Dressing the devils: Pat Kotten's story

Friday night at Sun Devil Stadium and thousands of fans crowd the stands, flanking the field in a sea of gold.

Fireworks erupt and down on the sidelines, a mascot in maroon powers through a set of seven pushups in celebration of Arizona State’s touchdown. The crowd rejoices, returning his enthusiasm with hands in the shape of pitchforks thrust in the air.

Flash back to 1946 and devils and pitchforks have yet to take on a special meaning for ASU. It wouldn’t be until the fall of that year that a historic student body vote of 819 to 196 forever changed the face of the university from the Bulldog to Sparky the Sun Devil.

The next step was bringing Sparky to life – a tall order that required the imagination and dedication of a few talented individuals. With the late Disney artist Bert Anthony having completed the design of the mascot, there was only one thing missing: a costume. Enter Pat Kotten.

When Pat stumbled upon her grandmother’s old sewing machine as a child, she was instantly intrigued. Though her grandmother was too ill to teach her, Pat found that sewing came naturally.

“I think it’s kind of in you,” she says. “A certain knack for things.”

Pretty soon, Pat was designing and making her own clothes. “I learned by taking things apart and putting them back together. I taught myself, I guess,” she says with a shrug.

After moving to the Valley of the Sun from Wisconsin in 1954, Pat – with husband Jim, a one-year-old daughter, and another on the way – was keen to find work to support her family. Figuring she may as well capitalize on what she did best, Pat put an ad in the State Press advertising as a seamstress. That ad cost her $1 and by the end of the first week she had made $50.

“I thought I was really rich,” she said. “From there, it just kept coming.”

As word of mouth spread, Pat put her valuable skills to work on everything from costumes to wedding dresses, to business suits. Before she knew it, her handiwork was being seen all over Tempe, including at ASU. Having already been recruited by the university to make cheerleading outfits and sports uniforms, Pat was the obvious choice when it came to dressing our beloved Sparky.

Each year, Pat worked with a group of ASU officials that included Mona Plummer (athletic director at the time) to create a unique design for the costume that she would custom-fit to each new Sparky.

“It was a challenge sometimes, but it was always a fun challenge,” she recalls. Her favorite was a flame-adorned silk number, complete with a cape.

The busiest time of the year for Pat was from June to September, when all the schools were gearing up for the fall sports season and needed new uniforms. During those times, the whole family would gather in the living room and work as a team, threading elastic through seams or cutting out fabric from big bolts of material. When they were finished, the family loved to attend ASU games where they could see their work in action.

“The funny thing about making costumes is that while you’re doing them in your sewing room, you don’t realize how they actually look,” said Pat. “Then, when you see them all put together on the field, you think, ‘I did that!’”  

Besides the work she did for ASU, Pat also sewed for several local Tempe high schools, and even designed for Liz Claiborne and R and K Originals. At one point, she took on the odd job of sewing 300 windsocks for a man in the Midwest.

Still, Pat’s favorite part of her job was working with the students. Only 25 years old when she began sewing for ASU, she was rather close in age to most of them. Pat recalls fondly how that enabled many of them to confide in her during their fittings, saying, “It was work, but it was a good time.”

Recently, while sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, Pat was approached by a woman who recognized her as the seamstress who sewed an outfit for her several years ago when she was a student. Though Pat didn’t remember her specifically, it was clear she had made an impact on her, which she says was the best part of her work.

Pat and Jim still live in the same house, just off Rural Road in Tempe that stood witness to those long, hot summers full of stitching; only nowadays, her sewing room has been taken over by their computer. And though she no longer sews for ASU, when asked if she still has Sun Devil spirit, Pat replies without hesitation: “Always.”