I’d like to introduce ‘Meeting Makers’ as a new series of interviews with random people I meet who sew, knit or make anything that I think is brilliant and inspiring. This series is likely to be ad hoc, as it will rely on my ability to bump into creatives! I do have a knack for sniffing them out, though. First up, a local lad…
James is an artist and splits his time between London – where he works and exhibits his art – and Manchester, where he teaches art students. The man’s talented, what can I tell ya? Don’t even ask about his curry-making abilities…
If all of that doesn’t keep James busy enough, he recently decided to sew his own fancy dress costume from scratch, exploiting all the fabric opportunities that Walthamstow market has to offer. Here is his story.
First things first, James. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for your brilliant badger costume?
I find with fancy dress it is best to channel your inner child and not take yourself too seriously. So, where better for inspiration than your little brother? Over many years of silliness, jokes and loving rivalry we have coined many nicknames for each other; while he has been known affectionately as ‘Quakers’, I have been ‘Badge’. I would be lying if I told you I knew exactly where these names came from or why they were dreamed up, but somehow they have stuck. So when invited to a fancy dress party titled, ‘If you go down to the woods today…’ I immediately wanted to be a badger!
Making a fancy dress costume of this particular short-legged member of the weasel family has two distinct advantages. Firstly it is generally black and white meaning the material will be cheap and easy to source and secondly, with its stripes is very easily recognisable and this is always a bonus with fancy dress. I just can’t stand those costumes which consist of a bit of face paint explained by the statement “I’ve come as a sexy (insert relevant cute animal here)” or guys who buy a mask on the way to the party and then spend the entire evening removing it to drink from their can of preferred beverage. It is such a shame, because fancy dress can be a brilliant opportunity to spend an evening being a different you. It is exactly the same as getting dressed up in a dinner jacket or wearing team colours to a rugby match, a bonding experience that often develops into a great occasion.
How did the fabric vendors of Walthamstow market react to a six-foot man and sewing novice going to buy fabric from them?
With some bemusement! I walked into, around and straight out of Saeed’s fabric shop, stopping only to mumble, ‘No thanks, just looking,’ when asked, ‘Can I help you with anything sir?’. I was looking for something fluffy and, if at all possible, slightly stretchy. The ever-surprising Walthamstow market provided me with a 2 x 1.5 metre black acrylic fleece blanket, a bargain at £9.50 even though there was not a natural fibre in sight!
Can you tell us something behind the process of putting this beauty together? Did you use a pattern or wing it?
A pattern… I have to admit, I’ve never used one of those. I am afraid this costume is more a cleverly disguised sack than a fitted garment. What was exciting was that after a decade of hand sewing costumes, this was my first experience of a sewing machine. What a machine it was, an incredible 50 year-old hand-operated Singer machine. It used to belong to Amy’s grandmother, passed down the maternal side and although temperamental it is still in working order.
The body and legs went together surprisingly quickly. To get the desired short legs I wanted to drop the crotch to knee height – the young’uns would be proud – so I decided simply to make a tube, 2 metres in length, and by cutting a vertical slit front and back in the tube, about a quarter of the way up from the bottom I could then form the two legs by joining together the loose edges.
Once together, I had to make some adjustments, I let the back out with a vertical triangular flap that allowed my shoulders to fit comfortably and it doubled as the means of getting in and out again. The headgear was next; I used a flat cap as a skeleton for the shape and I guessed at the 7 panels that make the dome of the head. It was trial, error and ongoing adjustment rather than a set design. I quite like that process of not really knowing what or how I am making something, and just living on my wits to bring it together.
Did your art background help at all, constructing this costume?
Yes, because this process of adjustment and blind creation is how I try to paint, finding out as I go. The other thing my painting practice helps me with when sewing is the patience and bloody mindedness required to see a project through. I made the costume in just over 24 hours with only breaks for sleep and cooking a meal (not a curry this time, Karen).
The simple reason why I paint is because I enjoy making things; in art you can see a project all the way through from initial idea, building and priming canvasses, to making the painting itself and on to reflecting in writing about it, and even delivering it to galleries. You can take ownership of every stage. I love the satisfaction that comes from turning your own effort and dedication into something tangible. Indulging the enjoyment of making something is why I enjoy sewing fancy dress costumes. It’s about revelling in the making of something outside of the academic rigour and seriousness of creativity when it is allied to a profession.
Most importantly of all, did you win First Prize for your fancy dress costume?
No prizes on offer I am afraid to say, just the warm satisfied feeling inside that I had not cobbled something together, ‘Blue Peter-style’ out of duct tape and lollypop sticks. Oh, and by the way, a fancy dress party in my opinion is the only permissible public occasion for a man to be seen in a onesie!
I think James is an inspiration to us all, readers. I love his fearlessness, his thoughts on patience and application, how outfits bond people, and the simple fact that he wanted to make something and blooming well went for it! Have any of you made an awesome fancy dress costume recently? Can you better the badger?!