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!
When is the right time to introduce a child to his or her first sock monkey? When they’re born!
My awesome culinary school buddy, Loreilee, and her husband JR recently had their first baby. Little Noah is adorable and as cute as can be, and I wanted to make a sock monkey for him to go along with the book of nursery rhymes Rolland and I picked out as a baby gift. I remembered I’d picked up a sweet little vintage wool sweater intending to felt it for a project, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Pastel blue and green with cream stripes, I thought it would be perfect to use for the monkey.
I guess by using a sweater it’s technically not a sock monkey, but I’ve been wanting to move past the traditional brown socks used and come up with something more colorful. It’s a little harder than I expected – there just aren’t that many socks out there that work. The ideal candidate has at minimum a contrasting heel – which becomes the mouth and the bum – and hopefully a contrasting top as well, which becomes the feet and hands. A lot of the socks I’ve found that look like they’ll work have a lot of spandex in them and are too “tight” when trying to stuff them and create a character. So even though my vintage sweater didn’t have a heel, the sweater’s stripes were the look I wanted for Noah’s monkey.
After gently washing, drying and blocking the sweater, I cut it out and assembled it. The stripes required a lot of pinning to match up, because I’m a bit obsessive on stuff like that. I sat and watched an episode of “Downton Abbey” while I stuffed and assembled him, and planned on adding ears, tail, eyes and mouth the following night, leaving him on the table next to my chair in the living room.
Of course, I hadn’t consulted with my dog Noodle about my plans, and just to remind me of my error, she ate Noah’s monkey. This has happened before. The first time, she just took the monkey and put it in her bed, claiming it for her own. After my initial freak out when I saw it lying there, I told myself it was a good lesson and how lucky I was that she wasn’t interested in chewing it up. The second time it happened was on a road trip last summer, and I’d brought along a monkey to do some detail work on while in the car. Rolland and I stopped at a convenience store during the trip and I put the monkey in a bag and shoved her under the front seat. When we came out ABOUT 3 MINUTES LATER, Noodle had taken the monkey, shredded it, and left its lifeless carcass on my seat. She had this “I told you so” look on her face, and I was pissed, mainly at myself, but also because it was a vintage sock for a monkey that was nearly finished and going into my exhibit at McCaw Hall. So you’d think I’d learned my lesson after the 2nd disaster, but evidently not.
Fortunately I was using a sweater, so there was a lot of fabric left. I was trying to use the sleeves as the body to save time, which worked great. Again I cut it out, pinned it, sewed it, stuffed it and planned to finish the following night – this time, leaving the monkey on the middle of the dining room table. And again, Noodle got it, tore it to pieces and left me to find the fuzzy remains on the couch. How she got it off the dining table, I don’t know – she’s never climbed onto a chair to get up there before, but I guess she wanted to expand her skills that day.
I still had some sweater left, and started monkey #3. As it was a vintage sweater, there were a few moth holes in it, and now it was harder to cut out the larger pieces I needed – I was able to save the arms and tail from the first two disasters, but the body of the monkey ended up being shorter than the others to avoid the holes. After assembling the newest attempt, I placed it in my dresser drawer in the bedroom while waiting to finish the detail work on it. Noodle was pretty annoyed that she was unable to grow opposable thumbs immediately and open the drawer, but I was able to finish the monkey without further chewing.
Because it was for an infant, I had to forego the button eyes (choking hazard). I made jumbo French knots from wool yarn and used the same yarn for a mouth. I loved the result and so did Noah – he snuggled right up to it in his stroller and went to sleep. I named this monkey “Third Times a Charm” – or just “Three” for short. And of course Noodle is still waiting to teach me who’s boss the next time I start another monkey…..
I’ve always thought of an artist as a person who is an accomplished painter, singer, sculptor, pianist, photographer, etc. Because I don’t think of myself as a powerhouse in any of those areas, I usually think of myself as “a guy who makes stuff”, but according to a favorite co-worker/blogger/crafter friend of mine, Kati Dawson, I’m the ARTIST OF THE MONTH on her cool blog, The Curious Dressmaker –
Kati is an uber-talented, funny, creative dynamo who is going to make it big in theatrical costuming and the crafting world. We first met when she became the assistant to the Hair and Makeup Department at Seattle Opera, and proved to be a huge asset there. Since then, we’ve worked together on several shows at Pacific Northwest Ballet where I found out she’s a terrific costume technician, and I learned several construction/sewing tips from her. Kati recently launched her business, “Bagatelle” – a cool line of purses, totes and other fabric items – and has a growing number of loyal customers and fans for her beautiful work. This summer, she is going to be an assistant wardrobe manager at the Santa Fe Opera*. If you don’t know about the Santa Fe Opera, it is one of the top opera venues in the world, with the biggest opera superstars performing there and patrons fly in from all parts of the globe to spend the summer in Santa Fe and watch performances under the stars at this beautiful outdoor space. This is a really big deal and I’m so proud of her for landing this gig.
So check out Kati’s interview with me on her blog, and make sure to look at the great crafting ideas she has. I’m working on her “Fabric Flowers” pattern to make some for gifts and package trims. Her instructions are really easy to follow, she has good pictures showing you the steps to take, and the end result is a fool-proof item for yourself or as a swell gift. Bring out your thread!
*Two favorite singers I’ve worked with, the awesome tenor, Bill Burden (who owns two of my sock monkeys), and superstar baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, will be performing King Roger there together this season.
My job at the opera is so much easier and lots more fun when a favorite singer is part of the production, and at the top of my favorites list is tenor Bill Burden. Bill has one of those voices that is incredibly expressive and beautiful, and so recognizable it’s in a class of its own – “The 3 a.m. Voice” – if you woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning and heard his voice on the radio, you’d know instantly who it is. I first worked with him on the 2006 production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, with the amazing mezzo soprano, Stephanie Blythe – talk about operatic musical heaven! – and this production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (with the gorgeous soprano, Davinia Rodriguez) would be our 6th show working together. Bill is so easy to work with, treats everyone like a million bucks and he has the distinction of owning two of my opera sock monkeys: Dodge, from Amelia, and Edgardo from Lucia di Lamermoor. For several weeks I’d been wondering what to do as a momento of the show for him, figuring a 3rd sock monkey would take it from cool to lame/overkill real fast. I mean how many sock monkeys does an opera star really need, even if I did make them?
You probably remember from reading my bio (you have read it, haven’t you?), that I have a background in collecting vintage Barbie doll stuff and used to write for magazines about it. One of the things that still floats my boat about vintage Barbie, are the amazing clothing ensembles from the 1960s still in their original packaging. Mattel was on the cutting edge of marketing toys to kids in the ’50s and ’60s, and when you look at the way this stuff was packaged, no wonder kids had to have it! I remember walking down the Barbie aisle of the Giant T Drugstore or Valu-Mart and being overwhelmed by the dazzling display of Barbie clothes in those striped boxes hanging from the wall and how they were just waiting to be ripped open! It got me thinking, why not just give Bill a “fashion” for one of his existing monkeys? His costume as Orpheus was really basic – white jeans and a white tunic – so the magic of what I wanted to do was going to be in the accessories. Anyone who collects vintage dolls or action figures knows that assembling the accessories to an outfit is the fun/frustrating part and what can really make the cost skyrocket. Focusing on the accessories also let me get crafty, which I love too. I decided Orpheus would need his tunic (he had white pants for “Dodge”), medallion, lyre, golden apple and blindfold. And, I wanted the tunic, medallion and blindfold to be correctly scaled so the monkey could actually wear them if they ever came out of the package – yeah, I know, a bit too obsessive, but look at the stuff I make!
- Medallion: easy – my buddy Marc in the Props Dept. had a drilled gold coin for me to use and I picked up the chain in a thrift store.
- Golden Apple: easy too – an apple from a faux centerpiece at the thrift store painted gold.
- Lyre: kind of tricky. Everything I found was way too big or way too small. I finally settled on the lyre you’d use on a clarinet or trumpet to hold your music in marching band. Back to buddy Marc who took all the welded stuff off of it for me so I’d just have the lyre itself, then I glued straight pins on the back for the “strings.”
- Blindfold: easy, but with a bit of work. I ended up using a black sheer nylon because the original black jersey piece I’d made looked too dark and thick when packaged. The sheer reads as “lighter” in the package, and it’s a bit more theatrical and is something we would actually use on stage so a performer could see through it.
- Tunic: pretty easy because I had leftover scraps from Bill’s actual costume, I just had to sew it together. The most difficult part of the construction was to have it open in back so it could go over a monkey’s head if it needed to. For those of you who sew, I’d like to point out that the opening has a continuous lap placket – something I’ve learned to do recently and am damn proud of having actually done it! I’m using it a lot now because it gives a much more finished look to sock monkey garments (particularly the tail opening in skirts and pants), and it worked out great here.
The most fun I had with this was putting it all together. I used blue poster board so the items would stand out more, and blue was used as a predominant costume color in the show. I made a header card with some information about the “product”, and added the stock #0312 – March 2012 – to commemorate the production date, and as an homage to the old doll packaging. The finished piece measures about 11″ x 16″ and is complete with a hole in the header card to hang it for “sale” at the store. I gave it to Bill on closing night of the show and it was nearly as a big a hit as he was. And yes, working on this project made me start hunting for those NRFB (Never Removed From Box) vintage Barbie doll clothes I never had when I was a kid. If only I’d had a checking account when I was five years old…..
Even if you don’t know who George and Ira Gershwin are, or have never seen a production of Porgy and Bess, you know their music. So much of the work, which was actually conceived as an opera by George Gershwin, is so ingrained in the American popular songbook that once you hear a few notes of any of the great songs like Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So, you can hum along. The work itself presents a lot of difficulties – not just from the sheer size of the cast, the different sets and the overall complexity of it, but also the political and racial questions that come from a work that’s about African Americans living in a tenement that’s written by two New York Jews and a Southern white man, DuBose Heyward.
Thankfully, our society has changed a lot since the opera’s debut in 1935, and I was excited to spend my summer working on the Seattle Opera production with a favorite baritone, Gordon Hawkins. Gordon is an amazing artist. He won the Luciano Pavarotti International Vocal Competition in 1992. He has a powerful voice with a rare ability to make it emotionally heartbreaking and tender. I actually cried backstage a couple times listening to him and the pain and longing he conveyed as the disabled beggar, Porgy – just too beautiful!
Of course, I wanted to do a sock monkey for him, but I was a bit gun shy after preparing my show for the “New Visions” exhibit at McCaw Hall (see my post about “Verboten”). I thought the best way to proceed was to tell Gordon I wanted to make a Porgy for him, and let him decide if it was OK. He was all for it!
I pushed myself to add a lot of details to this character. I found a crutch from a ski set for the American Girls doll line that was the perfect size for him. I wrapped it with cloth strips from a favorite old shirt of mine, added some bits of leather and distressed it. The result came really close to the actual stage version he used, and with the club foot I gave him, he needed that crutch. My boss, Ron, helped me distress the pants and the wool I used to make the cardigan. I added a removable hankie to his cardigan
pocket, and leather tabs to his suspenders, trying to bring it as close as possible to the costume worn on stage. The most fun I had was making a felt fedora for him. I made my own pattern and kept cutting it down until it fit just right, added a hat band and distressed it.
The production was terrific – for the most part, it was an entirely new group of performers who’d never sung at Seattle Opera before, and they brought a refreshing energy and enthusiasm to the show every night. The first costume change I had backstage with Gordon was primarily an instrumental point in the show with little singing. I went a bit early to the change each night – I felt completely immersed in and surrounded by this lush, gorgeous Gershwin sound. I could hear bits of other Gershwin pop songs throughout the orchestration, and a little Rhapsody in Blue every now and then – absolute heaven!
Porgy and Bess is one of the most beautiful and fun productions I’ve worked since my first show at SO in 2002. I wish they were all like that –
If people aren’t familiar with lesser-known Broadway musicals, they usually think you’re talking about something risque if you mention the show Once Upon a Mattress. That’s too bad, because it’s a funny, family-friendly show that earned a young Carol Burnett a TONY award nomination for best actress when it premiered in 1959. An adaptation of the classic fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the musical has attracted a large amount of star power over its 50+ years for various Broadway, national tour and television versions, including Buster Keaton, Ken Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elliot Gould, Imogene Coca, Bernadette Peters, Wally Cox, Jack Gilford, Dody Goodman, Matthew Morrison, Jane Krakowski, Zooey Deschanel and Tracey Ullman.
Of course, this is an ideal show for high school theatre productions as you can put as many kids in the chorus as you like, the set isn’t too complicated, the dance numbers are comical and the music isn’t too difficult to sing. So this fall when my step-daughter Jessica was cast in her high school’s version of the show, we were proud and excited for her. And you can imagine one of the first places my brain went – sock monkey!
Jessica was to play Lady Mabelle, one of Lady Larken’s maids in waiting. She’s French and pretty much only ever says “yes”, but I think that any time a character you play has a name and you’re not just listed as “ensemble”, it’s a big deal. Jessica’s drama department doesn’t have much of a budget, so the kids had to supply their own costumes, which they ordered online. I only had a black and white photo to work with, so I found out from her mom that the dress was made of deep blue and black velvet with gold trim. I had never sewn with velvet before and it sucked! Later on my costume shop friends were all saying “Oh, you should have basted it together before sewing it,” but of course, they didn’t give me that tip until I had fought and cursed my way through the project.
Jessica has tons of beautiful, wavy brunette hair, and she looked quite beautiful in her costume. Although it’s difficult to capture beauty in a sock monkey, I tried my best with giving her big brown eyes (vintage buttons from Aunt Fofo’s button box) and some flirty eyelashes. As she is a lady, she wears satin petti-pants trimmed in lace, and I did my best to make her yarn wig look something like the style she wore her hair in for the show. The sock monkey version is really sweet, and I loved sending off and surprising her with it. I have hopes that Jessica will continue her interest in theatre and maybe even pursue a career in it. I just hope she doesn’t have to sew much with velvet.
Have you ever had a situation where you do/say/create something with a certain intent (or no intent), then somebody else comes along and puts their own spin on it and completely changes your original idea into something you never intended or never actually even imagined somebody would think of when you originated that thought or idea? Such is the case with VERBOTEN – the sock monkey that dare not show her face.
During a production of Lucia di Lamermoor at Seattle Opera last season, it was our good fortune to have among the supernumaries Miss Rosetta Greek. Rosetta is one of the coolest, most creative people I know – she is the kick-ass proprietress of Heavens To Betsie, and a very talented actress. She also inspired me to start my own sock monkeys after she created the beautiful Mermonkey, Atlantis, a few years ago. So it wasn’t difficult to decide I wanted to make a sock monkey for Rosetta based on her character, The Love-Cursed Bride, in the opera.
I wanted to do something different for this monkey – a different look and I wanted it to be special for Rosetta. I found a pair of gray, vintage socks I thought would be perfect for a ghost, I had some lovely silk for the wedding gown and matching gloves (trimmed with real vintage mother-of-pearl buttons from Aunt Fofo’s button box), I made her a real boned corset, some lace-trimmed bloomers and I hand beaded the veil similar to what was on her original costume. She is beautiful! But that’s not quite the end of the story.
As you’ve seen from my other posts, I had a show at McCaw Hall during the opera’s production of Porgy and Bess over the summer. I submitted photos of my work and I got the green light that I was chosen to exhibit. Then the problems began. When you assemble a sock monkey, the heel becomes the head, face and mouth of it. My ghostly gray sock had a black heel, so the monkey had a black head, face and mouth. I received an email a couple weeks before the show that the Ghost Bride would not be allowed in the show because it would “potentially offend patrons.” Huh? This was followed by another email a few days later telling me I could not refer to my work as “sock monkeys” because the term “monkey” was used to negatively refer to African Americans. Wow. And this is 2011?
I found it rather difficult to believe that anyone was going to look at my work and read it as offensive (so not what this project/endeavor has ever been about), but I offered to call them “sock puppets” (even thought they’re not) and be done with it. I did find it interesting that the Seattle Opera’s blog showed photos of the Ghost Bride and referred to my work as sock monkeys, but then I wasn’t in charge of that, was I?
Anyway, the show got a lot of positive feedback, Rosetta was thrilled with her monkey, my friend Rozarii did an amazing photo of her, and I think she’s still my favorite. After all the “trouble” she caused, Rosetta decided to name her Verboten, which I think is absolutely perfect. And just in case you’re wondering, they were called sock monkeys when they were invented 70+ years ago and they have tails like real monkeys do. What do you think?