Intruiging People 2011: A Bluffton fire captain's tutus and tattoos

Chris GarniewiczBluffton Fire Capt. Chris Garniewicz’s usual firefighter uniform can be described as inspiring, yet creatively uninspired. But the colorful costumes he and his wife, Lara, make in their free time are worthy of sugar plum fairies and mouse kings.

Chris and Lara have been sewing and designing costumes for “The Nutcracker” ever since their daughter Hayden, now 10, joined the Dance Theatre seven years ago. This year, they created the delicate ruffles and glittering baubles on nearly every costume in the show. “I get some odd looks sometimes when I tell people I make tutus,” says Chris. “The guys at the fire station take it in stride because they’re also asking me to alter pants and fix tears. I just got done sewing zippers back on some sweatshirts.”

Chris became a thread-head at the age of 12 during a mandatory home economics class and quickly discovered that he not only enjoyed sewing but was also pretty good at it. “When my mom found out I could sew, she said, ‘I’m not fixing any more belt loops. It’s all you,’” he says.

As he got older, his skill led him to a number of sewing-related jobs, including providing needlework for custom shops and crafting boat sails. His skills translated to the firehouse as well; upon joining the Bluffton Fire Department, he found himself repairing uniforms and crafting diaper bags (dubbed “911 Bags for Life’s Little Emergencies”) out of used firefighter gear.

Garniewicz is largely self-taught — he decided to begin a side project making saddles after asking himself, “Well, how hard could it be?” — but, in the interest of full disclosure, he has taken a master class in tutumaking through the Dance Theatre.

He was the only male in the class. “The lady leading the class saw my name on the list and said, ‘He does know he has to know how to sew to take this class, right?’” says Chris. “I showed up in a T-shirt and jeans and the woman just kind of looked at me.”

Chris Garniewicz: Tutus and tattoosChris does the sewing on the Dance Theatre costumes, and Lara does all the designs. As a former dancer, she brings a practical knowledge of what works on stage to the mix. “Lara sews as well, but she’s got a better eye for design,” says Chris. “She works better with the ideas. I work better with a sewing machine and directions.”

It takes the couple between 24 to 30 hours to create a single plain white tutu without embellishments. Add all the sequins and gems that make the dancer sparkle on stage, and you’re looking at a major undertaking for a single piece. For this year’s “Nutcracker” the couple made literally dozens of costumes, and Lara was backstage during the performance, needles at the ready, in case of any disasters.

But don’t think for a minute that this is a chore for this crafty couple. For Chris, there’s no better way to unwind after a day spent fighting fires.

“It does sound funny, but it’s such a great way to relax. When I come home all keyed up, this is how I decompress,” he says.


Photos by Bo Milbourn / 33 Park Photography