The wardrobe team at Beamish really has its work cut out, creating centuries-worth of fashion. Alison Goulding reports.
TAKING care of laundry from rural Georgian times, the Industrial Revolution and Edwardian England is no mean feat. But the wardrobe department at Beamish takes it all in its stride.
With years of experience between them they can make any historical costume, vanish the most stubborn of stains and repair split trousers, ripped jackets and wonky bonnets in a heartbeat.
The crew is made up of Gillian Wolf, team leader, Debra Calder, costume supervisor and Maureen Gemski and Emma Hall, costume and laundry assistants.
All have a flair for fashion and history and know that getting the costumes right for the museum staff and volunteers is a must.
Debra Calder has been at Beamish for 15 years. She got her first sewing machine at the tender age of eight as a gift from her mum and dad and after college, worked for the Ferryhill Clothing Company and Praxis.
Debra said: “No two days are the same in this job. You can plan what you want to do and then people come in with repairs or weird requests.
“As long as the museum is open, we are busy and open for repairs.
“There’s usually someone in the changing room waiting for their trousers to get fixed.
“Sometimes they try their own repairs – we’ve come across staples and bailer twine before. Baler twine was my favourite!”
Maureen Gemski trained as a machinist and worked for Ramar Dresses, in Crook, and then Dewhirst in Willington before moving to London where she worked in Topshop’s sample room when Kate Moss’s first collection was made.
She also makes her own clothes in her spare time.
But at Beamish, she has had her talents stretched to making tram covers, Hallowe’en costumes for horses and hats for sheep, when lambs at the farm were being bitten by mites.
Maureen said: “Nothing has ever defeated us. We think what we need, where we’re going to get it, look at any images we have and then do it.
“Between us we all have a little something extra to contribute.
“Even when I was in an am-dram club, I ended up working in wardrobe.
“I work from a picture and figure out how it’s going to work but the principles are the same, whether its jeans or high-backed trousers.
“Just this week we had to make a cover for a guitar.
“The girl who does music sessions in the pit village takes her guitar but the case is new. I made a bag for it out of calico with a strap.”
Emma Hall added: “When it rains heavily we make sandbags in case of flooding. It really is different every day. We also made a coffin cover for the reenactment of Emily Davidson’s funeral.”
Another recent challenge was making two ‘siren suits’ for a child and an adult. The siren suit was invented by Winston Churchill as a one-piece garment designed to be easy to put on and take off on the way to the air-raid shelter.
Debra said: “It was the original ‘onesie’. People who go shopping in a onesie think they’re wearing something new. Everything comes back round again.
Maureen said: “I made the child’s one using a pattern for a fancy dress cat costume and just adapted it.”
Emma graduated from the Cleveland College of Art and Design and then worked for herself making prom dresses and bridesmaid’s dresses.
She said: “I volunteered at Beamish four years ago and started working here two and a half years ago. I really love it here. At school I loved theatre studies but like Maureen I was always happier backstage making costumes.”
Getting the costumes just right is something she appreciates, since she has worked as a demonstrator (a staff member dressed in authentic costume and demonstrating crafts and cookery from the era) herself in the town and the pit village.
Emma, who is from Hetton, said: “Being in costume improves you as a demonstrator.
“You feel completely different and put on this persona. It’s like taking on a part.
“I’m from Hetton and when the band hall was finished, I’ve never seen so many people from Hetton. The band hall used to be really near my house and now it’s at my work.”
Maureen said: “When we go out in costume ourselves for an event people stop to take a photo and you automatically pose.”
Emma added: “You have to make sure you’re out of that mind-set when you go home otherwise you walk around smiling at strangers!”
The team clothes 300 staff and 400 volunteers from top to toe.
Debra: “It’s growing and growing. Staff have an average of three to four outfits each and we make the hats too.
“I learned how to make patterns at college and we don’t use commercial patterns.
“You can still get them for the ’40s and ’50s but there’s no patterns existing for clothes in 1825! We just make our own.
“We have to be so organised because we have mountains of stuff and we need to know where everything is.
“We also have some very good volunteers who come in to help us.”
The next big challenge is to create hundreds of outfits for the planned 1950s area, which will be build over the next five years.
Maureen said: “We’re hunting about in charity shops because there are things there that won’t be in five years time. There are some cracking finds in house clearance.
“With the ’40s and ’50s, the shoes need to be right. In our other eras they’re covered by long skirts or trousers but they’ll be on show for the ’50s. We’re looking forward to getting stuck in. I’ve always loves that period from the ’30s to the ’50s. It inspires the clothes I make for myself.” Debra said: “Fashion changed so much in the ’50s. From the start of the decade to the end the look was completely different.
“The ’40s to early ’50s stayed similar because of rationing.”
To make the costumes accurate takes research.
Debra said: “We’ve got a good library and we use lots of books and the internet is a really good source of information.
“Every time we give out a costume we also provide notes so the demonstrator or volunteer knows a bit about what they’re wearing.
“The costume is an exhibit in itself. The older generation often recognise that kind of clothing and will chat about their own memories, which is really nice.”
Donations of cloth, furs and buttons from all over the North East have helped the team to build a monster warehouse of outfits for all occasions.
The team recently took a donation of material from Sunderland tailor Joe Hind.
Debra said: “We were offered end of roll fabrics and came back with two van-loads stacked up to the roof of good stuff.
“We try to make everyone look slightly different because it’s a costume, not a uniform. It has to look right. You can’t have everyone in identical outfits.
“The donation was brilliant because even if we only had enough for one waistcoat out of one of the rolls, then that’s one more item to add in that’s different.”
And once the clothes are made, they need to be washed.
Debra said: “The staff and volunteers do their shirts and blouses and we do the rest because many garments are wash with care or dry clean only.
“The costumes from rural life have to be washed carefully to stop e-coli and the men on the waggonway get covered in oil.”
Emma said: “We have found the carbolic soap that we sell in the Edwardian town is very effective.
“People are surprised that it actually works but sometimes the old ways are the best!”