Bat in the Hat
By Arwen O’Reilly
Jan Finnell’s “Bat in the Hat” makes me smile. It’s just the thing to keep your little one warm and toasty and in the spirit of the season (growing up on the east coast, I always remember what a hassle it was to find a costume that was cool and could keep the frostbite away). And the other items in her Etsy shop, Over the Top, are great, too. She makes lovely jewelry (check out her skeleton earrings and gorgeous pumpkin necklace for more Halloween fun), great hats, paper crafts, and seems to have an obsession with buttons and an affinity for beads. She’s a costume designer for commercials, films, TV and theatre in New York City, and it shows. Her work is imaginative and detailed–you can really see her mind at work, full of references and ambition.
I also like the way she loves the Etsy community; when she uses beads or other materials made by other Etsy crafters, she says so, with a link to their shops. Plus, her product photos are a joy to look at (the pumpkin necklace is artfully draped over a candy-colored dried corn cob for scale).
Arwen: How did you get involved with crafting?
Jan: I have been working as a costume designer in theatre, film and TV for twenty years. Whenever there was a need for jewelry, masks, purses, millinery or other crafty details, and I couldn’t afford to buy them or have them made, I created them myself; I’m better at crafts that at stitching garments. I also made accessories for other designer’s shows, usually period pieces, so I have made items ranging from Biblical times through the Victorian Age. I collected interesting beads, buttons, findings, flowers and trimmings along the way and have amassed quite the inventory. In an attempt to use up some of this stock, I make my own personal jewelry and often take apart vintage finds from flea markets and re-purpose it. I really decided to do something concrete about it this past summer after reading about Etsy in The New York Post. I would love to make some period-evocative items but am not sure that anyone could afford them as I spend way too much time on everything that I do!
I did an opera for children over ten years ago and designed polar fleece hats that turned inside out onstage to become different animal characters. They were a huge hit and it was suggested to me that I make and sell them. I did just this and sold quite a few to some stores in New York City, where I live. I had never worked with polar fleece before and just loved its qualities (except the pilling) as well as the colors available. I then got very busy in my field and had to stop making them except for special orders, but I have ideas all the time that I will eventually realize. People stop me on the street and ask me where I bought my hat when I’m wearing on of my own, so I guess that’s a hint that I should get back to work!
Arwen: How do you feel about Halloween?
Jan: I love Halloween, though the last time I dressed up for it was when I was in college! As a costume designer, every day on the job is Halloween for me. I have dressed others, and made an ornate, museum-quality wizard costume for my nephews that they have both worn and have just retired. I’d make more for them, but they’re into superheroes like Spiderman now and making that costume doesn’t appeal to me as it’s already been perfected and there are inexpensive commercial versions available. I’m hoping to interest them in other ideas and really create something special for them that they will be excited to wear to school. Fall is usually very busy for me so time has been an issue.
In recent years, I have become more interested in the mystical and cultural roots of the holiday. I’d like to learn more about it and investigate that creatively. I relate very strongly to the harvest time and change of season and Halloween is very much a part of that for me.
Arwen: Wow! I wish I had an aunt who was eager to make me such fabulous costumes! So what else inspires you?
Jan: Historical Costume, Music, Toys, Folk Art, Interior Design and Decoration, Travel, Photography, History, Illustration and good Graphic Design. So much, really. I can see a bead or a piece of fabric or trim that suddenly inspires me to make something that didn’t exist before. If you saw one of my personal hats, you might think that the applique reminded you of Russian folk embroidery and cut-work. I had just purchased a book on folk costume motifs and was indeed inspired by a particular piece of stylized floral embroidery.
Sometimes I’m inspired by literature. I love the architecture of Russia and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia and the colors and patterns of Morocco, Spain and other hot countries. I went to Scotland a few years ago and the landscape and culture are with me every day although I’m only Scottish in the fact that one grandmother was born in Dundee when her family stopped there on the way to America from Russia. I also am inspired by the seasons and nature; especially fall and winter — my favorites.
I also see a lot of movies, theatre and opera and am inspired by these works as well as directors, cinematographers, production, costume and lighting designers the world over.
Arwen: What a long and juicy list…That could keep me busy for a while:-) Do you have any favorite crafting books/magazines/websites?
Jan: I have so many books on art, painters, costume, decoration, history, accessories, and textiles. In the last year I have been buying magazines like Bead Style, Bead & Button and various paper arts/collage magazines. I also like home furnishing/design magazines as I find color combinations there that I might not have imagined. My guilty pleasure is The World of Interiors, a wonderful magazine that chronicles interiors of exotic locations that I’ll probably never visit, and also those $60 European fashion magazines that I only buy when I’m working and can claim as research material. The European collections are so much more fantastic and risk-taking. I recently found beadandbutton.com but haven’t had much time to investigate it. Of course, I love Etsy and the friendly community of so many talented people and hope that it becomes more well-known. I also just found out about Craftzine.com and look forward to the new magazine and web site, where I will undoubtedly spend many happy hours.
Arwen: What are some of your most important influences?
Jan: I am a theatre person and will always value my theatrical training and artistic education. I went to design school; NYU has a wonderful program for theatrical designers, and I learned how to think like designer, to collaborate with others, how to approach and break down a text, research a project and a period in history and realize a show from sketch to stage. I learned how to define character and emotion in ways that are subtle as well as blatant, something that I use every day as a crafter.
I have studied painters and paintings illustration, decorative arts, costume and world history and am always fascinated to see when and where historical costume will crop up each season. I go to museums, watch TV programs on art and crafting, and haunt bookstores, reading and buying books on various craft subjects that interest me.
Arwen: Any last words or tips for other crafters?
Jan: That’s a tough one. I haven’t been doing this for very long — crafting with customers in mind. I have always been sure of my own “voice” and know when I have hit on a good idea. If I like it, others will, too, so my only advice at this point is do what you love and become the best at it that you can. Go to museums, craft shows, etc. Look at other people’s work and let it feed your muse but don’t copy them; find your own style and means of expression. Don’t merely create with an eye to “what others will like or buy.” Your work has to have passion and life that only you can generate, and has to communicate your intent immediately.