The Art of Alteration

Features

Photography by Trevor Long

There’s no overstating the power of a perfect outfit, something seamstresses and tailors know well as they operate behind the scenes of beaming brides and polished professionals. Here, we shine a spotlight on six local business owners with decades of experience altering, mending, and creating garments. Read on to discover how the sewing skills they learned in their youth set the stage for business ownership and how customized clothing is inspiring confidence in the Scenic City.

Andra van der Merwe

Andra van der Merwe

Andra’s Finds Tailoring

How long have you worked as a seamstress? How did you get started?

I’ve been sewing my whole life but started alterations for simple pants and shirts in high school as a side hustle. I found a bridal seamstress who offered not only to teach me, but also offered me a job altering dresses. When she went on maternity leave, I filled in with my own business contracting to the bridal shop about seven years ago, and the rest is history!

What do you love most about your work?

Anne Klein once said, “Clothes aren’t going to change the world, but the women who wear them will.” Clothes are such a huge part of who we are, and a wedding dress, well, that’s what some could argue is the most important dress in a client’s life! I get a chance to be a small part of this most important gown, and I get to do it all while teaching my own daughter how each and every one of these clients is so beautiful in their own unique way. Their wedding or prom dress might not change the world, but the smile you put on their face will give them the confidence to go out and do incredible things.

Any challenges that come with the job?

The challenge is always that you measure twice but only cut once, so the pressure to measure, measure, measure is always on, and we are always extremely careful when pinning to ensure precision with cutting as well as sewing.

What skills does a good seamstress have?

Fine fabrics and a precise fit require a delicate touch, so patience is a huge part of the job. It would be great if bridal seamstresses could whip up a dress every few hours like hemming a pair of pants, but perfect pinning, conscious cutting, and strict sewing take time and focus!

What type of clothing do you alter? 

We solely alter bridal and formal gowns.

Do you have a favorite or most memorable project you’ve worked on?

My seamstress over our new custom gowns, Bri, and I collaborated to create something unique for the bride who loves to travel – something wrinkle-free that packs in a carry-on but is comfortable enough for her to eat pasta for 10 days before she gets married. We coordinated with a Milan fashion photographer and had the project photographed at Lake Como.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning how to sew?

Try everything, even the things that seem a little boring or niche. You never know what you might be good at. And always be willing to learn.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I want everyone who meets with me and my seamstresses and enters our space to feel the joy we feel about our jobs and to be comfortable enough to be their best, beautiful self. This is truly my life’s mission, and alterations just happen to be the way I do it!

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John Yacoubian

John Yacoubian

Yacoubian Tailors

How long have you worked as a tailor? How did you get started?

I have been a tailor for 68 years. I got started when I was 15, working in my uncle’s custom tailor house. My father sent me there to learn a trade that he thought would be a fruitful life experience.

What led you to create your own business?

When I first came to America, I got a job in downtown Chattanooga. After working there for nine months, I realized that no one in the store could even sew a button on a jacket. As a result, I thought to myself, “If they can have a clothing store without any tailoring knowledge, maybe I can have a store for myself.”

What does your day-to-day look like?

I get to work at 9 a.m., tailor for several hours, and leave around 4 p.m.

What do you love most about your work?

I love to help people look their best.

What skills does a good tailor have?

You must have the patience to be able to make a garment fit properly.

What type of clothing do you alter?

Fine menswear – that has been our niche since Yacoubian Tailors’ inception in 1969.

Do you have a favorite or most memorable project you’ve worked on?

Christmas of 1969, we had just opened and business was bad. On Christmas Eve, a gentleman walked in and asked if we could have two suits made in three days. He was going to New York to get a bid on a project. We worked through the next three days to get it done, and he ended up winning the bid because the company thought he looked the most put together. The man came back and told us he received the job because his suits looked so nice.

What are your thoughts on the value of customized clothing?

It provides a fit like no other.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning how to sew?

It is a dying art, unfortunately. However, as such you will definitely be able to find a job if you are good.

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Summer Strickland

Summer Strickland

Fitted Stitches Alterations

How long have you worked as a seamstress? How did you get started?

I have worked as a wedding dress seamstress for 20 years now. My mom taught me how to sew at a young age; it is always something I have stuck with, even if it was just on a hobby level.

What led you to create your own business?

When the owner of Ever After Bridal decided to start her own business, she was looking for an alterations person to join her team and asked me if I was interested. It felt like the perfect fit and was a door being opened for me to start my own business.

What does your day-to-day look like?

I spend many hours in my sewing room cutting tulle, sewing on lace, or designing custom pieces for a client’s wedding gown. Some days are also reserved for fittings at the bridal shop with clients or making appointments.

What do you love most about your work?

Nothing beats that final fitting when the bride is in love with the dress all over again and she is all smiles. You know you have done your job when they say they don’t want to take off the dress. It makes me feel like a sewing fairy godmother!

What skills does a good seamstress have?

Being a seamstress requires a level of knowledge about fabrics beyond what type it is. You have to know how the fabric flows, how it will sew, and how to make it fit into what your client is asking for.

What type of clothing do you alter? 

I specialize in wedding dresses and formal wear.

Do you have a favorite or most memorable project you’ve worked on?

I had one client who decided to wear her mother’s dress and was getting married in NYC. There were beautiful lace ruffles cascading on the train and lace details all over the dress, but it was the wrong shape and style for the bride. In the end, the bride was stunning in her dress. While it has been one of many heirloom dresses that I have worked on, this one is still my favorite.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning how to sew?

Just do it! There are many levels of sewing skills, but you don’t have to learn them all in one day to start sewing. Find garments that you can inspect to see how they are made and then take them apart and put them back together. Finding a mentor to teach you the basics and beyond is a wonderful thing to take advantage of, but it doesn’t always have to be a physical person. We have so many great sources at our fingertips online, and you can find instruction videos on pretty much any type of sewing technique. Don’t be discouraged by mistakes because they can be the best learning tools on how to make it better. In the end, practice makes perfect.

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C. Winston Smith

C. Winston Smith

C. Winston Smith Bespoke Tailoring

How long have you worked as a tailor? How did you get started?

I started this business in 1972, so that’s 51 years this year. I started it when I was 17. Growing up in New York, I remember asking my mom for some money to go buy a suit … When I showed it to her – green checked with yellow and red, a cinched waist, and a big lapel – she broke down in tears. She said, “This is what you bought with my money? No more of my money to buy clothes.” So, I got a job where I got paid every two weeks and would then go buy clothes. I realized that clothes are expensive. One day, I was in church, and a guy told me the city of New York has a program for boys after school to learn tailoring and they only have a few slots. I said, “Yeah, I want to join!” And that was the rest of the story. I came to Chattanooga six years ago.

What led you to create your own business?

Back in the 70s when I started making clothes, I modeled in New York. Besides modeling other people’s clothes, I started modeling my own. People would say, “Wow, that outfit you had on – where did you get it?” I would tell them, “Well, I made it!” and they would then ask, “Can you make me some?”

What does your day-to-day look like?

My day usually involves making patterns for garments, cutting and making suits, shirts, or trousers, and doing alterations for walk-in customers.

What do you love most about your work?

I love seeing the smiles on customers’ faces when their garments are completed.

What skills does a good tailor have?

For me, perfectionism matters. You want to be the best at what you do; whatever you do, you want it to be right.

What type of clothing do you alter?

I do bridal wear, stage costumes, suits, dresses, shirts – anything that can be sewn, I try to do.

Do you have a favorite or most memorable project you’ve worked on?

I have done clothes for folks in the White House, the NFL, and movies. One of my clients that I do stuff for up to this day is Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas. I’ve also done clothing for Reginald VelJohnson from Family Matters.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning how to sew?

Find someone who is skilled in their craft so that you will learn the correct skills.

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Alex Byrum

Alex Byrum

Alexander Sebastian Bespoke Tailoring

How long have you worked as a tailor? How did you get started?

I began my journey in sewing at the age of 10, inspired by my grandmother’s incredible quilts and my crafty mom. With their guidance, I acquired the basic skills and knowledge of sewing. For the past decade, I have been immersed in the world of menswear, dedicating the last five years specifically to tailoring.

What do you love most about your work?

The interactions with clients and the art of crafting personalized solutions fuel my love of tailoring. This variety in my work ensures that each day is unique and brings a sense of joy and satisfaction, making the entire journey in the world of tailoring truly rewarding and enjoyable.

Any challenges that come with the job?

Attracting clients without a physical retail storefront. Operating on an appointment-only basis offers the advantage of better planning and personalized consultations to discuss style and fit. Nonetheless, it does pose certain challenges in terms of marketing and on-the-spot alterations.

What skills does a good tailor have?

Confidence is undoubtedly one of the most crucial aspects of being a skilled tailor. It’s not just about being proficient in sewing or conducting fittings; it’s about having the self-assuredness to fearlessly handle high-value garments. The ability to deconstruct such expensive pieces, retain the knowledge of how they were assembled, and then reconstruct them is a significant leap that can be daunting for many. However, having confidence in one’s skills and expertise is what allows a tailor to excel in their craft … When clients see and feel the tailor’s confidence, it instills trust and assurance in their work.

What type of clothing do you alter?

Whether it’s perfecting the fit of formal attire or fixing a simple hole in a garment, I believe that a great tailor should be well-versed in multiple styles of alterations. Menswear has been a focal point of my career for years, and I find satisfaction in tackling the complexities of achieving a flawless fit for formal or casual clothing. Additionally, I have a deep fondness for vintage clothing and love any opportunity to work on such pieces.

What are your thoughts on the value of customized clothing?

The heart and soul of my business lies in customizing clothing. It’s the very reason I ventured into this industry. There’s an unparalleled sense of satisfaction and confidence that comes with wearing a garment tailored specifically for you. The clothes become an extension of your personality, leaving you with a sense of certainty that is hard to describe. Being a part of this process and witnessing the confidence of my clients when they put on their customized clothing is what fuels my passion for this profession. The art of tailoring is not just about the clothes, it’s about the empowerment that comes from wearing something uniquely crafted for you.

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Chelsea Weiss

Chelsea Weiss

Holy Moly Textiles

How long have you worked as a seamstress? How did you get started?

I started sewing when I was six years old and have been doing personal alterations my entire life. I took my business public two years ago when I felt called to work on people’s personal style as opposed to theatrical costume, which I’ve been doing on and off for the last 10 years.

What led you to create your own business?

I wanted to focus on personal embodiment and expression as a way to show your truest self to the world. I believe this can be done through using clothing as a communication tool, and I felt that I had the skills to help people achieve this.

What does your day-to-day look like?

I have about two to three fittings with clients a day and sew in between those appointments. I also spend lots of time setting up appointments, talking to new clients, and sharing my projects on social media.

What do you love most about your work?

I love seeing people radiate with joy and excitement when they wear something that makes them happy and confident.

Any challenges that come with the job?

Every time I sew a new garment I am doing something different than the last. I’m trying to keep the original integrity of the garment while also making sure it’s a perfect and comfortable fit for the client. Not to mention some fabrics are just not sewing machine friendly!

What skills does a good seamstress have?

Obviously, there are a lot of technical sewing skills needed for this work, but I also think that because we are working so closely with body image, we need to have empathy and communication skills in order to reach the clients’ goals.

What type of clothing do you alter?

Everything! I especially love thrifted or well-loved items because I care a lot about sustainability and love to upcycle items into something one of a kind.

Do you have a favorite or most memorable project you’ve worked on?

I brought my sister’s $10 thrifted 80s wedding dress into the 21st century by completely changing the neckline and bodice so it didn’t swallow her in vintage satin. This project inspired me to do other people’s alternative wedding dresses.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning how to sew?

There are so many great tutorials online to help get you started – just start with some basic hand sewing. Don’t beat yourself up if it looks sloppy because precision comes with practice and time. Have fun and get inventive!

Anything else you’d like to add?

I know alterations are a novelty in this economy, but consider reviving some of your older, favorite items instead of buying something new. I promise you will shine in your one-of-a-kind piece.

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