Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Sweet Stink of Progress

So warm. So cinnamony. So ...

Oh, wait. That's just the king cake.

... so sparkley!

My birthday was last week and I scheduled vacay time for Thursday and Friday to sit at home and work on the most dreaded part of the costume: the mechanics of the tail.

On Wednesday I walked into work and was greeted by my coworkers with a potluck baked potato/nacho buffet, a Sucré birthday king cake, and Mardi Gras birthday balloons. Damn, I love these guys and gals. I was definitely feeling the birthday love.

Pre- and post-deflation arrangement on the wall behind my desk.

It was a lovely, gluttonous day with a light workload and an unexpected flaming gift from the universe.

You know you're getting old when your
birthday candles shut down an entire downtown city block.

An underground transformer caught fire around 4:30 in front of the hotel across the street from our office. A few minutes later the power went out and our building was evacuated.

Oh, hello early start to my b-day vacay weekend!

I arrived home Wednesday afternoon to a mailbox full of birthday cards from my besties, a long, hot bath, and a fresh bottle of decent chianti.

By the time you hit 31, you know how to throw yourself a party.


I awoke bright and early Thursday morning with my favorite project pants at the ready for some heavy-duty tail construction. But the weather had other plans.

It stormed. All. Day. Long.

So I took the opportunity to run some final-ish costume errands, including three hours perusing the makeup section of Walgreen's. After touching every eyeshadow shade on the isle and sampling most of the lipsticks, I landed the sweetest checkout lady who dug though her private stash for coupons that ended up saving me nearly $20. What a woman.

And that was it for Thursday. After nine straight hours of costume piece procurement during a storm that was bent on upstaging Noah's flood, I was in no shape to start constructing anything.


Come Friday morning, I was determined to make a tail happen come hell or actual high water. But the weather cooperated for the most part and my porch/living room was transformed into a two-room construction madhouse. Miter boxing on the welcome mat? Don't mind if I do!

I began by getting things back to where they started: cutting the new tail mount shape (since I decided that I hated the old one).

Saw, saw. Sand, sand.


Muuuuuuch sexier.

And this time I did a far better job of lining up the holes and making the pieces symetrical.

Now it was time to move on to the part I'd been dreading ever since I first started sketching ideas for this thing. I had to commit to a plan for the tail mechanics. I decided to go with the hinge epiphany. It would allow for the greatest range of movement with the fewest holes drilled through the front and back tail mounts.

Dowels aligned, stop braces set, and drill holes marked.

Lining up the dowels and drilling the holes.

Only this didn't really go according to plan. The hinges were too weak and too wide. The stop braces kept getting in the way and wouldn't let the dowels swing as well as I thought they would. The tiny brass screws kept breaking and didn't line up with the holes I'd just drilled that I thought were so meticulously measured and marked. The whole thing was just a mess. Before I came to my senses, I even tried wiring the whole thing together before admitting that it was a really bad idea with too many potential fail points.

Wire FAIL.

It was only noon and for the first time I was starting to question if I was going to be able to pull this whole tail thing off. I'd just spent four hours trying to make the hinges work to no avail. I wanted to throw all the hardware off the balcony and pull the bottle of Jack out of the cabinet for a long brunch on the sofa with Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me reruns.

Instead, I reverted to my original pivot pin idea.

I couldn't believe how easily it all came together after that.

Four pivot points with one pin as an anchor reinforcement for the top dowel.

Simple screws instead of stop braces.
Oversized nuts as spacers to keep the dowels from wiggling around too much
in the gap between the front and back tail mounts.

All the hardware sandwiched between the front and back tail mount boards.

And Swizzlebent heard the voices of a thousand angels sing!

It was like graduation night. The hardest part of this whole costume was finally behind me. And it worked. It worked! I almost didn't know what to do next. So I had a bloody mary while I thought it over.

The next logical step was the harness. After all, I couldn't give the tail mechanics a real test run until I could finally mount the whole rig to my back. I set about hours of cutting and stitching and melting nylon straps.

Sizing up the main straps for up my back and around my belly.

Lining up and punching holes for the mounting bolts.

This is another one of those times when I should have taken a lot more photos of the process, but again I wasn't exactly sure of how I was going to assemble the thing, so I got a little too wrapped up in the construction of it to stop for well-timed photos. I'll have to add more photos of the completed harness in next weekend's post.

But for now, here's the completed backpack gizmo:

Back side.

Front side.
Hi, Snoopie.
With the backpack complete, I was finally able to try on my tail. I stood in front of the mirror wearing my tail for the first time and almost wanted to cry.

But not because I was happy. Because I gouged my Achilles on one of the dowels while walking from the living room to the full-length mirror in my bedroom.

Now that I knew exactly where the tail was going to mount onto my back, I could tell that the dowels were far too long and that there was no way I was going to be able to take normal-sized strides without racking my heels on them with every step. I was going to have to trim them to about knee length. Unfortunately, I'm only 5'4", so that doesn't leave much dowel.

Saw, saw. Sand, sand.

Ahhh, no more bloody ankles.

With the mechanics figured out and successfully assembled and the harness a working reality, it was all over but the sewing.

Finally it was time to get back to the pretty, sparkly, colorful fun part.

I started with the felt that would protect the feather support mesh from the pivot pins.

Felt <3 Snoopie fur 4-eva.

Gold feather support mesh and protective felt. Folded to trim for symmetry.

Support mesh and felt. Looks even to me.
Gotta round off those pointy bottom corners, though.

Lining it all up... Looks like I'll have to trim another
two inches more off of the left and right bottom dowels.

Cutting out and melting the edges of the decorative fabric that will hide the ugly brown felt.

All seven layers pinned together and ready for the sewing machine.
Before stitching it all together, I trimmed the bottom middle of the support mesh
so that it's even with the hinge and so the left and right sides hang longer than the center.

One thick fabric family. All seven layers equal about 1/8" thick.

With the fabric feather support complete, I had to figure out how to get it attached to the tail mount. I was nervous again. Seven layers of fabric is a lot to have to cut five very precise holes through. But then I took a step back and tripped over the lighter that was still on the floor from the harness assembly, and it dawned on me: I wouldn't cut the holes. I would melt them!

That little red-handled gizmo is The Styro Wonder Hot Knife Cutter Plus. As the name suggests, it's meant for cutting craft styrofoam. At $30, they're about the cheapest electric foam cutter you can buy, and I've had mine for seven years or so. It was the perfect gadget for making five perfectly placed, fray-proof holes through seven layers of synthetic fabric. Until I got stupid and impatient and broke the wire rod by pushing too hard, too fast, through the fabric on the last hole. Alas, I have another on order from Amazon which should arrive next week. I bought this guy at Hobby Lobby back in the day, but they've become a lot harder to find seven years later.


Now I had to do something about that ugly bare wood.

It's like Magic Eye.

This'll be the view from the back when the tail is up.

And that felt like more then enough progress for one day. I was exhausted, my knees were destroyed, and I had forgotten to eat anything all day. But the part I'd been afraid of for months was over and I could finally get on to the final, fun stuff.

Before I shut it down for the night, though, I just couldn't resist. I had to get a sneak peek of where the tail was headed with some of the short 12" feathers.

Feelin' pea-cockey.

And then I wanted to cry again, but this time because I was happy.

This was the moment that it became real.
This costume is really happening.
And it's going to be as awesome as I imagined.

Just 26 short days to showtime, and the season's first parade is this Saturday.
Oh, happy day!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

It all hinges on this.

I was struck by Tail Epiphany, Part II this morning while waiting for the bus.

I was staring at what used to be a shutter on the building across the street. It's been broken for over a year, and it's rotten and has been falling apart month by month, slat by slat. At this point it's just a frame dangling off the side of the house by one rusty hinge.

Just one hinge. A hinge! Holy crap!, a hinge!!!
How could I have been so blind?!

Once I got on the bus and into a seat I whipped out the trusty Moleskine and scribbled it out while the smelly guy next to me made no attempt at hiding that he was watching me draw.

How did this escape me before?!
Now I have to cut only two holes in the tail fabric.

Thankfully, Captain StinkyFace didn't feel the need to comment on my plan.
I'm feeling good about this one. I think that this is the one that just might work.

I've scheduled off work Thursday and Friday of this week just for costume making. It dawned on me yesterday that there are only five weekends left before Mardi Gras, and 3 of those are going to be parade weekends. And parade weekends are not productivity weekends. So, essentially, two weekends left to finish this whole rig. The heat is on.

Only 34 days 'till showtime...

Sunday, January 6, 2013

One Step Forward, Twelfth Steps Back

Happy Mardi Gras! Twelfth Night is nigh and the carnival season has officially begun! Although I've had my front porch festooned in purple, green, and gold garland for over a week, it's now socially acceptable to start feeling (and acting) festive. Eeeeee!!!

Happy happy joy joy!
Happy happy joy joy!
Happy happy joy joy!

Today was a day of epic progress in one regard, massive regression in another.

On the one hand, I got one costume piece -- the headpiece -- completely finished.

On the other hand, I decided to scrap almost everything I accomplished yesterday and start over. Let's begin there.

I hit 9 a.m. with (what I thought was) a completed tail mount and (what I thought was) a fully developed idea for how I was going to create the felt & fabric piece that will hold the feathers and attach them to the tail mount. I threw the felt in the washing machine with my bed sheets, made some coffee, and commenced with the pattern making.

Who says you need math to do geometry?

The original plan was to cut the fabric around the middle spacer
piece and attach it with a staple gun and massive amounts of glue.

But once I got to this point and my second cup of coffee, I realized that this wasn't going to work. For one thing, I decided that I didn't fully trust staples and glue to keep 200+ feathers securely affixed to my butt for 18+ hours, and for another, that scrawny 2" strip of fabric at the top wasn't going to do much to hold a bunch of 45" feathers erect in a stiff gust of wind. At best, they would flop over and look dumb. At worst, they would bend and break. Not good.

I decided that the felt needed to extend past the wooden frame for adequate feather stability. So what if you can see it? I have plenty of extra dress fabric that I can use to cover it. So I went back to the literal drawing board.

21" of  supportive fabric-ey goodness.

I was much happier with this second rendition. It was now big enough to hold all the feathers securely in place and I simplified it drastically by nixing the cutout around the spacer board in favor of just running the fabric under the whole thing and drilling through it for the mounting bolts.

But I also decided that I liked this shape a lot better than the one I used for the boards I cut yesterday. A lot better. It's so much more refined and attractive. I tried to talk myself out of it, but the Detail Devil prevailed. I know myself well enough to be certain that if I didn't commit to redoing those boards now, I'd be kicking myself for it on Mardi Gras morning. After months of planning, weeks of sewing, and hours of hair and makeup, I'd be standing in front of the mirror fixated on nothing but how much I hate the shape of the tail mount.

With another cup of coffee and a sense of resignation, I went back for more pattern making.

Trial and error and error and error.

Finally, a winner emerged.

So much better than the original.

By this point it was nearly noon and I was tired of playing peacock paper dolls, but it was raining too hard to go outside and power up the electric jig saw, so I figured I may as well finalize plans for how I was going to get this whole thing mounted to my back.

Looks kind of like something a skydiver would wear, right?
It's basically just a camping backpack. You know, the kind with the extra strap that buckles across your belly? Only this backpack is going to buckle under the dress.

Getting that plan onto paper was a huge weight off my brain. Plus I realized that one of the pattern versions I'd already made would work for the piece that would hold the tail to the harness and against my back. I decided that I'd get the patterns traced onto the wood, clean up the morning's mess, make some lunch, and maybe even change out of my pajamas. It was 1 in the afternoon, and I figured I'd have a full belly and a start on a second load of laundry by 2:00.

Harness boards and new tail mounts traced onto wood.

Buuuuut... Things didn't really happen that way.

While putting away my drawing supplies I came across the brass wire that I intended to use for the head piece.

"Ooooh... Shiny thing!" said Swizzlebent.

Before I knew it the sun was down, my thumbs were bleeding, my right pinkie was super glued to my left ring finger, and I'd been sitting at my dining table listening to RadioLab and twisting wire for six hours.

And once you're six hours into something involving super glue, you may as well finish.

I should have taken more (or at least better-timed) photos of the process, but other than that it would be gold and it would have feathers, I didn't have much of a plan for this at all, except that I knew I wanted the wire to create kind of an organized tangle. Since I didn't have a plan of attack going in, it was a bit tricky to identify which points were worthy of a photo. 

20 gauge brass wire (the heavy one)
28 gauge brass wire (the fine one)
Cobalt blue fabric-covered headband from Target

Started by cutting the 20 gauge into 8" lengths. Grouped six of them together, twisted in the middle, and wrapped tightly to the headband with another 8" piece.

Finished wrapping the first piece, then divided the free wires and pulled them to the front and back.

Added more wires to fill in the middle by wrapping them just twice around the headband and leaving the free ends sticking out the front and back.

Finished adding wires.

Now to create the tangle. I twisted all the wires on one side tightly in one direction (like on the right), then untwisted them, separated them all without straightening them, and twisted them together again in the opposite direction at the end (like on the left). Since the left side was going to be the back, I left those ends free and untrimmed to be curled later.

With the messy frame in place, I needed to add wires poking out the top to hold the feathers. I used various lengths of 20 gauge wire and wove them down into the tangle, around the bottom, and back up to the top, then twisted a couple of times in the middle to secure them, leaving the long ends free and sticking up.

Twisted the free ends around a pencil to curl them, and used jewelry pliers to tighten the curl at the tips. With the base curls in place, I began wrapping them loosely with the 28 gauge wire to carry the tangled look up from the base.

Stil wrapping and tangling. Those two guys on the right are looking kinda naked.

Finished bulking up the curls and weaving 28 gauge wire into the base to fill it in and make the whole thing the same visual weight. I think it looks like a Tim Burton landscape.

Feathers dropped down into the curls.

Adjusting the feathers so they all face forward.

Super gluing the feathers into place. Had to leave it like this while the glue set because it was dripping down through the wire and onto my hand, which is how right pinkie got stuck to left ringie. I'm still picking glue off my hand while typing this.

Once the glue had (kind of) dried, I wrapped the base of the feathers to give them a more finished look. I also added the fun curl on the front. That was a scrap piece of brass I found yesterday in the hardware store while digging through a bin of bolts. It ended up being the inspiration for the curly feather holders, so it deserved a place in the costume.

Finishing touches: A few more fine curls added to close up the empty spaces between feathers, and touching up the feathers themselves with teal Sharpie wherever the glue dried and turned white.

Head piece = DONE!

All told, the head piece alone was a 9-hour project. Not how I had planned to spend my entire Sunday, but I love it when things just happen to happen that way.

1 piece down.
36 days to Mardi Gras.
200 tail feathers to go...