“Behind the Grime” by Rachel Pollock

by Rachel Pollock, Crafts Artisan

My favorite project on Henry IV is far and away the aging process for Falstaff’s fiddleback leather coat, which was custom made for actor Michael Winters in the role. We brought on board tailor Kara Monroe (also a UNC alum from our costume production MFA program) to pattern and construct the coat from three hides of lovely buttery leather. (It had to be big to go over Mr. Winters’ prodigious fat padding suit!)

Kara made a beautiful garment, but a just-made coat looks like exactly that: a new piece of clothes! Falstaff is not the sort of man who has a brand new anything in this play, unless it’s maybe a brand new bottle of booze. Costume Designer Jennifer Caprio had very clear ideas about the nature of the coat–my notes from our discussion about the aging say:

  • his favorite coat
  • worn it for 30 years in battle/war/bar brawls
  • lays around brothels in it
  • drinks all night in it, passes out in it

Costume design rendering by Jennifer Caprio
Michael Winters as Falstaff in a fitting for the coat.
I tell my students that the nature of the aging process is twofold. There’s breakdown, which might be as simple as laundering a new shirt with washing soda or might be as extensive as ripping a ragged hem or tearing holes in knees/elbows. And, there’s pigment age, which might be dipping white shirt in a pot of tea or might be splattering it with paint or ink or dye. For the Falstaff coat, I did very little breakdown, only using a fine grit sandpaper on some of the flat-fell seams and across the tops of the shoulders, just to soften the leather and rough up the surface a tad. The majority of work involved pigment aging–in this case, application of leather dyes and French Enamel Varnish.

French Enamel Varnish, more commonly called FEV in our industry, is a medium that you mix yourself according to your needs. Its components are leather dye, denatured alcohol, and shellac, and your project determines the ratio. If you need something runny, use a minimal amount of shellac; if you need something thick, use a lot of shellac and not much alcohol. Use more dye for more pigmentation, less for lighter hues. Use gloves when you work with it and only apply it in a well-ventilated area. I cut on the big wall vents in my dye shop and, thanks to the mild winter, even opened the windows.

Application of FEV on interior of Falstaff coat.
I applied this treatment in four layers, and unfortunately it went fast enough and I was busy enough I only have the one process shot laying on the table. But I can tell you about it! First, I used a dauber to apply tan leather dye to all the seams on the coat. Kara and Jen had put a lot of thought into the construction of this coat and I wanted to highlight that fiddleback seam placement, and the number of gores in the frock. The tan leather dye served to pump up the eye’s perception of those seams onstage.

Next, I used a toothbrush to flick the tan dye and some medium brown leather dye up from the hem like residual stains from ancient mud splatters, and also to drip it down from above (like drunk-guy spillage and rain-stain from some bad weather on an age-old battlefield) onto the lapels and chest. I also used a chip brush with the two kinds of leather dye and two related colors of FEV to paint a sort of ombre effect from the hem up, to create some sweat stains in the armpits and around the collar, and to do some allover dry-brush toning.

Front view on form.
Rear view on form.
Stage shot of ensemble by Jon Gardiner with Michael Winters as Falstaff in foreground.
Hope you enjoyed seeing “behind the grime,” and if you are in the Triangle area, definitely check out these two plays. They are, quite literally, epic.

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The Making of a King: Henry IV & Henry V is now playing through March 4. Click here for more information and tickets.