If you’ve lived on Bainbridge Island for the past dozen years, chances are you’ve had something hemmed, fixed or altered by Janet Nichols.
Nichols is commonly known as “the best damn seamstress in town.”
“That’s what I had printed on my business cards when I first came to town,” said Nichols. “I just walked up and down the main street handing them out.”
That was more than a dozen years ago. And since 2008, she’s had her sewing machines set up in the back of her husband’s shop, Back of Beyond, at 181 Winslow Way.
But by no means was that the first time she’d sat at a sewing machine.
“I’ve been sewing since I was 5 years old,” she said.
“My mother and my grandmother sewed. When I was young, I couldn’t find clothes in the stores to fit me because I was so petite. So I made them myself.”
She became active in the community theater circle in San Diego in the mid 1970s, and there, not only did she sing in the chorus and help make stage scenery, but she also made all the costumes by hand.
“I loved that work,” she said. “I made all sorts of dresses and men’s suits, too.”
When making costumes, every piece had to be lined with muslin fabric.
“They’d last longer then, and they’d absorb sweat better,” she said. “Costumes have to last forever.”
From that work came opportunities to make wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses and mother-of-the-bride dresses.
“Brides would come in with a picture of what they wanted, or a drawing,” she said. “We’d start from scratch.”
Although she doesn’t do wedding dresses any longer, she still works a 40-hour work week, replacing stretched-out elastic in blouse sleeves, hemming jeans and adding detail to sweaters.
She and her husband, Udo Wald, moved to Bainbridge Island after vacationing here.
“We’re kayakers,” she said. “We kayaked to the San Juans and we biked Bainbridge when we lived in San Diego. After a while we decided we wanted to retire here.”
For some time she split her time between California and Washington, but by 2008, she decided that she’d stay on Bainbridge and begin her alterations business.
She handed out cards. She contacted local clothing stores, offering her services.
Soon word got out.
“I would fix something for a grandmother,” she said. “Pretty soon, her daughter and her granddaughter were bringing things here. And then the grandmother’s mother would need something fixed. It’s all just word of mouth.”
She has three sewing machines in her house and three in her 200-square-foot workspace at her husband’s store. Her best brands are Pfaff and Bernina and she’s worn out a few of each. Most of the work she does at home, but has store hours from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays, to meet with customers needing her services, or to give them the work she’s done for them.
On a recent afternoon, she arrived at the shop at about 3 p.m. with a large bag filled with pairs of jeans she’d hemmed.
“There’s 10 pairs in there,” she said. “This bag weighs about 25 pounds.”
Her price to hem a pair of pants is $18. That’s her average hourly wage, but she works with her customers depending on the complexity of the job.
One of the most complex jobs she ever did were black velvet curtains for a theater in California.
“Big rolls — bolts -—of fabric were delivered to my home,” she said. “In order to sew them, I rolled the fabric out across my patio and I put my sewing machine on a skateboard and pushed it along. I’d sew a bit and then I’d move the skateboard along. I got a good sunburn, too.”
She’s done everything from hemming boat cushions to dining room chair mats. She’s even done bumper pads for a friend’s boat, so it wouldn’t get scratched when it hit the dock.
As for her supplies, she’s got thread in every color of the rainbow, in regular and heavy duty.
“Everything has to match,” she said. “That means lots of thread.”
Although she keeps busy with her alterations business, Nichols still takes time to get out on the water. She and her husband live in a cabin next to the beach and canoe when they can.
Today, her business cards read, “Create an image with Janet: Costumier Seamstress.” She can be reached at 206-842-9229.