Through intricate quilts, The Muppets live on in this costume designer's closet

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HILLSDALE, N.Y. — With winter arriving early this year, you may have recently found yourself digging through drawers or a closet for that much-needed extra layer of warmth — a sweater, a blanket or, perhaps, a quilt.

Stephen Rotondaro doesn't need to do much rummaging to secure such an item. A mound of ornate options sits in a closet near his bedroom.

"Close to 50," Rotondaro said of the number of finished quilts occupying his Hillsdale home, pulling some of them into a hallway.

Mind you, the California native isn't housing all of these potential bed covers (it's actually more than 50, he later said) to combat the Northeast chill. They're his creations. Rotondaro made these quilts and many others over the course of the past three decades, dating back to when he began working for The Jim Henson Company in the 1980s. As a costume designer for "Sesame Street" and other Muppets-related productions, Rotondaro collected seven Emmys and fabric scraps that he still uses in his quilts.

"Gonzo wore this shirt for years and years, this chili peppers shirt," Rotondaro said, referring to a piece in his basement work space.

Rotondaro's Muppets career is intertwined with his quilting history, which begins with his late mother, Dolores.

"I was always around her sewing," he said.

Dolores started quilting before she was diagnosed with cancer.

"She only ever made one quilt pattern, which were these hexagons called 'Grandmother's Flower Garden.' She would cut these pieces, and when she was sitting at the doctor [waiting] for whatever treatment she was getting, she had this bag of quilt pieces that she made," Rotondaro recalled.

She died in 1984 without getting a chance to complete her quilts. Rotondaro was working for The Jim Henson Company by that time, fashioning costumes for Bert and Ernie. He had landed the position while in graduate school at New York University. At the company, one of his coworkers was a quilter, inspiring Rotondaro to retrieve his mother's fabric scraps and quilt tops.

"I decided I was going to see her vision through, get these quilts finished, because I certainly could sew," he said.

He wouldn't be hand-quilting them himself, though.

"It's just too tedious to hand-quilt," he said of the process in which the backing, batting and top are sewn together. "I usually have my things hand-quilted."

Through another Henson Company connection, Rotondaro found a hand-quilter in a Midwestern Mennonite community.

"We never spoke. She was 82. She quilted for me for about five years until, literally, she died with one of my quilts on her quilting frame," Rotondaro said.

She completed his mother's earliest quilts. Rotondaro gave some of them to his siblings, but kept one for himself. He removed it from the upstairs heap. White fabric surrounded colorful nested hexagons.

"I would have never made this pattern," he said, noting that he has dabbled in hexagonal pieces, though.

Rotondaro's first quilt mirrored a traditional Amish one he found depicted in a coworker's calendar. At the Henson Company, Rotondaro and others also started making quilts to commemorate births, retirements and other events. A book of them was even published. Initially, Rotondaro created "Broken Dishes" patterns (two triangles sewn into a square) "ad nauseum," he said. He made quilts consisting entirely of pieces with paisley designs or leaves. But over time, he developed his own style, one both traditional and avant garde.

"My quilts are either really super precise, or they're these really loosey-goosey, crazy quilts," he said.

He spread an example of the former over a bed, examining an intricate mariner's compass on the quilt.

"This is one of those things that I can't believe I did, and I'm sure I would never do again," he said.

For each quadrant of the quilt's pieces, he would create a paper pattern. His costume-making courses at NYU informed his approach.

"You make your paper patterns with no seam allowance, and you draw that shape on the back of the fabric, and then your pencil lines become your stitching lines. So, that's how it's so exact," he said.

The "crazy" designs stem from his time at the Henson Company. His first season working on "Sesame Street" was 1985, beginning a decade-and-a-half stretch on the show that led to Emmys, but offered little time for reflection.

"I literally sewed as fast as I could for 13 years making costumes," he said of his designing years.

Sometimes, the garb was unpredictable. Rotondaro, for instance, crafted 18th-century dresses for chickens and ducks "because they were singing some crazy opera."

"It's nuts, but it was something that we wanted to do, and it was so much fun," he said.

The job also provided him with plenty of quilt-making materials that could spark his "crazy" side.

"There was all this beautiful cotton fabric that was getting cut up almost on a daily basis, and the scraps would just get chucked in the bin," he said, later explaining that he tried "to use a piece of fabric as it came out of the bin."

He hasn't exhausted all of those fragments yet.

"Those are Ernie's 1969 pajamas," he said, pointing to a piece in a quilt that he is currently working on.

Some of Rotondaro's recent quilts combine his two methods, mixing "crazy" with "Broken Dishes."

"There's a very specific pattern from the triangles created, and then your eyes — you see a part of the pattern that doesn't make any sense because the pattern breaks down, and yet it's the same fabrics and the same colors, so it's kind of interesting," he said.

In 2017, Rotondaro had a 50-quilt retrospective show at Egremont's Brookside Quiltworks, and he currently has some on display at Neven and Neven Moderne in Hudson, N.Y. Some quilts he'll work on for years, others for days in the Hillsdale abode he has shared with architect Rick Winsor for the past 15 years. Selling the quilts is a motivation, but a stronger force compels him to continue quilt-making, something he can't quite pinpoint — an affinity for geometry, perhaps.

"I can't imagine that I'm going to stop making the stupid triangle quilts. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's some psychological thing about triangles," he said.

As for costume designing, Rotondaro is waiting for his next major project. In 2004, the Henson Company sold The Muppets' rights to The Walt Disney Company. Following a seven-year stint at Puppet Heap, Rotondaro served as a costume designer for the short-lived ABC series, "The Muppets," that ran for one season from 2015-2016. He also recently outfitted Miss Piggy for a photo shoot. Rotondaro hopes he'll get a chance to work on another Muppets TV series. He isn't the type to let creative endeavors go unfinished.

"I kind of want to do one more show. I'm almost 60. I wanted that show to go for three or four years and just get it out of my system. I was working 90-hour weeks. I was out in LA. I had a sewing machine in my room. I'm a notorious insomniac. I worked every day," he said. "I went to the studio every day and worked because I loved it. I had a vision, and I wanted to see it through."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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