“I Didn’t Know You Could Sew”: Working at the Costume Shop – Ellie McCutchen ’25

Categories: Blog

“I didn’t know you could sew” is normally the first thing someone says when they find out I work at the UNC Charlotte Costume Shop. Sewing is a deviation from what people know about me on paper, so I understand people’s surprise. On paper, my interests include political science, economics, sociology, and Mandarin Chinese. If I were asked what additional interest goes with my other passions, sewing definitely would not be my answer. Regardless, like many Levine Scholars, I have a myriad of interests that might not be obvious at first glance. The glitz and glamor of the fashion world have always been alluring to me, and I have long loved the art of sewing. The catalyst of this interest came from my Nana, who was an avid seamstress. There was no place where creativity ran freer than in her sewing room. I was enamored by her ability to create anything from a beautifully crafted quilt to tiny, yet fashionable, clothes for my American Girl doll. I would spend hours in there as a child, accompanying her while she sewed. Consequently, I absorbed a bit of her sewing knowledge.

Sewing developed into a fulfilling hobby and led to the creation of a fair share of bags, pillows and pajama pants over the years. It also became a way for me to remember and connect with my Nana after she passed away. Therefore, sewing immediately came to mind when the need to add a little creativity into my life struck me towards the end of my first semester of freshman year. Although I had not sewn in a while, I was certain I still knew my way around a sewing machine, and the thought of returning to the world of colorful fabrics, giant paper patterns and pins was intriguing. The only problem was that I had no idea where, when or if I could sew on campus. I vaguely knew about a costume shop from talking about it as part of my Niner Guide tour. However, the extent of that knowledge was that it existed somewhere within Robinson Hall. With the Costume Shop as my only lead, I did some research and found a Niner Times article about the shop. At the end of the article it briefly mentioned that students could get involved through a Costume Tech class. With my fingers crossed that this course would be taught in the spring and that I could somehow fit it into my schedule, I looked up the course. To my dismay, Costume Tech was restricted to Theatre majors, and adding another major for one class seemed a bit extreme. Nevertheless, I decided to send an email to the Costume Lab Supervisor, Rachel Engstrom, to see if I could get involved with the Costume Shop in any way. To my surprise, I was invited to visit the shop. It was hard to find at first, tucked away in a corner in Robinson Hall, but I was immediately charmed. Sewing machines lined the walls, dress forms showcased the latest designs and students bustled about. There is a welcoming spirit to the Costume Shop and it immediately reminded me of my Nana’s sewing room. I knew I wanted to spend more time there, and luckily I was given the opportunity to become a volunteer.

Thus my journey at the Costume Shop began. I started working on an array of different projects in-between and after classes. No two days were the same. One day I would be sewing fake buttons onto a top, and the next I would be in costume storage sorting through hundreds of costumes that held the stories of past performances. Not only did volunteering in the Costume Shop fill the creative void in my life, but it also gave me a space to take a step back from the demands of my day. In the Costume Shop, I can leave the stress of my academics and unanswered emails at the door and enter into the world of ribbons, tulle and sequins. After a semester of volunteering and strengthening my sewing skills under the guidance of Rachel Engstrom and Hali Hutchison-Houk, the Performing Arts Services Production Manager, I was hired as a Costume Lab Worker.

Now as a Costume Lab Lead Technician, every week I still get the chance to disconnect and contribute to the creation of costumes that will eventually grace the stage. My favorite projects so far include shirts for Pippin, dresses for These Shining Lives and Sweat and puppet clothes for The Caligari Project. However, I am very excited about working on UNC Charlotte’s production of Legally Blonde this spring because I anticipate power suits, ruffles and more pink than I can imagine. Anyone who knows me knows that I love a power suit, especially the Director of the Levine Scholars Program, Dr. Smith. Her grandmother and mother made beautiful clothes for her growing up, including the most sophisticated pink suit I have ever laid my eyes on. Dr. Smith has agreed to let me alter that very suit to wear to Finalist Program this year and I couldn’t be more excited. So if you happen to see me in Dr. Smith’s pink suit, come say “Hello!”