Panto one great frill for Norwich’s Kate

Sewing birds on to wigs and transforming swathes of material into giant cupcakes – seamstress Kate Withers is knee-deep in panto costumes, says Abigail Saltmarsh.

Russel Hicken may be a far cry from the clients she normally pins into frills – but for Kate Withers dressing a pantomime dame certainly livens up her year.

Kate, who works from a studio in Bridlewell Alley, Norwich, spends most of her time making wedding dresses.

But as winter approaches, and the festive season gets under way, she swaps ivory silk and delicate lace for coloured satin and giant bows, and starts work on a spectrum of outlandish outfits for the Sheringham Little Theatre's pantomime.

'It is a very busy time for me. This year I will be making more than 30 costumes for Dick Whittington.

'I have about 27 days of sewing and then all the adjustments and additions,' she says. 'But I do enjoy it. It is completely different from anything else I do.'

Kate, whose business Aunt Dolly's is named after her great-great aunt who was a pattern-cutter in London, has always loved sewing and working with fabric.

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After school, she spent two years studying fashion design and manufacture at the Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design, before moving on to the Surrey Institute.

'But when I left, I worked doing various other things to start with,' she admits.

'Then someone asked me to make their wedding dress, and that was that – suddenly the dress-making took off.'

Mother-of-two Kate started working from the studio in Norwich and soon found there was great demand for her skills with the needle, from stitching whole outfits to making minor alterations.

'It is surprising how many people need a wedding dress made, trimmed or shortened,' she says.

Then last year she had a rather different request.

'A friend asked me if I wanted to help out with the panto costumes for Aladdin at The Sheringham Little Theatre.

'I was a bit anxious about it but I said I would give it a go – and I did.

'It was completely different from everything else I was doing and I loved it.'

This year Kate is heading up the whole costume team. As wardrobe mistress, she is responsible for what everyone wears on stage.

She says the difference between panto work and her normal job is that she has to throw herself into the bizarre and surreal world of make-believe.

'You have to get your head into the right place. You come up with an idea for a costume and then it evolves into something much bigger. As it develops, you add the detail,' she explains.

Costumes could be based on the character, the script, topical issues or local 'in-jokes', for example.

The dame traditionally wears the most sophisticated and decorated outfits, with pantomime etiquette dictating she should appear in a new costume each time she comes on the stage.

'What she wears could be related to the panto – or it could be nothing to do with it.

'In Dick Whittington, for example, Russ plays Sarah the Cook, who works in a bakery, so one of the costumes we have him in is a giant cupcake,' she says, not wanting to give too much away about this year's wardrobe treasures.

'But the others might have little to do with the story.'

This year, six of the elaborate ensembles Kate has made for the show are for the dame. They have to be as over-the-top and outrageous as she is – but they also have to embody the subtlety of a joke.

Shoes, hats, wigs and handbags are all part of the outfit – and often add the detail that makes the audience laugh.

'The creativity involved makes it such fun – from the original designs and choosing the material to tinkering with it and working with everyone at the theatre as you go along,' she says.

'There is, for example, always a slosh scene – and you have to think about how that is going to work on a practical level with all the water and the mess.'

As well as dresses for the dame, she also had to come up with a furry cat costume and a number of outfits for the little rats.

'At this time of year, I take the kids to school and come back and get started immediately. Then I am often sewing into the evening.

'But my children love it. This is the only time they are ever interested in what I am doing. They come back from school and can't wait to see what I am working on.'

Kate, who has also recently started making sparkly leotards for gymnasts, enjoys the imaginative side of working as a panto wardrobe mistress.

'I just really, really love doing it. I would do it all year round if I could! I think my dream job would be working with drag queens.

'It is an incredible challenge doing this – and in a way it gives me more anxiety and stress than anything else. But at the same time, the reward is wonderful.

'As I watch them go out on stage, I can stand back and think: 'I did that'.'

Dick Whittington runs at Sheringham Little Theatre until Monday, January 2. For tickets call 01263 822347.