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Stitching together a success

The New London Day - Business Newsmaker
By Lisa Hayden

As a child growing up in Akron, Ohio, Evelyn Siefert Kennedy found she had an early fascination with fabric.

"When my mother was sewing, I'd pick up scraps and make doll clothes," said Kennedy.

After she took a junior high school sewing class, Kennedy discovered she could make her own clothes, an affordable hobby for a girl with many siblings.

"There were six children in the family.  I always got the hand-me-downs," she said.  "After high school, my first purchase was my own sewing machine."

So began a lifelong love for Kennedy, whose talent with a needle and thread blossomed into Sewtique, an all-service sewing shop that at its 25th anniversary is now grossing six figures and still growing.

"I'm lucky because my vocation became my vacation.  I really like my work," said Kennedy.

Sewtique, with a staff of five and additional part-time workers, has turned mending textiles into an art.  Kennedy and her assistants will tackle just about any job.

Kennedy, a former adult education instructor from Gales Ferry, said there are four profit-centers to her business:  sewing machine sales, alterations, bridal restoration and repair, and special fur and leather work.

"Part of my success is organization and delegation.  I delegate a lot," she said.

Crates full of tulling, bundles of lace, and baby food jars filled with pearl beads line the walls of the sewing studio, where bridal seamstress Lilia Arcilla works on the silk rosettes embellishing the sleeves of a wedding dress.

On a tour through the shop, Kennedy stops to confer with assistant Michael Reinert about the darts on the waistband of a military uniform.

"We are a team effort.  I may be giving direction, but I'm also learning, especially because these folks have skills I don't," she said.

"There's a tremendous wealth of knowledge here," said Reinert, referring to Kennedy.

Other staff include Nate Gottesdeiner, who bought a Viking sewing machine from Kennedy 25 years ago and now runs machine sales and sewing classes; tailor Tony Lee; and office manager Mishie Bovat.

Kennedy moved into her current location at 391 long Hill Road in 1992, sprucing up the former insurance agency with a $50,000 expansion.  The new building established a more professional atmosphere, she said.

"One of the greatest obstacles has been getting recognized as a professional in the needle trades.  The needle trades have always been considered an orphan," she said.

Kennedy said she intentionally raised her rates to differentiate her services.  She said she also advises customers whether a restoration project is worth the money.

Whitening, enlarging

Among the jobs hanging in the shop last week were a leather motorcycle jacket on which she was replacing the collar, a yellowed baptismal dress to be restored for wearing in August, and a water-damaged mink shawl.  The customers came from Bangor, Maine, Manhattan, and beyond.

"When I get through with this, it will be white," vows Kennedy, holding a satin dress stained from years of storage.

Kennedy has developed her own euphemisms for enlarging garments.

"We say there's been a figure change.  It's more gentle," Kennedy said.

One dress was altered at Sewtique repeatedly for each sister in the family to wear on her wedding day.  "We have done this dress three times.  Three brides have worn it.  Now they're putting it aside, boxed and cleaned, because an eight-year-old will want to wear it," Kennedy said.

Other projects in progress include a paisley, woven spread that had begun unraveling and a 120-year-old Scottish flag that needed repairs.

When Kennedy opened a fabric shop in a rented Bridge Street site in 1970, she said she was a pioneer, a woman running a small business.  She managed the business while raising three small children, but she found that she couldn't withstand the competition as 10 fabric stores sprouted up in the area.

"I couldn't keep up with the discounters," she said.

So in 1974 she started to do alterations, a service that distinguished Sewtique and caused her clientele to grow by word of mouth.  In the late 1970s she also launched into bridal restorations and fur and leather work.  From 1985 to 1990, she did contract work for Sears and factories.

"I'm always thinking of something new," she said.  "Each time something phases out, I look for a niche that's not covered by anyone else.

Kennedy recently became certified as a textile appraiser by the International Society of Appraisers.  She also just received notification that Sewtique has been recognized as a federally registered trademark.

Over the years, Kennedy said she has spawned about a dozen small businesses as her staff struck out on their own.

Kennedy is also founder of PRIDE, Promote Real Independence for the Disabled and Elderly, a national organization devoted to solving clothing problems for the disabled.  PRIDE offers a booklet, lectures and special sewing equipment to assist the disable with alterations and specially designed clothing.

Kennedy said all her honoraria for speaking engagements and appearances on local media is donated to the group.

Sewtique has survived four locations and Kennedy's divorce.  One reason for the longevity, she said, is that she tries to put herself in the customer's shoes.

"I stand on the other side of the counter 90 percent of my life," she said.

"You cannot be in small business and avoid confrontation," she said, but she added that an explanation of the work that goes into a project often alleviates problems.

"The gratification is somebody walking out of there with a well-fitted garment and I know it's going to look good on them.  That's what I think is success," she said.

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