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Tailoring business to fit the market

The Hartford Couran
By Patricia Seremet, Inside Business

At one time, Evelyn Siefert Kennedy's life stretched in front of her like a once-beautiful, now-tattered fabric.

That was more than 20 years ago.  Kennedy's marriage had fallen apart, and Sewtique, the Groton sewing business she had started two years before with her husband, was struggling badly.  There were several times she considered closing.

But Kennedy had three children to raise, so she persevered, running the business alone.  It now is entering its 25th year in business, but Sewtique is a very different place today.

Kennedy started out selling fabric and sewing machines, giving sewing classes and making alterations.  But she soon realized she wasn't going to cut it financially offering just those three services.

Sewing may be a sit-down job, but when it comes to business, Kennedy is not one to sit still.

With each economic downturn and each change in the industry, Kennedy would re-educate herself in a different part of the business and add a new, often esoteric, niche - such as fabric restoration, or fur and leather repair.

And she would look at the competition and throw out a part of the business that was no longer a niche - such as fabric sales.

Over the years, Kennedy found that as she hired people and taught them skills, she bred some of her own competition.

"I've given birth through my staff to 12 businesses," she said. "But competition makes you look at yourself and polish up your act."

Kennedy never stopped polishing.  She was always studying as she sought new markets.  She took courses in costume, art history and business - leading to a master's degree in textile sciences at the University of Rhode Island - while she was working and raising her family.  Kennedy also studied pattern making through computer-aided design.

Today, Sewtique is best known for its ability to restore heirloom fabrics - notably wedding gowns - from a soiled, ripped, moth-holed, disintegrated state to the original or even an enhanced condition.

Kennedy consistently receives treasured quilts, wall hangings, shawls and gowns from all over the country.  Many of the gowns in her shop are from people in New York and New Jersey who learned about her from articles in New York and Bride magazines.

They're willing to make the trip to Groton, she said, because she is able to do the work for less than shops paying Manhattan rents.  Kennedy charges about $30 an hour for restoration work - $40 for fur and leather.  She can turn a job around quickly when it's called for, but generally, restoration takes four to six weeks.

Both Kennedy and her business look seamless, neither a thread nor a hair out of place.  Some fabrics there are hundreds of years old, but there is nothing musty or moldy about this store.  It's pristine, and that's the way Kennedy likes it.

She oversees a full-time staff of four, has 1,800 to 2,000 customers a year, and has annual sales close to $200,000.  Two years ago she moved the business into a building she owns, and records of all of the work done in the shop are stored on computer.

Kennedy cherishes her professional image as much as her clients cherish the centuries-old fabrics that they place in her care.

"The sewing industry has always had a very low image," she said.

"Walk into a tailor's shop and it's total confusion," Kennedy said.  "The place looks like it hasn't been painted in years, there are stacks of pants, the tailor works under the light of a little light bulb on a sewing machine that looks turn-of-the-century."

Kennedy feels so strongly about lifting sewing onto a professional plane, she even has a motto:  "Take the sewer [so-er] out of the sewer [soo-er]."

But what Kennedy and her staff do is echelons above routine mending and fixing.

Many of the fabrics that come into her store for restoration hold powerful memories.  They may be all that's left of a loved one - a material that can bring back the thought of a special person or time with the stroke of a hand.

It may be a tablecloth, a baptismal gown, a quilt that demands to be treated with reverence.  One gets the feeling from Kennedy that to toss such a fabric in a stack of pants that need hemming would be nothing short of sacrilege.

"It's history, and people are proud of their families," Kennedy said.  "There's a definite interest because of the Holocaust and World War II.  And in the fine arts, textiles and apparel are of greater interest."

For Michelle Quinn Smith, who was married in May in Bangor, Maine, wearing the wedding gown originally worn by her mother was important.  Her mother bought the dress by Priscilla of Boston in 1957; it then cost $900.  Her aunt had worn the dress in 1960, and her sister wore it in 1985.

"My aunt had thrown it in an attic and it was basically destroyed by wine and food stains," she said.

"But I'm a traditionalist and I always liked the '50s look," she said.  So she sent it to Sewtique, where it was totally restored and also cleaned.

(Did we forget to tell you that Kennedy is also deft at cleaning, and chemically treats the fabrics in her home?)

Smith paid $900 to have it restored, and Kennedy now has it back in her shop, where she is fixing a tear and treating it to preserve it for future Quinn women.  One is lined up already.  Smith's 3-year-old niece, Ainsley, has already said she plans to wear it.

And Kennedy will probably be right there with measuring tape and pins to make any alterations that Ainsley deems necessary.

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