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Quilts by the Muppet Man

by Kathryn Boughton

Stephen Rotondaro’s life has been built in bits and pieces—of fabric, that is. Rotondaro spent more than three decades working for the Jim Henson Company making costumes for the Muppets, sewing his way to seven Emmys.

At the same time, he was inspired to explore the world of quilting as a tribute to his late mother. He will display 50 of these quilts in a retrospective show that opens October 8th at Brookside Quiltworks in Egremont MA. Several of the quilts feature hand-embroidered fabrics from Chelsea Editions and all have bits of Muppet clothing. There is even a quilt on loan from Sesame Workshop that appeared in an episode of Elmo's World.

Rotondaro said recently that he originally had no intention of becoming a designer for the likes of the temperamental Miss Piggy but while studying at NYU he took a summer job at the Jim Henson Company and had the opportunity to watch Calista Hendrikson, Miss Piggy’s stylist, at work. “It was not active instruction,” Rotondaro said, “but I watched and watched and learned through seeing the costumes that were made. I learned through trial and error and was costume designer there for 16 years.”

His last three years, he ran the department.

In 1984, his mother, Delores, died, leaving several quilt tops unfinished. His mother, a child of the Depression, had learned both to sew and to be frugal. She told her son the story of her own mother, who fashioned a dress out of three flour sacks, all of which had the same print. Pieces of this utilitarian dress eventually found their way into Delores’ “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” quilts.

As a tribute to Delores, her son finished her quilts and had them hand-quilted. He also inherited her treasure trove of fabric scraps that span 60 years.

In addition to the inherited fabrics, he had another scrap bin to work from at work. Rotondaro could often be seen pulling scraps out of the waste baskets at work after costumes had been crafted. It's a practice that continues to this day. “It’s a pretty big tub,” he said.

The salvaged scraps were then sorted into colors in preparation for further creativity, finding their way into a series of friendship quilts. “I oversaw 30 of these friendship quilts,” he said. “If someone had a baby or retired, I picked colors and made blocks. A lot were pictorial, including one I made for my late lover’s mother for the Christmas holiday season. Other than those quilts, my quilts are not into pictorial.”

Many of his works were crazy quilts, the earliest examples of which were made up of brightly colored, crazy blocks with very tight sashing (borders of fabric). “It wasn't long before these crazy blocks were joined, one to the other, without sashing, frequently with a crazy border.”

At the same time that Rotondaro was discovering the art of quilting, there was a resurgence of interest in Amish Quilts. Their Broken Dishes pattern, in which the entire block is made up of half-square triangles, has inspired decades of his quilt making, employing everything from monochrome pieces, to bright solid colors. “Although my quilts continue to be made with crazy blocks, most recently, the crazy blocks have been interspersed with broken dishes,” he said. “This combination leads the eye from a calm repetitive pattern to chaos.”

The ultimate example of this can be seen in two small quilts. The first is a Broken Dishes quilt made of fabrics from The Muppets TV show, which aired on ABC in 2015-16. Rotondaro was the costume designer for this series. The second quilt was made when Sesame Street needed a talking bed for the Elmo's World Sleep episode. This small quilt will be on display courtesy of Sesame Workshop and The Jim Henson Company.

While he is not currently working for the Muppets, Rotodaro is called upon for special projects. He recently finished a dress for Miss Piggy, working on a mannequin of the porcine prodigy that he has at home, and the Jim Henson Company called him in for a show with Melissa McCarthy that did not involve the Muppets.

He says his own fashion sense is “pretty uptight,” but that he supersedes this when designing. “Because I wouldn’t wear it, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t wear it,” he said. “With the Muppets, I have the benefit that the characters have been around for forty years. They have a history and a wardrobe. I just tried to build and expand it. I was pretty much left to do what I thought was good for the character.”

To that end, Piggy has changed over the years. “She used not to have the best fashion sense,” he confided. “My goal was to make her a little more tasteful.”

His favorite character, however was Uncle Deadly, a blue, reptilian-looking creature who is a friend of Miss Piggy. “He only had one costume, a boring brown 19th-century frock coat,” Rotodaro said. “I just wracked my brain trying to come up with something. Eventually, I just kept making the same coat in different reptilian fabrics.”

He said the Muppets range from about 24 inches for Kermit, to 36 to 40 inches for Miss Piggy. “You are limited because there is a hand inside and it depends on how long the arm is before the head gets in the way. So, there are limitations in making the clothes for the puppets. You usually see the head and neckline but never much below the waist. You focus from the waist up and provide coverage for the lower half, but without detail.”

Initially, the work at Sesame Street was so fast, he didn’t line the garments or put in button holes. But later, working for Disney, “it was drummed into me that it needed to be real clothing. Now, every garment gets buttons and zippers like real garments.”

Rotondaro and his husband have now sold their apartment in the city and moved to Hillsdale NY.

His show may be seen during regular opening hours at Brookside Quiltworks, Tuesday through Friday, 10AM-5PM, Saturday, 10AM-3PM, and Sunday, 11AM-3PM. The shop is located at 2 Sheffield Road in Egremont.