Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Lisa Hughes has a hand in almost every musical, play and live theater production around Washington County. She has made a name for herself as a talented costume designer, with a reputation for creativity and pure skill. Nonetheless, she comes from humble roots.
“I’m originally from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. There is a diner theater there called the Fireside, and I started working there when I was 16 as a bus person,” Hughes said. “I started working the costume side of things there probably 30 years ago, that’s where I first kind of dabbled with how to run a show.”
From there, Hughes said she found a love for the craft.
“I enjoy all things fashion and clothing, and I think it’s really interesting,” she said. “I learned a lot from the professional designer that I worked under in Wisconsin, he was really cool.”
Hughes met her husband, Don, through that dinner theater, where he played trumpet. When the restaurant discontinued much of its live music in the early ‘90s, the two moved to Iowa City, Don’s hometown, where he returned to the University of Iowa to finish his education. In the process Hughes resumed her own theatrical career, helping with shows alongside her job doing clothing alterations at Von Maur.
“I liked to go to the shows, I would sit upstairs with the band while (my husband) was playing and hang out,” she said. “There was a show where the costume designer quit just shortly before the show was supposed to open, and the director was kind of looking for people that knew how to sew. I stepped in in ways like that, just little bits here and there, learning on my own.”
Eventually, Hughes launched her own alterations business, called ‘Sew on the Go!’
“When I worked at Von Maur, we could only work on Von Maur merchandise, but there were people always coming in like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a pair of jeans I didn’t buy here,’” she said. “I started meeting people at their houses to take care of that after work.”
Today, Sew on the Go is the go-to alterations contact for the University of Iowa Marching Band.
“I met the director and he knew that I sewed, and when they got new uniforms 16 years ago, he said ‘Hey, we really want these professionally done,’” Hughes said. “In August I have usually, if I’m lucky, two weeks to get them finished … I think this year I did 80 jackets, both sleeves, and I think I did 60 pants.”
Hughes also does alterations for the Washington High School marching band, which her husband directs. That work, however, is voluntary, not by contract.
By '95, the Hughes family found themselves in Washington, where Lisa once again resumed her theatrical work.
“Once I moved to Washington and really got attached to the community theater here, and working with Margaret Wolf and Helen Thorne, it just kind of became a regular thing,” she said. “Every time the next show was getting ready to go, we would get together and talk about the next costumes.”
Hughes said the two had been hugely important mentors to her.
“Since they have both passed away, it’s just kind of been my job to take over for it. I miss them dearly,” she said. “We worked together closely on quite a few shows, not as many as I would have liked. We’d read through the script together and figure out what we were going to do with the show and what we had in our stock that we could use and what we were going to have to build from scratch.”
Hughes said Washington was where she discovered costume design would be her life’s work.
“It’s really creative and fun, it’s a lot of work to put a show together … but I call it my fun sewing, it’s not my work sewing, it’s my fun sewing,” she said. “I like seeing the final product and I like seeing it all on stage, it just all looks really awesome.”
It’s more than simply seeing the final product, however. Hughes said there was something special about knowing she had physically made something.
“I remember the first show that I helped with costumes at the Fireside in Wisconsin, I had to bring my grandmother,” she said. “My grandmother was the one that got me started in sewing, so I brought her to the show and I could say, ‘Hey, I worked on that skirt and I made that outfit,’ and she could see it, and that was really cool!”
While she hardly brags about it, Hughes said success in her field was partially a product of her personality.
“It takes a lot of time to make these things happen, and you have to be pretty patient about it … it takes patience and attention to detail,” she said. “I’m pretty particular about things and how things go and where things are, I probably drive my husband crazy. Things just need to go in a certain place.”
At the end of the day, Hughes said her work comes down to a desire to help people succeed.
“It’s what I do, I like helping other schools and things and theaters,” she said. “Doesn’t everybody like it when people are happy?”