Behind the scenes at York’s ‘Great Tudor Sewing Bee’

A midway report to the volunteer Sovereign Stitchers making the costumes for this year’s York Theatre Royal community production of Sovereign noted that they had made 45 shirts and blouses, 10 trunk hose and breeches, 12 skirts, 26 corsets, 25 doublets, 12 bags, six belts, six aprons, 46 hats – and 48 bum rolls.

The tally is much higher now they’ve moved on to costumes for King Henry VIII’s court – including Queen Catherine and the richer royal hangers-on.

In all, there are 270 Tudor-style costumes to be made – although an even greater number were made for the Suffragettes community production Everything Is Possible. That, like Sovereign, was a period costume piece.

The four-month costume-making schedule for Sovereign – the Theatre Royal’s community production based on CJ Sansom’s Tudor-set murder mystery novel centred around a visit by King Henry VIII to York in 1541 – started long before the actors came together for the first rehearsal.

“The planning begins with lots of research, talking to the directors about how they see the production and buying materials,” explained costume designer Hazel Fall.

“We decide on a colour palette and style, then research how to achieve the look and what’s achievable for the volunteers. Some are very experienced at sewing, others less so.”

At the start volunteers were asked to make a ‘bum roll’- a roll of padding tied around the hip line to hold a woman’s skirt out.

Hazel and fellow wardrobe team professional Chloe were able to judge the volunteers’ ability. Each costume is graded for difficulty from 1 to 3 and allotted to volunteers to make depending on their experience.

People with little or no experience can start at level 1 and work their way up to level 3. Each garment comes with instructions and a step-by-step guide for volunteers to follow.

A workroom has been established in Poppleton.

For half of the volunteers it’s their first time as volunteers and this time four men have joined the usually female-dominated scheme. Volunteers come in when they are free to sew, perhaps two or three times a week, and there are group sessions too.

Some outfits from the theatre’s costume hire department are being altered, while five costumes are being hired from the Royal Shakespeare Company. These are the more elaborate outfits worn by the court ‘fashionistas’. Armour will also be hired not made.

The final task is a ‘breaking down’ session when the costumes which look brand new have to be systematically ‘broken down’ and made to look lived in, as though people have been wearing them for ages.

  • Sovereign is being staged outdoors at King’s Manor in York from July 15-30.

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