissioned by my old high school to create the dance costumes for their 55-student show choir.
The most challenging aspect: I would need to complete all 55 pants and 55 tops (in 2 different styles and in custom sizing) within a 2-month turnaround time-- and as a one-woman show, that was a LOT! But I saw this as an exciting opportunity to learn about large custom orders and to make their costumes a wee bit more eco-friendly than they might usually be.
Can costumes be "sustainable" or even somewhat eco-friendly?
While I absolutely LOVE an occasion to get into character, I've always seen costumes (theater, dance, and Halloween) as being rather "single-use", where the short lifespan and extra bits of plastic detailing quickly contribute to the fast-fashion cycle of waste and overflowing landfills (I know, buzzkill).
But my slow fashion brand is strongly grounded in earth-conscious values-- using all-natural fibers, and plant-based dyes. I always prioritize designs that have durability, mend-ability, and functionality. So I was determined to make these single-season costumes biodegradable and comfortable enough that the students might even continue to wear them as loungewear long into the future!
The theme of the show:
For this project, the group was looking for a simple sort of "ethnic/tribal/earthy" vibe, and it needed to be something that was comfortable for dancing and easy to take off the body during a costume change. There would be one costume in tan & brown for female-identifying students, and another costume in blue & green (different design/cut) for male-identifying students -- creating a beautiful intermixing of earthtones when the students interact for choreographed dancing.
(PS... if you aren't familiar with the term "show choir" -- it's what they do in the show "Glee" and the movie "Pitch Perfect"; it's a sort of choir that involves modern choreographed dancing and creative costuming.)
See how I designed and created the costumes (and the final result!):
I drafted a preliminary sketch of the girls' outfits on my Ipad using the colors that the school selected (all really lovely earth tones). I chose to do a boxy top, using the fabric's selvage edge as a center front seam detail-- with such a short turnaround time, it was important that my design be relatively simple to sew (while still maximizing thematic elements/textures).
Making a "toile", or sample garment
My very first draft was sewn using old bedsheets, the 2nd draft was in a linen-cotton blend, and that draft was shipped to the school for a fitting so they could give me feedback on the fit and feel.
Sourcing & preparing the fabric
I chose to source my midweight linen fabric from Fabric-store.com because they have the best soft texture and great customer service. TRUE STORY: When I took on this project, I completely forgot that I would have to pre-wash all of the fabric (this is standard, to make sure the garment doesn't shrink in the wash after sewing it), AND more importantly, I'd have to iron it all before sewing! Yes... I ironed 150 YARDS of FABRIC by HAND!! I'll just say, this is the exact time period when I started making regular visits to the chiropractor.
Pattern making & grading (sizing)
This is probably the scariest and most important part of my job always-- because clothing is essentially useless if it doesn't fit the body right! Luckily, the school confirmed that my sample garment fit the model perfectly. So at this point, I used my grading rulers to draw & cut out flat 2D paper patterns of each size, scaling from XS-5XL.
I realllly got in the groove here! Cutting the same garment pieces over and over again is actually quite soothing to me, as long as I have a great podcast playing in the background. Altogether I cut out 684 fabric pieces.
This stage certainly took the longest, but I was able to sew quicker by doing one step on several shirts at a time. I was whipping out about 4-5 garments per day.
Shipped out 2 weeks before Christmas, I was hoping with every bone in my body that all 70 pounds of clothing would NOT get lost in the mail!!
The show was performed in Spring 2022. Photos by Nancy Scholz.
My not-as-ecofriendly design downfalls:
Although linen fabric can biodegrade within 1 month, I used elastic in the pant waistbands and ankle cuffs, which will take several hundred years to biodegrade. Also, all the fabric was dyed at the factory, and I'm not sure how many chemicals were used in the process (I usually dye all my own fabric using natural & nontoxic pigments from plants). But despite these weaknesses, I'd say this choir significantly reduced their environmental impact by choosing handmade linen outfits for their show!
What I gained as a seamstress and small business owner by taking on such a large custom order:
For me, this opportunity strengthened my sewing skills while keeping my very young business afloat for yet another season :) It was also my first experience working on a large custom order, which requires an elevated level of customer service/consultation/communication with the client, invoicing, and time management.