A weblog about theatrical drapery and stage curtains for Production Managers, Set Designers, Custom Drapery Resellers, and local/school/church Productions
One of the things I love about working at Sew What are all of the fun and interesting projects that we work on. I’ve shown you photos of many of our more traditional drapes, such as Austrians, but I thought it would be enjoyable to start a continuing series on some of the more unusual projects we have done over the years. So, here is the first one:
World’s Largest Beach Towel
Back in the summer of 2006, we were asked by a customer, “Hey. I know you make terrific custom stage curtains, but what about making a huge beach towel?” Specifically, he wanted us to make a beach towel measuring 131 feet x 78 feet, in contention for the Guinness World Records™ award for World’s Largest Beach Towel. Though we had never made such a thing, we said “Of course!” and set about it. Here is what it took:
- Finding a source for 1,200 yards of true cotton terry towel cloth, all in a single dye lot
- Sewing together 1,200 yards of fabric into a single item - just manuevering it around our sewing shop was a challenge.
- Handpainting the logo design onto the towel according to the artwork proof provided by the customer
Pretty amazing, isn’t it? It is one I will always remember.
Oh, and did I mention that that it required a large wheeled forklift to get it onto the beach in Hermosa, California?
You may not realize it, but if you have gone to the theatre, you have probably experienced the magic of sharkstooth scrim (the material used to make scrims). A scrim is a commonly used piece of stage curtain magic. Due to the scrim fabric’s unique capabilities, when lit correctly from the front, a scrim appears opaque. When the front light is turned off, however, and objects behind the scrim are lit, the fabric appears transparent. So, from the audience’s perspective, it appears as if the stage is completely empty and then suddenly, like magic, the scene behind the scrim gradually appears into view.
In addition, sharkstooth scrim fabric, with its rectangular weave, is dense enough to provide a dye-painting surface and still become transparent when back-lit, therefore making it an extremely versatile piece of stage scenery.
My concern is, how long will sharkstooth scrim remain available? Scrims are typically sewn as seamless, so that there are no seams in the fabric to interfere with the “trick of the light.” The most common way to utilize sharkstooth scrim is to sew it “railroaded,” meaning that the width of the fabric becomes the height of the finished scrim (allowing for top and bottom finishes). As a result, in order to make a scrim that is, for example, 30′ high by 50′ wide, you would use about 17 yards of 31′ wide Sharkstooth Scrim.
The problem is, very specialized wide looms are required to weave Sharkstooth Scrim, especially the wider widths such as 31′ and 35′. Most of the looms are in Europe and are 100 or more years old. From what I understand, these looms aren’t being made any more, and the mills can’t even buy parts. I have heard of mills buying old (sometimes broken) looms just to cannibalize them for parts for the looms they already have.
I worry – what happens when all of the looms stop working and there are no more broken looms from which to get parts? Will there come a point in which we have to say goodbye to the magic of scrim because the fabric just can’t be made anymore?
I have heard of new producers of sharkstooth scrim, in Asia. Perhaps they are making new looms? I would love to find out if this is true, because it really saddens me to think that we might one day lose this terrific fabric.
As you can imagine, the primary raw material that we use in our business is fabric. We buy velours to make custom stage curtains. We buy sharkstooth scrim to make theatrical scrims. We buy printable fabric to make custom band backdrops. All of these fabrics originate at the textile mill.
In general, those mills are located in the US or, in the case of certain specialty fabrics, in Europe (primarily the UK and Germany). However, I have been hearing more and more about US textile mills opening new manufacturing locations in Mexico (especially since the adoption of NAFTA), with the primary workforce of these locations made up of local workers (though supervised by U.S. managers). What does this mean for the future of the textile industry in the US? I found an interesting article offering an alternative – Texas.
I have never been one of those people who is adamant on buying American goods, but I do worry about the future of the US textile industry and how it will affect companies like Sew What?
1) I don’t need to have my drapes checked for flame retardancy. It’s not my problem.
When drapes are being used in any public space, whether it be a theatre, a school, a restaurant, or any other “public gathering place,” it is the responsibility of the owner or user of the drapes to take appropriate steps to ensure that the public is safe while frequenting the space. This includes ensuring that the drapery meets requirements for flame retardancy. Otherwise, the best case scenario is a Fire Marshal may require you to remove the drapes. The worst case scenario is that there could be a fire…
2) A flame certificate is good forever.
A Certificate of Flame Retardancy is typically only good for one year. After that year, it is the responsibility of the owner/user of the drapes to confirm that the drapes remain flame retardant.
3) I am just using the drapes once, so they don’t need to be flame retardant.
Whether drapes are being used for a long-term permanent installation or just for a one-time, single-day event, they always must be certified as flame retardant. You never know when a fire could break out.
4) IFR (Inherently Flame Retardant) means that the fabric will be flame retardant forever, no matter what.
Not necessarily. While a fabric that has been certified as “inherently flame retardant” or “permanently flame retardant” or “durably flame retardant” is intended to remain flame retardant for the life of the fabric, environmental conditions can affect that “permanent” flame retardancy. For example, a drape that has been hanging for a long time without maintenance may accumulate a heavy layer of dust on the drape. You may not realize this, but dust is full of all kinds of flammable matter – so although the fabric (technically) is permanently flame retardant, the drape may become flammable.
5) No retesting is needed, especially not for IFR fabrics.
I recommend (and many Fire Marshals require) annual re-testing of all FR fabrics (including IFR/PFR/DFR) to ensure that the drapes remain flame retardant. A certified testing company should always be used, and assuming that the drapery passes the test, a Certificate of Conformance (similar to a Certificate of Flame Retardancy) should be provided by the testing company.
I discovered an interesting website today called TheatreCrafts. There is a ton of information on subjects related to the theatre, including everything from scenic and lighting and rigging to props and makeup and even stage management. The glossary of technical theatre terms is particulary great – you have the option to search in 4 different ways: word search, browse by letter, random word finder, and category. Really fun and interesting to review.
One warning – this is a website from the UK, so some of the terms are different than those used in the US (for example, what we call Sharkstooth Scrim in the US is called Sharkstooth Gauze in the UK). But, for the most part, the terms are interchangeable, and often the site does reference alternate terms (such as the scrim reference above).
Previously I did a post titled “Focus On: Traveller Curtains.” Today, I thought I’d give you a little information on Traveller Track (also known as curtain track).
Traveller track typically consists of a track channel that is either fixed into the roof studs, mounted to a pipe that has been hung from the roof studs, or suspended by chain directly from the studs. The channel may be constructed of aluminium or galvanized steel. Depending on the track model, channel is typically shaped like a box or an I-beam.
I-Beam Style Channel
Small steel parts called “carriers,” which have small nylon, polyethylene or neoprene wheels (some with ball-bearings) slot into the channel. For each length of channel, there is usually one larger master carrier and then a number of smaller single carriers. The curtain is then attached to the carriers (or, as in the case of the pictures below, to a piece of trim chain that is attached to the carrier). For ease in attaching the stage curtains to the carriers, often a top finish of Webbing, grommets & S-Hooks is specified for traveller curtains.
Master Carrier for Box-Style Channel. The chain hanging from the bottom is an option called “trim chain.” In most cases, however, carriers are furnished without trim chain and the curtains are attached directly to the triangle-shaped bit at the bottom of the carrier.
Single Carrier for Box-Style Channel
Track is installed as either one-way draw or bi-parting. For a one-way draw, there is a single continuous length of channel, with a single master carrier at one end. When the curtain is open, the entire curtain stacks at one side of the stage. For bi-parting, there are two lengths of channel that cross at the center (typically with a foot or two of overlap), each with a curtain attached. There are two master carriers, one for each length of track (inserted at the onstage edge of the track). When the curtains are open, the two curtains are stacked on either side of the stage.
Curtain track may be walk-along or rope-operated. In the case of walk-along, the curtain is manually “walked” open or closed, with a person grasping the edge of the curtain (or an attached drapery baton) to ”walk” the drape open or closed. In the case of rope-operated, the operator stands at one side of the stage and pulls a cord to open and close the curtain(s). In the case of a rope-operated bi-parting configuration, the same rope opens both curtains. Motors are sometimes used to in conjunction with rope-operated traveller track, so that the operator can open and close the curtain(s) with the flip of a switch, rather than by manually pulling the cord.
In most cases, traveller track is straight; however, some aluminum box-shaped track can be curved, either at the factory or on-site. There are certain limits to the degree of radius that traveller track can be curved; if the curve is too extreme, the track will not function properly.
This is just a basic introduction to traveller track. There are many different factors that determine which track is appropriate for a specific project, including the weight of the curtain, the stage width, and much more. The best place to start if you are considering purchasing traveller track is to review the track selector guide.
Continuing on the subject of flame retardancy, I thought I’d give a brief synopsis on the flammability of fabric. Consider the flammability characteristics of different fibers (in their natural state, not factoring in topical FR treatment) may assist you in making decisions on the type of fabric to choose for your next custom stage curtain.
Many synthetic fabrics are, naturally, extremely flame resistant. When they do burn, however, they will typically melt. The result can be extremely dangerous if it comes in contact with skin.
Natural fibers typically do not melt. However, depending on the fiber, some burn more quickly and readily than others. Wool, for example, is slow to catch fire and may actually self-extinguish. Cotton, on the other hand, can ignite quickly, with the flame spreading rapidly as well.
Fabrics made of a blend of natural and synthetic fibers can offer the “worst of both worlds,” combining the quick ignition of the natural fiber with the melting characteristic of the synthetic fiber.
Luckily, in many cases, chemical treatments can be used to make many fabrics much more resistant to fire. However, not all fabrics can be chemically treated for flame retardancy (such as most metallic fabrics). When in doubt, ask your fabric supplier if the fabric you are considering is flame retardant (or can be treated to be flame retardant), and make sure you get a Certificate of Flame Retardancy when you purchase.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I have written an article that is available on our website.
Since I started this blog, one of my goals has been to educate those readers who are new to the world of stage curtains and rigging. Based on that, I have written various blog posts and included photos and links. Today I thought I’d point you to some short videos that will show you stage curtains in action. I hope you will find the videos both educational and entertaining.
Sew What? Inc. has posted several videos on You Tube. This video shows an Austrian Drape being raised and lowered. Make sure you turn the sound on your computer when playing the video – I think you’ll like the soundtrack!
We have also included an LED Star Drop that we made for the rental inventory of our sister company, Rent What? I love the way the lights twinkle and flash – it is really a dramatic sight in a dark theatre or concert venue (again, try it with sound).
Our website has a large number of videos on it as well, showing a variety of custom stage curtains, custom band backdrops, and much more being used by artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, Rod Stewart, and James Taylor (and many more). Check them out – I think you’ll enjoy them.
We’ve gotten some fun photos back from clients from time to time, usually of our drapes used in theatres or concert arenas or special event venues. I always love to see our custom stage curtains, theatre scrims, and band backdrops in use. But the photos below are different and gave me a chuckle, so I thought my readers might enjoy seeing them as well…
These Sew What bags are usually used for holding drapery – but here on a luggage carousel in Germany, it is apparent that someone ran short on space in their suitcase and decided to try out a Sew What? bag as checked luggage.
Each year we print a new Sew What? tee-shirt. This is last year’s shirt hanging on a washing line in Italy.
I’ve been reflecting lately on the changes I have seen since I started at Sew What?, as well as the stories I have heard about the early days of the company. It really is amazing to consider how far we have come in a (relatively) short time.
The business first started in 1992 with Megan Duckett sewing custom stage curtains at night on her kitchen table. Eventually, Megan quit her day job, and by 1996, Sew What? had grown to the point that Megan was able to rent a small commercial space and hire her first employee, a sewer – Maria, who is still with us today!
As the business continued to grow, Adam Duckett joined the business full-time. The company moved into a larger (6,000 sq ft) leased space. We bought a van and hired our first driver (Raul, who is now our Operations Manager). In 2003, Sew What? Inc. hired its first office employee, Silvia (now Human Resources).
A shot of the sewing shop at our second location
Megan and Adam were constantly focused on growing the company, and so in 2004, they were again on the hunt to find a larger location – but this time to buy. We bought and moved into our current 15,000 square foot location in early 2005. We finally had the space to add to our office staff, and today we have ten in the office, including sales, purchasing, accounting, and more. Our manufacturing staff has grown from just Maria to about 20 employees today.
Shots of the sewing shop and office in our current location
In the beginning, everything was handwritten. Now we use a fully integrated software system that encompasses everything from sales to job production to shipping to accounting, and much more. We also developed a custom software application to create sewing plans. Our website has evolved from a simple site built by Megan to a large professionally-designed site that gets a large number of hits each month, and just a couple of months ago, this blog was added.
We are really a family here at Sew What? Each month, we all get together, celebrate birthdays and company anniversaries, and share cake and memories. We care about each other, and we care about our customers and vendors, and I think that comes through. We have customers and vendors that have been with us and supported us almost from the beginning, and that is pretty incredible. It has been a lot of hard work, late nights, weekends – “blood, sweat, and tears” as they say – but it has been worth it. That little business that started on a kitchen table so many years ago is now a growing, vibrant and exciting business that is recognized as a leader in its industry. Who would have thought, all those years ago?
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