Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The costume cutter's job description aka "There is no formula"

As a continuation of the brief discussion about the costume designer's job, I will now endeavor  to sum up what my job description, as a costume cutter / tailor is.

Before I do, I really think that the designer Dierdre Clancy really hits the nail on the head in her description of the designer's job. People mistake the designer's job and the cutter's job all the time! That won't happen anymore now that it has all been explained :)

Without further ado:

The Costume cutter's job description

Workload and Paperwork
The cutter is assigned a workload, and must manage that workload to the budget and deadlines for the show. In some theatres that means working on a single show at a time, in a rep situation like ours, I would work on three different shows at once.
This translates to paperwork!
I get a list of all my assigned characters/cast in the show and a budget breakdown to indicate what is being built from scratch, what is coming from stock, or being bought, and the estimated hours given for each item.  I then compile all the info into individual show binders, by actor or character, and get their measurement sheets or request a measurement session.
I  am also responsible for filling out costume time sheets, so I have another large binder where I list all the costume pieces, fabric swatches, and the budgeted time. As we make the costumes, the team records  how long they spend on each item in this binder. We keep running totals so we know if an item is taking longer than budgeted or is being completed with time to spare. These records are then compiled at the end of the season, and averaged out so the management staff have a basis for future costing.
I also get a list of my team members, their start and finish dates and their experience level.
I get a list of the actor availability so I can figure out which costumes I should start on first. I try to find out the designer availability as well, cause we cannot schedule fittings unless we have the designer there.
There is also a variety of paperwork indicating the key people on each show(director, designers-sound, lights, costume and set), as well as key dates, such as the first rehearsal date,  first tech dress, first preview, opening night and overall number of performances.
I also try to read the script, and make notes on the characters I have to deal with.
Once I have all the paperwork sorted out, I can move on to:

Sketch interpretation
OK, I am going to say it again: "the cutter is not the designer", but we work very closely with the designer as we are the interpreters of the sketch they provide.
We are given the sketch, the measurements of the actor, and we sit down with the designer to discuss the costume in question so we can then move on to the pattern making stage. The designer hopefully will bring fabric swatches along or may have already purchased the fabrics and trims. Most designers bring along research but cutters generally have their own collection of books and reference materials to draw from. We talk about what the director is trying to achieve, how the designs relate to that, how each costume design defines the character. We talk about fabrics, the colours and trims that may be needed, the period details, the actor playing the part, quick changes, requirements for dance or other movement, and how the costume is put on or taken off. Cutters also need to be able to estimate yardages required for a variety of different periods and garments so I keep a record book- after all you never know when you will be asked to estimate how much trim is on a 19th century dragoons coat, how many square feet of leather for trunk hose or how many yards in a floor length cloak with a 24 inch pattern repeat!
Once that is done, and usually before I have any staff in, I try to absorb all of it, figure out what costumes I should start with, and that leads to:

Pattern making
Drafting or draping. Tailors generally draft, many women's wear cutter draft and drape depending on the costume. Most of the time we are drafting to an individual's measurements not to a standard size  and grading up or down.
The cutter needs to be able to take accurate measurements and/or be able to work from provided measurements in order to make a pattern. Knowledge of human proportions, and standards are very helpful, especially in the case of less than ideal measurements.
Pattern making can be, at times, simple, or very complicated. A pattern is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object, and the cutter must be able to both interpret the sketch as the designer sees it, as well as be able to make it fit a particular body.
A cutter needs a working knowledge of period shapes and silhouettes, the defining characteristics of a period and how to achieve it. An ability to think three dimensionally is a must.
This is where "there is no formula" comes into play. As much as I am a tailor, I don't always get tailoring to do. I may have to make draped Greek tragedy robes, or spandex unitards with full feet and sleeves with hands, leather gorgets, fabric armour, a wearable salt shaker. In all these instances there is not a book I can turn to or a reference that will show me the absolute, step by step way to achieve these things. It is the cutter's job to figure it out. Most cutters develop their own formulas and methods for approaching these challenges. If you haven't done something before, you have to be able to draw on what you do know and modify it.
Even with straight ahead tailoring, I need to be able to modify the pattern shapes to fit an individual, from a child of 8 to a stout size 52 adult. The very few books that will help you to understand how to do this will only give you guidelines. It is a continual learning curve!

Construction supervisor 
 The cutter along with a senior stitcher usually figures out the methods of construction required, and supervises the process from first baste up or toile through to the final finishing touches.
The cutter should have an extensive background in sewing in order to supervise the construction and a familiarity with the properties of the fabrics they have been given to work with. They should also be familiar with a variety of sewing machines and their functions.
A cutter is also responsible for laying out the patterns on the fabric for most efficient use, choosing the correct support structures, and physically cutting the fashion fabric, linings and trimmings to complete the garment.
Once the pattern is made, the cutter would cut either a toile (mock-up) or cut right into the fashion fabric for a first baste up. The cutter co-ordinates the construction so that all garment pieces required are ready for the fitting. The cutter marks any alterations on each garment after the fitting and supervises the finishing.

Once the costume is ready, a fitting is called and the garments are tried on with the designer in attendance. This is where the designer and cutter interact, determining both the technical fit as well as the design interpretation. Cutters need to have and maintain the etiquette appropriate to the fitting situation. You must be able to interact easily with the actor and designer as well as any other personnel involved in the fitting process. All the while you need to actually fit the costume, take technical notes so you can make the changes required. 

Team Manager and all round people person
The cutter is in charge of a team of stitchers, of varying experience and must distribute the workload to the appropriate person and co-ordinate the process so that all the pieces required to complete the costume are ready in a timely manner. In a large company like ours, the cutter is responsible for conducting yearly employee performance reviews.
The cutter also has to interact in a professional way with actors, designers, other artisans, management and sometimes the media.

Researcher, archivist, and jack of all trades
I think that most cutters have a lifelong interest in researching, whether it be either historical details of a period, pattern making, art, or design. We also tend to archive a lot of information, from books, patterns to sewing processes. Most of us are also contract workers so we tend to work in many venues, gaining experience and skills along the way.
Some people may say that you have to either be a control freak or an adrenaline junkie to work in this business, and that may be somewhat true!
It is certainly different everyday, interesting as well as challenging in many ways. In the end it is also satisfying, making something with your hands come to life from the page to the stage!

Ok I am sure that I will come up with something I neglected to mention that is really important, but I think I have covered the gist of it all.


  1. This is a lovely and concise description! I'm a cutter/draper and I get asked all the time "what do you do?" I'll just point them here, thanks!

    1. Glad it seems concise! It is difficult to distill it down.

  2. BTW, I am curious about where I was mentioned on Facebook. Anyone care to share?

  3. I love this description I'm about to graduate with a Theatre BA in May with a focus in costume, I'm specially looking to go into the construction/management side of a costume shop. In our university shop I've been an intern for 3 years, but we are small with just one full time first hand, so its nice to her a full in-depth description of what a cutter fully does. Your job sounds like an absolute dream!

    1. Congrats on your degree and good luck in your future endeavours!
      Yes, I too feel that I have a dream job in many ways!

  4. Somebody from saskatoon reading here? I will be there tomorrow, do you want to ask me anything?