Haven’s Heaven: Saving an Art Form


Robert Haven displays some of his embroidering work with grad student Chelsea McCown. Photo by Scott Hannigan

by Amanda Powell

Robert Haven’s  office is not the typical place you would visit for office hours. It’s crammed into a room full of tables covered in sewing machines, irons, fabrics and accessories.

The help Haven offers student vistiors  doesn’t come in the form of working out an equation.  Haven  helps by teaching a student how to get the thread off their sewing machine or showing them how to traditionally embroider and embellish fabric.

Haven is the costume technician for UK’s Theatre Department.  He says he is a costume technician, not to be confused with a costume designer.

“I don’t draw pretty pictures. I make the clothes to fit the actors that look like the pictures. It’s not an uncommon misconception,” Haven said.

He describes his role in the Theatre Department as “the middle person between the designer’s and director’s idea of what the clothes should look like, and actually getting them on the actors and making them come alive.”

Haven’s professional resume includes  four certificate courses at the Royal School of Needlework and a professional course at Lesage ,  which he described as “a preeminent couture embroidery house in Paris.”

But these kinds of opportunities do not come without more modest experience. Haven taught the eighth grade for 16 years in New Hampshire. While there, he got involved in school plays. There was no one to make costumes for the students so he taught himself how to sew.

“I looked at my mother’s 1981 Singer sewing machine and said, ‘All right machine, we’re gonna do this,’” Haven said.

He then went to Emerson College to get his graduate degree in school and community theatre. He ran a children’s theatre until he decided he wanted to become more involved with costuming. He earned his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Delaware in costume construction and costume shop management.

Haven’s primary research was in Kabuki costume, articles such as kimonos and hakama that are more easily recognized as what Mulan would wear. Haven said Kabuki costume construction interested him because “it’s not written down in English or Japanese. It’s handed down from one generation to the next within certain families that make the costumes for Kabuki actors.”

Currently, Haven said his thrust is embroidery.

“You get into a rhythm with it and it’s very relaxing. I actually have to force myself to stop.”

Haven has been teaching embroidery and embellishment for several years, but says he seems to be the only one teaching these techniques.

This September, two of his students from the Academy of Art University will be showcasing their work.

One, Maria Korovilas, will have her collection in New York Fashion Week. Another  student will show her work in the World of WearableArt (WOW) in New Zealand, a display with which Haven is familiar. Haven said his favorite piece he ever created was the one that was selected for WOW in 2007.

He described the show as “a two hour extravaganza of glitz and fireworks and god-knows-what on stage.”

Despite his accomplishments, Haven still gives credit to not only his students, but also to the people who help out in his workroom.

“We had one kid who worked for us the whole year last year, and he is actually an accounting major,” Haven said.  “He worked on every single piece that was in ‘A Doll’s House’ and he cut out all of the pajama bottoms for ‘The Pajama Game,’ then my costume construction class put them together.”

To Haven, fashion is at least partially about learning: “You can’t help but learn something when you come in here.”