Lifetime love for designing and creating clothes leads to a career and honors | Community
During a visit to Italy in 1996, Carolyn Schactler wanted to get a closer look at an elaborate 15th-century garment on display in a museum in Florence. Slipping between the velvet cords that surrounded her, she scrutinized her organ folds.
“I had it done pretty much correctly,” she said of the long, rounded folds that look like organ pipes. Schactler had incorporated organ pleats into the back of a long coat she had designed and made.
Her coat, which she titled Fifteenth Century Rainbows, won Best in Show at the 1995 International Textile and Apparel Association competition. It was one of many national and international apparel design awards Schactler received during the 28 years she was a professor of apparel design at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
The coat also caught the attention of a supporter of the Yakima Valley Museum, who wondered if Schactler could donate it for auction at the museum’s annual Red Into Black fundraiser. But a closer look at the garment convinced museum officials that it wouldn’t be enough. Schactler’s art deserved its own exhibition.
“To put a piece like this in our auction would not do it justice,” said Susan Duffin, director of development and board relations at the museum.
Carolyn Schactler Couture, which opens May 9 at the Gilbert Family Gallery, will feature 15th-century rainbows and 19 other Schactler outfits on dress forms, along with 21 life-size photos of other Schactler designs.
Eleven of the designs on display will be placed on motorized platforms and will slowly rotate, like life-size music box ballerinas. This will give visitors a comprehensive look at Schactler’s creations, many of which are just as elaborate – or even more so – on the back.
Heath Lambe, the museum’s curator of exhibits, and Schactler will begin building the six-month exhibit in April, following the close of an exhibition of paintings by Bill Brennen in March. Although Lambe and Schactler designed the layout, they have already modified it and will continue to adjust it as needed.
“There’s a lot of preparation for this show,” Schactler said.
Over the years, she has created clothes and accessories of astonishing complexity inspired by centuries of fashion. The exhibit will feature his original designs, but Schactler has also made reproductions of outfits from around the world, from ancient to modern.
Everything happens without a single sketch. “I do it in my head. That’s always how I’ve done it,” she said.
Haute couture tea towels
Born in Utah, Schactler started sewing in second grade. By then, his parents, Leo and Ila Fife Campbell, had moved their family to Pullman so his father could earn a doctorate.
Her parents were excellent draftsmen and her mother was very creative, Schactler said. Her mother, a graduate of Utah Agricultural College (now Utah State University) with a degree in home economics, started her daughter mending dishcloths. By the time Schactler was in high school, she was making clothes for her mother, but didn’t consider it a full-time career.
“Sewing was just something I did,” she said.
Also a musician, dancer and synchronized swimmer, Schactler wanted to major in physical education at Washington State University. After a primitive adviser curtly dismissed, “Young girls don’t do those things at this college,” Schactler pursued a music teaching degree.
There, she met fellow WSU student and musician, John R. “Dick” Schactler, a Yakima native and trumpet virtuoso. They married in 1948 and graduated in music in 1949. He was a music teacher in the Selah School District for two years before earning a master’s degree from the famous Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and from return to Washington.
Dick has led award-winning bands at Grandview, Mount Tahoma and Eisenhower High Schools. While at Grandview in the 1950s, Carolyn coached the school’s synchronized swimming team, known then as Water Ballet. She had competed in the sport at WSU.
“It was really fun,” said Schactler, a petite woman who wore a jacket of her own design and a sewing machine pendant on a long silver chain. Another day it was a scissor charm.
After two years in Tahoma, the Schactlers returned permanently to Yakima in 1963. Dick played in the Yakima Valley Community Band for more than 60 years and led the band from 1987 to 2007. He was Principal Trumpet of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra for over 40 and Carolyn played the violin.
Carolyn conducted the Yakima Youth Orchestra for two years and taught private lessons and summer schools, as well as many alternate courses. When the couple’s six children graduated from high school, she began to think more about her own future. She did not want to teach music and had replaced a clothing design professor at what was then Yakima Valley Community College.
“I did everything (his kids) wore, everything Dick wore,” Schactler said. “They didn’t want to hire me because I didn’t have a master’s degree.”
In 1976, after earning a bachelor’s degree in home economics and teaching home economics at Central, Schactler earned a master’s degree there in clothing design. She had found what she wanted to teach and where. The university hired her as a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences after a nationwide search, and “I never looked back,” she said.
A practical teacher
In addition to his love for creating his own designs, Schactler collected vintage clothing. She donated her personal collection of over 300 garments and accessories to WSU’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles. The elements date from around 1840 to 1970, notes a 2005 college magazine article.
“I miss it,” said Schactler, a self-proclaimed fashion history buff.
A few dozen of these items are replicas designed and manufactured by Schactler for educational purposes.
“I didn’t use slides. I used clothes. They loved it,” she said of her students. “If they were small enough, I would let them wear it.”
During her time as a professor in Central’s garment design program, Schactler taught garment construction, sewing design, pattern making and drafting, draping and fitting, design principles, costume and fashion history. She retired at age 77 in 2004.
For much of known human existence, men dressed as elaborately as women, Schactler said.
“Men were the peacocks of the species,” she said.
This began to change in the mid-19th century, around the same time that a few daring women began to experiment with trousers’ predecessor – bifurcated skirts, also known as bloomers.
Men’s clothing has changed to the point that it’s “boring” today, she says. At the same time, women gradually freed themselves from clothes and underwear that constrained them, such as corsets, and designs that required someone to help them dress.
“It was a very slow process,” Schactler said. “Women kind of perked up in the mid-1800s.”
His designs draw inspiration from ancient Egyptians and Macedonians, medieval royalty, the Edwardian period, fashionable silhouettes of the 1960s and more.
For example, a multicolored coat with detachable sleeves is inspired by the Renaissance period when the sleeves were buttoned or tied with laces.
“There are wonderful things about all time periods,” Schactler said.
While pieces from the Yakima Valley Museum’s extensive textile collection aren’t as historic as some of its inspirations, they include dresses dating to around 1810, noted Collections Curator Mike Siebol. The earliest commissioned couture piece is a circa 1890 coat by Frederick Worth of London.
Along with history, Schactler appreciates the designs of indigenous cultures around the world, such as the indigenous dress of the Tsonga women of South Africa, where she taught and studied while on sabbatical.
Several of Schactler’s pieces were inspired by his time as an exchange professor at Matsue College and Matsue University, Japan, including a kimono with a highly detailed scene of a building, garden and cherry blossoms.
Fashion should also be fun. Schactler designed a short dress made entirely of men’s ties. A cream-colored wedding suit suitable for a second wedding has a short skirt with a removable train and a modern top hat.
Still thinking about what she’ll wear to her exhibition’s opening reception, Schactler has plenty of options and plenty of time to choose something – hopefully her own design – that reflects what she loves in the fashion.
“I like things that look really nice, have good flow, and the colors are nice,” she said.