Preserving the fabric of the island

Vivian Chesterly is surrounded by works-in-progress at JSM Tailors, the Lundgren Station shop she has owned since 1983.  - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Vivian Chesterly is surrounded by works-in-progress at JSM Tailors, the Lundgren Station shop she has owned since 1983.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

Vivian Chesterly has kept Bainbridge in stitches for decades.

JSM Tailors, located on the north side of Lundgren Station, opened in 1979. Chesterly purchased the business from the original owner, Joyce Murphy, in 1983.

One reason the doors stay open is that the business has altered to suit the times.

“People assume we only do high fashion,” Chesterly said, “but actually we are into recycling. We replace lots of zippers on lots of blue jeans.”

Another reason for the store’s longevity, Chesterly says, is the “recession-proof” nature of the business: in good times, customers appear with new clothes to alter, and when the economy turns down, the shop does repairs and restyling.

Chesterly says people who prefer not to buy new clothes often bring a “find” from second-hand or consignment stores to the shop for refurbishing – updating a 1980s jacket, for instance, by losing the decade’s signature “football shoulders.”

“If it’s a good garment, it’s worth putting $26 in, and it’s still only half-price – or less,” Chesterly said.

Another source of business is growing sales of vintage and designer clothing on the Internet, garments that often need alteration.

Chesterly and her long-term staff – Paula Shelkin, Terri Hardin, Robin Ward, Bette Anderson and Helen Behrens – can alter almost anything in a week, and even find creative ways to salvage clothes that appear damaged beyond repair.

In one memorable instance, an expensive black cape with a white border, damaged on one side, got a camouflage white design to hide the torn spot.

“The challenging things – they’re fun,” Chesterly said. “When we got done, it really looked like it had been made that way originally. ”

And every few years, the store has what they call a “bad dog cycle,” when they see lots of damage done to clothes by misbehaving pets.

Dogs are not always the culprits, Chesterly says. She recalls one family that discovered their uncaged rabbit had chewed neatly around the cuffs of every suit jacket in the closet.

The shop is geared to handling unusual alteration requests.

Chesterly recalls the client who, unable to extricate himself quickly enough from a sleeping bag to chase a burglar when he awoke to the robbery, had the tailors sew legs into the bag.

Every standard alteration – from moth holes to split seams – present a problem to be solved, Chesterly says.

“This is basically a problem-solving business,” she said. “Customers come in with this bundle that is, for that time, the most important thing in their lives.”

The staff must then assess the customer’s body, the way the garment was made, and determine how to give the customer what he or she wants in a timely manner, and at reasonable cost.

“People don’t realize how many years it takes to learn how garments hang on body shapes, how every piece of fabric is different and how manufacturers construct garments differently,” Chesterly said.

Chesterly, who holds a master’s degree in textiles from the prestigious California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Calif., has headed Western Washington University’s Center for Apparel and Fashion Marketing, and still teaches full-time at the Art Institute of Seattle.

The shop has relocated several times in 23 years, moving from Joyce Murphy’s home to Lynwood Center in 1983, and to Lundgren Station two years later.

But the customer base has been

loyal through changes of venue, says Chesterly.

“When you have customers for 20 years, you get to know them,” she said. “You make clothes for their kids’ bar mitzvahs, and you alter things for their college wear. You take in their daughters’ wedding gowns. Later, the daughters come back as mothers with their own children.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be so much part of the fabric of the community.”

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