A stitch in time

In a time of disposable clothing when traditional craftspeople are few, a seamstress pursues her craft in downtown Port Washington with such expertise that her stitches are barely visible

Jane Guetchidjian at work at Jane’s Handy Sewing. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

A customer once called Jane Guetchidjian claiming she didn’t do anything with her garment.

The longtime seamstress insists she did.

The customer persisted, saying she couldn’t see where her piece of clothing was altered.

“That,” Guetchidjian said, “is the point.

“To make it look the same, only it fits you.”

Guetchidjian has been making things the same yet different for decades.

She has run Jane’s Handy Sewing in on Washington Street in downtown Port Washington for the past six years, downsizing after 14 years in a larger shop on 12th Avenue in Grafton. She and her husband ran a tailor shop in Thiensville and Port before that.

Guetchidjian said she realizes she has become a unique entity. She remains a one-woman operation.

“You can’t get help in this trade anymore,” she said. “It’s a throwaway society. If a pair of pants have a couple of holes, they throw it away.”

Guetchidjian didn’t start in the tailoring trade, but she does come from a family of entrepreneurs. She grew up in Milwaukee working in her family’s restaurant and later ran it with her two siblings. Today, her sister owns PJ Piper in Cedarburg, Judi’s Place in Oostburg and Breaking Bread in Sheboygan.

“As I get older this is preferable to restaurant work,” Guetchidjian said with a laugh.

She learned to sew at a young age and really got into it when she married a tailor.

Her husband, Frenchy, grew up in occupied France and became a tailor’s apprentice at 9 years old. By 16, he was a master.

He came to the United States in 1959 and met his future wife at the old Northridge Mall. Frenchy worked at Sears and went to the JCPenny coffee shop, where his future wife worked.

At the couple’s shop, Frenchy handled the men’s suits and Jane the women’s clothing.

After Frenchy died, Guetchidjian moved the shop to Grafton and took one of her favorite pieces of equipment with her.

“That’s my big boy” she said of her 1922 cast-iron Singer sewing machine.

Aside from needles that wear out, she doesn’t remember when she replaced any parts on it. She just cleans out the lint and uses a squirt bottle to oil some parts and it keeps going.

“My husband had it for 45 years. They last a lifetime,” she said.

Guetchidjian has eight sewing machines   that offer different functions. Her big boy only sews straight, while other models can sew overcast stitches and trim at the same time so a garment doesn’t ravel or separate, and others do decorative stitching.

Some of the newer models don’t last as long, however. Guetchidjian pointed to one machine in her shop and said it will be a “boat anchor after five years.”

But the old standbys are making a comeback.

“Actually, they started making them again because tailors want them,” Guetchidjian said.

They’re not all that has become popular again. Guetchidjian has easily picked out fashion trends by what people bring to her shop.

“I wish I had my bell-bottom trousers that I wore 50 years ago because they came back in style five years ago,” she said.

She can see what’s coming. Princess Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, recently wore wide leg trousers, so that will become a trend, Guetchidjian said.

On this side of the pond, Hollywood has the influence.

Guetchidjian’s work is seasonal. She’s about to head into prom and bridal time.

“First it’s the ring, then it’s the venue and then the garment. The guy’s in there somewhere,” she said with a laugh.

Guetchidjian doesn’t see many emergencies. Most short-term requests are from people who need dress clothes altered for funerals.

“‘Oh, my pants shrunk in the closet,’” she will hear them say.

She still does some work by hand, such as a pair of jeans with pearls decorating the bottom.

“We call these fancies,” she said.

Her customers hail from as far as Fox Point, Sheboygan, Mequon and Glendale. Some have followed her throughout her career. They have given Guetchidjian flowers and candy, and one just stopped in with a jar of dates.

“I’ve known some of them for years. We trade grandchildren stories,” she said.

Her own children are a mixed bag of sewing skills. Her son, who served in the Marines and is a police officer in Milwaukee, helped with the shop after school. He does his own sewing and that of his friends in the Marines.

Her two daughters in Texas?

“Can’t sew a button,” she said.

When Guetchidjian goes to visit, a pile of clothes often awaits her arrival. A Brownies sash with badges has been known to be sent to her in the mail.

The mix of her paid customers is 50/50 between male and female. Many of the adjustments come from similar irregularities: one hip is higher than the other, one leg is longer and pants are too long.

People do shrink as they age, Guetchidjian said.

Despite working with fast-moving sharp objects for 30-plus years, she has managed to avoid injury. Until last year.

A needle came down on her right index finger and led to seven stitches. Guetchidjian said she didn’t know how or why it happened. “I felt so stupid.”

Regardless, that beats the regular spattering of grease and cuts and bruises of the restaurant business, she said.

Guetchidjian has one more tool she has to handle with care as a finishing touch to make sure garments leave the store ready to wear.

“I love to iron,” she said. “You take this rolled up ball of something and it looks beautiful.”

Guetchidjian doesn’t sew at home, keeping work at work. She has plenty of tasks with her two small dogs at her 10-acre property — she still mows the big yard with a riding mower — minutes away from her shop.

She loves her downtown location.

“Easy access. The view is fantastic. I can see the world go by and the trees change color,” she said.

“Some days, the St. Mary’s steeple disappears in the fog, and then I wait for it to open up again.”



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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