‘Dying art’ a lifelong hobby for seamstress

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald
Arlene Wagner of St. Anthony sews at her home on Monday.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

ST. ANTHONY — There’s a room in Arlene Wagner’s St. Anthony home that is almost overflowing with totes of fabric, piles of decorative dish towels at varying levels of completion and stacks of clothing clients have brought the 69-year-old seamstress to alter.

That room is where Wagner spends most of her day.

Wagner started doing seamstress work around 1970 because she liked to sew. Although she always worked outside the home — several years in factories, a few years as manager of a local Fashion Bug store, then a stint at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center before finishing her career in the office of Dr. Richard Moss — sewing was a lifelong hobby of hers, so she made sure to work it into her schedule. The extra money was a nice perk, but she didn’t do it to make money, she said. She did it because she enjoyed it.

“You have to like it or there’s no sense in doing it,” she said.

When her daughters, Anita Trayling of Michigan and Laura Buse of Huntingburg were growing up, she’d make their clothes, since it was less expensive to make clothes than to purchase them at that time. Now, though, that’s not the case. But her daughters still rely on her sewing skills and bring her repair or alteration projects when they come to visit.

Wagner’s husband, Dennis, also has two daughters, Becky Maxson of Oklahoma and Michelle Kiefer of Jasper, who bring projects over, too.

Arlene Wagner of St. Anthony sews on the sewing machine she bought when she was 18 years old.

Wagner also has a loyal client base, some of whom she’s worked with for many years, altering both their prom and wedding dresses and now any items they bring.

Wagner could make anything her clients wanted, but wedding outfits became her specialty. Over the years, she’s made countless wedding and bridesmaid dresses, occasionally also creating the suits that went with them. One bride, she recalled, had all her bridesmaids wear hoops under their dresses and carry parasols. Creating those outfits still sticks out in her mind.

“Those were big dresses,” she recalled.

Often, the dresses she made were for family, including several for her daughters.

Today, her brother Roger Katterhenry’s daughter, Katie Katterhenry, works with Wagner to create dishcloths, burp cloths, pot holders and other crafts the two sell at craft shows around the area.

Although wedding party dresses were once a cornerstone of Wagner’s seamstress work, making a dress from scratch isn’t common anymore.

“It’s a dying art,” Wagner said. “But I think all the handcrafts are a dying art.”

Now, sewing work is all about alterations.

“Back in the day it was cheaper to make wedding dresses, et cetera, than to buy them,” Wagner said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

That’s the case with all kinds of clothes, Wagner said. In addition to prom and wedding dresses, clients bring Wagner lots of pants to hem and shirts to resize. Recently, Wagner said, a longtime client brought in shirts she bought that were too big. She knew they didn’t fit, Wagner said, but they were cheap and she knew Wagner could alter them. Another lady brought in several pairs of jeans her husband wanted converted to shorts.

Spools of thread hang on the wall of Arlene Wagner's home in St. Anthony on Monday.

Wagner happily takes the projects, chuckling at some of the stories behind them. Then, she sits down at her 50-year-old Sears Kenmore sewing machine — the first electric machine she bought — and gets to work. “It’s relaxing,” she said. “I could come in here and spend the whole day in this room.”

Sometimes, she does just that. Although she’s retired, it’s not uncommon for her to spend eight hours working in her sewing room. Right now, those hours are mostly spent finishing dish towels she and Katie will sell at craft shows this summer. The two have a system down. Katie comes over to cut out the cloth pieces and match the materials — she’s good at color coordination, Wagner said — and Wagner sews them together.

Katie can sew, Wagner said, she just chooses not to. It’s the same with Wagner’s daughters and, she’s noticed, lots of people in the younger generations.

Wagner attributes the attitude to a change in the culture. Today, people don’t make their clothing to last. Instead, they purchase it and throw it away when it gets worn out.

Wagner also figures the cultural shift is part of what’s caused the prices to fabric to increase, leading to sewing becoming a hobby instead of a necessity.

“I used to be able to buy a whole bolt of material at the five-and-dime store,” Wagner said. “Now, I wouldn’t do that.”

Instead, she’s become a master couponer at JOANN.

Although Wagner knows sewing — and all the handcrafts, really — are dying, she still sees a place for them. Most clothing stores don’t do alterations, so that work falls to seamstresses like her.

She wonders what people will do when seamstresses are no longer available. Like their craft, seamstresses, too, seem to be becoming a thing of the past. Wagner said she knows of a few others from her quilting group at Precious Blood, but those women are all older than she is.

But that’s a challenge for a later day. Wagner plans to keep sewing as long as she’s able. Since she’s in good health, she expects to continue for many more years.




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