By Randi Bjornstad
Published: September 16, 2012 12:00AM, Midnight, Sept. 16
For nearly a half-century Jacquie Ghormley has either been making new clothes or remaking them to fit. Some of the clothes have been her own. Many more have been refurbs created under the business name, “Alterations by Jacquie.”
It’s not exactly a business with a high profile.
“People always come in and say, ‘How long have you been here? I’ve never noticed your shop before,’ ” Ghormley said. “I tell them, ‘I’ve been in business a long time, and I’ve been here at 29th and Willamette (in Eugene) for 4½ years.’ ”
Unobtrusive as they might be, tailors with the skill to make others’ clothes look better on them have always been around. The latest version of the local Yellow Pages lists nine businesses under “Alterations.” The number was about the same 20 years ago.
It might not be in the future.
“I believe there’s only one school left in town — Willamette High School — that still teaches sewing and cooking,” said Ghormley, whose first sewing lessons came from her mother.
“She taught me from the time I could hold a needle,” the 72-year-old seamstress recalled.
“And she always sewed for me and my sister, who’s 13 months younger. My sister is bigger-boned than I am, so when we were kids people always thought we were twins — maybe because Mom always sewed identical dresses for us.”
However, her sister apparently lacked the knack and the patience for sewing.
More than once, as adults, Ghormley has gotten a box from her in the mail.
“I think, ‘Oh, good, a package from Judy,’ and when I open it, it’s mending she needs to have done.”
On Tuesday, the white Janome sewing machine purred as Ghormley created a new elastic waistband on a simple black knit skirt, with three other projects waiting their turn on the sewing table.
New waistbands are a frequent alteration, because elastic inevitably loses its stretch over time, she said.
Hems also play a big role in alterations. But so do taking in and letting out seams, lengthening or shortening sleeves and tweaking an OK fit to create a great one.
Lately, Ghormley has been doing a lot of shortening of tunic-length knit tops, “which must be all the rage in stores right now, but people think they’re too long.”
Dresses to be worn for weddings are a staple of her business, because “they almost always need alterations to make them look right,” Ghormley said.
“Sometimes a bridesmaid will come in and say, ‘This is the dress from hell,’ but when I get done fitting it to her figure, it looks completely different.”
Ghormley usually doesn’t do alterations on bridal gowns these days, because a torn rotator cuff in her shoulder makes it too painful to lift yards and yards of heavy fabric.
During the 10 years she worked as an employee at Alterations by Vicki in west Eugene, “We often would have two people work on a bride’s dress, one to hold onto all that material and the other to do the stitching.”
In the past few years, though, Ghormley has branched out a bit. After her mother died, she found a nice quality fur coat in a closet and wondered what to do with it, since wearing real fur has become anathema to many but it didn’t seem any more respectful of the animal to discard the garment.
So Ghormley turned the old coat into a stuffed teddy bear, which still sits in a place of honor atop an antique wood wardrobe in her shop.
It’s actually caught on.
“I have four coats waiting to be turned into keepsake teddy bears,” not intended as toys but heirlooms to be handed down through generations, she said. Extra fur from the mink, rabbit and shearling coats become additional bears and rabbits that she has available in her shop “for adoption.”
Occasionally, she gets a job she just can’t take on.
“One day, right before I was planning to leave on a trip, a woman called saying she had a tent that needed sewing,” Ghormley said. “I told her to bring it in, but when she came and I looked at it, my saner self took over. I probably could have done it, but since I was going to be gone, I referred her over to another (seamstress) I know who does more of that kind of thing.”
Although she continues to sew to augment the family income — she and retired husband Bill Ghormley especially enjoy cruises and road trips — Ghormley also has turned her sewing skills in another, completely altruistic direction.
Ghormley first participated in a nonprofit program called “Little Dresses for Africa,” started by a woman in Michigan, that has provided more than a half-million ingeniously simple, pretty sundresses made from surplus pillowcases to young girls all over Africa.
“It became too expensive to send the dresses back to Michigan so the program could send them somewhere else, so now I do them on my own and look for people who are going to places where the children can use them,” she said.
“I used to go to thrift stores to buy good-quality pillowcases, and now people who know I do this just bring them to me.”
She also makes simple pants cut from cotton knit T-shirts — she can finish one in 15 minutes or so — to send to boys in places where clothing is needed.
“Last year I put together 30 kits of dresses and pants and gave them to the sewing instructor at Willamette High School,” Ghormley said.
“Her students did them up, and they were shipped to Dominican Republic.”
The garments were distributed to children in a poverty-stricken slum called Barrio Blanco, which came to Ghormley’s attention after The Register-Guard published stories about Eugene resident Ron Zauner, who started the nonprofit Providing Opportunity for Self Improvement in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, and who has spent the better part of a year using donated funds to build 18 new houses there to replace decrepit shelters without floors, sewers or running water.
How long she can keep up the busy pace of her business and her charitable activities, Ghormley doesn’t know.
“I keep saying to myself, ‘How long am I going to do this?’ ” she said. “And I always say to myself, ‘One more year.’ ”