Bella’s Tchotchkis: Sparkly Accessories for Sparkly People
Technology has taken the fashion world, the entertainment world, and the burlesque world by storm, and there is no shortage of cutting edge technique in the costumes on the burly stage. Upon further investigation, we caught up with one of the most innovative pastie makers in the country, Bella La Blanc of Bella’s Tchotchkis, to learn more about her adventures in making the perfect 3-d printed pasties, including engineering her own 3-D printers for the job! The following interview excerpt is an up-close and personal account of Bella’s process and her thoughts about how artists can work together in a competitive field.
RLR: Hey Bella! What’s your name?
BLB: Well, I’m Bella La Blanc, and I’m the owner of Bella’s Tchotchkis!
RLR: Where are you?
BLB: I am now based out of Rockville, Maryland.
RLR: I know you have a performance background, but when did you start performing burlesque specifically?
BLB: I got into burlesque from the fetish scene. It was very big and thriving in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a while in the late 1990’s early 2000’s. I’ve been a full-time touring performer for a little under a decade. I also had to stop and have real life happen, like I got married, I had children, so there were a lot of very long breaks involved. I can say that I’ve been going my hardest for the past six years.
RLR: So when you started making pasties were you just experimenting, or did you have a guide?
BLB: When I first started getting into the pastie thing everybody did craft foam, or craft foam with buckram, or just buckram. So with buckram, I thought that was great, but the problem was, after a couple months of wear, no matter what your adhesive was, either you had the gunky stuff inside it or it would just start going flat, it would warp- you had to treat it like it was fine crystal china, or it was garbage.
So, once again, I like fetish stuff, and I was at a fetish event, and saw this gorgeous woman in this amazing costume- a skin tight mermaid pencil dress, and I was like, “your dress is so beautiful what is it made of?” I asked if I could have consent to touch the vinyl skirt, and she said “yes” and something clicked in my head. Then I found out other pastie makers were also using vinyl, and I thought “let me try this”.
A performer even said to me “hey, why don’t you sell this shit you make?” I always jokingly said “yeah It’d be really nice if I could glue shit to shit and call it my job.” That’s actually what I tell people now!
Literally I started Bella’s Tchotchkis with a pipe dream and three pots of coffee in my kitchen with a couple friends.
RLR: That’s how all the best projects start!
BLB: So when I first started selling them I was using a mixture of vinyl and buckram. I’m not knocking them as materials for pasties, because there’s another great pastie maker (using those materials) who I love, Gothfox…
RLR: Yes she’s excellent.
BLB: She is probably one of my biggest supporters. When I told her I wanted to start, Gothfox was very supportive, and even gave me tips and directions on things to do. She actually waterproofed a pair of pasties for me, and showed me how to do that, which was amazing. Those original materials are still good, I’m not ever going to knock the materials used in the past, it’s just not what I choose to use anymore.
RLR: Some of these materials have been used since the beginning of pasties, and people have been making different combinations of them, but that’s why it’s good to have multiple types of pastie vendors, because you have options!
BLB: Right! I still make a vinyl pastie on occasion because, honestly you can’t print everything. Or, I’ll make a printed base and I’ll put some vinyl design on top, and then I’ll hit it with a resin so it’s still rock solid, but I have to tell them, you still have to treat this like you would a vinyl pastie. Even though the inside is a rock solid cone that you could throw against the wall and it would live to tell the tale, the rest of it might not. That’s kind of my thing now, I like to pitch the durability aspect because now I have pasties that have lasted for years.
RLR: That’s great, because the pay rate of burlesque work is low for a lot of people and if you’re going to get one pair that’s going to last you, then you will make your cost back.
BLB: Exactly! Especially if you just buy a neutral like a crystal or crystal AB combo or your go to neutral or nude, you buy something like that, and whenever you think “oh shit I don’t have pasties for this number, oh wait, yes I do, and I bought them five years ago!” That’s amazing because it pays for itself after a while.
When you come by my booth you see that my pasties are not only durable,but I make them as inexpensive as humanly possible. Right now you can get a basic pair without tassels for $30, and you can get a basic pair right off the rack with tassels for $50-$60. That’s really affordable!
That was my biggest goal- being able to make my pasties affordable and obtainable. Some products out there are really expensive, and I get it because I buy them too! But, what about the new performer that just graduated a six-week school? I mean for your first several years you’re probably going to pull out of pocket, there’s no getting around it. So, vending at festivals I try not to be that multi-hundred dollar piece. I try to be that little something, or for someone who is like “I need to buy all of this in bulk” and because it’s so affordable, you can buy IN BULK.
RLR: Right! So, how long have you been doing 3D printing?
BLB: Well we started toying with the idea about five years ago. My husband is a software architect and does computer engineering and stuff like that on the side as a hobby. Yeah, he’s a nerd by trade, and a nerd for fun, so, in other words, he’s really HOT.
With that being said, we started seeing these big Maker Fairs and Tech Fairs, and we’d go to these, and we saw a 3D printer. And he was like, “I really want to get one, I really want to do something with it”. And I was like, WTF are we going to do with a 3D printer?
So we bought a Duplicator I-3 and it was a build your own kind of kit (a lot of this was his hard work too!) because if you bought them pre-built it was $5-6000. If you bought your own kit and built it yourself when they first came out, it was only $2000.
We started fucking around with it and making all kinds of cool shit. And we realized that the plastic was hard, that you could print it really thin, you could print it really thick, and then it was literally him and me on the couch one night just talking and I was working on merch, and I looked at him and he looked at me and I held up a pastie and he already knew.
And he said: “we can try…”
So, he literally built all the patterns from scratch. We’re talking we probably went through at least 2-3 rolls of filament
RLR: Yes, because you’re trying different densities and shapes, right?
BLB: Exactly- A lot of my earlier models were a little thinner, my next models a year or two later were a little on the thicker side, but they were also heavier; it took us years of tweaking. We had to consider what KIND of plastic are we going to use? Because there are tons of other kinds of plastics out there now like PLA, PET,a bunch of others, and I have rolls of all of them!
Then we had to figure out high melt temp, low melt temp, warping, cracking, proper temp to print at- things that especially even now, people who are buying 3D printers don’t think about. And, you know it has become kind of weird in the 3D printing pastie community because a lot of people are doing it now…
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it’s one of those “hey, you’re getting started, awesome, can you reach out to someone who’s been doing it for a hot minute, just to make sure you’re doing it right? I don’t want to admit the amount of money that we spent to figure out exactly the right consistency, the right plastics. I mean, we’ve gone through a couple of printers too, because, if you’re going to buy a printer and work it like a work horse…
BLB: I only have two printers right now in my maker space and I’ve had more than two at a time, and one is currently down for repair, so I only have one active printer at the moment.
RLR: How long does it take to print the pasties?
BLB: It takes about two hours to print one pair, but it’s not a big deal if you just keep them printing morning, noon and night. You do have to go down and scrape the printer, so I set up a print before going to bed and when I get up in the morning and scrape the printer and get the next print started. The truth is, the machine does all the work.
RLR: Oh yeah, after the two years of engineering where you figured out what you wanted to do and how to do it right!
BLB: Yeah, I mean, it was not fun! We figured it out on our own, we didn’t reach out for help.
RLR: Well there weren’t that many people out there doing this specific thing for those specific needs.
BLB: Exactly, and to be completely honest with you, I didn’t really talk to anyone about it because I didn’t want to be copied. I wanted my product to stand out. I wanted it to be different.
It was funny because I started going to festivals and selling my product and I started noticing that some of the people I sold my stuff to started doing it, and I was like, “Ok, I guess I have to let this go…”
RLR: Yeah, it’s a good point. I mean, in some ways it’s inevitable. On the other hand, there is the option to patent things…
BLB: I was considering doing that, I looked into it, but it was so vague…you can’t patent a basic pastie.
RLR: Yes it has to be one type of pastie with one specific design element and/or engineering to patent.
BLB: I mean there are other people who have made a 3D printed pastie now that have done things different to it and had theirs patented. Good for them!
I was so heartbroken when I saw multiple makers around year 3 or 4 of my business, and I didn’t know what to do. The one thing I did start doing was on advice from Gothfox, who told me to advertise that I was the original maker of the 3d printed pastie. And I did. It felt nice to say that, and it’s true!
Some people like my products, some people like other products more, and that’s fine- capitalism I guess?
RLR: Well, yes!
BLB: There’s plenty of room in the seven kingdoms for all of us to play.
RLR: Yes, if your business is doing well and you’re still producing a great product, people are still going to be coming to you.
BLB: Exactly, but it did take me a while to get to that level of acceptance.
RLR: It’s hard to do, it’s your ART!
BLB: It is my BABY! It still is my baby, let’s be honest. Those machines get treated better than some people’s pets.
RLR: Haha! So, do you have a different printer now that you prefer, or are you still using the same brand but an updated model?
BLB: So, now we use printers that my husband has built from scratch because we know what we want and how we like things done.
BLB: Even the parts for the printer are 3D printed!
RLR: That’s amazing!
BLB: It’s become a science of exactly what we want and how we want it. So, you can’t buy the printer, because he made it!
RLR: That’s what you want, a product that no one else can get!
BLB: I do suggest for someone who wants to get into 3D printing- don’t buy a MakerBot, they are really outdated. If you have one, great, just make sure you have the updated stuff for it. But I’ve seen a lot of positive things come out of the Prusa brand. That’s my suggestion. Don’t spend thousands of dollars perfecting it like we did! Let me help you; I fucked up so you don’t have to!
RLR: Have you taught any workshops on this technology, or on using technology for burlesque?
BLB: The one class I did teach for years, and it’s still on my website as something I teach; it’s a 101 and a 201 class about pasties on the cheap.
I teach you how to make pasties out of all the products you can use. I do bring my 3D printed bases into class, but I will not teach you how to make them. I will teach you how to make them out of everything else.
My higher level pastie making class is getting into details like what trim you can use, hand sewing, adhesives, what’s right, what’s wrong, alternatives to E6000…I recommend E6000 Fabric Fuse because it doesn’t soften from warmth over time, and you won’t have as much stone shift.
It’s sad but true with my product because it’s plastic, I’m stuck with the toxic shit indefinitely because I also like to say my products are waterproof.
So, that’s the kind of stuff I teach, but I don’t teach 3D printing and I probably never will.
RLR: Right. The other thing about your pasties specifically that I’d like to know is what you are embellishing them with. Are you printing things? Are you making resin pieces, or are you buying all of your embellishments?
BLB: Some things I have printed and added gloss to, but very little. I do buy a lot of my resin stones. And what I do for those and other stones with a foil or acrylic base, because I have to use E6000, is use clear nail polish. I take all the stones and I coat the underside with two coats of clear nail polish and let them sit out for 48 hours before I apply them, so the E6000 doesn’t eat away at the foil.
RLR: Great tip! I was very curious about your stones because they make the pasties look so different.
BLB: Go to New York. B&Q trim- ransack their bins of stones. I go to the garment district once a month to buy stones and I buy my tassels now too. I’ll share where I get my stuff, I don’t mind. That is one of the things a lot of makers shared with me- where to buy certain things. I also have a couple wholesale accounts too.
RLR: Yeah, of course, for the regular stones.
BLB: But once in a while you walk into a store, and you’re like “oh my God that stone is amazing, and all the amazing things I can make with it”. I also buy extra so that when I have a custom order, I can send a larger bag of excess stones so they can put that on their costume to match.
RLR: That’s excellent. Do you think you’ll ever stop making pasties?
BLB: Originally it was a joke that it was going to be my retirement plan when I quit stripping at 40, which by the way is slowly looming closer.
I don’t think I’m ever going to 100% quit stripping, and also I’m a sideshow performer. I graduated Coney Island in 2015. I might slow down, but I don’t think I’m ever going to quit performing. Let’s be honest, I fucking doubt it. Yes, give me all the applause! I want to wear the sparkly shit I make too!
In regards to making pasties – I LOVE making pasties. It’s actually something I love to do, and that’s why a lot of my customers keep coming back. Even when I’m in a rush preparing for a festival, even in that moment, I love making the patterns (of embellishment). I try not to make a lot of things alike, and that’s really hard to do. Sometimes patterns will duplicate themselves with different sizes and shapes.
As of now I don’t plan on stopping. My goal for this year was to slow down on performing and focus more on my business. I have a couple of big vending events coming up.
The thing I love about this business, especially when you’re vending in a public space, is that you get to talk to people.
I’m an ambivert- I’m a hardcore extrovert then I run away and hide in my house. I’m currently talking to you in a onesie. Getting to play somewhat of a dress up, or just putting on my face and getting to wear my normal clothing which is goth girl regalia, and then just being able to talk to performers and see what inspires them, what inspired them to buy the product or a certain piece. Then I know what I need to make more of, what I need to keep in stock, what I probably need to tweak and/or change…I do take input seriously. What I really love is talking to performers and then giving them a piece of me to take home, and knowing that the piece is going to have it’s own history. To me, that’s really special, and it’s what makes me want to continue making.
RLR: You certainly have an excellent business mind. Just the way you have approached your business, and the love that you put into everything, it’s really wonderful.
So, how can someone buy your pasties, where will you be next, and what is your site and social media info?
BLB: You can go to Bella’s Tchotchkis website which is www.bellastchotchkis.com, powered by Square (easy for payments) or to my Facebook page. Usually the easiest way to contact me is through the Facebook page or the contact button on the website. Sizes are: Small- 2”, Medium- 2.5”, Large 3”, with smaller and larger sizes made by request. Usually average turnaround from making it and getting it to your home is less than a week (in the U.S.). If you don’t see what you want on the website, I can always make it!
RLR: Perfect! I want to thank you very much for taking the time to chat and to share all this information about your work with The Pastie Project.
BLB: Thank you so much for asking me for this interview! I’m quite flattered.
RLR: Your work is beautiful, and I’m happy to share it with the universe!
After this interview, Bella gave me a personal video tour of her sizable maker space and pastie embellishing bar, which were both a site to behold. Special thanks to Bella for sharing this information and valuable pastie making tips with us! I agree that there is room in the burlesque kingdom for all, and I am so glad that Bella’s a part of it!