Storytelling That Starts with a Stitch

New Course Alert: Costume Design

Kim Griffin, who created costumes for Bye Bye Birdie, the upcoming The Comedy of Errors, and other Poly productions, is sharing her expertise with Upper School students in Poly’s new Costume Design course.

Griffin has previously worked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, New Jersey Repertory Theatre, Florida Repertory Theatre, Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, and Ohio Light Opera, among others. She has stitched for The Met Gala, New York Fashion Week, The Golden Globes, Broadway shows, and national tours.

Starting with a Stitch

On a recent Sewing Day in the class, 14 students pulled gray Singer sewing machines down from a shelf to share at tables in the Joey conference room. 

For the sewing portion of the class, Griffin had explained, “We will be learning how to hand sew and use a sewing machine. By the end of the semester, they will have completed a pair of pajamas to showcase their skills.”

The class is an introduction to costume design for theater and live performances. Students will learn to research historical costumes and fashion; develop drawing skills to present ideas and concepts to actors, directors, and costume technicians; and engage in character analysis to assist in storytelling for performers. 

teacher showing student sewing machine technique

Students will also do script analysis for design, proper research practices, drawing as a form of communication along with presentation of those illustrations. There will be three projects that will include designs for a 10-minute play, a “pop-star” touring show, and then designs for a musical yet to be determined.”

A Design Course First

For the first time, Poly is offering an exciting costume design course to provide our students the opportunity to learn directly from the costume professional designing the mainstage productions,” Head of Arts Michael S. Robinson said. “Kim Griffin brings a connection to the fashion industry, as well. She has worked on New York Fashion Week shows in addition to her professional theater experience. When I was a young teacher at Poly in the ’90s, I designed costumes for our productions and ran a small costume shop, and I had proposed a costume course back then, so I am super thrilled that Poly can offer this addition to our arts curriculum this year!”

Learning to Sew

At the start of a recent Sewing Day class, Griffin cut squares of fabric for students to use to practice their hand sewing while waiting for their turns on the machines. 

In the first exercise, students practiced threading the bobbin on the machine. Wyatt Jung ’24 deftly threaded the bobbin on his machine. His skills may have been enhanced at Poly where Jung previously took Laura Coppola’s Art & Social Change class in which she taught the class several embroidery stitches. In that class, students embroidered an image of a historical figure using the stitches to express social justice issues. 

“I have been sewing for a few years,” Jung explained. “I took classes at the Brooklyn Sewing Academy and did a sewing and constructing college-level course last summer at Parsons.”

Although he has not worked backstage at Poly, Jung said he is “enjoying learning about different types of design and sewing projects.” He added,  I’m hoping to learn a range of different sewing skills and designing costumes that have a certain purpose or have to fit a theme.” 

Costume design collage

While students worked, in the background, on the SMART Board, a video demonstrated the “top 5 hand stitches,” which are: the running stitch, back stitch, slip stitch, blind hem, and catch stitch.

Students Gain Creative Insight

Among the class was Stavroula Gabriel ’25, who performed in last spring’s Upper School musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, her sixth Poly show. Although Gabriel does not have a background in costume design, she took the class to learn more about the process. “I love to participate in performances here at Poly,” she said, “so this class will teach me more about the steps that are taken to design and make the costumes we wear on stage.” 

Isabelle Gerling ’25 has performed in eight Poly plays or musicals including Clue, The Outsider: New Short Plays, Curtains, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and so has been part of the costume fittings. “I have watched my costumes be coordinated and hemmed and found it so interesting,” Gerling said. She added that she “found the whole process really interesting and wanted to see the work that goes into creating costumes.  I want to learn about the process of making characters come to life with costumes.”

Girls with sewing machine laughing
Costume Design Projects
close up hand stitching

In a subsequent class, students were presenting renderings of costume designs for characters from various eras such as the French Revolution or Civil War. For the French Revolution, this might mean, for example, adding several bows to a dress. Gerling had designs for Civil War era characters that included shawls, simple jewelry, and bows. Another student included an apron on the rendering of her Civil War character. Jung designed outfits with a Ukrainian theme.

For students who would be working on their hand sewing that day, Griffin demonstrated the slip stitch, which she said she had been using while working on the costumes for The Comedy of Errors, the Grades 9&10 play to be presented later this month.

Griffin said the class would next be working on the pop star project. Each student would design five looks for a performer. This would include one slide of a photo of the person and then “five looks for this performer for on tour or performance.” This might include elaborate hairstyles. Griffin encouraged them, “Add a twist of your own. Bedazzle it.”