Laurine Lewis grew up on a farm just west of Willmar run by her mother and learned from her how to sew and how to run a business. “When my father died, a lot of people said [to my mom] ‘Move to town, sell the farm,’ ” Lewis said. “She didn’t do that. She liked having her own schedule, being her own boss, so she was an example to me.” A few years out of college, Lewis took a job at Sew Biz Tailoring in downtown Minneapolis, then bought out the owners, and has been running the business ever since. We caught up with her at her shop at 706 2nd Av. S., where spools of thread cover the walls and the radio’s always tuned to classical music. Some excerpts:
Q: How did you get started in the tailoring business?
A: I started in September of 1981. Out of college I worked for a place called Top Shelf at 31st and Lyndale. I learned how to do professional alterations and I worked for them for about a year and a half. Then I worked in a law firm for about six months because I was an English major and went to a fairly expensive private school. My mother was thinking, ‘Oh, I sent you there so you can sit in a basement?’ The workroom was literally a basement. But I just love sewing. I started when I was about 8. My great aunt, she didn’t teach me, but she was an example to me because she was a great seamstress. She sewed things for people in Mitchell, Iowa. She sewed things for my mother and remade things. She never married, she was single, independent person, went barefoot in the summer.
Q: What do you love about sewing?’
A: It combines so many things. Aesthetics, the detail of construction, the sensory pleasure of fabric in your hand, and putting it all together, making things, is so creative. It’s one of a kind, something nobody else has. And in my job here, I do a lot of repair work. A lot of tailors don’t like to do mending. It’s beneath them. But hey, people have things that they love, they want to keep them going, and we can keep them out of the landfill.
Q: So a lot of tailors avoid mending work?
A: Some places really discourage it. They’ll do it in a very slapdash way, not taking time with it at all. Like jeans in the inner leg or the pocket corners. They’ll take a big chunk of something that’s not the same weight as the fabric and they won’t match the grain of it and they’ll just slap it in there and it won’t wear well and it’s uncomfortable. It’s an offense to the garment to do it that way, much less people’s intelligence.
Q: How’s the tailoring industry trending?
A: There was Stephen Dean’s Tailors in Kenwood who was there for 40 years and he just retired this past summer. Another tailor just got pushed out from 10th and Marquette and she moved to Blaine. A woman up on Central Avenue just retired and Top Shelf is no longer doing outside alterations, so it’s kind of a game of last tailor standing.
Q: Why are these people retiring?
A: Stephen Dean I think was just getting old, and part of it too is the difficulty in finding people with technical skill. I’ve had four or five young women through here in the past year, because I’m getting to the age too where I want to pass this on, but none of them cut it. They had some skills or they wanted to learn it because they wanted to be a designer. But you have to sew to a certain level to work with the kind of clothing that I deal with, and you have to care. You have to have a certain manual dexterity, attention to detail, patience, not just a willingness to collect a paycheck. ‘Just good enough,’ with the clients I have, is not good enough.
Q: Is it half men’s and half women’s clothing you work on?
A: Since I’m downtown, it’s lawyers and people who still have to wear suits. Maybe it’s 60-40 men’s.
Q: What do women bring to you?
A: I mostly see bridesmaids and my Kenwood crowd that has dresses for party occasions, eveningwear. Women’s suits have kind of gone away. It’s designer, high-end things. Sometimes I’ve done things that are worth more than my car. It’s an old car, a 16-year-old Lexus, so it’s not worth a lot, but literally some of these dresses are worth thousands of dollars. Usually they take the price tags off, but if you read Vogue you know what these designers cost. The top end is really where the quality lies now, and the middle range has deteriorated greatly. It’s fun to work on things that are really one of a kind. It’s also a bit nerve-racking.
Q: Where’s the best place to buy a good suit on the cheap?
A: Saks Off Fifth. That’s the best value for the money. Nordstrom Rack is OK too, but Saks has more selection.
Q: Can people get into this business and make a living at it?
A: Yes! But it’s not glamorous. Alterations is kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of the fashion industry. We get no respect. For example, any high-end suit above $1,000, the pants come unfinished. They assume that you will have them fit to your length. You have to have a tailor in order to buy that suit. And yes, you can make a decent middle class living. Your start-up costs are relatively low. You can set up a very decent shop for $5,000, especially if you buy used sewing machines. You can have flexibility. You can start in your house. It’s one of those skills that, if you have it, there’s a niche. You’re not going to get rich at it, but you’re never going to starve. When the economy’s good, people are buying new things and having them fitted, and when the economy’s bad they’re fixing their old stuff.