Sophie On: Jema Hewitt

[Above: Jema Hewitt. Image credit: BBC]

Hey guys,

   A few months ago, I did a survey on my Facebook Page to find out if there was anything my readers/fans wanted to see more of. Amongst the replies (such as 'more Manny the Guinea pig') was a request for me to write about different individuals and businesses I've met or worked with, rather than just talking about myself.

   This makes a lot of sense. I've encountered so many wonderful, inspirational people throughout my filmic adventures, and anyone who reads my blogs to learn about the industry would probably value the diversity of my profiling someone else.

   For my first post about an 'outside contact', I thought I'd dip into the world of costume, as so many of you seem to be reading the posts I write about that area. I used to be fairly cautious of meeting other costume designers, particularly when I was just out of university and worried about competition when it came to job-hunting, but recently I've enjoyed working with Katie Lake (costume designer on The Dark Side of the Earth and Stop/Eject) and rising-designer Gina Hames, who I've been training along the way. But today I'll be talking about the first professional costume designer I ever met, Jema Hewitt.

One of my early pieces. Don't judge - I was only 17!
   Hewitt, who originally trained in Theatre Design at Nottingham Trent University, is one of the Midland's (relatively) undiscovered jewels. Not only does she make the biggest dresses I've seen in person - which she sells worldwide through her business, Kindred Spirits Bridal Originals - but she'd also a published author, accessory maker, and a regular hit at the UK's Steampunk conventions. I first contacted her when I was doing my A-levels and they required me to get a professional's feedback on my coursework. The work in question was my first Art Deco piece (and officially the last time I tried to do machine embroidery), and she was very complimentary of it, kindly brushing over the fact that all the little shapes I'd done were sewn on wonky!

   Fast-forward nearly four years, I was in my last year at the University for Creative Arts, and we were required to do a study on a professional under a unit called 'The Business of Film'. At the time I was specialising in Production Design and was getting a bit of a reputation for my interest in Costume, so it made sense for me to talk about someone in that area. I remembered Jema Hewitt, and she remembered me; and luckily for me, she found time to let me interview her during the Easter Holidays, when I was back in the Midlands.

   She gave me a lovely long interview, full of useful advice, and whilst I found it all fascinating, I'm not going to inundate you with it all now. But, for the first time, I am going to share key parts of that interview, in the hope that you will not only learn from it as I did, but that you will also discover Hewitt as the artist that she is. What's most interesting for me now, reading back over the interview, is how eager I seemed, even though at that time I was nearing graduation and had no idea what work I would find (if any) when I moved back home. I didn't know of all the wonderful work that would come my way in the next two years, whereas Hewitt had already been through that time of uncertainty, and come out of it a business mogul...


Interview with Jema Hewitt: Spring, 2010
Having climbed numerous stone stairs, and weaved my way through a maze of old rooms, I find myself in a stylishly cluttered little studio, sat across from the Midland’s biggest name in Costume Design – Jema Hewitt.

Having mused over the practicality of her studio’s whitewashed wooden floor, and the neatness of piped seaming on the edge of a bodice, we now sip at hot drinks while I interview her (and she assures me that the constant refills of coffee won’t stop when I make it into the industry myself).

Jema Hewitt in her Studio.

 Me: So tell me about your previous work in the industry.
Jema: Well, I started straight from Uni, and I did mainly small films, so I’d combine being the Designer with also being the Wardrobe Mistress on set, and organising the team to do that; making stuff, breaking stuff down again, making sure it all got to places on time.
I’ve done a lot of puppetry and things like that. I worked on Blood, I also... did a short film called Does God play Football?, which was set in the 1960's... The extras all wore their own clothes; after I had given guidelines, there was a costumed casting call to pick them and I provided accessories – headscarves, handbags… all sourced from charity shops etc. The priests robes were hired from a costumiers and the mothers fashionable dresses were sourced (and hired, as they were original pieces), from a local vintage clothing store.
 When I left uni, it was before the internet, and it was a completely closed shop. I didn’t know how to get a job. The only thing that I had heard of was The Stage. So I got The Stage and I looked in it, diligently, every week, and there was never any job that I could apply for. After about a year, I got completely disillusioned. And I was broke, so I started making costumes and things to sell, just as bits and pieces, and from that I started getting work on small films as a designer, just because people had seen what I did, and liked it. It was word of mouth; my first ten or fifteen jobs all came from people that I knew, who were doing similar things.

Me: So when did you start building this? (I indicate the studio around us)

Jema: This business [has started] since I finished Uni, because I learnt how to make corsets for the historical/theatrical side of things, and I was fortunate enough at the time that no-one else new how to make corsets! So I was running a sort of small business, making bespoke corsets, continuously. Wedding dresses grew out of that, side by side with doing bits of film, bits of puppetry, bits of design work, and so on.
     I moved to this studio in 2000, and before that I was running my business from my front room in my shared house!

Detail of an 18th Century gown by Hewitt.
Me: Do you think that Britain is the best place to run a Costumer’s business in? Are there places overseas that are more supportive?

Jema: To be honest, I think that Britain is hard because we do have a Film industry, and we do have a good Television industry, but it is dominated by the BBC and a few big companies. It’s dominated by Pinewood, Cosprop, Angels, and there isn’t an awful lot of room for smaller general Costume people, or Costume Companies. There’s quite a lot of room for specialists, like people who make 18th Century covered buttons, if that’s all you do. Or if you make handmade lace, you might get continuous business from films, all of whom are doing period things, and you are the only person who makes handmade lace. But that’s not the same as having a Costume Company.
     A lot of manufacturing has gone abroad. There’s a lot of work being done at costs so much cheaper than we can even contemplate doing it here, particularly for historical things. Most Costume Designers are sending their work abroad to be embroidered, embellished, even if they are then getting it back and making it up in a workshop themselves. 

Me: Is it better for an industry to specialise in a certain area, to offer a specific type of costume, or do you need to be more varied to keep the business going? I mean, you said about people who make lace and buttons, and they always get the work…

Jema: Yes, but they’re not just getting work from films. I’ll use a friend of mine as an example – she’s a braid maker. She hand-weaves different braids. She’s very skilled and she makes braids – that’s all she does. She’s a weaver, and she does it for re-enactment, she does it for film, she does it for museums, and gets continuous work. But she’s a braid maker, not a costume maker. 
To continue to run a business, making costumes, you’ve got to be incredibly versatile, and you’ve got to be able to make historically accurate ones for museums, you’ve got to be able to make beautiful, fantasy, fairy-tale ones for brides, and anything in-between. Or you’re going to be one of the very big companies that people already hire costumes from
There aren’t costume companies that just make costumes for Film. Costumiers come together for a film, and then they all disperse again. So your Costume Designer might put together a workshop of her own people, and she’ll have a pattern cutter that she always works with, that she likes, and they’ll source fabric, and she’ll have someone else, and they’ll hire a warehouse, and you’ll have a costume department that only exists for a year, and then it just disappears again. That’s how that works.

Or you have a big hire company. I mean, even Angels have had to diversify into fancy dress. 
'Queen of the Night' gown by Hewitt
 Me: Do you always have your own style that you put into your work, when you make a costume, or a particular type of costume that you always make? Or do you have to conform to make the money, for a client or for a film?

Jema: I do have a house style, now. I think that most people who know my work would recognise it straight off. Obviously, when you’re working in modern clothes for an advert, or something like that, it’s very different. It’s not obvious that it’s yours because you’ve bought it, you know, from the high street, so it’s a lot harder to distinguish. But if I’m doing big dresses, yeah, I think people would spot one of my dresses.

Me: So you don’t think that you have to conform too much, for the sake of the money?

Jema: When I’m making wedding dresses, obviously I have to listen to the bride – listen to what it is that they are wanting – and on film I have to listen to the director. But again, when you get to a certain stage, people don’t come to you unless they like what you do. They don’t come to you because you’re the only one, they come to you because they want you, and if they want you, they want you for a reason. And the reason is that they love your style. So, yeah, I think it’s important to have something special about what you do that makes you individual. I mean, you can recognise one of Colleen Atwood’s dresses a mile off!

Me: I was just about to say Colleen Atwood! Because, honestly, she must put her diamond pleats on every dress.

Jema: She’s very distinctive! And part of what makes her distinctive is the collaborations she’s had with people. You know, she’s done the Lemony Snickett films…
One of Hewitt's most popular designs

Me: Violet’s dress was incredible. The box pleats on the bottom of the skirt…

Jema: Beautiful! But it’s fantasy fairy-tale, it was totally perfect. I mean, her work with Tim Burton, you know… her dresses look like they’ve been designed by Tim Burton: even when they haven’t been designed by Burton, they look like they have. It’s obvious that they would want to hit it off and design [together].

Me: But she could only have her style that much her style by working with Tim Burton, couldn’t she? I mean, if she was working with someone else, to begin with, it would’ve taken a long time for her to get those diamond pleats in.

Jema: Oh, definitely. You know, you get it in, in little subtle ways, but perhaps you’re not quite allowed so much mad reign. And budget is always an issue as well. If you’re working on a very small, independent film, you might not have the money to spend on making a fabulous dress with loads of different layers and intricate detailing. 
That’s one reason I side-stepped into wedding dresses, to be honest, because it does enable me to do dream things, rather than just getting another pair of blue jeans and a pair of scuffy trainers, and, “oh great, we need fourteen anoraks”!

Me: I completely understand…

Jema: It gets a bit dull. Fine, someone’s got to do it, but I’m a designer, and I’m someone who’s very creative. I needed to have beautiful fabrics, and amazing, fantastical corsets and things around me.

 I love to make things as well, so I like to be in on every single little process – I like to be doing the dying, I like to be sewing the beads on… Once you start doing enormous things, you become a factory owner, and you’re in charge of management, and that’s great, but it’s a whole different job, and I’m quite an obsessive. I quite enjoy seeing one thing come together from initial [drawings] all the way up.

Me: You get orders from around the world...
Jema: Oh yes. I’m working for a bride in Poland at the moment, who flew in a couple of weeks ago.

Me: So, we were talking earlier about how places abroad are more helpful to Costumers, but with your business, you’re fine because of the Internet. People come to you – you don’t have to go abroad.
Jema: Oh, definitely. I’ve heard that Britain is a lot more Cosmopolitan than a lot of places in Europe. People come to me because they can’t get things in Europe.
But again, it’s a different type of business to big film costume departments. I love what I do, it gives me an enormous amount of independence. Being a freelancer, it allows me to pick and choose what I want to do. But it’s also exhausting. I have a lot of responsibilities, and I’m constantly juggling four or five different projects – making a wedding dress, giving a lecture, designing for something… and that can be almost as stressful as designing for one big thing. 

Hewitt's 'Steampunk Absinthe Fairy' gown.
Me: You do give classes now. Is it something you’ve had to do recently, or was it a choice?

Jema: I decided to. I got asked by a couple of the Universities to go and teach their fashion students how to do corsets, that was the start of it. 
I really like passing on skills and knowledge. I’ve always been that way. I hate it when places and people are really mealy-mouthed about where they’ve got things or how to do something. I came across a lot of that when I was starting out my career. People just wouldn’t tell me how to do something, or where they’d got something, and I found it really frustrating and rather rude. So I decided I really wasn’t going to be like that.

I started offering weekend workshops, and I just got trampled in the rush, really! People didn’t want to go on a college course, or do things every Tuesday afternoon. I just expanded it as people kind of went “aw, I really love your top hat, can you show me how to do top hats?” Yeah, great, I’ll do a top hat weekend, then! ...We always have fun.

  Me: Any last words [of advice] before I stop the recording?

Jema: Don’t expect to earn much money! 


   Two years on from that interview, Jema Hewitt's still working, and still making fabulous dresses. It amazes me that she doesn't get more job offers in the industry (Colleen Atwood, if you're reading this, she would be the perfect assistant for you), but Hewitt's business is an established, lasting, quality thing which can only be applauded. 

Having worked in the industry myself now, I've had first-hand experience of the business of it, and particularly the harsh reality for those working on independent films. But I'm certainly grateful to Hewitt for having given me the heads up in advance!

What's more, she's still the queen of the Big Dresses in the Midlands. None of mine have even come close in size. Yet...

Hewitt in one of her recent creations, an Art Nouveau-inspired peacock feather bustle gown.

   If you want to learn more about Jema Hewitt (and I certainly advise that you do), you can check out her website:

Or, if you want to own one of her wonderful creations, then check out her Etsy store:

Right, that's all for now guys. I hope you've enjoyed the change from the usual blog posts. I'll be back next time with more updates from my own work.

Sophie x


  1. Really fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Sophie :) I'm blown away by both her talent and perseverance to do what she loves (vs only working on modern day films where you just buy things from the store). Great insights :)

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Katie - and thankyou for suggesting that I did a profile on someone else.
    She's an inspirational lady and she'd made a good life for herself through her craft. I hope that she's read your comment because I'm happy to get her more fans.
    Kindred Spirits has a Facebook page if you want to follow it! =)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts