Gandalf From Scratch

Seriously. What Was I thinking?

I had business lunch recently with a woman who I hadn’t met before.  We soon discovered a shared pay someone to do your assignment history of overzealous wedding planning, a fondness for camping with kids, and the dubious distinction of having served as a laundromat attendant. It must be said, however, that I never had to launder the skivvies of a man who raises bears. “His dainties were so aromatic with bear scat,” she told me, “it’d drop you dead in your tracks at five feet.”  Before we ordered lunch, she identified herself as a “Type A++ personality” and told me how she grinds her own flour. I thought, okay, I’m a smidge Type A myself, but that’s truly nuts.

Homemade Gandolf costume

The end result was awesome. The process, ridiculous.

Here’s where the kettle started chucking rocks at the glass pot. My 12-year-old decided he wanted to be Gandalf the Grey for Halloween this year. His younger brother would be Aragorn. (Rounding out the theme, my daughter chose to be a pirate.) The day after the lunch, I went to every thrift store and Spirit Halloween Ripoff Center in Boulder County in search of Lord of the Rings outfits. I found a brown hooded cloak and suede vest that, when combined with a thick brown belt I’d saved from the 1980s, would work for Aragorn. The search for a grey cloak proved futile. Frustrated, I decided to just make the darn thing. It’s just a simple cloak, I reasoned. Seriously, how hard could it be?  Well, now I know grinding your own flour from ancient seeds of amaranth is a simple task in comparison. I am the one who is nuts.

I bought eight yards of some silky faux suede material, thread, fusible facing, a clasp I would never actually attach to anything, and a McCall’s pattern that said the word “easy” exactly nowhere.  I was thinking myself thrifty until I hit the checkout. I almost keeled over when the cashier quoted a figure upwards of $50. And the fabric was 50% off, for Pete’s sake. I spent another $30 over the next few days on pins, white wig and beard, and a plastic staff with light-up glowing orb. I spent the next two weekends plus evenings cutting, sewing, pressing, basting, gathering, hemming, and otherwise stabbing myself in the fingers with sharp pins.

My husband had a good laugh over the whole episode. When I laid out all the pattern pieces cut from tissue paper across our dining room table, he asked me if I had a clue what I was doing. I had, once, made curtains. But if you’ve ever seen a curtain, you know they are rectangular. All you need to do is sew a straight hem. The Gandalf pattern had gathered fabric at the shoulders, at the front, and along the back panels. There were darts on the sleeves and facing fabric to negotiate at the shoulders. It had dramatic triangular sleeves big enough to swallow a prize pig.

Lord of the Rings Halloween costumes

At far left: Thrift store Aragorn; second from right, store-bought Legolas.

The real perplexity was in the hat, peaked and brimmed like a witch’s. First there was a facing to fuse to the cut pieces. The directions were a convoluted series of steps including sewing seams, matching notches, pressing seams, then turning the resulting lump of fabric inside out and right side in and sewing more seams.  I could not, for the life of me, figure it out. So I did what any self-respecting 46-year-old woman does in such dire situations. I called my mother.

The daughter of a Irish seamstress, my mom sewed all her life. She shortened our jeans and took in our waistbands. Once she even made me a purple downhill ski racing suit with red stripes. She had the skills, I was sure of it. She came over right away, had a look at the directions and my cone-shaped half-creation, and announced, “You need to get somebody over here who knows how to sew.” It reminded me of the time I showed my father, who is a surgeon, the red and white target on my arm that appeared a week after I’d gotten bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick. My dad looked at it, consulted his Physician’s Desk Reference, and announced, “You need to go see a doctor.”

Homemade Gandalf Costume

Note the copious amount of gathers at shoulder and back panel.
There’s so much fabric in this cloak it weighs about 10 pounds.

My friend Diane responded to my SOS the next day. The year prior, she had made a penguin costume for her kindergartener. It was darling. Diane, I think, is the kind of person who doesn’t get too hung up on patterns. She sewed the lower part of the costume so that it fit tightly around her daughter’s legs. The end result looked very penguin-like but forced her daughter to waddle, like it or not. When she fell behind on Halloween night, she would hop, two-footed along the sidewalk and up steps to people’s front doors.

Together, Diane and I looked at the would-be hat and the directions. As I pointed to the steps, it suddenly crystallized for me. Before Diane had much to say, I said, “I get it! I get it! Thanks for coming over!” She stayed long enough for us to discuss the absurdity and the beauty of home-made costumes. They are fabulous when you’re finished. So much higher quality and more creative than store-bought. This year Diane’s daughter said she wanted to be a bush. Using tulle and garlands of plastic leaves, Diane fashioned a wearable bush. The pièce de résistance: a small nest with two birds tied on top of her head. It was priceless. But not cheap.

If you add up materials and man-hours–I frittered away the better part of two weekends sewing–the Gandalf costume cost about a thousand bucks. We continued to rationalize: if my son wears it for a few years and passes it on to his brother, the cost and effort will amortize over the time. Of course, when my son slipped on the cloak on Halloween, the look on his face made it all worthwhile. He loved it and, dare I say, he appreciated the effort. Clearly that was the ultimate return on my investment. Plus, Diane suggested, “You could sew a bit of white fur around the neckline and your daughter could be a queen!”

That, I’m afraid, would require more sewing.






  1. Helen, really enjoyed the costume making story. Noeleenx

  2. Gandalf Lives!!! The costume looks great Helen, and yes, after figuring out the time spent on said bush, I think the cost was about 800.00 give or take. Love the post, thanks for the mention!

    • Helen Olsson says:

      We are nuts, you and me! But your daughter had the best costume at school. That bird nest on her head was the Pièce de résistance! Hope you took lots of pictures.


  1. […] For most of us, the crazy-town things we do for our kids are more like driving five miles back to the park to find a Lego figurine left on the sidewalk. Or making pancakes shaped like trolls and sandwiches cut like puzzle pieces. Or scouring a half dozen thrift stores in search of a certain gray cape because our kid must be Gandalf for Halloween…and then, when coming up short, taking a month to sew the damn cape yourself. […]

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