I’ve taught many alterations classes and the first thing I do when we start is ask everyone there why they’ve come to the class. I usually have about six to eight people in the classes, always women and at least half of them say some version of this: Well I’ve sewn for years and so people ask me to do alterations sometimes. But because I’ve never been formally trained I’m not sure if what I’m doing is correct and don’t really feel like I can charge them for it.” I thought maybe if I could learn the “right way” I could start charging people.
I sort of stumbled into being an alterations expert. No one ever taught a class on alterations in any of the training I received to get a BA in Theatre or an MFA in Costume Design. Alterations are the last thing any of us in the costume shop wanted to do. Everyone wants to make the fantastic gown or stunning frock coat. I was always fascinated with menswear, though and in grad school I decided that for a particular contemporary show I’d volunteer to do all the menswear alterations. I learned by trial and error, the ins and outs of hemming pants and jacket sleeves. What I also learned by doing those, was how these garments are constructed which would later be useful when I had the opportunity to make them from the ground up. I find that when you go to a show, the most telling thing about the quality of the costumes is the fit and finish of the clothes. But I know from experience that the labor distribution is as follows: more experienced stitchers make the principle actors costumes, then on down the line until you get to the extras, chorus, or crowds. If those are badly fitted and altered, the whole look can really fall apart, and yet they are often fit and put on a rack, leaving them to the most junior stitcher or intern, the sort of work you think of as paying your dues. (Along with a little trick we used to do with apprentices or other newbies, making them cut the massive thread wads from the wheels of the rolling chairs in the shop.)
Over the years I ended up watching the tailors and asking them questions of exactly why they would do things. I was fascinated by their archaic looking tools and ended up getting as many of them as I could for myself when I saw the wisdom of how they worked. I’ve made many beautiful or outrageous costumes over the years, but amid all that, I’ve done a ton of good old fashioned alterations. If you can get good at that, you will never want for work.
I’ve been listening to an audio book recently by Martha Stewart, who I have the deepest admiration for. She has single handedly elevated all traditional domestic skills to the art that they truly are. Her book The Martha Rules was written in response to her being continually asked about how she has become such a successful business person. One of the rules is “Make the cake that people most want to eat.” This comes from a story about a challenge given to the contestants on her “The Apprentice” show. They were asked to market a wedding cake to couples in a retail store who were actually planning weddings. The two teams came up with two very different cake designs. One was very unique, colorful and modern, the other a traditional all white cake. The cake that won hands down by getting the most orders was the traditional white cake.
Even though whoever makes those cakes may find doing the same thing, day in and out less interesting than a bold new design, people will always need and want to pay for a lovely, well made traditional cake. Martha’s advice to make the cake people most want to eat means this to me; You can focus all your attention on what is most fun and exciting for you to do, but you may be missing out on a lot of opportunity for expanding your “product line” by not giving people what they most often need. Especially in this economy, I’ve found that even people who are not shopping for something new are more than willing, enthusiastic almost to have what they already own altered. I’m not alone, I just spoke to a friend the other day that does alterations and she says that business has never been better.
It makes me think that people are coming around to what our depression era elders used to say “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Maybe a sewing business that includes alterations can be truly recession-proof. So if I can help a few ladies feel good enough about what they are doing that they can earn an income from it, then I can’t ask for a more rewarding day of teaching than that.