Matt Reitsma: Head Textile Artist for Noah - Creating the Richly Textured Fabrics of an Apocalyptic World

By Joe Kucharski - March 29, 2014

Matt Reitsma is an accomplished textile artist, whose work spans from the beautifully delicate, to heavy painting, dyeing and distressing. His incredible artistry allows film and theatre costume designers to realize their vision with exquisite, custom fabrics. He has worked on such wonderful films as Memoirs of a Geisha, The Last Airbender, The Hobbit and Star Trek Into Darkness. Having recently worked with costume designer Michael Wilkinson on Man of Steel, the two have reunited to bring to the screen some of the most complex and stunning textured textiles for the film Noah. I recently had the chance to ask him about his background and work on this project.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Tyranny of Style: How did you first become involved in costumes and textile art? 

Matt Reitsma: I went to art school; my first field of study was fashion. On a whim I took a course to learn how to make fabric for my designs and once in that field I quickly transitioned to that as my main study. Textile design really clicked for me. Out of college I returned home to Philadelphia. I approached the costume designer of the Philadelphia Opera, Richard St. Clair, to offer my services to custom print yardage if needed.  Eventually that led to working for him full time and it was under his mentoring that I leaned the field of panting and dyeing for theatre and opera. It was his recommendation that I go to Santa Fe Opera and apprentice there in the dye/crafts shop. That led to work at La Jolla Playhouse as the dyer/painter working with many regional costume designers including Deborah Dryden, who literally wrote the book on painting and dyeing for theatre (Fabric Painting and Dyeing for the Theatre).

Library of samples. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist.

T/S: Can you tell us about the process of beginning work on Noah?

MR: I recall meeting with Michael Wilkinson about two months before we traveled to NYC to discuss his ideas for the film, so that I could start thinking about the process and understand what he wanted. I maintain a library of samples and ideas that I bring to meetings with designers to discuss technique, color and texture, etc. It helps with honing in on what a designer wants me to bring to the table. We didn't start sampling until we got to NYC. Once there, I met with Michael and his assistants to discuss fabric choices, and how we might use them- which are dyeable , printable, etc. I also met with the supervisor to discuss space and equipment needs. Once those basics were in place, we set about sampling and eventually calculating yardage needs and deadlines.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Knits by Alexandra Geiner, dyed & undyed samples.

 Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

T/S: Can you tell us about the scope of your team and the different categories of textiles you created for this film?

MR: Noah was a large project but not the largest project. I was lucky to have a number of skilled artisans on my team all of which were local to the New York City production area. We did have a huge demand for yardage on this project. I had two in particular that were responsible for organizing and handling huge demands. David Paulin was responsible for the dyeing and specialty dye effects on yardage and finished garments, and Ashley Singer was a great help in producing the painted and printed fabrics. In addition to their help, I had five people helping me full time in NYC and Iceland.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer. 

Possible principle vest, example of the patch dye and discharge technique by David Paulin, Head Dyer.

On Noah I did painting, dyeing, printing, bonding, discharge printing, Fortuny pleating, and devoré. The bulk of the textile work I did was dealing with the yardage, either adapting or modifying existing grey goods for the principle and background characters. In addition to my work, Michael Wilkinson used weaving resources in Morocco and Turkey. Locally in NYC, Michael used Alexandra Geiner, a custom knitter for some of the principle pieces.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Dye sample. David Paulin, Head Dyer.

 For me dealing with the yardage I need to assess what we need to do in what amount of time. We had thousands of yards pass through our hands. Knowing this I approached the background with broad strokes and dramatic effects. Michael had chosen a considerable amount of synthetic/vinyl fabrics he wanted to look like worn tarpaulins and plastic packaging that had been foraged for and unearthed from the past that was then fashioned in to protective clothing. To this end, knowing that age and time is random, the effect I used to deal with that was using sheer washes of vinyl paints, which were often while wet spritzed with alcohol to created degraded weathered effects.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Ham aging detail.

The Noah family principle fabrics were far more time consuming, I approached the weathering and age in layers. Purposefully working heavy layers on the fabrics knowing I would sand wash them down leaving the prints and textures that come and go through the fabrics.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

T/S: Were there any new textile techniques that you developed specifically for Noah? 

MR: I guess I come to a project with some techniques that I rely on, but definitely push the boundaries of those techniques or tweak them to suit the needs of the film.  An example would be for some of the principle characters I used a technique in which I bond two fabrics together which have opposite fiber contents and textures- for example cotton/acrylic boucle and silk habutae.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer. 

Methuselah costume.

By bonding these fabrics together, I've created a fabric that can be manipulated by its content. I can dye the silk differently from the cotton/acrylic, as well as degrade the silk with an oxidizer and not affect the cotton/acrylic. In this way I could create an aged piece of yardage that appeared to be falling apart but still had the integrity to withstand construction and use. That was a technique I fine tuned on Noah and was well suited to the well worn, rough-hewn look Michael and the director wanted. I'd say 85% of the fabrics we made were made and aged in NYC, but we did film in Iceland where we made and aged garments while there. In Iceland I had the great pleasure of collaborating again with Anna Munro a Berlin based textile artist with whom I've worked many times. The source of those fabrics, however, were from all over the world. Michael sourced and used fabric from Morocco, India, Turkey, Italy, China, etc.


Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer. 

Methuselah Hero, snake wrap sleeve detail.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

T/S: Could you give us an example of the step-by-step process for a specific garment?

MR: For Noah’s coat fabric in the photo below, Michael chose a rough natural linen canvas. I believe the source was Rosebrand. It was pinned down to the print table unwashed right off the bolt. I say this because I wanted the heavy sizing to act as a bit of a resist to the layers of paint I was gong to put on there. I intentionally painted this fabric to NOT stay on the fabric.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Layers of paints were applied- the first a wash of Dynaflow. This was applied as a wash to stain the fiber. I also made sure the first coat was a wet one because I wanted the fabric to shrink tight on the table giving me a smooth surface to paint on and one that would not give me a lot of "tooth" for the paint to grab on to.  Next were layers of brown and black gesso, applied by both rollers and brushes.  Sometimes I rushed the dry times, sometimes I allowed for a full dry between coats. I wanted to create an unstable surface for the paint so that when I washed it, it would reveal the layers of paint applied. 

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Once fully dry, the fabric was washed and dried repeatedly to wear down the layers of paint, creating a tar cloth effect. Once made into the garment, the piece was finished using similar paints, correcting any glaring inconsistencies and was then finished with a sheer coat of graphite to impart a waxy sheen.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Naameh pleated dress.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

T/S: What were some of the key pieces of equipment, or tools utilized on this project?

MR: Absolutely essential to Noah was having a substantial print table. We had a 10 ½ yard print table to accommodate the amount of yardage we did- it should have been even larger, but it ties up a huge amount of floor space. I have a 3 ½ yard sample table as part of my standard kit, and often make do working off of that. 

Also essential to the setup was a dye shop equipped with three washers, two dryers, and as many dye vats as we could fit in.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Tubal-cain Principle Costume.

Printed leather apron, graphite burnished leather tunic, mud cloth cape with dyed horse hair, distressing incomplete.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer. 

Tubal-cain Principle Costume. Leather shred detail distressing incomplete.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer. 

Tubal-cain "short tunic" show and tell mock up, distressing incomplete.

Noah. Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer.

Thank you Matt for your responses, images, and for sharing your process with us. A special thanks to Michael Wilkinson for additional photographs. 

Matt Reitsma, Head Textile Artist. On set in Iceland.