Halloween is Ro’s favourite day of the year. Her love for imaginative play and dress up, in combination with her outgoing personality make it far more fun than birthdays or Christmas. She just loves dreaming up a costume and then bringing it to life.
Ro is fortunate to have two grandmothers who are talented artists and very handy in the sewing department. Matt’s mother is a visual artist, she illustrates, paints, sculpts, sews, makes fibre arts, and gives an artistic flair to everything she touches. My mother is multi-talented, she went to school for fashion design, so she can design and sew up a storm of beauty. She has also put her talented hands to pottery, knitting, furniture, gardening and many more projects of beauty over the years. With these two creative grandmothers not only capable, but interested, in helping bring Ro’s visions to life, she has had some pretty extraordinary costumes over the years.
I should mention that I can sew, and while I’m not nearly as capable as either of them, I can certainly sew a Halloween costume. But, I loved that Ro and her grandmothers had a special project each fall, starting with a chat about her idea, maybe some sketching, a trip to shop or gather materials from a thrift shop, and then sewing and assembling the costume. It was a lovely tradition and a great bonding experience. At the same time, I didn’t want Ro to think that we were not capable of making her costumes ourselves — self-sufficiency is an important thing to me. I hoped the time would come, naturally, when we would make her costume ourselves.
Ro starts thinking seriously about Halloween in late summer, when her mind turns to the return to school and she sees the signs of fall start to show in the natural landscape. Last summer, we had beautiful weather and spent nearly every full summer day outdoors enjoying nature in forests, by the river, and everywhere in between. While both children have an innate interest in the natural world, I was intentionally trying to cultivate their interest by, not only spending time in nature, but also encouraging them to use natural objects for art. Ro loves fashion, not for the sake of trends, but for the creative self-expression. My mind hadn’t turned to Halloween yet, when one day in late August Ro announced that she wanted to make an ombre dress out of leaves and be Mother Nature for Halloween. To say my heart was singing to hear her say this would be a modest statement. She had, unknowingly, married her interests and mine and I knew this was the perfect year to shift to the two of us making her costume.
Many people have since asked us how we made her dress and so I thought I would share our method here. This is just one, very simple way to make the dress, by using a braiding technique and affixing the braids to the base garments using safety pins, but I thought some process photos might help those of you who may need a visual guide. I hadn’t expected to be asked how to make the dress, so I didn’t take any photos when we made it, so I’ve recreated a few below for the sake of this post.
Without further ado, here’s how we made the dress:
- After sketching the dress she wanted (a full length, tank dress), we found a suitable tank top and long skirt from her existing wardrobe to use as the base to pin the leaf braids onto.
- In the weeks leading up to Halloween, we tried a few techniques, braiding and tying with string, and found braiding to be the least fussy.
- On the day of Halloween, we spent about 3 hours walking around our neighbourhood gathering leaves, trying to find a range of colours to get the ombre effect. Especially looking for leaves with long stems, which makes braiding much easier. I highly recommend maple leaves. We used some oak leaves, because Ro loved the colours, but they were very hard to work with for braiding, and in some cases I had to pin the leaf itself to the garment. This can be avoided by using leaves with longer stems.
- It is important to gather your leaves freshly when you make the dress, because they will not last more than 12-24 hours before drying and becoming very brittle and crumbling off. We did not pick leaves fresh from trees, but rather gathered from the ground, so if you are someone who picks leaves then they may last longer. Although, I’m sure you can find plenty of leaves without the need to pick live ones from trees!
- Next, we organized the leaves into colours: purple, red, orange, peach, yellow, lime, dark green, brown. Ro wanted a fade from purple to red through to green and brown, so we arranged the colours to make braids in this order.
- Once we had a braided chain of leaves about the length of half the shirt, we would stop and pin it closed to keep the braid from undoing. Chains longer than this tended to pull apart with wear. We continued to make chains and lay them on the shirt, until it appeared to be enough to cover the top. Keep in mind the garments will stretch when worn, so allow space for the braids to overlap.
- I was set on making the costume in such a way that would not create any garbage, so we used pins to attach the braids to the top and skirt. None of the pins opened while she wore it, but if you are concerned you could tape over the pin on the side that contacts the body, or wear a second garment underneath as a barrier.
- We repeated the same process of braiding and laying out the braids on the skirt, and then pinned them in place. Note that the direction of the braids was reversed on the skirt, meaning the braids pointed down to the ground. This helped to have a smoother, more comfortable waist.
- The braiding and pinning for the top and skirt took about 5 hours. Partly because we were developing the process as we went and partly because Ro wanted to try the top on at every step of the way!
- The last piece we made was the hair piece; Ro wanted a fascinator. So we took a left over chain of red maple leaves and braided them. I closed the braid with a regular hair elastic. When the braid was laid over the top of her head, draping down, the leaves fanned up for an interesting look. Held to the head with a few bobby pins.
By the end of the evening, Ro’s dress was dried out and starting to crumble. We had a trail of leaf crumbs all around the house. As I swept up, I noticed that the most beautiful pile was gathering at my broom.
Please feel free to ask any questions about process or technique if my guidance wasn’t clear. Good luck and have fun getting creative with natural materials and please share your results with me!
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