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…
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?
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.
I am great at starting projects, and I’m great at shopping. This is not always a great combination as I find “must have” new fabric, patterns, vintage craft kits, etc. It often feels like the new project has barely gotten underway when another new thing acquired on a shopping trip takes its place. This results in a dresser full of things to finish – granted it’s organized into project bags and well labelled, but it’s still a constant reminder about how easily I can get distracted.
This little hedgehog pincushion is something I started four or five years ago. It began as a vintage 1970s craft kit I found unopened at a yard sale for $2. I loved the sweet and happy look to it, plus I needed a pincushion, so I felt that purchasing it was OK as it had a function and wasn’t another project to work on that I had no idea what I’d do with once it was finished. And I liked it for the fact that it was embroidery and then assembling, so it was “multi-dimensional” skill usage.
The embroidery went quickly, even though some of those flower centers proved tough to keep sewing into with the wool crewel yarn as the thickness built up. I didn’t have a sewing machine at the time, so I thought I’d just hand sew the pieces together, and that’s when the project started to fall apart – I just couldn’t get the seams lined up well enough so they wouldn’t show when I turned it inside out to stuff it. It went in and out of the unfinished project drawer for a couple years, until I tried a new approach at finishing – buying the perfect stuffing! This was emery sand for weight and to keep pins and needles sharpened, but it didn’t move me any closer to finishing, so back to the drawer.
Fast forward to my present avoidance of working on the five different sock monkeys I have started, and I decided to hit the temple of unfinished business. Not just for something to work on, but to hopefully inspire sock monkey sewing again. I started by taking out all my hand sewing, and put the hedgehog together by machine sewing. It didn’t go right the first time, but it was much faster and easier to whittle down that seam allowance mark by machine, rather than by hand. Next I made a couple “pillows” of emery sand to pop in his nose and tummy. I used a double layer of muslin so the sand wouldn’t leak out. Finally, I stuffed fiberfill around the pillows and sewed him up.
Finished result: adorable and functional! And one less piece of unfinished business in my craft zone. But as I’ve come to learn all too well, nature abhors a vacuum, and garage sale season is about to be in full swing – time to reload!
I’ve temporarily run out of steam on my sock monkey production. Well actually, I have five different monkeys in various states of doneness at the moment and I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed by it. And when I feel overwhelmed, I procrastinate! Enter the Easter crafting….
I picked up these “finger puppet” kits at the craft store, on sale for $1.50. The kits contained four felt figures, an assortment of precut flowers and “ties”, a few rhinestones, craft sticks and the pattern for where to glue the bits on. I thought the kit was a good jumping off point, but I wanted more. Being the committed thrifter and garage saler that I am, I have loads of extra crafting bits – vintage sequins, novelty beads, felt and googly eyes to name a few – that I thought would be the perfect enhancers to bump up the volume on these kits. It also meant not following the “how to” pattern. I’m not against all-out cute, but I also wanted to balance it with some funny and kooky.
With a few extra hours to kill at work and a big bottle of white glue, I cranked these out the other night in between costume changes on Don Pasquale. I plan to use a couple on the coconut cake I’m baking for dessert on Easter Sunday. Can’t you just see the snowy white coconut piled on the cake, with just a small bit of coconut tinted green in the center of the cake for a bunny or chick to stand on? Right now the strongest candidate is the chicky with the psychedelic eyes, with a close 2nd going to the pink bunny with the glittery lei –
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 –
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?