Sewing like the Dickens for ‘A Christmas Carol’
Hands are busy inside the costume shop at Sacramento Theatre Company.
Six women are making new costumes and altering dozens of others for the upcoming production of “A Christmas Carol.” The musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens story is returning to the theater’s Mainstage for the first time in three years.
On a recent morning, a sewing machine whirred noisily as stitchers Nila Coats, Kathy Grimes, Joan Kelly and Brandy DeAguero quietly pinned fabric and finished seams. Nearby, draper Eleanor Fluharty snipped skirt and bodice sections as she stood at a cutting table.
The theater has experienced tough financial times the last two years. But that’s had a gilded lining: Instead of using outside costume designers, costume shop Manager Jessica Minnihan is getting her first shot at the job.
The show’s costumes were created 17 years ago. Many are still in great shape, such as a faux fur-lined green velvet robe worn by the Ghost of Christmas Present. Minnihan’s first project is to replace silk taffeta dresses worn in party scenes from Christmases past.
"I’m sure when they were first built, they were just gorgeous. But they’d seen too many productions," said Minnihan, 28. "The dresses were just falling apart. We couldn’t alter them anymore."
Now resident costume designer for the season, Minnihan designed six new party gowns to be made with polyester taffeta. That material will hold up much longer than delicate silk.
"They’ll be around with the cockroaches if we do it right," she laughed.
Sacramento Theatre Company has one of the few professional theater costume shops in the city. All the costumes are pulled from stock at a Natomas warehouse or made from scratch.
Located above the Mainstage lobby, the shop’s gray linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and white brick walls, brightened with sunlight from windows, indicate how old the shop really is.
Nobody there seems to know for sure. Costumes have been made and fit on actors there for at least 40 years, and possibly since the theater opened as the Eaglet in 1949. The shop is so old that, along with the memories of cast and crew and remnants left from past costumes, it has a ghost named Pinky.
Some say Pinky may have been a wardrobe mistress or a stagehand who worked at the theater. The spirit was given its nickname because those said to have seen it described it as a pink orb. Minnihan has led tours for paranormal groups and even the Discovery Channel in search of that and other ghosts now part of the theater’s legends.
"Pinky gets blamed for a lot of things that get misplaced," Minnihan said.
The costume shop also has three full-time staff: Minnihan; Coats, who is head stitcher; and Fluharty, who makes patterns, cuts material and does costume fittings.
The trio started working on the show’s costumes in mid-October. Coats took charge of the wigs – washing, conditioning and styling each one.
Artistic Director Matt Miller, who’ll play Ebenezer Scrooge, visited the shop that morning to check on hair pieces for upcoming publicity photos.
"I’ve got your mutton chops and your wig," Coats said. "I’d like to wash those."
Grimes and Kelly, who are experienced contract stitchers, and DeAguero, an intern, were brought in to help on the show.
Their tools: six sewing machines, ranging from a black, 1940s German Pfaff to a 1970s Swiss Bernina, and a heavy, gravity-feed steam iron, used to open seams and steam curves into costumes – along with needles, scissors and at least 170 years of combined sewing experience.
Some of the machines are industrial and some were made for the home. The main difference: speed. Industrial machines sew far faster.
"It’s like driving a Ferrari," Grimes said.
A good 60 percent of the stitchers’ work is done by hand as they sit at large sewing tables. A draper’s job is all handwork.
As costume shop manager, Minnihan holds a vast inventory of costume stock in her head. She retrieves garments for alterations, tracks down costume material and shops for accessories such as mob caps, top hats, eyeglasses and gloves. Old Sacramento is a treasure trove for accessories, she said.
The costume shop is lined with boxes and bins filled with black leather shoes, caps, thread, pins, trim and buttons. Portable racks hold costumes awaiting alterations and fittings.
The costume makers tend to work silently when they’re focused on complicated tasks. When they’re doing simple handwork, the room fills with chatter about anything from Thanksgiving to sewing lessons learned decades ago from unforgotten sewing teachers.
Stories and sewing tips collected over years were passed on to DeAguero, who’s majoring in fashion design at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Sacramento.
"This is the modern version of an old-fashioned sewing circle," Grimes said. "When you get ladies together working with their hands, there’s going to be a lot of talk."
The 40 cast members appearing in "A Christmas Carol" will wear an average of four costumes each. Every one of those costumes must be fitted to the actors. So when new costumes like the dresses are made, the seam allowances are bigger than those used for normal clothing.
Fluharty and the other women have so much experience working on costumes, they haven’t counted the total number they’ll need to alter and fit in time for dress rehearsals or "tech," which starts Nov. 28. The show runs Dec. 1- 26.
"This is a huge show and we’ve got a limited amount of time to put it together," Fluharty said. "The week before tech will be pretty intense."
Photos at top:
1. Jessica Minnihan checks a Christmas ghost costume. Photo by Barry Wisdom.
2. Eleanor Fluharty draws a pattern piece for a dress. Photo by Suzanne Hurt.
3. Nila Coats sews a bodice. Photo by Barry Wisdom.
4. Tags are sewn into each costume. Photo by Suzanne Hurt.
5. Dress designs were needed to make new costumes. Photo by Suzanne Hurt.
6. Kathy Grimes uses a Pfaff sewing machine from the 1940s. Photo by Suzanne Hurt.
Photos embedded in story:
1. Jessica Minnihan oversees a fitting. Photo by Barry Wisdom.
2. Costume for the Ghost of Christmas Present looking good after 17 years. Photo by Barry Wisdom.
3. Stitcher Kathy Grimes chats with Jessica Minnihan as she works on a costume. Photo by Barry Wisdom.
Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter covering business and development for The Sacramento Press.