This past summer working on the RING cycle at Seattle Opera went beyond just another show to work – it was the 3rd time I’d done the production and that meant LOTS of favorite performers and friends returning – kind of like a family reunion, but with people you like! There was Greer Grimsley, Luretta Bybee, Margaret Jane Wray, Richard Paul Fink, Rosetta Greek and Stephanie Blythe.
Ms. Blythe is super talented, and even more fun to hang out with. My first chance to work with her was on the RING production in 2005. I’ve been on several operas with her since, but I’d never made her a sock monkey. I decided that THIS would be her year. If you’re not familiar with the RING, there are four separate operas in the “cycle”, and Stephanie sang more than one role/character, but her most iconic and gorgeous was Fricka, the wife of Wotan, King of the Gods. I decided Fricka was the right monkey for her.
Stephanie’s real Fricka costume* was a grey, wool jersey dress with a quilted silk coat appliquéd with metal tags in an abstract tribal pattern. But I had to figure out how to do it in sock monkey size! I started with the dress and figured the easiest thing to do would be to create it in wool felt so I’d have less finishing work on the seams. It didn’t drape as well as jersey, but I got it done in about an hour, including some decorative silver braid I used on the sleeves to replicate the actual embroidery. I found a small piece of the dress trim in our costume patch kit, cut it down to monkey size and fused it to the front closure. It looked great and Fricka was well underway.
The coat proved more difficult as it was an asymmetrical pattern that was part kimono/part coat with pieces turned back on themselves. I found a turquoise/teal silk similar to the real version and figured I’d save time just quilting the outer turquoise to the grey silk lining and trim the whole thing with bias tape rather than make two separate pieces and sew them together like in standard construction. Quilting all the straight lines was easy (and the kind of sewing I like), but it took almost two hours to do!
After the quilting was all done, my boss Ron stepped in to assist me with the pattern. I have to say once again how much knowledge and help he is. Professor of Costume and Design at Cornish College of the Arts, he can just “see” how all the parts fit together when I’m standing there thinking “Is this the front or the back?” So Ron mapped out my pattern pieces, we got it cut out, and I started making yards of bias tape.
I also had to make the little metal “God tags” to appliqué on the coat. I hit on the idea of using pin backs – I cut the pin part off, then put some antiquing/patina on them with a marking pen. After stitching them to the coat, I finished assembling it. It was so heavy on the monkey it kept sliding off, so I added some snaps to the coat and dress to make sure it stayed on. I mean, even for a sock monkey, it’s all about looking good, right?
The last step was the wig. Stephaine/Fricka had this beautiful, long hair in several shades of blonde/brown with braids, twists and ribbons worked into it. I knew mine would be less intricate, but thought I could give her a close approximation by using a couple different colors of yarn to start. I machine sewed the yarn onto a piece of bias tape so I only had the tape to sew to the monkey’s head, not individual yarn strands. I worked in some silk ribbons I made from my leftover coat fabric and I had a pretty good version going. But I didn’t like the white monkey head showing under the hair, so I took a large tapestry needle threaded with one of the yarns I was using and sewed it vertically across the back of her head to cover the white – perfect!
The finishing touch was the face. I used a couple of different buttons to make the blue eyes more interesting, and I gave her big, thick black lashes like Stephanie wears – so cute – and she was ready for her debut.
Stephanie was thrilled to receive her, and couldn’t believe she was being presented with one of my “famous” monkeys. I told her she was joining my inner circle of favorite opera singers and she rewarded me with a big hug and kiss, and a few tears of joy and gratitude. I thought she might squeeze the stuffing out of her little monkey as she paraded her around the foyer of the dressing suite showing her off…..
…..and THAT’S why I love making my monkeys!
You’re going to want to know more about Stephanie Blythe – check out this youtube video of her show “Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate Smith”. She’s got a fantastic new album out too – As Long As There Are Songs (you’ll find it on iTunes). She nails one of my all time favorites, “How Deep is the Ocean?” – trust me, you’re going to love it!
*The costumes for Seattle Opera’s production of THE RING, were designed by the super-talented, Tony-award winning costume designer Marty Paklidenaz. He passed away in 2012 from brain cancer, and his absence was sorely missed on this production. He was loved by all of us in the wardrobe department for his amazing work and wonderful humor…
I needed several little projects to fill down time backstage during my recent stint on Wagner’s RING Cycle, especially during the 5+ hours each of Siegfried and Gotterdamerung – oy! My strategy was to work on several unfinished projects, which was part of my GRANDER scheme of getting my basement back under control. I heard this great quote by Dr. Phil (yeah, I know), that was something like “…to be a better person, finish what you start…” or something to that affect. I took that to mean cleaning and organizing my basement by finishing up the multitude of craft/sewing projects overflowing from boxes and surfaces. So I made a list of the projects I wanted to work on, but in the general disarray could only find one of them. Anyway….
You know how much I love the old embroidery and craft kits from the ’60s and ’70s, right? Well I’d picked up this particular little gem about four years ago because it was one of my favorite styles – felt ornaments with a little embroidery and tons of bling with sequins, beads and braid trim. These old kits have great felt colors (and it’s not crappy polyester felt), they’re graphically cute and silly, they’re easy to pick up and put down when I’m at work, and I can give them as gifts, use them as package ties or on occasion, keep them for myself. When I find these kits at yard sales and thrift stores, they’re often opened with some of the contents missing. Using/substituting my own materials, trim, and sometimes even pattern pieces, is part of the challenge and fun of working on the stuff, and these little angels fit the bill.
For some reason the crafty, creative designers at Bucilla billed this charmer as:
Novel “MOBILE” may be hung from Mantel, Chandelier, Archway; or in windows and doorways – handsome decoration for Foyer or any room in the home. So gay, so cheerful, so decorative for the Holiday Season. A real conversation piece!
OK, let’s just examine that for a moment. Yes, it’s definitely gay, which is a good thing, because the cheerful kitschy quality is a conversation piece. However, there’s no way I could hang this from my mantel as the plastic ring the angels swing from is about 8″ across, so it would hardly hang “freely”. And the only chandelier I could see this dangling from is the crappy piece of junk in my dining room, which I definitely do not want to draw attention to. Add to this the fact that the tinsel garland and “velvetex” ribbon used for hanging were flattened beyond use after 40+ years in their package. So mobile was out, but ornaments were on.
I had to pick out some beads for those that were missing and some braid trim. I added purple beads to the original “color palette”, and I scrapped the directions to cut out and use this hard, gold vinyl to fill the opening of the skirts – I just couldn’t figure out how I’d attach it to the dress – hand sewing with felt isn’t really the easiest thing because the felting process makes it come apart when it’s manipulated too much. So I just ended up stuffing the body and sewing the skirt closed.
The ornaments filled up lots of time (although there was still plenty of time to read, write letters, do some clothing repairs, work on my magazine and make a SOCK MONKEY, which I’ll share in an upcoming blog) and they turned out so cute. My friend Anne wanted one (and I forgot to photo), and after deciding to keep the blue for myself, decided to give the hot pink to my awesome college pal LeAnn, and the green will go to my niece Nicole.
Oh, and the basement is back to a functional state! I owe this more to LeAnn’s help in the last few weeks, than decluttering by completing a few little angel ornaments, but I can actually work on stuff again and I see a busy fall of completion ahead! I’ve already found the other projects I wanted to do this summer that were MIA, and the parts for a few more Christmas ornaments that I’ll share soon – snowmen and some ginger boy and girls. Time to get crafting!
It’s another summer RING at Seattle Opera (you can read all about that if you click here), and as this is the third one I’ve worked since 2005, lots of my favorite singers are back in town, including several who own my sock monkeys! You can click on the following to see my creations for performers Greer Grimsley, Gordon Hawkins and Rosetta Greek. But I’ve never posted pictures of the monkey I made for the super talented Luretta Bybee.
Luretta is a southern lady. She’s beautiful, charming, gracious, is a Chair of Vocal Arts at the New England Conservatory, has a wonderful sense of humor and she’s a mezzo-soprano opera star with a heavenly voice. A couple years back, Seattle Opera produced a new work, Amelia, and Luretta was cast as Amanda, a 1960s homemaker who was the mother of the show’s namesake, Amelia. I’d worked with her on several shows before this, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for her to get her own monkey.
Now you could put Luretta in a tin can and she’d look gorgeous, but she literally stepped out of a guest starring role on the Donna Reed show in her striped shirtwaist dress, pearls, and flip hairstyle – she looked amazing. The dress was pretty easy to do, but the collar was a little tricky on the smaller scale. I decided to cut it from felt and top stitch it to the dress rather than trying to do it “for real” – the notched collar was more work than I wanted to do and the felt gave it the same look as the costume. The apron was easy, but I added a hanky because my grandmother always had one in her apron or smock pocket and I think Amanda would have used one too. The character wore a locket, and I found the tiniest one I could for her. I put a little picture of her real husband – opera superstar Greer Grimsley – as well as her stage husband – the phenomenal tenor, Bill Burden – into the locket so she’d have them both close to her little monkey heart. Then I stitched on some “pearls” for earrings and got my friend Anne McGowan in the hair and makeup department to create the perfect little ’60s flip hairstyle for her. She’s awesome!
When I got ready to do the photo of her, I envisioned her standing at a stove with a pot holder in hand. Since sock monkeys don’t really have fingers to hold anything, I created an oven mitt for her, and posed her in front of my mom’s childhood toy stove from the 1940s. Let me tell you, this is no cheap Easy Bake oven, but an electric stove with a HOT hot plate and an oven with a working thermostat – my brothers and I used to make burgers in a tiny frying pan on it when we were kids. It was exactly what Amanda needed and the photo is perfect!
Luretta was so happy to get her little Amanda, and Greer told me later that it ended up costing him a lot of money because Luretta wanted to redecorate their music room to display his Wotan monkey with her. Now seriously, am I really responsible for that?
It always amazes me at what a small town Seattle seems like at times. There I was shopping at the Pike Place Market a couple weeks ago, and who should I run into but the awesome tenor, Alex Mansoori. Now in NYC, Alex originally grew up just east of here in Issaquah, and he and his girlfriend Laura were in town to see the parents. It was great timing too, because I had yet to get his sock monkey in the mail to him and his visit gave me the opportunity to deliver it in person.
Alex is one of those people I liked from the moment I met him. He was in the Young Artists Program at Seattle Opera, and one of the first things to stand out about him was his voice – gorgeous! When I sing in my head, I wish I sounded like Alex does. The fact that he’s got a great sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. I worked with him on two YAP productions, then was his dresser on his mainstage debut at Seattle Opera in “Amelia”, where he played a Viet Cong killer. Sorry Alex, but I had a hard time buying that one, but you looked great on stage! Last winter he had a larger role in the production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” as Juan, and that’s where the sock monkey comes in.
As I’ve mentioned before, I like to do monkeys for people I’ve worked with and have an established relationship with, so creating a monkey for Alex was a no-brainer. First of all, he had an awesome period costume – all in red with doublet, breeches, a big, swirling cape and these cool, cuffed boots. I found my own fabric for the costume, creating the breeches from a silk/linen fabric, the doublet from a beautiful silk dupioni, and as always, I found the perfect buttons for eyes and even a vintage belt buckle in my Aunt Fofo’s button box. Fate stepped in to guide me to a terrific old 1950s sword-shaped hors d’oeuvres pick in the shape of a sword – perfect! I wasn’t able to recreate the wavy locks of his wig in my yarn version (which I don’t have a picture of), but it’s not bad. As so often happens with my creations, it takes me a lot longer than the run of a given show to finish, so Alex was united with Juan a few months late. But Alex loved the monkey, so that’s all that really mattered.
Seems as if Quichotte/Quixote are popping into my life again soon – Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting the ballet “Don Quixote” next month and I’m working on it. Yes, there’s already a sock monkey in the works…stay tuned!
As I’ve been creating my opera sock monkeys over the last couple of years, I’ve always thought of them as a complete item – meaning it’s a one-of-a-kind creation, when it’s finished I’m done with it and then I move on to the next project. So I was really surprised a couple weeks ago when a reader in Australia contacted me about Wotan. The Wotan sock monkey was the first I ever made, as a gift for Greer Grimsley during the 2009 Ring cycle I worked with him on at Seattle Opera. Since that Wotan wasn’t available, could I make another? Ummm….sure…yes!
I used an actual vintage sock for my first creation, but knew I could easily create a monkey from the newer red heel socks I now use. However, I couldn’t use the same fabrics because I’d pieced together a few scraps from the costume shop from the original costumes, but thought I could easily find something similar. Wrong! This proved to be a bigger challenge than I planned for, and over a week I visited every fabric store in Seattle as well as half a dozen thrift stores trying to find a good match. The closest I got was with a couple of upholstery weight fabrics, which don’t drape well on a sock monkey-sized scale, but figured I’d make it work. As for the trim on the coat, there just wasn’t anything available that was close to it, and ended up with ribbon I folded in half, then hand-colored to get something similar to the original. Even with those challenges, I was really pleased with the result, especially his hair which I like better than the original – I had a skein of vintage wool yarn with a nice mottled gray color that worked out perfectly, and was easier to work with than the wig fiber I used on Wotan #1.
So here he is! And this time he’s not off to Valhalla, but Tasmania. As I packed him up to ship off, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What would Richard Wagner think?”
I make sock monkeys. Some people tell me I’m making art, but I think I’m just having fun and learning how to sew better.
For the last several years, I’ve worked as a dresser in theatre venues around Seattle, but my main gig has been at Seattle Opera in the wardrobe department where I’m the dresser for the principal male artist. In the summer or 2009, we were doing another production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, or to non-opera goers, the dreaded “Ring Cycle”. The cycle is made up of four separate operas that tell the “Ring” story, and each one of them is riduclously long – I mean really long – the whole cycle is spread over four nights and is 18+ hours long, so it’s not exactly what you call an “intro to loving opera” thing. You’ve gotta be hard core to want to sit through this. One of the operas in the cycle, Siegfired, is so long, that other operas we produced are over and done with in less time than it takes to sit through just Act I of it. This means there is lots of time where my artist is on stage singing and I am waiting for hours before he comes back for a change. How does one fill that time? Sock monkeys.
So I’m getting long-winded about this, but during this particular production I was dressing an amazing singer named Greer Grimsley (check him out here). I’m not an opera lover, but really appreciate the gifted artists I work with who are at the top of their field, and Greer is an opera superstar. I’d been his dresser on several other operas, and wanted to give him something to commemorate the shows we’d done together. About the same time, I came across pair of vintage red heel socks in a thrift store, so I thought of doing a sock monkey dressed in a smaller version of the role Greer was singing – Wotan, King of the Norse gods.
The costume shop usually has scraps left over from making the costumes, and we keep them in wardrobe for costume repairs, so I rummaged around and found what I needed to replicate Wotan’s costume. A very cool thing about this production, is the costumes were designed by Martin Paklidenaz, who has won a bunch of TONY awards and designs a lot for opera and Broadway, and these costumes were gorgeous. At this point in time, I wasn’t much of a sewer, so my really talented boss Ron helped me make a pattern and assemble it for the sock monkey. Some more help from hair and makeup department for the hairstyle, and props department for a “spear” and Wotan was complete and ready to give to Greer. He loved it, and that’s my long story of how I started making sock monkeys.
The green coat Wotan wears is what we referred to as his “God coat” (sometimes in the cycle he is “the Wanderer” and doesn’t wear the coat) – it is quilted and has hand-applied metal tags and applique. I pieced the coat together from several scraps, so had to reattach the metal tags and applique after it was done. you can’t see it in the picture, but I did give him one of those cartoon “X” eyes under his eye patch. I love the photo Barry did of this with Wotan’s home, Valhalla, up in the clouds.