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Stitching Together - a sewing business out of whole cloth

The New London Day - Marketplace
By Eileen McNamara

Evelyn Kennedy chuckles while recalling the garage sale she cone held to help pay her mortgage.

But it's not a happy memory.

In the more than 30 years she has owned Sewtique, a small sewing and fabric alteration business, Kennedy has weathered a divorce, a bout with breast cancer and several recessions that nearly derailed her business.

She's moved Sewtique three times, twice took out second mortgages against her home to hold the business together, and , at one particularly difficult time about 10 years ago, paid her mortgage only after she earned $475 by holding a garage sale at her home.

"There were some real tight years when I thought I'd have to give it up," says Kennedy.  "But I stuck it out, and I always made payroll.  I have never, ever, ever missed a payroll.  I had to work around the clock to keep things going."

Still, says Kennedy, she has few regrets about her decision to open her own business.  And though she is of age to do so, she says she has no plans to retire or sell her business.

"I just wish there were times I didn't have to struggle so much and pinch pennies the way I did," she says.  "But I like working for myself.  I like being the decision-maker, the planner, the organizer.  It's very creative, gratifying work."

She credits her workers with helping to keep the business running when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 1999.  She underwent a mastectomy and then treatments for two months.

"That's what makes my business a success," she says.  "Everyone pitched in and covered for me.  They brought me my mail everyday.  They'd call me if there was anything I needed to supervise."

She is among a growing number of women who operate small businesses, said Donna Wertenbach, executive director of the Community Economic Development Fund.  The organization, in conjunction with the state's Department of Economic and Community Development, helps women and minorities find funding to start small businesses.

Wertenbach says more women than men today are launching small businesses.  Women, she says, tend to open service industry or retail operations.

Women, Wertenbach adds, make excellent entrepreneurs.

"We have excellent people skills,' she says.  "We had to.  My God, we got children to eat spinach."

And, while younger women today have few problems finding the financing for such ventures, many of those 35 and older, who are either married or recently divorced, face challenges because they never established credit in their own names.

Kennedy's made a vocation from lifelong love of needlepoint, but don't cal her a seamstress.

"I'm a textile specialist," she says.

That may sound a tad lofty, but Kennedy holds a master's degree in textiles science, she's a member of the International Textile Institute and is an accredited textile appraiser.

If that doesn't convince you, consider the musty old tunic a mystic many is paying Kennedy $300 to restore.

The minute she saw it, Kennedy figured a British soldier in the American Revolution wore it.  Later, she found intriguing hints of its original; a button with the initials "F" and "H," another that bore the symbol of the English Crown and markings on a sleeve that said "I.V. Seaforth."

Kennedy undertook some computer-assisted sleuthing and found that the coat may have belonged to a Scottish soldier named Frances Humberstone McKenzie, Lord Seaforth, who fought for the British with a regiment known as the Seaforth Highlanders.

"It could well be over 200 years old," she says of the coat.  "But I have no idea how it ended up here."

Kennedy opened Sewtique in 1970 after the last of her three children started school.  A homemaker who had been sewing since the age of 8, Kennedy says, "I was in my 30s and getting antsy" staying home.

She and her husband invested $2,000 on some sewing machines and a lease on a 1,500-square-foot commercial building on Bridge Street and opened a sewing school.

One of her most popular classes, she says, was called Sit and Sew.

"You'd come in and says "I want to make a pair of pants.'  We'd pick out a pattern and some fabric, and then you'd sit down and I'd show you how to sew it,"  Kennedy says.  "It gave people a great sense of accomplishment."

She never expected to make much money at it, but in the first year, says Kennedy her little sewing school grossed about $100,00.

"I reinvested all of it in new fabrics and sewing machines," she says.

Almost immediately thereafter, she says, the sewing school declined.  Women were entering the workforce in record numbers, clothes made overseas could be purchased cheaply and few women were interested anymore in learning to sew.

"There was no one to come to my classes," says Kennedy.

In 1974, she and her husband divorced and Kennedy rented new space for Sewtique on Poquonnock Road.

"He decided he would support the kids but not my business," she says.  "Scary?  You bet it was.  I was alone.  I was down to $100 in my checking account.  I had no money that summer."

A few years later she gave up trying to teach sewing and focused on alterations instead.

In 1985, she moved her business again to the Groton Shopping Plaza, which she thought would be a more visible spot for the company.

It wasn't, and after a few years she realized the location at the back of the plaza was a poor choice.  She moved Sewtique to its current location in 1991 after learning that the Route 12 site was being sold in a bank foreclosure.  She paid $100,00 for the building and borrowed another $60,000 to make improvements to ti.

She painted the building bright yellow and placed the company's name in black letters on the brick chimney, which faces the busy highway.

"things got better," she says.

The high visibility on Route 12 brought her more business, and Sewtique has grown steadily to the point where Kennedy has eight people on staff - four full-time and four part-time - and nearly more clients than she needs.

Last year, she says, her shop grossed $165,000 in sales.

She comes in about three times a week, and works alternate Saturdays.  She also does all the books for the company on her home computer.

She charges, on average between $25 and $45 per hour for her company's services.

The business has grown beyond a simple alterations shop, she says.  Thought the bulk of its work continues to be alterations, primarily wedding gown, Sewtique specializes in fabric restorations.

For instance, workers there are currently restoring a handmade, alter 18th century silk Chinese tapestry, a 100-year-old patchwork quilt and a 33-yar-old taffeta wedding gown that a woman in Maine brought to Kennedy.

The gown was made for the woman's aunt in 1969, and she will pay Sewtique between $700 and $750 o clean it, repair tears to it and replace missing appliqués so she can wear it for her own wedding.

In most cases, Kennedy will oversee the restoration projects.  She'll decide how fabrics should be cleaned, and she'll choose replacement materials from a treasure trove of materials she's collected over the years.  Some are antiques in their own right, and Kennedy says she carefully matches materials so that the fabrics she restores retina their historic characteristics.

"They're not just fabrics, they're history," she says.

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