New store marks new era for costume designer

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When Christine Pawlicki was three, she sewed her finger on her mother's sewing machine instead of her dolls' clothes. Her mother pulled out the needle and put a Band-Aid on the wound and young Christine went straight back to sewing.

At least, that's how her mother tells it. Pawlicki, now 49, doesn't remember the incident.

But given subsequent events, it could well have happened.

Pawlicki is opening her new shop, Christine's Place, on Saturday, February 2, with a big sale of materials and clothing as well as costumes she has made for Canberra theatre shows, including kimonos from The Mikado and Queen Victoria's dresses from The Department of Heaven.

Pawlicki sees herself as one of a dying breed of old-school, versatile costume and clothing makers who made garments to last.

For many years she worked out of the garage at her home but now her husband has his "man-cave" back, she says.


"Between the musical theatre I love to sew for, my gorgeous bridal and formal gowns, the dancing girls and all the costumes I make I needed to make the decision to move out."

And she wants to clear some space for her new venture.

Pawlicki was born in Corowa but has lived most of her life in Canberra. Her mother, a tailor, taught her about making clothes. She remembers when she was six that she was sewing patches on her two-and-a-half-year-old sister's skirt - while her sister was wearing it.

"I kept stabbing her, several times. She was wiggling - that's my story and I'm sticking to it."

Her first professional job came when she was 15: she made a formal dress for a friend and made $40.

Pawlicki received further instruction from a textiles teacher at school whom she didn't like - the woman's nickname was Steel Wool, on account of her hair - but says she learned a lot.

"She taught me the most fantastic things I still use today: she was such a perfectionist."

When she left school, Pawlicki worked in a series of jobs, each of which taught her something that would come in handy. From a florist, she learned about colour coordination and how to place things; from a dry cleaner she learned about speed.

"You had to move. I could put a zipper into a pair of jeans in 15 minutes: I still can."

And from a curtain shop she learned measuring and cutting skills and the importance of precision.

Working at a Singer Sewing Centre and a fabric shop also added to her body of knowledge. She married her husband, Alex, in 1985 and had two children, Kirsten in 1989 and Christian in 1991.

When her daughter was five and studying at Legs Dance Studio she started designing costumes for the children but eventually, she says, she got "sick of the mums" and went to work at Aldi for a few years. But the September 11, 2001 attacks made her realise she didn't want to do that for the rest of her life and she went back into clothes-making - wedding dresses, outfits for formals, and much more besides.

In 2003 she designed costumes for a stage production of Pride and Prejudice directed by Stephen Pike and since then has gone on to work on many shows including Cats, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. Among her biggest challenges was Cabaret, both in trying to evoke the risque milieu of Berlin in the 1930s while taking modern sensibilities into account ("My God, we've turned into prudes!") and in creating a pink gorilla costume in which the actor could dance en pointe.

When designing outfits for Queen Victoria in The De-partment of Heaven she discovered the monarch never wore the same garment twice so she created 10 costumes for the character.

"Every time she came out she had a brand spanking new dress on."

The costume budget for a show is usually between $1000 and $2000 but sometimes she will supplement it if she wants to make something special. Some companies have kept the costumes; other times she will keep them and rent them out herself. She makes sure they can easily be taken in and out to fit different bodies.

Among her many other projects have been designing outfits for Canberra Pops concerts, ensuring conductor Ian McLean and guest artists such as Jon English, Rob Guest and Queen Van De Zandt ("my favourite!") looked good and working backstage at the Australia Day concerts.

"Making sure all the acts are dressed and looking fabulous is such a highlight of my year."

Harking back to her childhood, Pawlicki says she recently managed to "sew" herself again recently, this time with an industrial sewing machine.

"I pulled it out with a pair of pliers myself and stuck my finger in a bottle of Dettol ... it hurt like hell," she says.

"Then I went back to sewing."

Some things, it seems, never change.

"I was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and I am still kicking on. And I plan to be kicking on for a very long time," Pawlicki says. "Life is too short to sit around."

Christine's Place, Unit 2, 31 Grattan Court, Erindale Centre, opens on Saturday, February 2. Free sausage sizzle from 9.30am to 2pm. Ribbon cutting at 10am by Coralie Wood. Free face painting and roaming entertainment. Super Joe from 104.7 at 10am. Inquiries: 0416 379 251.