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One Class, One Day: BU’s Own Project Runway

How to stitch together a million-dollar suit


In the slide show above, follow along as students learn how to construct a men’s suit jacket in Nancy Leary’s course Costume Production II. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Welcome to Costume Production II, a required course for both undergraduate and graduate costume design and costume production majors. Students taking the course construct a three-piece men’s suit from the 19th or the 20th century — this semester the jacket, next semester the matching pants and vest.

The class is tucked away in the costume shop in the Boston University Theatre, a 10-minute bus ride from the Charles River Campus, on Huntington Avenue. Nancy Leary, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of production and design, walks in at 2 p.m. on the dot. Most students have been there since 1:30 or earlier, getting a head start.

At the beginning of the semester, the class studied different kinds of men’s suits. Some decided to create the traditional garb, while others aimed for a military or a Victorian look.

“Today we’re working on the structure for our jackets,” Leary tells the class. They are working with haircloth, fabric that creates the interlining of a fine suit, the layer underneath that supports the exterior.

Leary draws a large rectangular outline on the board, demonstrating where proper cuts should be placed in the fabric. “Now take your fabric, and cut it half an inch bigger around — half inch, half inch,” she says, making notches on the board.

There’s a flutter as students begin measuring and cutting. Questions range from where to begin to where the pockets go. Most students have a pair of scissors draped across their chest on a string like tailors, always ready to make a cut.

Leary tells everyone to do a pad stitch to combine different layers of fabric, working right to left. The class looks at her blankly. “No one knows what a pad stitch is?” she asks. “I’ll show you.”

She grabs her materials: thread, fabric laying on the nearby table, a cardboard cylinder salvaged from a lumberyard, cut in half to mimic a shoulder. She demonstrates a stitch that to the untrained eye doesn’t look different from any other. But it serves a distinct purpose: holding multiple layers of fabric together.

Everyone seems engrossed in what they’re doing. With plenty of tangible materials to work with, there is no text messaging, no Soduku being played under notebooks.

Graduate student Erik Teague (CFA’11) is creating a double-breasted 1920s-waisted suit for himself. After working on a theater production set in the 1920s, he became engrossed in the period. “We worked off of vintage drafts,” he says. “There was lots of math and measurements.”

The fit of a suit from a previous century is different from that of a modern suit. For example, the seat of the pants wasn’t as snug then. Teague must take this into consideration when he calculates his measurements.

Students went to New York City to find their fabrics, shopping at Mood Designer Fabrics or New York Elegant Fabrics, the same places the crew on Project Runway goes. Every suit needs between six and seven yards of fabric.

After the tutorial, students keep working until class is over. They still have to make arms and pockets, but that’s for another week.

“It’s kind of like a little puzzle,” Leary says. “It’s not too hard once you take all the mystery out of it — it’s just a matter of cutting a few pieces and putting them together.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.


One Comment on One Class, One Day: BU’s Own Project Runway

  • kcornuelle on 11.12.2009 at 9:26 am

    wow… this is a ridiculously interesting story! I only wish we could see what the finished suits look like (pictures next semester? maybe?).

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