Tailor-made job market can be sew-sew

The owner of a local men's clothing store says few people these days seem interested in making a career of working with needles

The owner of a local men's clothing store says few people these days seem interested in making a career of working with needles

February 26, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

File under dying professions: Blacksmiths, cassette player repairmen, typewriter manufacturers and, some might say, tailors.

"It's a dying art," J. Frank Fearnow Jr., who owns Ingram's Men's Shop, a men's clothing shop in Hagerstown, said of tailoring.

Ingram's has an old sign above its counter that gives the date of when items brought in for alterations will be ready to be picked up. On this particular February day, that date was a week away.

Tailoring jobs at Ingram's are done by Jessie Wynkoop, 69, who was 7 years old when her mother first gave her a hand needle and taught her to sew stitches in a straight line.


She worked for years at Connie's Sportswear in Waynesboro, Pa., making all the samples the sportswear company needed. She said she did not want to work in another factory after Connie's closed.

Along with working at Ingram's, Wynkoop does alterations in her home. She made prom dresses for her granddaughters and repaired grandsons' baseball uniforms.

When her grandsons were younger and taught to sew they each made a bag that the boys' mother asked Wynkoop to critique. Wynkoop ended up making the boys pull out their stitches and redo them correctly.

She agreed that tailoring is becoming a lost art.

"There's a skill there that most people don't know. People think it's beneath them now to sew," she said. "I think everybody should know how to sew simple things and I think it's a shame (people don't). You have people that can't even sew a button on."

Fearnow said he doesn't know what he'd do without Wynkoop, since few people these days seem interested in making a career of working with needles and thread.

"It's very, very hard to find tailors and when I say a tailor, there is a difference," Fearnow said.

More people can do simple alterations, such as shortening a pair of pants or adjusting a waist. It can take a tailor to do more complex work, including shortening sleeves, eliminating collar problems and removing the lining of a suit jacket to adjust its sides for a better fit.

One reason fewer tailors might exist is because fewer people dress formally. Although some - bankers and attorneys are among Fearnow's clients - still must dress up for work, often a more casual approach is adopted than in days past.

Fearnow is especially concerned about one day of the week.

"We have really messed up that dress-down Friday thing," Fearnow believes.

When the concept first was introduced, men would wear slacks and a sport shirt. Now, Fearnow said, jeans and T-shirts are more commonly worn to offices on Fridays.

Dressing up, or down

Not everybody wants to wear a suit from a big department store, and Fearnow said he believes shops like his that offer custom-fitted suits are important.

"It's the idea of dressing for success," he said.

Men who do not have a suit tailored to fit can, as a result, have baggy seats, sleeves that extend to their knuckles or slacks that drag on the floor.

That can carry over into other aspects of a person's life, Jim Baker, owner of Hoffman Clothiers Inc. in Hagerstown, said.

"I think people feel better about themselves when they look better," he said.

Like Ingram's, Hoffman Clothiers Inc. has an in-house tailoring service. The shop has men's dress clothing and sportswear, and offers custom-tailored clothing.

"Premeasured" items sold in department stores and other such shops will not fit everyone, since sizes are based on whole inches.

"There's not nearly as much detail to exacting of sizes," Baker, 61, said.

Ready-made clothes are more widely available and often cheaper than custom-made clothing, although Fearnow said he believes lower quality accompanies lower prices.

"We're sort of becoming a disposable society - buy something, wear it and then throw it away," Fearnow said.

Baker said people might choose ready-made clothing for its convenience.

"In America we're more kind of, let's go get it, slip it on and wear it," he said.

Fearnow remembers that decades ago a man who opened a shop in Hagerstown could make an entire suit.

"But those people are gone," Fearnow said.

The situation for women can be even more dire.

"Men's clothing is much better than ladies' clothing" in terms of quality, Fearnow said.

Ingram's had a ladies' section that featured women's clothing made by renowned men's clothing manufacturers. When the manufacturers ceased making such clothing, Ingram's closed Lady Ingram's.

Ten years have passed since the ladies' section closed but people still come in seeking it, Fearnow said.

Altering programs

Sewing is now taught only in family and consumer science programs in four of Washington County's seven middle schools. It has been about 10 years or more since it was taught in the county's high schools, said Jeff Lucas, supervisor of career and technical education for Washington County schools.

"In reality the type of sewing that we teach in family and consumer sciences is not really the type that would lead to the career focus of tailoring," Lucas said.

Sewing programs were removed from the county's high schools based on academic needs and demands in the labor market. Textile manufacturing no longer plays a large role in Maryland's economy, Lucas said.

Only four tailoring-type programs are available in schools in the state - one in Baltimore County, two in Harford County and one in Allegany County.

"I'm not even sure there's much enrollment in those four programs," Lucas said.

Ingram's, at 36 N. Jonathan St., has been family owned and operated for 75 years.

Hoffman Clothiers opened at its current site at 15 N. Potomac St. in 1919 and has always been locally owned.

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