John Van Gastel has worked in the MTC costume department for two years. His first show with the Company was 2018’s An Ideal Husband, and he’s since sewn many and varied elaborate outfits as he helps bring to life the often wild visions of our imaginative costume designers.
Sewing has been in Van Gastel’s blood since birth. ‘My mother was a seamstress and my uncles were tailors. My elder sisters were all mad about clothes and sewing. So from before I was born, in the womb, I was at the sewing machine, because my mother was sewing. And by the age of eight, I was actually stitching on a sewing machine myself, on my mother’s Pfaff. And I just knew how to make stuff.’
As he grew up, Van Gastel had dreams of becoming a professional ballroom dancer, before he undertook a costume apprenticeship with a ballroom dancing company to learn how to make the elaborate couture gowns and Latin American-style outfits that are synonymous with the art form. ‘I cut my teeth on that,’ he says. ‘And let me tell you, they’re up there in the most tricky costumes to make!’
‘I just wanted to do something other than ballroom dancing costumes. I needed to expand.’
After running a tailoring business in Sydney for many years, Van Gastel returned to Melbourne and started freelancing as a costumier for film and TV. ‘I just wanted to do something other than ballroom dancing costumes. I needed to expand.’ His credits include all the dresses in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (‘I was Kate Winslet,’ he jokes); the Spierig brothers’ Winchester, starring Helen Mirren and Sarah Snook; Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Underbelly: Squizzy, as well as 13 series of Dancing with the Stars and five series of Australia’s Got Talent.
From sewing for film and television to making costumes for the stage is a logical step (especially for a man who describes himself as ‘mad for period clothing’), and it’s one that has really allowed Van Gastel to both expand and double down on his repertoire. He’s especially loved working on the Shakespearean shows Twelfth Night and Shakespeare in Love, the latter of which featured its own ‘separate ruff department’ that created the show’s 30 ruffs – including one for Daisy the dog, our canine cast member playing the beloved character of Spot! With each ruff taking hours, if not days, of work it was a mammoth task.
During Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown, we asked Van Gastel to show us what it takes to make an Elizabethan ruff by hand. Temporarily transforming into a solo videographer, our intrepid wardrobe cutter took us on an extraordinary journey; one you’re now invited to join. The process is presented here, step by step, and is a testament to the remarkable job these behind-the-scenes staff do on a daily basis. If you’re game enough to take on the challenge, we salute you – with a bit of time and dedication, you could have the most glorious pooch on the block, or a fabulous accessory with which to make your grand debut when theatre doors reopen in 2021 (as a bonus, a giant ruff will help ensure appropriate social distancing)!
What you’ll need
– Grosgrain ribbon: at least one inch or 25mm in width
– White satin ribbon: the width will depend how deep you want the ruff (we’ve used 1.5 inches or 38mm for ours) and the length will depend on the size of ruff you’re making
– Optional lace trim. If using, you will need the same amount of trim as you have satin ribbon
– Needle and thread, bulldog or paper clips, spray starch, hook & eye clasps, an iron and a sewing machine
Measure the circumference of the neck of the person (or pet!) for whom you wish to make an Elizabethan ruff.
Mark out this measurement on the grosgrain ribbon, which will form the collar of your ruff. Allow an extra half inch either end for the hem as well as an extra three quarters of an inch overlap at one end. For example, if your neck is 15 inches, the total length of grosgrain will be 16¾ inches.
To hem the grosgrain ribbon, fold one end over twice (2 x ¼ inch folds), press tightly to flatten and then pin in place while you stitch the hem down. Repeat for the other end of the ribbon.
To figure out how much ribbon you’ll need, there’s some maths involved!
With a one-inch-wide collar, you will use 1¼ inches of satin ribbon for each curve of the ruffle. This is what gives them a slight S or figure 8 shape.
For each inch of the collar's length, you should use at least eight loops or folds of the satin ribbon; each loop requires ribbon in both directions so you’ll need 16 lengths of 1¼ inches.
This means that for a collar length of 15 inches, you’ll need about 300 inches – or 7.62 metres – of satin ribbon (16 x 1¼ = 20, and 20 x 15 = 300). Feel free to round up to eight metres to be on the safe side. It seems like a lot of satin ribbon, but most rolls are sold in either 25-metre or 50-metre lengths so you’ll likely have enough to make at least three ruffs!
Tip: don't forget to include an extra half inch either end of the satin ribbon for the hem
Step 3 (skip if not adding lace trim)
If adding a lace trim, make sure to pre-shrink both the trim and the satin ribbon with an iron; feel free to use some spray starch as well if you’re finding your ribbon a bit flimsy. Then, using a sewing machine, stitch the trim along one edge of the satin ribbon.
Step 4 (skip if not adding lace trim)
If required, use the iron and some starch (and plenty of steam) again to help to flatten out any rippling in the ribbon, caused by sewing the lace trim on. Press and starch the full length of the ribbon, making sure to hold it taut; let each length dry completely before moving onto the next.
Tip: pin one end of the ribbon to the ironing board as you work to help you hold it taut.
To recap the measurements, for an inch-wide collar with eight loops or ruffles per inch of collar, you’ll need 16 lengths of satin ribbon, with each length being 1¼ inches. Previously, you measured out 300 inches – or 7.62 metres – of satin ribbon; this ensures you have enough ribbon. Next you’ll need to mark out 240 x 1¼-inch lengths along that ribbon (in other words, the 15-inch length of the collar x the 16 lengths of satin per inch).
But first, hem the raw edge of the satin ribbon, as you did with the grosgrain band.
It’s time to start marking out the 240 lengths of 1¼ inches each. Make sure you mark on the edge that won’t be visible; if you’ve added a trim, for instance, your marks should be on the other edge of the ribbon from the trim.
Tip: a hard pencil such as a 2H will give you the best results without leaving a dark mark on the ribbon.
When you’re done marking the satin ribbon, you should have a bit of excess ribbon left over; do not discard as it may come in use if you make a mistake.
Now it’s time to mark the collar. You will need to mark it in eighth of an inch intervals – or approximately 3mm – on both edges of the band.
You’re ready to begin sewing your ruffles to your collar! Beginning at the first mark on the grosgrain, cast on with the needle and thread and tie off a knot. Skip the hemmed edge of the satin ribbon and begin sewing the satin ribbon to the grosgrain collar at your first 1¼ inch mark. Keep the good side of the satin ribbon facing up.
The ribbon will need to sit perpendicular to the collar so ensure you keep both edges neatly together and sew as close to them as possible.
Move to the second mark on the grosgrain and tie off another knot. Skip the second mark on the satin ribbon, however, and go straight to the following one. Needle the thread through and draw the ribbon back to the band. You’ll begin to see a ruffle forming. Tie off another knot and repeat the process at the next mark on the grosgrain.
Tip: Knotting the thread at each ruffle ensures that if you have to cut the thread for any reason, you won’t lose the work you’ve already done.
Continue sewing, remembering that as you move through each mark on the band, you need to skip to the following mark on the ribbon.
Tip: use a small bulldog clip or paper clip to hold together the folds you’ve already sewn as you work on the new ones.
Step 8 is about persevering with step 7! Sewing an Elizabethan ruff takes time. Remember to take breaks (of minutes or days – it’s up to you!) to stretch, grab a cup of tea or go for a walk.
When your perseverance pays off and you reach the end, it’s time to cut and hem. You can cut off any excess satin ribbon and hem it by folding the end over twice (2 x ¼ inch folds), pressing tightly to flatten and then pinning in place while you stitch the hem down.
Then you’re ready to move onto sewing the bottom loops onto the base of the collar. This is a repeat of steps 7 and 8, in the other direction. Keep going – like lockdown, you’ll get to the end eventually!
Tip: after you’ve sewn the first side of the ruffs to the collar, it's worth re-checking its measurements. If you need to sew a few extra ruffs due to to band contracting a bit, you'll have some excess to do so at this point.
Nearly there! To make sure your ruff stays fast on your neck, you will need to sew on some hook & eye clasps. A bread knife inserted into the end of the collar will help with this task. You will need to sew two hooks onto one hem.
Now sew the corresponding eyes onto the other hem (bulldog clips can be used again to help keep the ruffles neat and out of the way). Once the clasps are attached, you’re done! You’ve made a beautiful Elizabethan ruff. Well done!