Meet the woman who keeps the UW’s band in stitches.
Lois Levenhagen is the unsung hero of the UW Marching Band. Every Labor Day weekend, the Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, seamstress threads her way through an epic journey in alterations, hemming hundreds of sleeves and trouser legs and stitching up hundreds of tears to ensure that the Badgers present a uniform look. She’s been the band’s needlewoman since 1991, and though she’s had partners in her work — initially her mother, Loretta Zander, and now her sister, Luann Zander — Levenhagen does much of the sewing herself. She also creates band director Mike Leckrone’s signature sequined suits for the annual spring concert — a job that presents unusual challenges. (Learn more about the concert in Traditions.) On Wisconsin asked her to share what goes on behind the scenes.
How did you become the band’s seamstress?
It started when my daughter [Kathy Kahl ’93] was in the marching band twenty-two years ago. Mike [Leckrone] was looking for someone to alter the pants, and I thought okay, I’ll try it. I had maybe fifty kids or so come over, and I stitched them up. And then springtime came, [Leckrone] says, well, “I need a new sequined vest.” I’d never sewn on sequins before, but I said I’d give it a try, and that’s how I got started making him his fancy outfits for the concert at the Kohl Center each year.
Do you do a lot of tailoring to the uniforms?
No, I cannot take in the waist or anything like that, because they’ve got hidden zippers underneath, and they wear suspenders. All I can do is regulate the length.
How do you manage to sew for the entire band?
I [work on] different segments. The returning students, if they know their uniform’s going to fit, they’re out of the formula. I measure the kids that are returning and know they need a new uniform — because it was way too big from the year before, or because the poor freshmen get stuck with the leftovers, or boys who are still growing. And some of them put a little weight on or something. I usually go home with about fifty pieces, and I have about a week to do those.
But the big push is the freshmen. On Labor Day weekend, on Sunday afternoon, probably from noon until five o’clock, six o’clock at night, I measure all those kids, and I usually come home with between one hundred and one hundred and ten pieces then: jacket sleeves that have to go up or down; pant legs that have to go up or down; fixing zippers and crotches and knees, because they bust them all out with Fifth Quarter shenanigans. We have to deliver them by Wednesday night, because they need them before the Saturday game.
What are the uniforms made of?
It’s a polyester-wool. They’re heavy, and they’re warm. I get a kick out of the young gals — they want these nice-fitting outfits, you know? And I just say, “I think you better go back and get another size or two bigger.” Because they’re actually cooler when there’s a little breathing room, when they’re not so tight on the skin. And when they do that high step, that’s when they bust out the crotch. The boys want to have the crotch hanging down to their knees, but I say no, you’ve got to jack it up.
That’s a lot of repair.
Right. They say the life expectancy of a uniform is ten or twelve years. And these, what they’ve got right now are about fifteen years old. They’re getting in pretty bad shape. But they’re not cheap. I’m sure that they’ve got to cost close to a thousand dollars apiece.
Do you know what Leckrone will be wearing for this year’s Varsity Band Concert?
No, I usually don’t know until about six weeks before [the concert in April]. They’re planning what they’re trying to put together, and he has no idea, either, what he really wants until they get the whole show set up and know what they’re doing. Then nobody sees his outfit till he comes on stage.
Is the concert outfit difficult?
Yeah, it is. Working with sequins is very difficult, because you cannot sew through it. They’re little metal circles. If I sew too fast or go through them, I dull or break my needles. I literally don’t sleep for between twenty-four and forty-eight hours to get those babies done.
Have you asked him not to go with sequins?
No, he wants the glitzy.
How long will you keep doing this for the band?
I’ll retire when Mike retires.
That could be a long time.
Yeah. I’ve got a granddaughter that’s seven, and she likes to sing and dance. Maybe I’ll be around yet when she gets in the band.
Published in the Spring 2014 issue