Nonwovens bring stories to life

Manfred Scholz heads the costume department of the National Theatre in Mannheim

The Robbers, Mary Stuart or William Tell: June is worldwide Schiller Memorial Day and the international Schiller Week at the National Theatre in Mannheim starts and brings many of these plays to the stage in a new interpretation. "Theatre is enchantment and costumes tell stories," says Manfred Scholz, head of costume design at the Nationaltheater Mannheim. Dressed in a blue jacket with a dotted tie and purple pocket square, he sits at a table. "In the 70s, I learned the profession of a men's tailor in a bespoke tailor shop," says Scholz. "But I wanted to be creative and applied to the theatre while I was still an apprentice." Today, as head of the costume tailoring department, he and his team turn fabrics into stories for plays and opera and dance. Around 40 premieres start in a season, including many operas with elaborate costumes. Whether a waffle pattern in a tiered skirt, waving, delicate leaves or static Biedermeier dresses with voluminous fleece underneath: Technical nonwovens from the Freudenberg Group ensure that artistic ideas become costumes that work on stage.

First scene

The air is a mixture of second-hand shop, gym and fabrics. Around 60,000 costumes hang on hangers in the costume tailor's trove. Golden bodices with baroque-style hooks, a dress with an empire collar made of soldered copper wire and sequins for Mary Stuart and a net leotard with hand-painted tattoos. "The make-up artists then continue painting on the neck to make it all look real," says Scholz. "Costumes are also often made old, for example for the play 'Ulysses'. There, clothes are dyed and artificially soiled. There have been tears among the dressmakers in the tailor's shop. But that's theatre - if you only want to sew beautifully, you have to go into fashion." For costumes that look delicate and light or need to be made to move, the tailors use Freudenberg interlining fabric from the roll, which is then cut and sewn, for example into waves or fringes.

Whether Domingo or Denoke - Scholz knows many well-known artists and has dresses in his collection that they have worn. "It's all tailored to the body," he says. "And of course we all know the sigh of a star when they say, well no, that's not me. I don't find myself in that dress." Of course, he doesn't name names. With a twinkle in his eye, he notes, "Psychological skill and persuasion are also part of it."

And of course we all know the sigh of a star when they say, well no, that's not me. I don't find myself in that dress.

Manfred Scholz

Second scene

About 50 employees, including ladies' and men's tailors, hat and shoe makers, as well as wardrobe masters and fundus staff, work in the costume shop. They are also on duty during the evening performances and help with costume changes. "There, artists are changed into another costume backstage at lightning speed under high time pressure, with a racing pulse, that's theatre," says Scholz. "In opera there was once a stage set with a little house behind which the hero changed. The only unfavorable thing was that the little house left too early and the hero had not yet changed. That happens."

In general, he says, Mannheim audiences are very argumentative, even when it comes to modern productions. "There are loud shouts of unheard or stop," says Scholz. "It's very honest and direct, even if it's not always pleasant."


How is a costume created that the audience sees on stage? First, the director and costume designer sit down together and discuss the concept of the play; for example, many classics are staged in a modern way. The costume designer then makes the first drawings, so-called figurines. Either drawn, glued together as a collage or worked on with the computer, they hang with pins on dress dummies or pinboards, the edges full of notes on different fabrics and materials. Next, the costume designer sits down with the wardrobe mistress or wardrobe master, and patterns are made according to the drawings. The wardrobe masters are also the ones who discuss with the costume designer which of his ideas are feasible and which might not be. "When costume designers assert themselves in their art, great things are created on stage," says Scholz. Nevertheless, there is also a fixed budget for each piece and not every costume is sewn anew, that would be too expensive. The first rehearsals with costumes, make-up and lighting start a week before the premiere. "Then female artists learn how to handle hoop skirts and corsets. They transform from duck to lady in front of the mirror when they swap trainers for heels and stride elegantly," says Scholz.

There are many more possibilities here than in a normal tailor's shop. From futuristic dresses to dyed and painted fabrics to non-woven fabric cut into strips and woven, I have already tried out many things. That's what makes theatre so fascinating to me.

Heike Just, master tailor

Third scene

Whirring sewing machines, spools of thread in all colors and steaming irons: Work is going on in the ladies' tailor shop. "No two days are the same," says seamstress Barbara Käsbauer, who is sewing on a grey dress. "We often fiddle with the details of costumes for a long time and work our way into different eras. We work with many different materials such as fine fabrics, fleece, leather or plastic. Seeing from backstage in the evening how and if everything works on stage is great. The contact with the artists is also something special." Standing next to her, master tailor Heike Just nods in agreement. "There are many more possibilities here than in a normal tailor's shop. From futuristic dresses to dyed and painted fabrics to non-woven fabric cut into strips and woven, I have already tried out many things. That's what makes theatre so fascinating to me."

Interlinings from Freudenberg ensure the optimum fit of the fabric of blazers, trousers and other garments in the costume tailoring department. The technology company has developed special elastic nonwovens for high elasticity in all directions. Especially in theatre, many garments go through various processes such as printing, dyeing or bleaching. The interlining must also survive these processes undamaged. It should be usable for many outer fabrics, adhere well and withstand heat and cold without deforming.

Scene four

In an adjoining room, Andrea Scholz is gilding uniform boots with impact metal. It smells like glue. "Theatre is an exciting place," she says. "Even though a lot of craft work is exhausting, when I'm in rehearsal and see that my work has an effect on stage, it makes me happy. My work is important to the production." Behind her hangs a fat suit that makes an actor look much bulkier, painted with skin color and food stains. Next to it is a pair of wings, intricately painted.

Curtain closed

When the spotlights go on on stage in the evening, the most beautiful moment for Scholz has come. Now you can experience how the fabrics and costumes look on stage and how the audience reacts to them. "With every play, I see the result of our work immediately. That's great," he says. "Every play is a new challenge to realize ideas and to enchant the audience with the stories. We don't always succeed. But when it succeeds, that's magic." With every sentence you can feel: Manfred Scholz is living his dream. He is a storyteller with a passion.