My Seamstress Mom – What a Character

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First, let me be clear – this is not an ad. This is the business card my mother and I designed when we started our own fabric/custom dressmaking/alteration shop back in 1984. It seems like a century ago.

My mom, Evelyn, was larger than life with a style all her own. As a girl, she went to the movies and watched all of the thirties and forties big screen stars dressed to the hilt in fabulous, well-designed clothing. She fell in love with fashion and sewing, which began a lifetime passion for both.  As her body developed in her teen-aged years, mom became too big-busted for most ready-to-wear styles, so she began to make most of her own clothing. In high school, she attended a trade school to learn seamstress skills.

For a number of years, while raising my brother and me, most of Mom’s sewing skills were used for the home and also making clothes for herself and me. I remember a darling summer top she had sewed for me made of red fabric printed with white anchors and trimmed with white fringe. I loved it!

Her first professional job was sewing costumes for a marching and drum corps in the early 1960’s. As a young child, I was in awe of the beautiful majorette outfits designed of soft blue satin with white marabou sewn around the flouncy short skirt and blue sequins on the bodice. She made puffy-sleeved satin shirts for the male drummers that rippled and shimmered in the sun as they struck their drums. For years later, she was still picking blue sequins out of the carpet in her sewing area.

When I was a little older, my mom worked as a seamstress in clothing alterations for a fashionable ladies’ clothing store in downtown Pittsburgh. There she learned that home sewing and the world of alterations on higher end women’s ready-to-wear were quite different. Her friend, who recommended her for the alterations job and was a saleswoman at the store as well as a seamstress, showed her many tricks of the trade in ladies’ clothing alterations. After working there for a few years, Mom moved on to work at a haute couture ladies’ clothing store. There, she learned more detailed alteration techniques from Italian seamstresses who were apprenticed in sewing while children growing up in Italy. Her knowledge and expertise at the trade knew no bounds.

Through all this time, as close to her as breath itself, she was always thinking about the next thing she wanted make for herself. Social events on her calendar prompted her to think, plan and design what outfit would be appropriate for the occasion. If a tailored suit was more fitting, she would make that. A wedding? Maybe a draped tea-length dress in silk jacquard. She always looked elegant.

After my brother passed away in 1982, Mom grieved and drifted through her days. It was a very dark time for my family. She had quit her job at the high-end dress shop and had no plan for what to do next. I approached her with the idea to open our own sewing shop – a mother and daughter business. We would sell high-end fabric, do dressmaking and alterations. I was working at a department store in the advertising office, but feeling very unsatisfied with my job as a copywriter. I loved to sew, too, and knew this would be the best thing for both of us. The idea filled her sails and breathed a new energy into her. We opened the doors to our shop and had no regrets.

We operated our business for eleven years, and closed its doors when my son was three years old. My mom wanted to slow down a bit and semi-retire to sew out of her home. She maintained her home-based business well into her late seventies. She loved her customers and loved the work, with a stash of fabric in her sewing room that was always waiting to be fashioned into something spectacular for herself. Whatever the event, she was ready!

My mom passed away nine years ago, and I have so many incredible memories of a spunky, creative woman who was always working on some sewing project. I try my best to live up to her memory by keeping busy with whatever feeds my passion.

Along with sewing, I have always loved writing fiction. Funny thing how my mom (in spirit) pulled a fast trick on me when I was developing a character. It happened when I was writing my very first teen novel.

When I wrote Rebels from Olympus, I created my protagonist, Justus Appleyard, from my imagination. While I did have a brother and had chosen to include a brother/sister relationship in my teen novel, Justus is different from my real-life brother. There were certain themes I wanted to convey in my novel, and my brother’s character traits were not a suitable choice for its crafting. No judgement of my brother. Justus needed to be a lonely, wimpy outcast in school. My brother was popular and played on the school football team. Not a good match for my plot. Even the relationship with his sister was different from what I had with my brother. In my story, Justus and Rosa are three years apart and are close companions, even though they do annoy each other. My brother was six years my senior, so I was more the kid sister at home while he was always out playing sports or hanging out with his buddies. Not only did I create a different character, it was a different relationship, too.

Then enter the character of Rosa, Justus’ sister. As I wrote the first draft of my novel, she was in many scenes, but always elusive to me. I wrote dialogue and action, but I kept asking her, “Who are you? I want a strong girl character, but you seem so limp and ineffective.” It wasn’t until I was working on the second draft that I began to hear this strong, sassy voice channel through me and onto the page.

I recognized the attitude. I saw what her super power as a demi-goddess would be. Sewing! Oh, this was going to be fun!

I asked humorously, “Mom? Who invited you?” Then, I recognized what a perfection this was to have parts of my mother come through to be a big part of my character, Rosa. Just like my mother, Rosa lived and breathed sewing and fashion design. She was spunky, assertive and creative. I loved writing this character! Both my mother and Rosa breathed, imagined,  planned for fashion. The ever-present thought in each mind was – “What will I wear?”

I can think of no better way to honor my mom’s memory.


Here’s a picture of my mom and me at a wedding. Yes, we both sewed our own dresses!