“That chicken costume is amazing! Where did you get it?” a woman came up to me and said as my four year old daughter, Irie, and I made our way to the end of the line of costumed children at elementary school parking lot. The event was “Trunk-or-Treat,” an annual event held just before dusk the Friday before Halloween by the local education administration the for kids young enough to find it fun. My 9 year no longer thought going from decorated car trunk to car trunk as teachers handed out candy sounded like a good time, and had decided not to participate in this first treat gathering opportunity of the faux-holiday season.
“I made it. You can’t buy something like that at a store!” I replied indignantly immediately wishing I hadn’t. She looked at me with puzzlement, simply said “Oh,” and walked away. I regretted my knee-jerk answer to her question and resolved to be a little more gracious as we met up with my friend, Sarah, and her son, Woody who was dressed as a tornado.
“Oh, Irie, you look just like a chicken! It turned out great!” she exclaimed with delight. The yellow pants and feet really make it over the top. The basket is a nice touch too!”
“Thanks. Some woman over there asked me where I got Irie’s costume as if you can just go to Target and there will be a bunch of these on the shelf!” I said in disbelief.
Sarah laughed. “Maybe she couldn’t even imagine how someone could make something like this,” she offered in explanation. “I don’t even understand how you made it, and I saw it in progress!”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right.” I said with a chuckle and struggled to see it from a different perspective.
I was actually surprised it turned out so good. It was truly a work of art. Constructed with chicken wire (ha!), fabric, duct tape, and feathers, I managed to turn my four year old daughter into another species complete with movable wings and beak. While wearing it she even asked me if she could fly.
“Oh my goodness!” one of the teachers said with a gasp as Irie reached for a tootsie roll and placed it in her basket with a few realistic looking fake eggs in it. “Are those real chicken feathers?”
“Yes, they are!” I confirmed feeling happy that someone noticed though odds are she or a family member could easily be a chicken farmer. After all, we lived in Perdue country.
Another family came over to admire The Chicken. “How long did it take you to make that?” she asked in amazement while her child tried to pet it.
“Oh, probably about two and a half weeks straight.” I conservatively calculated.
“I believe it!”
A few step later another mom and child asked to take a picture with Irie. “Look, Billy. Her arms move and open like wings. Irie demonstrated while little Billy stood with his mouth opened slightly in awe. “Can you flap your wings?” the mom asked Irie, and without a word she began flapping her feathered arms.
As we walked around collecting candy and compliments, people pointed, oohed and aahed and asked to get their picture taken with The Chicken until it was dark enough that cameras flashed regularly. Most often I was asked, “How did you do it?”
With a sly smirk I joked, “I don’t really know. I just started and didn’t stop until it looked like a chicken!” The truth was, I never had a plan.
Six months prior, Irie, announced she wanted to be a chicken for Halloween. I didn’t know how I was going to make that happen but I knew it was going to have real chicken feathers. Since we lived on a farm – and have a flock big enough for four families – that was not going to be a problem. That spring we had our yearly rooster harvest and I insisted on saving the feathers, wet and bloody as they were. After about a week of inaction, my husband demanded something be done about them.
“Look, can I just throw these away? They are really starting to smell.” It was true. The putrid stench of rotting animal flesh on our enclosed porch was getting a little overwhelming.
“No, they are going to be for Irie’s costume!”
“Well, you need to do something about them or I will,” he warned, “and you won’t be happy.”
“OK, ok. I’ll figure something out.”
I knew I needed to clean them, but how? The sink? Yuck. A bucket and hose? Possibly. How about the washing machine? After all, I put our carrot harvest in there and they turned out great. So, when no one was looking, I put the feathers in the washing machine to see what would happen, hoping they wouldn’t fall apart. When the cycle was finished I opened the lid slowly and peeked in with one eye closed. To my relief they looked perfect – but wet. Now, how to get them dry? Well, if the washing machine worked to wash them, I bet the dryer would work too!
After a couple hours on the no heat setting, the feathers looked better than I had even hoped. They came out as fluffy as if the birds had groomed themselves. I put them into a cardboard box and into the sewing room to use in the fall after the growing season was over and I could get back to creating again. I patted myself on the back for my clever solution for cleaning the feathers.
A few days later on my way out to town I threw a load into the washer. When I returned, I opened the lid and surprised to see it hadn’t drained though the cycle had been completed. I fiddled with the mechanical dial thinking perhaps it “forgot” that function and tried to reset it to empty out. The humming noise indicated it was working, yet the dirty, soapy water remained. I suddenly had a sinking feeling that my brilliant solution to cleaning the feathers wasn’t as brilliant as I had thought. I bailed the water out into the utility sink as much as I could, and wrung out the clothes by hand. Before calling my husband, knowing I would get an I-Love-Lucy-esque lecture, I tried another load just to be positively sure. The results were the same.
“Hey, Mike. Can you come look at this for a second?” I yelled into the other room where he was on his computer. “I think there’s something wrong with the washer.”
He came in the room and asked what was wrong, and I told him it wasn’t draining and lifted the lid.
“That’s odd. When did you first notice this?”
“Just today. The load right before this didn’t drain either.”
“We’ve only had this washer for a year. I can’t believe it broke already.” He said while looking it over and messing with the controls.
“Um… well… I might have messed it up.”
“You? What did you do now?”
“Um… well… I washed the feathers.”
“YOU WASHED THE FEATHERS IN THE MACHINE?” he said so loudly the neighbors could probably hear. “Are you insane?”
“Uh… Yeah, kind of.”
“Yeah, you kind of washed them in the machine or yeah, you’re kind of insane?”
“Jesus Christ! I bet the feathers are blocking it from draining! We’re going to have to take it apart!” he said with bulging veins visible.
“Have you ever taken apart a washing machine?” I asked innocently.
“No, that’s why you’re going to do it. Call me when you’ve figured it out.” he commanded and stomped away.
After looking over the machine I found an opening and was excited to discover repair instructions within. In fact, I felt like I was in some sort of video game. Mike was able to figure out the part responsible for draining the gray water, cleared out the feathers, and put it all back together. It was a team effort and we were proud of ourselves once it was all put back together (no left over screws). He forbid me from ever putting feathers in the machine again.
For the rest of the Spring and for months afterward, whenever I used the dryer, feathers would be part of the load I would pull out into the basket when the buzzer said they were done. The sight of them made me ashamed and proud all at once that I got away with that crazy idea and no permanent damage was done.
When October finally arrived I gave myself permission to start thinking about the kids’ costumes. Quinn was to be The Rubik’s Cube and much to my delight he constructed the whole thing after I came home from an appliance store with a box that delivered a dishwasher. All I had to do for a month was concentrate on the chicken. Where to start? I sat in my sewing room and stared at my sewing machine and the box of chicken feathers until couldn’t think any more. I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere with it without a frame. It had to be light and wearable. As with the Liberty Bell costume a few years back, I turned to chicken wire. Luckily we have tons of it laying around since my husband buys way too much of whatever he needs so he doesn’t ever run out. Ever.
I found a piece I thought big enough and twisted and shaped it until it looked like the curve of the chicken breast and tail. I called Irie in to make sure it was the right height and to estimate where to put the holes for the arms. I sniped a few wires here and there and folded them in on themselves securing them back until it resembled a wire vest. From there I laid white fleece over the chicken wire and the bird began to emerge. It was open at the bottom and the front but closed at the back where the tail was to be. I made use of an old and previously useless and broken spinning wheel and propped it on top so I could easily work from all angles. I brought it out on the porch to work in the sunlight instead of being cooped up in a tiny room for most of the day. I wondered if that’s how caged chickens felt.
My husband walked out and noticed me there working. “Wow! It’s really starting to look like a chicken!” he noted with surprise and. I detected just a hint of admiration.
“Yeah, I can’t believe I twisted it in the perfect shape on the first try.” He paused another second to look from afar then walked out toward the orchard.
I needed more of a curve at the front where the breast would be, so I fashioned two pillows on either side and pinned them to the fleece. I installed a zipper up the front to join the padded sides. Next, I built up and reinforced the neck with extra chicken wire, and created and attached a hood I needed Irie to try it on before I stitched anything permanently.
“Irie!” I yelled into the house.
“What?!” she answered me from inside her room where she was playing with her toy horses.
“Come here, I need you to try this on!”
“Oh, Mom!” she shouted wearily. “I don’t want to!” This wasn’t the first time that day I’d asked her to be my model.
“Just one more time,” I said but heard no response. I sweetened the deal. “I’ll give you a chocolate chip!” Instantly I heard footsteps that grew louder and louder until she was by my side and I was fitting the wingless, featherless chicken on her.
Just when I was about to make an important mark, she jumped. “Ouch!” she cried, “Something’s poking me!”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’ll fix that,” I promised. “Just another second, please? Hold still!”
Before I was ready, my time was up. She slithered and wriggled and whined until she was free . Defeated by my impatient four year old, I managed to take an educated guess and sewed the pieces together.
I had been dreading the wings because I had no idea where to start. All my brainstorming led to nothing I was happy with. Up until then, my best idea was to somehow have her hand fold out like a fan – operated by her fingers – and stitching the feathers on my hand. I had even cut slats and was minutes away from drilling a pivot point when I spotted one of Quinn’s cardboard scraps on the porch. I can’t remember why, but I picked up a piece, and turned it on end to examine the corrugation. Out of the blue inspiration struck. How easy it would be to stick a quill into the corrugation? How tightly would it hold? I took the piece of cardboard to the sewing room to test it. It fit so perfectly it didn’t even need glue! Eureeka! I was so elated to find such an elegant solution I felt like I already won first place.
Immediately I began drawing templates in an attempt to figure out the best shapes. My vision was to have the two pieces fold in on themselves when her arm was straight, then open when bent. I carefully aligned the corrugation in the optimal direction, installed the small metal joint and slid the pieces together and back again marking the cardboard for fine tuning. After a couple failed attempts, I had one that worked and duplicated it. I began inserting the wing feathers in the one side of the cardboard and noticed that there were two kinds: left and right. Up until then I never realized just how many different kinds of feathers a bird had: not just wing, but tail, body, and little tiny fluffy things I could only assume were down. I had to be careful to put the correct one on the corresponding side or it would bend the other way.
That weekend – two weeks before the Halloween contests – the family vacation was scheduled. I was a little worried I wasn’t going to get done in time. I could use those extra three days. I thought about canceling. I couldn’t tell them the truth thought. I would have to make up a reason. Quinn dreaded the long car ride? Irie was sick? I was called into fill some shifts at the gymnastics gym because one of the coaches got injured? No, they would see right through them all. I could just hear their responses: “Audra, it’s just a Halloween costume!” “You spend waaaaaay too much time on this,” . I could hear my sister-in-law,Alli, who knew me best say, “C’mon! You can’t be serious… Really? You’ll still have 2 whole weeks when we get back!” She always bought her kids’ costumes and didn’t understand my passion that bordered on obsession this time of year.
I knew there were two whole weeks and to anyone else that would be more than enough time. For me, it wasn’t. I was the person who got started on papers in college as soon as the professor assigned them then was done a week early. They aren’t the people who get to the airport two hours early just in case something happens. They are the folks who will drive like a bat out of hell, arrive a half and hour passed boarding time, then race to the terminal and have to talk their way on board. Just the thought of that made my heart flutter and palms sweat. I did not work well under pressure.
So why did I do this to myself every October? I stress out, panic that I’m going to run out of time no matter how long I’ve given myself, and neglect all household chores. My husband jokes that October is leftovers month. Why did I continuously pick more and more difficult costumes? If the costumes weren’t hard to begin with, I made them hard. What was it about this process that I loved so much I looked forward to it all year long? It was more than a family tradition: mom made mine, her mom made hers, and her grandmother made her mom’s. Was it the challenge in figuring out the best, optimal materials to use and figuring out solutions to problems that I needed? Maybe it was witnessing my kids’ joyful faces when their names were called as winners in the contests and the attending pride I felt that I wanted so badly. Perhaps it was the satisfaction of seeing my vision come to life, or the looks of wonder from kids and adults alike that I craved? These were the thoughts that consumed me in the mountains for those four days while I tried not to think about the time lost.
Upon return I lost no more time in getting back to work. I still needed to attach the wings, make the comb, figure out how to not only make the beak, but prevent it from slipping down her face, make the whole thing comfortable so my daughter wouldn’t complain and refuse to wear the thing. That’s not even to mention covering the whole thing with feathers which I still had no idea how I was going to accomplish that.
Attaching the wings was pretty straightforward and went according to plan. The comb was a little trickier. I bought some red rubbery foam sheets at Michael’s, and cut out the shape. I quickly learned that sewing the foam directly on the hood was not the way to go after the stitches nearly cut it in half and required a do-over. Luckily experience had taught me to buy extra just in case, so I tried again, this time with some red piping on top that had been laying around for years. It worked like magic! Not only that, it gave me the idea to overhang some piping to somehow attach to the beak. That would solve the problem of the beak slipping down. Perfect!
Next up was the beak. Again, I turned to chicken wire and twisted and bent it into a beak shape. I needed Irie again to make sure it fit her face before covering it with paper mache.
“Irie!” I again beckoned from the porch.
“What?” she answered from inside the house, annoyed that I was interrupting the horse show she was putting on in her room.
“I need to fit this beak to your face,” I explained. “Come here!”
“Will I get chocolate chips?”
“Sure,” I confirmed impatiently.
“I don’t know. Would you please just come here?”
“I want ten.”
I sighed at my little negotiator and rolled my eyes half in admiration. As exasperating as that trait was, I was sure it would serve her well one day. “I’ll give you three.”
The deal was made, I fitted the wire amidst plenty of complaining, and began to prepare the paper mache. I discovered that paper mache doesn’t do well over chicken wire, so I covered it with duct tape in places so it had something to grab onto. I then discovered that paper mache doesn’t stick to duct tape easily but still I persevered. The next day it was dry and when I lifted it up my heart sank. I realized it was much much too heavy. Back to the drawing board.
In version 2.0, I used less wire – just shaping the top half of the beak, then fashioned a moveable lower jaw with a piece of cardboard covered with duct tape. I wanted the jaw to somehow move when she moved her jaw but just couldn’t figure it out with simple lever technology, so settled for having her move it with her tongue. I covered the whole thing in duct tape, leaving a hole at the top to attach to the comb and painted it yellow.
At this point I relaxed. I had a week before the first party. What I had left to do – pants, shoe coverings, and feathering – was icing on the cake. However, I realized if I started the feathering there would be no turning back. Not only did I have no clue how long it would take, I still had no idea how I would get the feathers to stick. I got a piece of scrap fabric that the chicken was covered in, and began to experiment. I tried fabric glue. That would be too messy and judging my how long it took to dry I’d need another month. That was out. I could hand stitch them all. No way. I hated hand sewing and that seemed akin to torture.
As I racked my brain for a solution, I absentmindedly picked up a can of something in my sewing room. It was spray glue. I vaguely remembered buying it for Quinn’s Rubik’s cube costume to attach the paper squares. I had very little experience with spray glues and doubted it would work, but I was nearly out of idea and decided to give it a try . I sprayed some on the test fabric then stuck a feather on. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Not only did it stick instantly, but it looked perfect and dried within seconds!
I had already stuck a few giant black feathers I bought in the tail, wedging them through the layers of chicken wire and between where the fabric meets. I knew in order to have the feathers lay correctly, I needed to start at the tail and work toward the head. I sprayed the first layer and went to work. I slowly blended from black feathers at the tail to white for the body and wings.
“How’s it coming?” my husband asked as he stepped onto the porch from outside. “Do you think you’ll be done in time?”
“It’s going great! This spray glue works like a charm. I can’t even believe it. I think I’ll be finished by Thursday,” I estimated, “I’ll actually have enough time to get to the pants and the feet!”
“You’re something else!’ he said and walked into the kitchen.
I noticed that the costume was becoming more rigid with the addition of the feathers. As I worked closer and closer to the hood, I realized I needed a head inside there to prevent it from being glued out of shape. Asking Irie to stand still for that long would be a ridiculous request; there wouldn’t be enough chocolate chips in the world to make that happen! I remembered the riding helmet my niece left when she stayed for a few days the past summer. I searched around for a moment and actually found it, surprising myself only having given it a 50/50 chance. I removed the chicken from the spinning wheel, and perched it on the table. The helmet fit perfectly and there it remained until every last feather had been glued on.
I tested the beak attachment to the comb, and that too worked amazingly well. I called Irie and had her try it on again. It was perfect!!! I stepped back to look at my creation and almost couldn’t believe I did it! She began walking around, flapping her wings, and pecked at the walls and the floor for a joke. She even protested when I wanted to remove the costume. She loved it, and I was relieved.
For her yellow pants, I copied the pattern from her favorite pair. The feet were last and a little tricky. I wanted them to completely cover the bottom of her shoes, so I needed some kind of durable material on the bottom. I chose an old reusable bag that had plastic fibers, and cut two to size. I then kind of took my best guess for the yellow knit fabric – same as the pants – that was to show, and stitched them together. I measured her ankle circumference and added the cuff. For each of the three “toes” I inserted a plastic bottle cut to shape, then some summer shoes she could still fit into but would never wear again. With that, the costume was completed – and ahead of schedule!
That was the Friday we made our costume debut at Trunk-or-Treat to the delight of many. The next event was the city wide party where she would mischievously peck the child in line in front of her. Many many parents and children came by to admire and pet the chicken up close. Some said we’d win the costume contest, for sure. One person said it was the best costume they had EVER seen. When we won second place I was anxious to see the winner. I was a little dismayed when a boy with a store-bought Super Mario costume walked up with his mother to collect the prize. I craned my neck to see the picture he picked up that they took to judge from, and saw he had been encased in some giant cardboard contraption which was no longer present. People came up to me afterward to express their surprise that The Chicken didn’t win first place. It didn’t really matter to me, as I knew it was all about what the judge likes and sometimes who you know anyway. I was happy that Irie got a prize since my son also won a prize for his Rubik’s Cube he made himself – FIRST place. I couldn’t have been prouder.
A few days later at the town party, the reactions were the same. At one point Irie attracted a crowd by trying to pick up a rubber mouse on the floor with her beak.
“Look! Her beak actually moves!” I heard one person say. “How does she move it?” I was asked.
“Are those real feathers?” another voice wondered out loud.
The crowd that circled around laughing at her antics sent me to my heaven. It’s not winning the contests that I love – although she and her brother won there again – but it is the reactions of others, with their looks of amazement and awe, and seeing my child enjoy my creation that I treasure. While trick-or-treating, people at every house – and those just passing by – gushed over her costume. She entertained everyone who gave her attention by imitating a sitting chicken. Finally, at the very last house when her basket was full of candy, she performed her sitting routine one more time. Her Aunt Alli looked at her costumed niece and proclaimed loudly so everyone could hear, “It’s time to go everyone. Irie’s laid an egg!”