Dressmaking For The 21st Century

by Tracey Meloni
Photos by Alan Wycheck

Reprinted with the kind permission of Harrisburg Magazine

Once upon a time, savvy, well-dressed ladies had a secret weapon: the little dressmaker. The miracle worker of yore whipped up couture-looking creations from little more than customers' amateurisih sketches. Today's consumer thinks green, expects a perfect fit and recognizes that personalized styling aids those with physical limitations.

Re-enter the dressmaker. But what kind, and how to find?

Susquehanna Style

The Association of Sewing and Design Professionals' website offers a referral service, sorting its members by 22 categories, inlcuding alterations specialist, designer, artist in wearables, clothing for the handicapped, bridal/formal wear and pattern maker.

The frst step is to select a category by determining "the level of fashion/design/mechanical expertise for your service provider should possess," says Charles (Chuck) Schulz, local artist and desginer with over 40 years of experience, including fashion and costume design.

Schulz asks, "Do you want to own an original piece of wearable art? Do you want to copy a current garment unavailable in your size? Do you want something moderately unique?

Some professionals make clear the services they can provide. For example, Holly Snyder (Heirlooms by Holly, State College) offers three levels of services: completely custom, made-to-measure and straight from the pattern.

JoAnn Sanderson (Carlisle) is an "alteration specialist." She also restyles and re-sizes clothes. "Think green," she says. "Good quality, older garmets can often be restyled into something that is fashionable and useful today. For example, a bride's mother's wedding gown can be brought up to the current fashion or a full skirt of good quality can be made into a pencil skirt."

Rae Cumbie, president-elect of the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals, outlines questions to ask before choosing the dressmaker: "How long have you been in business? Where have you learned the trade? Do you have references, photos, finished garments, fabric resources? Do you begin with a muslin mock-up of the garment before making the garment in the fine fabric of the finished outfit?" She also points out the costs for custom garments vary widely depending on the professional, and she urges realistic time expectations. "It is better to have several months for a first project with your sewing professional. Very few garments require less than four visits and may require six to 10."

Susan Moran, wedding designer and owner of That's It! Wedding Concepts, LLC, discovered Cumbie's skills when having a gown remade. "Ultimately, it became my mother-of-the-bride dress when [daughter] Tracy married. Cumbie also designed and created an original gown for one of my brides using strategic pieces from her grandmother's wedding gown."

Moran's daugther calls Cumbie "my personal magician and miracle worker streamstress extraordinaire!" Her fiancé loved the movie Pretty Woman, especially the polo match scene where Julia Robers wears the infamous brown and white polka-dot dress. Secretely and long-distance (Tracy was living in Texas at the time), Cumbie worked with her to re-create the dress as her going-away outfit. After their reception, "the band called my husband to the stage and began playing Pretty Woman while Tracy appeared in the iconic dress.

Cumbie herself has kudos for Lancaster based Debby Spence. "She is a very meticulous crafter of fine garments, often with a little suprise to delight the eye. She also sells some very fine fabrics through catalogues from fine fabric makers."

Sanderson singled out Deborah String, whose Leaf of Eve (Enola and Carlisle) specializes in bridal alterations.

What are the biggest mistakes on might make? Schulz is blunt. "Many women by designer items on sale with totally unrealistic alteration desires. Dressmakers, seamstresses and seamsters are not wizards. 'Alter' means to change slightly, not re-make."

He adds, "Don't expect a dressmaker to be able to spin straw into gold. Rely on your dressmaker to advise you on the right fabric and notions for your pattern. And although clothes can make the women, they can't make her into someone different than she is, so pick your styles wisely. If your are unsure about the cut or drape of a design, have a basic shell fabricated in muslin or a very inexpensive fabric to try on before investing in expensive materials or sewing time."