Amelia Bennett: Sew Fine

Seekers Church
November 11, 2001
Amelia Bennett

Sew Fine

My attempt to find a way to tie one of the passages in this week’s lectionary to my topic, did not work. Instead, I bring a message of thanks for the support you give me for risking an idea born out of circumstances and a good deal of faith.

I feel that Seeker’s became my benefactor by giving me a portion of the Growing Edge Fund this past spring. This shows me you support my opening “Sew Fine,” a workroom for interior designers. Sharon Lloyd is my mentor, and her interest in what I am doing and availability has a significant impact on me and my business’s success thus far.

My husband, Steve, and my Spiritual Director, Jeanne Marcus, also have significant roles in the success of “Sew Fine” as well as my mental and spiritual health.

Some people are artists, speakers, writers, scientists, bureaucrats, social workers, or many other things, but it is my calling, in my life’s work, to be a maker. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so important what it is that I am making, but the process of figuring out how to go about it, and imagining what could be, that engages me. The process is not easy, but it is what makes me thrive. When I am working with my hands, I am oblivious to anything around me. I lose all track of time. Steve has learned that if he needs my attention while I am engrossed in a project, he has to stop me and get me to look at him before I will hear him. The other day, Todd Martz, one of the designers I sew for, came in my studio to drop off some things. I was working on a swag design at the time, and Todd commented that I needed some music. I told him, I have a boom box, and sometimes I turn it on, but when I’m working on a project that requires concentration to figure out, it doesn’t matter if there is background music or not, because I am unaware of anything except my fabric and how it is acting. This kind of work makes my soul sing; I do not need other entertainment. I feel incredibly blessed to have work that gives me that much. Not everything I do is so interesting, and I often turn to the radio and music to fill in the space that mundane works leaves. There is also something meditative about the rhythm of things like hand sewing hems, which I do a lot of, but I do not thrive on that work. It is what helps me achieve the quality I want to produce and sell. This is part of what I feel you are supporting.

When I moved to this area to marry Steve, I had no idea my work would take me this direction. I was grateful for the job at “G-Street Fabrics” and the opportunity to learn how to be a sewing machine mechanic. I enjoyed that work, but I could not convince the management that my position was worthy of the salary I needed to earn. I began thinking about what other type of work I would like to do. One day, at that job, a charming and beautiful young woman came in asking about lessons for operating her Bernina 950 industrial sewing machine. I taught the classes for that sewing machine, so we scheduled Shannon to come back and learn everything her machine was capable of doing. One of the first questions I ask students is what kind of sewing do they want to do. Shannon explained that she was opening a workroom in Georgetown, making drapery, shades, pillows, and other things for decorating a home. I told her that I had done that kind of work for many years and that she had picked the perfect machine for her work. The lesson lasted two hours, and by the end of the class, we had made an appointment for me to interview with her partners, in Georgetown, for the job of supervising her workroom. Steve and I decided I could quit my job as a sewing machine mechanic at “G-Street Fabrics,’ and go to work at “French Toast.” We knew it was risky, but it felt right. I do not know how else to explain how we justified that decision.

As it turned out, the partnership fell apart before the shop opened, but Shannon decided to open “French Toast” anyway. The following October, Shannon became pregnant, and everything about work changed. She was truly the most miserable pregnant woman I have ever known. One of my memories of how she felt about being pregnant was that she would say, “You know those women who say they enjoy being pregnant, and that it is a wonderful experience, they are lying!” in February, “French Toast” closed the shop in Georgetown, and we moved the workroom to Shannon’s basement. I knew then, the end of that job was near. It had been a good experience for the most part. I had been able to shape the direction of that workroom and learn about the high-end market pricing, and the styles popular in the Washington Area. I also developed some valuable relationships and resources.

As Steve and I began to talk about what I would do next, I never imagined he would suggest that I start my own company, though that was exactly what I wanted to do. My love of fabric: the textures, patterns, printing and dying, along with the colors and weaves are all factors of why I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. The thought of working for someone else’s workroom, where I would be instructed about how to make things, how long I was allowed to take to make it, in addition to often feeling the integrity of the quality was sacrificed, had no appeal. I also imagined that I would be paid far less than I was worth. No, I would rather do something entirely different than sew for someone else.

The obstacles of running a business in the DC area intimidated me. My past experience of running my own businesses had been limited to working out of my home, for the most part. I did have a studio in Asheville for a year, when I was making handbags for a Kilim rug luggage company, called “Majid Designs” At that time I was paying $150.00 a month for 400 square feet of space. Here I knew I was facing much higher overhead cost. I began searching for space and calling numbers posted on buildings close to home. I found the space I am in now, and felt fortunate it only required a six-month lease, instead of a year’s commitment. Neither Steve nor I had any idea how it was going to go.

The space I found rents for $700.00 a month, but fortunately it only required a $350.00 deposit. The space is not perfect, it does not have a bathroom (I go next door, or across the street to Safeway), and I soon found I only have 15 amps of electricity, so when I run the AC or heater, I have to turn off the iron to sew, or turn off the sewing machine to iron. The first telephone that I bought was a cordless, but I discovered it pulled too much current and blew fuses, so I bought another that does not require electricity. These inconveniences I’ve gotten used to because the assets of the space are it being just the right size, having a huge window facing north, 16 foot high ceilings, and a beautiful shade of plum carpet. The location on Lee Highway in Arlington is only a few miles from DC, Alexandria and Falls Church.

I had no idea, before starting this, how much bureaucracy I would have to go through. In Mitchell County, North Carolina, there were no zoning boards to issue certificates of occupancy, a business license was not required, nor a name registration. I spent the better part of a day at the Arlington County Courthouse, going through the process of obtaining there things and it cost $119.00! I had to go to Fairfax to get my State Sales Tax Number, and spent an hour on a long distance call to get my Federal Employer Identification Number. It cost $200.00 to get the phone service connected, and I will not be listed in the yellow pages until next year!

I had experience running this kind of business for 6 years, between 1982 and 1988, in the Asheville area, and a year of experience in the Washington area, so when I found out that Seekers had a Growing Edge Fund that could aid my start, the risk seemed less, though it was still scary. Being a recipient of the Growing Edge Fund also added a layer of accountability and support that I have never experienced before. It brings an expectation of reports on how my venture is going, and you have a stake in how I am doing. The closest thing to this I have previously experienced is when Joan Elbers, the owner of “Majid Designs,” bought me a Bernina 217N industrial sewing machine, and I paid her back at a rate of 10% of each of her orders I filled. She did not charge me interest, and gave me the last $200.00 I owed her, as a bonus. I made 1200 fanny packs and 4000 file wallets for her over the next two years. She is a good businessperson, and she knows that I appreciate her generosity. You on the other hand, do not want your money back. You want to know how the money helped me and how the business is doing, and how I am feeling about doing it. You are willing to risk your resources on my heart work.

When I opened the studio on Lee Highway, my schedule was immediately filled with things Shannon wanted me to make for her newly renovated house, and some jobs for Todd Martz Interiors. Todd and I had established a relationship at “French Toast” and he promised to send me all his fabric work. I began the work of making and marketing. Deborah Sokolove designed my stationary (SHOW), incorporating the hands from the card (SHOW) I used to print an invitation for designers to make an appointment to see my wares. I included a biography (SHOW) of my sewing experience, and I mailed everything out in June. I knew from my experience in Asheville, that three busy designers would keep me going. I solicited 25 designers in the vicinity, thinking that if I could find designers close by, it would make the working relationships easier, and I could expand the list to a larger area, if I did not get a positive response for my initial soliciting. I compiled a list of designers from the yellow pages, and called each one, asking if they were interested, eliminating debunked businesses and commercial designers. Cold calling is not my bag, but the interest was great, so I began mailing. I kept working, and waiting. I made follow up calls, but still no interviews. In early August, I finished all the work on my schedule, and nothing new was coming in. I was tempted to panic, but Shannon suggested that I wait until September to do my next mailing because, nothing happens in DC in August. I decided to take advantage of the time and work on samples. I had a glorious time making pillows (POINT) that I could use at home and take out for interviews as well. I was still nervous about what would happen next, but a stronger voice inside me said that it was going to be all right, and that it was a good time to do some creative things for my home.

Steve and I painted our bathroom in a harlequin pattern of pink, yellow, teal and white. We painted our bedroom the deepest richest shade of green we could find. We worked on the duplex we had just purchased, putting up trim, cleaning, putting in hand rails, installing a new dishwasher and range. While working on the house, we talked about how we would like to remodel it, and as I started drawings plans, I quickly realized I did not know enough about structural support to do the work we wanted to do, so I registered for classes in Architecture at Northern Virginia Community College.

Towards the end of August, designers began to call to make appointments to see my work and receive a price list (SHOW). I recall telling Sharon Lloyd of my approach, and her skepticism of my receiving much of a response, but she did not realize how desperate designers are to find a reliable and quality oriented workroom. I knew the market was there, and I knew I only needed a handful of clients. If given the opportunity to prove myself, I knew it only takes one successful job to get a designer hooked.

Sharon Mitchell, one of the designers who contacted me, works for Design Atelier in Old Town. She was as impressed with my workbook (SHOW) that catalogs each project, including swatches of the fabrics, as she was with my photographs, drapery and pillow samples. She and I have developed such a relationship that she has contracted me to do work in her home, which I consider the highest complement. A few weeks ago, when I was in Design Atelier in Old Town, one of the owners told me they want to use me exclusively. I am ecstatic!

Another designer, Jocelyn Anderson, spent all of a Friday morning in the workroom with me, pulling out bolts of fabric for her projects and deciding what part of what pattern was to go where. She delighted in the opportunity, and I loved it! I can make the decisions she made, but I never know if it is the right decision without the designer specifying the details. Jocelyn said none of the other workrooms she had used allowed her to come in, and she had always wanted to be able to give directions because when the job is hung, she has to defend whatever it is, even if she does not understand the decisions that the workroom made. On her jobs, I can hang with complete confidence that I have gotten the picture. It makes it very safe for both of us.

Because I only do high end work, and love the intricate details, my market is not as large as it would be if I were doing production sewing. It is a good thing my market is small because I do not think I want to hire help, and my schedule in now booked until March 1. It is my attention to details and my unwillingness to hang a job that I am not happy with that insures my next job. I tell the designers I sew for that it is my job to make them look as fabulous as they possibly can.

In a way, the work of my life is like a fabric itself. All the experiences are woven together with textures of joy and pain and strands of good fortune. I am amazed that since I started this process of opening “Sew Fine” I have encountered no real barriers. None of you has suggested that this is not a good idea. Even Shannon, who owned “French Toast,” thought it was a great idea. I have to admit that I am not used to such encouragement. My parents have not been supportive of my ventures, and approached this one with worry and concern, rather than joy and hope. They could not believe that my church would give me this kind of support, but that is a whole other sermon, and has little to do with “Sew Fine.”

I want you all to know how much your interest means to me, and that the Growing Edge Fund support made this fantasy much more attainable. When I told the designer Todd Martz, about my application and of your support, he said, “I want that kind of Church!” I am grateful to each of you and to the Growing Edge Fund Committee for the opportunity to grow “Sew Fine.” You are my church, and my faith community, and an element of my life that until recently I have only dreamed as possible.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Rebecca Sears: Keeping the Connection after Sept 11th
Brenda Seat: A Brokenness that Leads to Joy