A custom-made tutu is a big investment. If you're the parent of a dancer who is about to embark on her first foray into this wonderful world, tutu-maker Barbara Sanders is here to guide you through the process and ensure the experience is a positive one for all.

Today’s classical ballet tutu is one of the most iconic visual symbols of dance. From the first diaphanous skirts of the French Court, through to early 20th century elaborate bell tutus to the beautiful confections of our major dance companies, ballet students look forward to the day when their silhouette says "ballerina".

Tutu-making is a rare skill but Australia is blessed with some excellent and experienced tutu-makers. Unfortunately, most of them are booked out many months ahead and by the beginning of the dance year most are fully booked, so the sooner you can contact them the better. Even if you don’t know the details of the tutu you need most tutu-makers are happy to book you in ahead of time. Consultations to finalise designs are generally six weeks prior to construction so you’ll have plenty of time to sort out details.

Look for an experienced tutu-maker whose style and work you like and you’re well on the way to the tutu you want. If you’re a traditionalist, engaging a tutu-maker renowned for cutting-edge designs may not be the best approach. And while some tutu-makers are happy to be guided completely by you, others like a freer hand. All of these elements need to be determined at the outset to build the most effective relationship.

When you secure a booking there are a few simple things you can do to streamline the process. Most importantly, remember you are working with a member of the performing arts community. People work in this industry for the love of it but they also are earning their living through it. Your respect for their experience as a professional in the performing arts should be evident in the relationship you begin to develop with the tutu maker.

The tutu-maker is likely to have a contract. Be well acquainted with it and ask questions if necessary. It is there to establish clearly what you can expect of each other entering into this professional relationship.

Always be punctual and make sure the dancer is dressed appropriately for having measurements taken. Be fully prepared and bring along the music and or a video of the choreography and some ideas about colour palette, style and general effect you want for the tutu (these should all have been discussed and agreed upon with the teacher). Alternatively, if the teacher has an interest in the design process s/he may also want to attend the consultation. And don’t forget the dancer’s input as she will be wearing the tutu. Once construction has begun changes are unlikely to be accommodated without costs in time and money and a possible dent in the relationship between you and the tutu-maker.

From this point the tutu-maker can show you fabrics, trims and other embellishments to bring your ideas to life. Most tutu-makers will have a large inventory of trims and embellishments for you to look at. This can be a little mesmerising but a good tutu-maker will explain to you how colours will look on stage, how different trim and embellishment will read across the auditorium from the first row to the back of the hall, and how to make the most of the dancer’s best features (and not draw attention to elements of technique that are still being corrected). They will also be fairly forthright if your ideas undermine key aspects of their own particular ballet aesthetic. Ballet costuming evolves at a glacial pace. Gimmicky ideas or fashion trends are generally frowned upon.

Be mindful that asking a tutu-maker to copy a professional company tutu, catalogue tutu, or another tutu-maker’s work is likely to be met with resistance. Copying offers very little creative input for the tutu-maker. A better idea is to gather these pictures into a portfolio to be used as inspiration to create a fresh, new design.

You should leave the studio with a clear idea of what you have commissioned, a sketch/description, perhaps some samples of trim and fabric, dates for subsequent fittings and a date for completion and pick up. Most tutu-makers require a deposit prior to the consultation and full payment upon pick up of the tutu. Last minute adjustments will be made to the tutu at pick up and the tutu-maker will explain how to care for and store your tutu. There may be a 30 day period in which to report any faults so at the first rehearsal make sure everything is in order.

And there you have it. The first commissioned tutu is a bit of a whirlwind but I promise the second one has less fear and more excitement. Merde!

Barbara Sanders is a Sydney-based tutu maker. You can read more on her website:

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