After two novels that take readers back 1300 years to early medieval England, Elaine Drew has just released a lavishly illustrated short story from the same period, A Knight’s Bad Day. Another is in the works.
Drew had a bachelor’s in English from Emory University and had worked in public relations for General Electric before tiring of corporate life, turning to acting, and coming to FIT for an associate’s degree in Fashion Design, graduating in 1976. “Acting at least has some link to English and writing,” Drew said. But her mother had been a talented designer and seamstress, and her boyfriend at the time, an actor, had by happenstance gotten a free, reconditioned old Singer for her.
“The machine was shiny and black and beautifully decorated with gold scrolls. I was less than thrilled. But feeling guilty, I thought I’d better sew something. I bought a pattern and learned to sew the way I had learned to cook: by slavishly following the directions.” It was the 70s, pre-YouTube.
“To my surprise, I found this absorbing. I decided to decorate the long wool culottes I’d made (it was, again, the 70s) with hand embroidery that I made up as I went. I was hooked.”
Drew said her years writing university papers and corporate pamphlets had left her wondering if her output was any good. “But when I made a garment, I could hang it up and look at it. I could tell whether it was good or not. I decided to become a designer.”
Cue FIT: “I loved my classes. I even loved the sewing instructor who ripped out the zipper I had slaved over and then explained how to do it correctly. I dearly loved my tailoring tutor who taught us couture techniques, and my millinery instructor who showed us how to block felt into a shape.
“I loved draping and pattern making. A big surprise was loving the History of Costume course. I had never liked history, and this introduction to the field from a different point of view came in handy when I started to research the early medieval period for my writing.
“I got my start painting in the Fashion Illustration course, which acquainted me with watercolor and illustration techniques. The Life class started a lifelong interest in drawing the figure.”
FIT helped Drew get her first job, at a junior sportswear company called N.U.T.S. The owners didn’t want to say, but in time they confessed it was the acronym for “No Underwear This Season.” Again, and for the last time, it was the 70s.
After a few years Drew went freelance. “It was the era of boutique clothing, and I created and sold one-of-a-kind pieces to department stores like Bendel’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and Bloomingdales, as well as many small boutiques.”
She also made costumes for a group that put on medieval plays at The Cloisters and was an exhibition consultant for The Met’s Costume Institute. She met fashion scholar Harold Koda there long before he was its curator. Drew had a gig in Paris for an exhibition of Ballet Russe costumes and later married and moved to Los Angeles and worked in costuming for the Center Theater Group.
All of that has influenced her books: “I look at a character’s costume from the point of view of its construction.
“I learned to go to libraries and museums. Illustration skills flow from design skills, such as thinking about the design of a page, the color story, and adding a telling detail while not distracting from the whole. As an FIT teacher explained, ‘You can only have one prima ballerina.’”
“After we moved to a small village in England, I decided it was time to find work that didn’t depend on a specific location. I was writing more—even poetry for Winchester Cathedral—when Saxon remains were found under the children’s school playground. I began thinking about these early English.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to set the Cinderella story in early English times with a bratty and sassy heroine, the opposite of her usual portrayal?
That led to two years researching this period of Hampshire’s history (around 802) and spawned her first book, Courting Trouble. “I enjoyed the main characters of that book so much that I did another book about them, Nun Too Clever, a mystery.
For those books, she illustrated the covers. A Knight’s Bad Day illustrates a tale featuring the hero of the first two books.
The illustrations for that book were mostly manual. Drew did outline sketches designed as two-page spreads, then refined and enlarged in Adobe Illustrator and printed full size with a wide format printer. With a light box and Faber-Castell Ecco Pigment pens, she traced the line art onto Arches watercolor paper, then painted these illustrations with Holbein’s gouache. The finished paintings were scanned and modified in Adobe Photoshop.
For her next project, in progress, she’s using only digital tools, adding an iPad and Fresco to the mix. She’s back in the United States, living in the San Francisco Bay area, in the town of Pleasanton. But the Saxons followed her.
To learn more about the School of Art and Design’s Fashion Design major, visit Fashion Design at FIT.
All images used with permission.