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Finding a Needler in A Haystack


Is the search wearing a little thin for a jacket that doesn't constrict like a boa? Has the hunt gone cold for the perfect party dress? How often do you stare into your closet and question your judgment?

Leaving no department store or boutique unturned, many women and men still cannot find the well-fitting, quality garments they want for work and leisure. An alternative to this off-the-rack roundabout is having clothes custom-made.

Tailoring and dressmaking have never gone out of vogue, but in recent years dressmaking in particular has begun achieving a new professional status. It is marked by individuals educated in design and in communicating effectively to meet clients' clothing needs and desires.

In North County, dozens of custom clothiers work out of their homes or small shops and create everything from work clothes for men and women to special-occasion ensembles. Finding a custom clothier who fits personal notions of style and uniqueness and provides value for the dollar takes some effort, but the rewards can well be worth the expense and time spent.

Kathleen Spike, founding chairwoman of the year-old Professional Assn. of Custom Clothiers in Portland, Ore., said women have long been attracted to wearing custom-made clothes. The time has come, she said, to develop national standards and elevate the status of people who sew for profit.

"Dressmaking has been done since the beginning of time, it's not a new thing," Spike said. "But the garment manufacturers have totally trained the public to think that (dressmaking) was not an arena to buy in.

"The public needs to know how to hire and how to pay a dressmaker and understand the skills of a dressmaker," Spike said. "Our main message is that custom clothiers are an alternative to the ready-to-wear industry and it can be a wonderful service."

A consumer who knows what to expect from a custom clothier can only benefit from the experience, Spike said. Yet, even with this awareness to professionalism still in its infancy, Spike said, she and her colleagues have had no problem making a living from dressmaking.

"I've been in business 20 years and I've always had plenty of work," she said. "I've never had a problem getting $300 for a jacket."

Spike said people who enlist the services of a dressmaker come from a broad spectrum, but she acknowledged that people used to paying bargain-basement prices for clothes would probably not consult a professional dressmaker.

She said some customers use a dressmaker for all their clothing, while others choose to budget a trip to the dressmaker as a special gift to themselves once or twice a year. Some consult a dressmaker only for special occasions, such as weddings.

Here are a few North County dressmakers and some guidelines on what to look for in a professional custom clothier.

Diana Hamper

Escondido Calls: 743-7346 A dressmaker's mannequin, a Pfaff sewing machine, several yardsticks and a large cutting table make up Diana Hamper's studio in an unassuming room in her Escondido home. Here she measures, cuts and brings to fruition custom clothing.

Image enhancement--helping clients determine their best look--is a large part of what Hamper does. Beyond whipping up a dress or blazer or party outfit, Hamper has been schooled in design and knows what styles look good on different body types.

"In order to service my clients, I do need to know about image, what types of styles look good on my clients," Hamper said. "So I can go to a client and say, 'Look, I think with your particular figure type, this jacket will enhance your looks,' or 'This style is going to detract and draw the eye where you don't want it.' "

After the initial consultation, where measurements are taken and a pattern chosen, Hamper always makes a muslin mock-up of the intended garment. The client then comes in to try it on to determine if the fit is right and to voice any changes she would like in the pattern before the real garment material is cut.

"The reason why dressmakers use muslin is there is no color, no print, nothing to take the eye away from the business at hand," Hamper said. "I have the client put the muslin on in front of the mirror so they can see what I'm doing and they can see what the garment looks like on them, and then we go from there."

Hamper said involving her clients in the fitting process is essential because not only does it give her the opportunity to catch potential design flaws, but it also lets the client notice if something is amiss. Even clients with no knowledge of sewing or design can contribute significantly to the end product, she said.

"They catch on quick, they really do," Hamper said. "When I take them through the process, I say, 'How does this shoulder line look to you? Move your arm for me. Are you feeling any constriction any place?' The client sees that, 'Oh! I've got a say in this.'

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