Making History at The Northern College of Costume

Making History at The Northern College of Costume

April 15, 2014

When choosing images for the portfolio on my website, it struck me how lucky I am to be able to create historical costumes for a living. This would not have been possible without the tutorage and help of Pauline Chambers, owner and chief tutor at The Northern College of Costume in York.

I enrolled on the college’s intensive 15-week historical costume making course in 2010, and though daunted by the price-tad, I quickly realised I was getting full value for money. As one of six pupils (now up to eight), I received one-on-one guidance from Pauline, and the other tutors brought in to teach. Everything you need is included; your own station and sewing machine, materials to make three amazing outfits, a material buying trip to London, a full days photo-shoot with professional photographer, make-up and hair artist and at the end, a two day exhibition to showcase your work. If this wasn’t enough, Pauline can even rustle up a male model for you if your boyfriend/brother/postman can’t be persuaded!

Though you are expected to have a good knowledge of sewing already, Jane White, of UC Tuition (, joined us weekly to teach key skills in hemming, seams, decoration and, – what I dreaded most – pockets.


You will find the course a steep learning curve, no matter how familiar you are with sewing. Your first project will be menswear, mine was a Cavalier outfit, which has to be completed in just four weeks. In that time you will learn to scale up and adjust patterns, make the toile, fit to a male form and tackle tailoring techniques. Pauline explains everything step-by-step to the group and the long days are punctuated by regular tea breaks in the chill out area.



Then onto the next project, late 19th century women’s wear – or bustle gown – which you model yourself. Pauline will provide you with the general design of the dress, but you can add your own design flare. Starting with simple combination underwear, you move onto making a corset, structured cage and flounced petticoat. The skirt and bustle come with a pattern, but you have to do the bodice yourself.  This is a mammoth project in the time you have, but every student always finishes it. My year supported each other with tea and sympathy when the inevitable bouts of unpicking happened!

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The final project is early-mid 20th century women’s wear. Pauline assigned me a 1930s evening dress designed by Madeline Vionnet. Though the bustle gown takes the most time, it is this final project which is the true test of this course. My dress was cut on the bias and, as with many of Madeline Vionnet’s designs, the pattern was complex, leading to a huge amount of hand stitching and frustration as the fabric slivered through my fingers.yourself. This is where, with Pauline’s guidance, you learn to drape on the stand. You are paired with a fellow student to do fittings before you make the final dress in all its glory.

The pace can seem daunting; though not unusual in the costume world. To get the most out of this course you need to dedicate yourself to completing every project, not for a diploma or certificate, but for your career portfolio, and more importantly, for your own feeling of accomplishment.  By the time the photo-shoot and exhibition comes round, you will raise your head from your work station and be shocked at how much you have learnt and achieved in just 15 weeks.

The unique aspect of this course is Pauline herself – she is priceless. This is her college and she puts everything into it, generously giving her extra time to help students find accommodation, ensure everyone completes their projects and put the kettle on for the hundredth time. Pauline helps each student to find work placements to gain professional experience, with past students visiting the Sheffield Crucible, The Northern Ballet, The Yorkshire Playhouse, Opera North, The Royal Exchange, The Royal Opera, the Scottish Opera….the list goes on.

The reputation of the college is excellent and far-reaching, with graduates recognised as well trained individuals who can be trusted to enter a busy workroom ready to work. Check out where the graduates are now by joining The Northern College of Costume Alumni page on Facebook (

If you want to work in the historical costume industry contact Pauline at The Northern College of Costume to have a chat, trust me– you won’t regret it!

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