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It's curtains

posted by Megan Wygant on Wed, Oct 29, 2008
in Prop shop

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This post is on behalf of Prop Shop, who's in tech for Joe Turner and on deadline for The Arabian Nights at the moment.

If you flip through a Sears and Roebuck catalogue from the early 1900’s you actually can find a good portion of what you see on the set for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. If only we could still shop from those catalogues and get things at those prices! You’d also be surprised how little some things have changed and how impossible other things are to find today. This is one of the great challenges of my job. If we can’t buy or borrow something, we build it.


When I saw scenic designer Scott Bradley’s drawings of the set, I was pretty overwhelmed by the level of detail he put into all of the prop drawings. He knows what he wants and he actually draws it into his scenery draftings -- not something every designer does (most tend to have a loose idea and we see what we can find). So, I asked Scott what the piece that appeared to be a lace curtain in the main archway was, and he said it was actually macraméd. Okay, that’s not something I had even heard of; to make it that much more difficult, he wanted the rope to be ¾” thick and magenta. You certainly can’t buy something that specific.

Curtain elevation

After searching all the local fabric stores, and on the web for a while with no luck on any cording that thick other than stiff marine rope (which would be a good color or something we could dye), I called a couple of big theatrical supply houses to see if they carried something like this rope. One flat-out said no. The other said they could shop in LA for me and call back in a week. I was super-excited, gave them all the important information, and thought I had it solved. The woman I talked to left for vacation in the meantime, leaving my info with her LA shopper. A week later she calls me to get the information again. And then a week later she sends me a couple of samples that are the wrong color and the wrong size and some tassels that were also the wrong size (because of course I need matching tassels for this thing too, and the tassels are of varying sizes as well). I believe this is the eighth time Scott has designed a version of this set, so I didn’t doubt this problem had been solved before...And I was wishing I could just borrow this thing from someone who had done it! I actually sent out a plea to the email list of prop managers across the country with no luck.

Defeated, I told Scott I couldn’t find anything like what he wanted. He was surprised and said that 20 years ago, when he did the show in NYC, there was tons of silk rope. And this sparked a thought in me—I hadn’t searched for “silk rope,” though I had thought I came up with every possible Google combination for braided cording. And, of course, the first link if you Google “silk rope” is a San Francisco-based artisan, Madame Butterfly, who hand-spins silk rope to specified sizes and colors. I should have known I would find a niche market for handmade rope in SF!

I was ecstatic. This was the beginning of a series of emails, snail mails, and drives to coffee shops in SF, in which we exchanged rope and dye samples. I soon found out that though silk rope was the key word I was missing, silk didn’t have that silky sheen we would have expected. However Madame Butterfly also spins rayon, which has the same softness and draping quality, takes dye, and is shiny.

Let me also say that Scott lives in New York, so most of our communication is via email and pictures and Fed-Exing samples. So there was a lot of back-and-forth through the whole process of creating this piece. Once we got the size and color approved by Scott, she made us some lengths of the rope.

Tassel sample In the meantime, I called Bruce Busby, who is an amazing local artisan, to work on this project -- which is a perfect fit for his talents. He just happened to be available while his wife was taking maternity leave and could look after their first daughter. He worked with the sample pieces while MB was creating the rope from scratch to figure out the layout of the curtain, how to make the knots look and work correctly, and how to make tassels out of the same material and integrate them into the rope. Bruce realized that we would need more fibers for the tassels than the ends of the rope created to get enough fullness for Scott’s liking. I went back to MB to get a roll of just the fibers dyed, and Bruce strategically added these into the knots of the tassels and created fringe out of them for the side pieces. 

Final lay out2 When he was done, the tassels actually had this really cool-looking tie-dyed quality because the rope had been dyed after it was spun, so the insides were still white. We knew this was going to happen and had already arranged for MB to re-dye the finished curtain once it was completely built. We were all optimistic it would turn out evenly colored. I took the finished curtain to be re-dyed the morning Bruce’s wife went into labor with their second daughter -- he finished it just in time! It only took a little more tweaking and tassel conditioning after getting it back, and we were able to make those adjustments without him.

So, many hours of work later, we have a beautiful macramé curtain in the set’s archway. There was one moment my heart sunk when the lighting designer asked if we could shorten the curtain so it wouldn’t cast shadows on the actors...but luckily, there were other solutions to that problem (and I didn’t have to go in a corner and cry!). I’m not sure, all-told, how many hours and how much money went into this (I might get a chance to figure this out once we actually open this show and The Arabian Nights, which is right on its heels).

I often wonder if people notice details like this curtain, and if they stop to think where it might have come from...though, really if something takes too much attention then we haven’t really done our job well. It should all look natural and the actors should look comfortable in their surroundings.

All photos courtesy of brtpropshop.


These are nice small tips; however, I would like to add some other options as well like choices of fabrics, tracks, rods, styles and headings for drapery etc. It is often the case that we don't know where to start looking to work out which curtains best suit the doors and windows in our home.The first thing you need to do is choose the color and check the fabric or quality of the curtain. Then you go for the style of the curtain i.e. whether it should be Box pleated, eyelet, Goblet or some other type. Have a look to this website for more good looking curtains,

Country Home Decor | Thu, Feb 11, 2010

Funny you mention a Sears Roebuck catalog. I just found an old one (reproduction) and was browsing through it. If only those prices were still relevant today. Oh, really like the dye job on the tassels.

Sarah the bathroom scale gal | Sat, Jul 24, 2010

I visited the site suggested by country home decor above. Thanks for the tip. I found some great valences for a 50's era stage I'm recreating.

Sarah | Sat, Jul 24, 2010

I know you don't think people notice slight details on the curtain but I certainly do. Most won't but the ones who can see the difference really appreciate the effort. Thanks.

Mike | Sat, Jul 24, 2010

You did a great job of explaining and illustrating the ideas. While I am not a fabric fanatic, my wife is. And your posts have given her inspiration on a new project. She is always thinking of new and different ways to improve our home decor. I think she is trying to decorate the family room but she refuses to tell me. Anyway, thanks for the info.

Richard M | Sat, Jul 24, 2010

I love this blog post. Coming across a blog that explains not only about curtains but also their construction process is a rarity.

thepolescompany | Mon, Mar 4, 2013

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