Karen Swinnard can’t walk into a FabricLand from here to Vancouver without being recognized.
She’s not an employee; isn’t a famous clothing designer; heck, she doesn’t even consider herself a sewer. But she is a springtime costume maker, and throughout the year can be seen regularly venturing through the retail fabric outlet’s doors – sometimes two to three times a day.
“I keep telling them they should just give me a key,” Swinnard smiled.
For five years, Swinnard and her mother Joan Blattler have been sewing and designing costumes for the Chilliwack School of Performing Arts (CSOPA) junior program’s spring production.
Come spring, life for these two women stops. They sew in the morning, after work, late into the evenings, every weekend. To date, making nearly 500 costumes in total.
The “costume divas” as they’re known at CSOPA are currently finishing up on the 50+ costumes for this year’s Cinderella production.
But the thing is, these women, they’re not natural sewers. While Blattler loves to get behind a sewing machine, she confesses she’s a bit slow. And Swinnard is the first to admit she’s no Vera Wang.
“The only reason I took sewing in high school was because I had to,” said Swinnard, who works in healthcare. “I always cut corners and I still do.”
But the power of family has a way of twisting one’s arm.
When Swinnard’s daughter Stefanie took on the junior program five years ago, she commissioned her mom and grandma to sew the costumes.
“I thought, how hard could it be,” remembered Swinnard. “A couple of animal suits with zippers, and that would be it.”
Oh how wrong she was. More than 50 costumes, along with brittle nails, finger punctures, hand cramps, and a pair of frazzled brains later, the production was a go.
“I was dark haired five years ago,” laughed Blattler. “But now all that’s here is grey.”
Blattler’s basement, which has been transformed into a sewing room, looks like a bomb was detonated inside. Sewing pins scatter the floor, cutting mats, patterns, fabrics, threads, zippers, beads, lace clutter the tables. A storyboard of costume design ideas line the wall, and a rack of Cinderella-style ball gowns, knights’ suits, and mice knickers is so full it can barely fit another hanger.
Swinnard spends the year scavenging fabric shops looking for deals on patterns, material, embellishments and other such accoutrements. Instead of quality fabrics, they’ve used slippery and fuzzy materials for costumes, and once, they even made a tree costume out of hard-to-use upholstery fabric, because “it was a great deal.”
“It would be nice to use quality fabrics, but with our budget, that’s not always possible,” said Swinnard.
They’ve also cut costs by tracing out every size of a pattern before cutting it out. But because the junior program’s age group is between six to nine years old, many of the patterns have to be altered or custom-made to fit their petite bodies. Especially for boys.
“There’s nothing for boys,” said Swinnard.
But this year, it was the young Cinderella who gave them their greatest challenge. With a waist practically the size of a toothpick, no dress pattern would fit. And so, the costume divas made an adult ball gown, the bodice of which they pinned to the little starlet’s body and then re-sewed to fit her size.
Despite the challenges, near disasters and added grey hairs they face every year, they keep coming back for more.
Because of the kids.
“Kids are so honest in their reaction; they put on a costume and it transforms who they are,” said Swinnard. “One girl, as soon as she had the costume on, she started rubbing her tummy and flapping her wings, totally unaware of her actions – they live for this.”
CSOPA’s Cinderella runs from May 31 to June 3 at Chilliwack Arts Centre. For tickets, call 604-792-9469 or visit the website at www.csopa.ca.