A Stitch in Time

A Stitch in Time

Once upon a time, I was a costume designer.  Before that, I was a shy seamstress working in the costume shop of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, dreaming of becoming a costume designer.  At the time I bemoaned the strict orders and high standards of the legendary costumer that I worked for.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much she had taught me, and what an honor it was to have worked under her tutelage.

Annette Garceau began her career in her native London, England as an apprentice to a court dressmaker.  After World War II she was drafted to make costumes for London’s Old Vic Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  In 1953 she joined her theatrical colleagues, including director, Tyrone Guthrie, in Ontario, Canada, where they founded the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. 

Ten years later, Guthrie asked her to accompany him to Minneapolis to begin a theatre that would become the flagship for the American regional theatre movement.  She continued to make costumes at the Guthrie Theatre until she was 89 years old, and outlived all of the original founders.

A costumers job is to create a three-dimensional garment from a designer’s sketch.  Draping, cutting, shaping, and sewing requires skill, as well as imagination and innovation.  Annette’s expertise was renowned, and her techniques became the standard of excellence in top costume shops all over the country.  Period costumes were made with precise attention to detail.  Extensive research was done so that historical costumes looked remarkably like they could actually have been made in their own time.  The inside of a costume was every bit as beautiful and well-made as the outside, even though it would never be seen.

Annette was an imposing theatrical presence…elaborate make-up, including bright red lipstick and eyes heavily lined in black, with curls piled on top of her head…and a clipped British accent that seemed to punctuate the sternness of her demands.  There were rules.  Rules that I usually learned by making mistakes.  Always use a thimble (it enables you to sew faster), only baste in certain colors (baste in red, you’re better off dead), never sew over a pin (time will be wasted if a sewing machine needle is broken.) Above all, never make the same mistake twice.

I absorbed everything, and thrived.  I loved sewing tapes into Camille’s corsets…a 3/8″ binding that had to be stitched meticulously along each edge so that the “bones” would fit into them.  (It was a job that most seamstresses dreaded.) Queen Elizabeth’s neck ruff was a masterpiece of complex architecture, and I eagerly participated in its creation.  Enormous lengths of fabric were shaped into skirts with bustles, and layers of petticoats and undergarments were fabricated to hold them up.  Characters came to life as the actors were fit into their costumes.  It was both exhausting and exhilarating. 

Ultimately, I moved to New York, where I worked at a costume shop founded by another Guthrie alum: Barbara Matera.  Endless lengths of maribou feathers had to be stitched into Dreamgirls capes, and as I sewed, I learned about the world of Broadway.

When I finally became a costume designer, I kept a watchful eye on the construction of my costumes.  I gave strict orders and maintained high standards…and gained the upmost respect of the costumers who brought my drawings to life.  Annette Garceau taught me to sew with perfection, but she also instilled in me the feeling of absolute fulfillment that happens when you do your best work.

The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Annette Garceau
Photographs courtesy of The Guthrie Theatre

Lewis Brown costume sketch for “Camille”


There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Ann at 2:49 pm

    A beautiful and touching story. Thank you for sharing. Thank goodness for people such as these… their work ethics should be passed on with gusto! Three cheers. Good mentors are priceless.