1001 Inventions and 20 Costumes

Brandon as Constantine the African

A few months ago, I began work on a project for the traveling exhibit of 1001 Inventions, which just ended its stay at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. For those who haven’t heard of 1001 Inventions, it was created to enlighten people of contributions to modern science by Muslims throughout history and has had more than 1,000,000 visitors so far. There’s a movie (starring Sir Ben Kingsley), a book, a website, and the traveling museum exhibit that I became part of recently. It was also highlighted in the New York Times, Time Out New York, WNYC and more.

In the exhibit, “Explainers” walk around in character telling visitors about their discoveries while in costume. That’s where I came in. With the cutting help of my buddies Dinne and Vicky and the amazing hemming assistance by Joi, I sewed up 20 costumes for all of the Explainers which are now on their way to LA. My trusty Berninas and I became intimate friends during this process, which involved making turbans, pants, robes, dresses, scarves, coats, hats, and more. In all, it totaled over 60 garments in 30 days.

I had a great time collaborating with the museum and exhibit producers to design and create the look for each character. My favorites to sew in the end were the explorer Zheng He (who wore a yellow floor-length Asian brocade jacket, a cape, pants, and hat), and the writer Lady Montague (long black velvet coat, pink taffeta dress, a petticoat, and hat). The most challenging part was figuring out the turbans, each of which had to go on and off the Explainers quickly like a cap (no wrapping on site). With a bit of ingenuity and a ton of spray starch (which I still find stained remnants of in my living room), the turbans were completed on time.

In the end, my back was sore, my fingers were scarred from pricks and hot glue, and I learned to wrap turbans with expert precision. In a few weeks I travel to LA to do it all over again, but this time in a much warmer climate.

(photos below by Chang W. Lee from the NYTimes)

Devi as Astralabi


Biruni (left) and Al Kindi with Dinne’s handmade tent behind them

Jabir (left) and his assistant


Part of the replica elephant water clock and one of Dinne’s tents glowing in the background

Carlos as Ibn Battuta


All of the Explainers in character at the opening gala

Nicole Smith is an author, editor, designer, and instructor who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Check out her latest book, Skirt-A-Day Sewing, out now at your local bookstore, or online.
  1. Wow! Everything turned out beautifully! I can’t believe you were able to get all of that done in less than a month.

  2. Incredible job! Everyone looks amazing!

  3. Thanks guys! It was an incredible amount of work, but was great fun in the end.

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