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Four decades stitched into the fabric of Groton

The New London Day - Marketplace
By Anthony Cronin

Sewtique In The News, The New London Day

Evelyn Siefert Kennedy, owner of Sewtique Inc. in Groton, examines a current restoration project. An accredited textile appraiser, she specializes in the restoration of antique dresses, especially wedding gowns.

Evelyn Kennedy, the owner and founder of Sewtique, stops to think about what's driven her success over four decades in business.

"Diversification," she says matter of factly, along with plenty of hard work and a dedicated, and talented, staff.

Over the years, Kennedy has deftly altered the course of her business to meet changing consumer habits, from its start in June 1970 as a sewing machine and fabrics shop to today's enterprise offering alterations, sewing services and textile conservation and preservation to a client base from California to Connecticut, along with a handful of global clients.

In the 1970s, she explains, it was about sewing machines, classes and fabrics. But as women at that time entered the work force in increasing numbers, the firm began expanding into alterations. In the 1980s, it diversified further, into the restoration of wedding gowns. During the 1990s, Kennedy became one of this nation's few accredited textile appraisers. And in 1995, she moved into the cyber world with a Web site, www.sewtiqueonline.com.

Today, she estimates about 51 percent of her firm's diverse workload comes from Internet-based business.

Over her decades in business, Kennedy estimates her Groton-based firm has spawned about a dozen other related businesses as associates of hers moved away or struck out on their own.

"This is a niche business. It's labor intensive," says Kennedy, who holds a bachelor's degree with honors and a master's degree in textiles from the University of Rhode Island. "I sell a service," she says.

She admits that because of the economic downturn she hasn't been able to raise prices since July 2008. But her deep experience, which includes surviving several stinging recessions, allows her to meet her payroll - "In 40 years, I've never missed a payroll" - build her business through her Web site, and move forward with a positive attitude.

"This is a fun activity," says Kennedy as she leads a visitor through her Sewtique shop, housed in a distinctive, bright yellow building along the busy Route 1 in Groton.

She says her husband, Fred Commentucci, a former bank executive in New Hampshire, is supportive of her business while enjoying his retirement. But retirement isn't for her, she says, at least not right now.

"I don't even call it work," she adds. "As long as I have good health, I'll work."

Kennedy has a staff of five full-time and four part-time seamstresses, tailors and crafts people who are paid on an hourly basis, not on a piecemeal basis, which is common in the industry.

Several of her Sewtique associates have been with her for long periods of time - 20 years, 17 years, 16 years - and Kennedy says their deeply developed skills allow her shop to tackle complicated alteration, conservation and preservation work. Among its inventory of work to be done are old wedding gowns, baptismal gowns and dresses once worn, for instance, by a client's grandmother.

Kennedy says her four decades of success are based on a firm belief in small-business principles.

"You learn by doing," she says. "It's one of the best experiences."

The Pittsburgh native says she learned her early skills from her grandmother. "I always said if you can read, you can sew. If you can read, you can cook," she says. Kennedy refined her needle skills during junior and senior high school, and she says with pride that when she got her first full-time job, her first purchase was a sewing machine.

Marketing matters

And from there, her entrepreneurial spirit blossomed.

The mother of three - she now has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild - began her career by offering adult-education classes locally. Then, forty years ago, she created Sewtique.

"I made up that name," she says, by combining her favorite skill, sewing, with the idea of a boutique where she could share those skills. The name worked - so well, in fact, she's had it trademarked.

Besides the big boost from Web site-related business and referrals, Kennedy still relies on a few marketing staples, from word-of-mouth advertising to the annual calendar she sends out - "People come in here asking for extras," she says. Kennedy also gives away pocket-sized sewing kits adorned with her 800 telephone number, Web site address and a notation about the firm's 40th anniversary this year.

Kennedy believes that anyone with an entrepreneur desire should ask some basic questions before starting a business, including "what are your goals" and "what do you want to achieve." She also strongly advises developing a solid business plan, which will act as a sort of road map for any fledgling business. And then, she says, be sure to update that business plan at least every three years.

"A lot of what I do is educate (small businesses)," she says. She's served on both state and national advisory councils for the U.S. Small Business Administration and received the President's Distinguished Achievement Award from her alma mater this past year. She's also the only University of Rhode Island Connecticut graduate to be named to the school's Textile, Merchandizing and Design Department's Wall of Fame.

"I try to get across the idea that you can do this with persistence," says the small-business owner, "and be willing to take the risk."

 

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