How did you begin to sew and how did it lead to you being the Hollywood Seamstress?
I’ve been sewing since I was a little girl—sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s sewing room, pulling bright colored buttons and threads from her sewing kit. Most of my childhood was spent with a needle in hand until I finally convinced my parents to buy me a sewing machine for my twelfth birthday.
With the speed and ease of a sewing machine, my passion took full flight. I started making costumes for myself as a cosplayer through grade school, got an apprenticeship at my local theater in High School, then studied costume design and construction at California Institute of the Arts.
After graduation, I joined Local 705 Motion Picture Costumers Union while working with Bill Hargate Costumes in Hollywood. I was lucky enough to work with an amazing group of pattern makers and seamstresses there.
I started documenting my work on Instagram to show people that this was a career path. Many people know what a Costume Designer is, but few imagine the people who fabricate the costumes.
What kind of sewing machine do you use for work? Do you have a different one at home?
Most often I use industrial sewing machines. I can go from silk to leather on the same day so I need a very well-tuned, sturdy machine. We also work very fast! I sew on an industrial Juki, an overlock, and even a cover stitch machine.
These are all pretty standard in our industry costume shops. I’m so used to them and I have a full set up at home too.
When I’m on set doing alterations or repairs for the day I bring a Bernina Record. It’s a great machine. Mine is a bit older but so reliable. I get it tuned up every six months so it’s in perfect working order and ready to go at a moment’s call. Sometimes I get a call to sew on set the night before, or even day-of if it’s an emergency.
When you have to work on a set, how do you get your sewing supplies transported?
It depends. I keep the industrial machines at home and travel with my domestic sewing machines. When I fly I bring them as my carry on. When I’m driving to a local set, I load them into my car.
I have a big red wagon that I load my car kit into and wheel the whole lot to wherever I’m setting up.
What was your favorite costume to create?
I can’t pick just one – I’ve made so many fun costumes over the years. Working on superhero suits for a slew of Marvel and DC Comics movies, silly gag costumes for kids shows like The Thundermans, sewing reproduction blouses and skirts for “Marilyn Monroe” in Blonde, and of course all the leotards I’ve made for GLOW.
It’s always a new adventure when my phone rings for a gig. I never know what will cross my workbench next.
In addition to sewing costumes, what other kinds of work do you do for the costume industry?
I only make costumes – pattern making, sewing, embroidery, knitting, and any fiber arts related stuff. Making is my passion!
There are so many specialties in the costume industry that we are covered by our own union, IATSE Local 705, the Motion Picture Costumers Union. When you are a member, you pick a specialty. If you want to make costumes, you only make costumes and you are a Custom Made Costumer.
The members who dress actors and shop for ready-made costumes and so much more are called Finished Costumers. We can’t do their work, they can’t do ours. You dedicate yourself to your craft.
Costume Designers have another union, The Costume Designers Guild, IATSE Local 892. You can be a member of both unions. So if you also enjoy designing, you could work as a Costume Designer too, just not on the same show!
What other crafts do you enjoy?
I love everything about fiber arts. I knit, crochet, dye fabric, embroider, macramé, weave, make dolls… the list is never-ending because I’m constantly falling in love with a new craft!
How do you store your tools? Is there one, in particular, you have trouble with?
I store my tools in my sewing studio.
There’s never enough room for the bolts of fabric, those are always all over the place!
Besides OLFA, what are your go-to sewing tools?
I’m really enjoying the Oliso Smart Iron, and their Mini Iron for taking to the set. They are so cheerful and well designed.
What kind of education path did you take to prepare you for this career?
I attended the California Institute of the Arts for Costume Design. I specialized in costume construction and pattern making. I ran out of sewing and pattern making classes pretty quickly, so I did an independent study with the in-house Patternmaker and sewist, Tanya Lee.
I also took extra classes at our local Trade School, Los Angeles Trade Tech. They have amazing garment pattern making and sewing classes, and it’s so affordable!
What might surprise readers about your business or career path?
Sometimes a costume is made super-fast, like overnight fast! If a script changes, the costumes can change too.
I’ve made gowns in 6 hours, leotards over a lunch break, and hemmed pants while the actor was wearing them.
It takes a lot of people to get a costume from design to the screen. Often people think the Costume Designers shop for the fabric and make it. In reality, I work closely with a Costume Designer to bring their vision to life. We go over sketches, references, fabric options, and then the Costume Designer or another member of the costume department sources the materials for the costume.
Once everything is back in the shop, I can get to work making the costume. Sometimes I pattern and sew it all myself, or there could be twenty Custom Made Costumers working in a shop for a big movie! Every project has different needs.
This is me on a very early morning after a previous late night – costumes gotta get done, the show must go on!
Do your children sew?
My three-year-old daughter loves to play at sewing. It’s very sweet.
She collects little bits of fabric from around my studio and sits next to an old toy Singer sewing machine for hours. I look forward to teaching her as she gets a bit older. She can already hand sew a bit with a big darning needle and some yarn!
You’ll always find ____ in my fridge.
Follow Jessica on Instagram: @Hollywoodseamstress