Where’s My Basement When I Need It?


Down in my parents’ basement, beside the ever-growing selection of camping and canoeing gear, there is a large series of wooden shelves that line one wall of the den. From floor to ceiling, these shelves are the location of the assorted fabric, notions, craft supplies, and woodworking supplies that my mother (with some help from my sister and I!) has accumulated over the last twenty-odd years. It’s somewhat of a combination of a costume shop and a hardware store: if you need a screwdriver, bit, nail, screw, hammer, length of wire, pliers, wrench, or tape measure, it’s in a (messy) box on these shelves; if you need a needle, button, zipper, length of lace, crochet hook, knitting needle, or pattern, it’s also in a (similarly messy) box on these shelves. And where there are no boxes, there are piles and piles of fabric: white chiffon, cream fleece, grey and red suede, navy blue (and white and green and red and black) broadcloth, deep purple satin, bright blue lycra … We’ve never made an inventory of everything on those shelves, and – since it’s basically the remnants of the last couple decades’ sewing projects – it changes regularly, but the first step in any sewing or costuming project I’ve done in the last eight years has inevitably started with “Let’s look in the basement.”

(And if you need a circuit board, motors, LEDs, diodes, resistors, capacitors, amplifiers, piezo transducers, light bulbs, switches, battery holders, buzzers, or microphones, those are also in the basement. Admittedly in a different room and on a different – but still messy – shelf. If you want the router, the table saw, or enough space to construct anything, you do have to move to the garage, where the workbench lives.)

Antony and Cleopatra is a good example: when the costume designer dropped out about ten days before the show, leaving absolutely nothing done, the stage manager and I got to pick up the slack, for the simple reason tbat the two of us both knew how to sew.

Toronto being much closer to Ottawa than Oxford is, the first thing I did was hop on a bus and make a quick trip home, with a lengthy list in hand: we needed navy blue, green, gold, and red fabric (check), appropriate colours of thread (check), black and grey cloaks (check), corsets (check), shawls (check), skirts (check), dresses (check), and gold costume jewelry (check). (This was when not having very many lines/scenes became a really good thing: during run-throughs and tech, I spent most of the time in a corner with the sewing machine, popped onstage long enough to say “Hail, Caesar, and my lord! Hail, most dear Caesar …” – and then promptly returned to producing colour-coded army tunics.) The round-trip bus fare – which the production subsidized – was a tiny fraction of the value of the stuff that promptly arrived in Toronto.

Another example: several years ago (age fourteen, I think), I was supposed to play the violin at a funeral, and managed to realize the morning of that I didn’t have any black clothes that still fit. Neither of my parents were at home, which effectively – at the time – ruled out “driving to a store and buying a dress”.

But why panic? There was black fabric and thread in the basement – there’s fabric and thread of pretty much any colour in the basement – and a sewing machine. (To be precise, three sewing machines …) There was even a black zipper of the right length in the notions box. So, four hours later, le voila! Black, stretch velvet, princess-seamed, ankle-length performance dress:


(I still have it and it still fits; one of the advantages of not having changed size since the beginning of high school.)

In short: I’ve been thoroughly spoiled, because whenever things hit the fan, and I or a production desperately needed item X (usually with a budget of $0), I could usually walk down to the basement and – with some creativity, and some improvisation – find either something that would do, or something that would let me create item X within a few hours.

And there’s a part of my brain that still problem-solves as though I have access to that. Need radio for a show? Well, the components to build a functioning one (very useful for getting the news when the power goes out for a week after a snow- or ice-storm) are all in the basement … on the other side of the Atlantic … Need brains for a show? Well, there’s appropriately coloured plasticine and modelling clay (and even a potter’s wheel) in the basement … on the other side of the Atlantic …

This is of course not an insoluble problem; it is possible to go out and buy said materials without too much difficulty. It just takes longer than walking down to the basement and pulling things out of a box, and it actually costs money.

… of course, it’s also more time-consuming to buy things, since in the last few years, one of the largest mall complexes in Ottawa was built on the fields formerly across the street from my house. This conveniently included Home Depot, Future Shop, The Source (Radioshack successor), Canadian Tire, Walmart, Staples, Bulk Barn, Mark’s Work Warehouse, and several gaming & sports stores. So need 6’ long wooden dowel to make a spear in Ottawa? Walk across the street. Need 6’ long wooden dowel to make a spear in Oxford? Embark on epic search to find a store that actually sells lumber, then walk thirty minutes to get there.


Costuming for my first-ever Oxford production has thus been rather enlightening. In true Oxford fashion, the costume budget was nowhere near zero, though also in true Oxford fashion, the prices for fabric are quite a bit higher here. (Fabric that I would pay $2.50 a yard for in the US does cost £2.50 a metre in the UK, even after running through all of my usual tricks for getting inexpensive fabric. Not how exchange rates are supposed to work! If shipping costs were not so exorbitant, I would absolutely start ordering from the US…)

And while I certainly have created my own patterns from scratch before, it’s rarely been necessary: between my own pattern collection, my mother’s pattern collection, my grandmothers’ pattern collections, and the existing costume collection, there’s usually something in the basement that can be used as a basic template (and then adapted – sometimes radically – to get the desired look). So the task of recreating patterns for period dresses, a corset, nightgowns, shirts, collars, trousers, vests, and so forth was certainly an entertaining one.



I was, ultimately, fairly happy with the results – though I would have been even happier if I’d managed to spend less of the production’s money (my version of what constitutes a lot of money is still calibrated for Ottawa, rather than Oxford!), and if I’d gotten measurements from the cast much earlier – last-minute feats of speed-sewing are, while doable, hardly ideal.

I certainly do begin to understand why costumes are, in so many recent Oxford productions I’ve seen, stripped to the bare minimum, or consist almost entirely of items the cast already own: the time required to either source or make period-appropriate costumes, or specialized costumes consistent with an overall design, is somewhat inconsistent with a system that has not entirely learned how to plan (or to make firm creative decisions) months or weeks in advance.


Oh, well. At least I now have a new collection of leftover thread (and buttons, and a few other things) … it did come in handy for sewing, of all things, velcro onto curtains for another production this term. And I suspect that – while it will clearly be capped by the amount of space available in my room! – the more extra notions and random sewing stuff I accumulate on this side of the pond, the easier I will find any future costuming projects.

(Though it will also, inevitably, make moving an … interesting … challenge … the number of books in my room has already provided some incentive for moving as infrequently as possible during my time in Oxford; the sewing machine and assorted accessories are going to add significantly to that!)