My Interesting Job: Costume Maker

Natasha Freeman assumed she would have a career in womenswear design, but an art foundation course and a degree in costume making soon landed her a job in the film industry. Since then, she’s worked on major productions like ‘The Crown’ and ‘Star Wars’. Whether she’s crafting an Elizabethan doublet or a superhero suit, no one day is the same. Here she talks to SL writer Mary-Jane Wiltsher about pattern cutting, early starts, and what it’s like to spend a day on a movie set.

From a young age, I loved clothes and dressing up. My mum was a fashion designer and taught me to sew, and I adored the ballet and theatre. Fashion seemed to be the obvious career – and it didn’t occur to me that costume-making was an actual job until I arrived at the London College of Fashion. I was on the womenswear course but lived with a costume student. Suffice to say I ended up being much more interested in her work than mine.

My first job was working on a movie with Kate Winslet. The production was called A Little Chaos. Before that, I spent several years as a freelance costume maker for theatre. Since then I've been lucky enough to work on incredible film and TV projects like The Crown, Star Wars Episode 9, Black Widow, Artemis Fowl, Fantastic Beasts and Justice League.

My day starts early. I arrive at the studio at 7.30am before work starts properly at 8am. We’re a team made up of smaller groups – usually around five people. Everything kicks off with an informal briefing from our cutter, who is the head of the team. 

Day-to-day, it’s my job to work with the cutter and a team of makers. Our team get given a design, which we then make into a real, functioning garment. This involves sampling patterns, techniques, and materials, until we have something that the costume designer, actor and director are all happy with. 

Because every project is different, there’s no such thing as a typical day. My favourite part of the process is planning how a garment is made. It’s the most creative stage and involves a lot of problem solving. 

Not every costume will make it to the screen. One of my favourite jobs was making the crowd costumes for a sci-fi film. We made some incredible 70s-inspired fake fur and quilted costumes, but on the first day of filming the director decided to go in a completely different direction and none of the pieces made the final cut. It happens more than you might imagine.

Walking around a film studio is so much fun. I might pass someone testing out explosions or special effects, a spaceship being built, a stuntman in a wind tunnel, or the Batmobile going for a test drive. One of my favourite sets was the Paris one in Fantastic Beasts. There were loads of quirky shops down back alleys and beautiful buildings with elaborately dressed store windows. 

I also really enjoyed working on The Crown. I loved making all the late 50s and early 60s clothes, as it’s one of my favourite periods for fashion. There were so many elegant ball gowns, and plenty of women’s tailoring – plus, a massive under-the-sea themed ball scene, for which we made headdresses, accessories and clothes.

My last project was a well-known comic book franchise. Superhero costumes are always a technical challenge as they involve lots of materials, complex patterns, rubberised printing and moulded components. You have to make a lot of repeat costumes, too. It’s a big team effort – there could be 40 people working on costumes for just one character – for several months.

One of the biggest perks of the job is the travel. While working on Outlander I relocated to Scotland and was able to go horse-riding on my lunch breaks, in between working on beautiful 18th century dresses. That said, I’m still waiting for that dream job somewhere warm and sunny.

DES WILLIE/NETFLIX/KOBAL/SHUTTERSTOCK
DES WILLIE/NETFLIX/KOBAL/SHUTTERSTOCK
I also really enjoyed working on 'The Crown'. I loved making all the late 50s and early 60s clothes, as it’s one of my favourite periods for fashion.

It isn’t all glamour. There are lots of long hours spent in workrooms and lengthy commutes to and from out-of-the-way studios. On the flip side, I love that I'm always learning a new skill. Every costume carries its own unique challenges and I’m constantly working with new materials or meeting new people. 

Discretion is a really important part of the job. All elements of film production have to be kept under wraps for months – maybe years – and costume makers are often required to sign NDAs.

You also need an eye for detail. Everything we do is shot close up in HD and then shown on a massive screen, so there’s no room for mistakes. You also have to be good at problem-solving and teamwork. Everything in the film industry is one big collective effort. 

Having a degree in costume making or design is important. It will give you the skills needed to create anything – from an Elizabethan doublet to a superhero suit. Wimbledon College of Arts gave me a fantastic grounding in all elements of costume making, from pattern cutting and dress history, to embroidery and tailoring.

It was these skills which helped me fix the worst mistake I ever made. Accidentally, I cut a hole in a lead actor’s waistcoat. There was only just enough fabric, so I couldn't re-cut it. I was too scared to tell my boss, so I fixed it as neatly and invisibly as I could and hoped no one would notice. It was a patterned fabric, which helped. Somehow, I got away with it.

A happier moment was when I first saw my work on a billboard. It was a principle costume worn by the lead actor in a film based on a video game. There were over 1,000 beads on his costume and lots of embroidery. We had to make 14 identical copies of it, too. 

I never sew at home. In fact, it will probably surprise people to hear I don't have a working sewing machine. But I have started knitting and am working on a mint green mohair lacework cardigan with gold bumblebee buttons. As a beginner, this is proving quite the challenge.

On weekends, I roam Hackney with my husband and our dog Matcha. We’ll head out for breakfast at a local café and walk up to Hackney Marshes or along the canal, stopping at Broadway Market or Columbia Road Flower Market. 

Ultimately, my goal is to retire to the country. I’ll make my own yarn, create my own knitting patterns, and hopefully turn my new life into a business.

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