Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
Asheville’s Mary Edmonds is spreading her tailoring magic, one stitch at a time.
There are a lucky few who know from an early age exactly what they want to do and find a lifetime of success doing it. Mary Edmonds is one of those fortunate individuals. A small lady with a big personality, a distinctive laugh, and a self-deprecating humor, she is the owner of Mary’s Magic Tailoring, a custom tailor, monogram, and alterations shop on Merrimon Avenue in Asheville.
As a child she found she had a natural skill in sewing, and as she sits in one of the fitting rooms telling her story and reflecting on her long career, she emanates a sincere pride in her craft. She jokes that she doesn’t recognize the old lady that she sees when she looks at pictures of herself, but instead of considering retirement she has inspiring hopes for her future.
A Resourceful Upbringing
Born and raised in Flat Creek, North Carolina, Mary hails from a family of nine. Her father was a sharecropper and a deacon at their church, Coles Cove Independent Baptist. He had traditional views and strong opinions. Raising a family of that size meant that they lived frugally and expertly utilized what resources they had. “By the time I was 10, I was making all of my clothes and two of my sister’s clothes,” Mary recalls.
Mary says that she has always had a natural proclivity for sewing. Some people are born with an artistic ability to sketch or to write beautiful stories, but Mary feels that she was born to sew. “Momma had my great grandmother’s pedal machine from the 1800s, but I couldn’t get on it too much before she caught me,” she says, with a mischievous laugh. Mary’s mother made quilts, but no one else in the family showed any interest in sewing.
Since Mary’s father deemed television a sin, the children were only allowed to listen to the radio. When she was eight years old, Mary and her sister heard an advertisement for a contest on the Marshall radio station. The task was to make as many words out of the letters in “sewing machine” as possible. She and her sister combed through the dictionary and diligently constructed an impressive list. “It took us all week and we hunted everything we could find in it and made 108 words,” she remembers. “And we got first prize!”
Because of their age they had to sneakily submit their entry under their mother’s name, and although her mother was furious about this indiscretion, the reward was a brand new sewing machine from the Atlas company. Now Mary had the means to develop her craft at her fingertips, and she dove right in.
“When I was about 10 they let me come to Asheville one time and get a pattern. I didn’t know that they came in little girl’s sizes, so I bought a misses, which was like 100 sizes too big for me, and I went home and cut it down because I didn’t have sense enough to know any better,” she chuckles.
The family always had a mysterious abundance of fabric with beautiful patterns and designs that Mary would use to make dresses for her sisters and shirts for her brother. She noticed that the fabric swatches were always the same size and there would be multiples of the same color. The origin of the fabric was finally revealed as the feed sacks from the dairy barn that the family ran, the ultimate in recycled fabric. Mary laughs loudly at the memory of sewing and dressing in such an unusual medium, yet it taught her an important lesson in creativity.
A Career in the Making
While Mary was in high school, she had already taken three years of home economics when she was one of 13 students selected to take a course called custom sewing. The class taught all of the basics, many of which Mary was already skilled in, such as tailoring, alterations, drapery, and house cushions. They placed the students in a factory to gain experience, starting at the cutting table and moving all the way down the line to the finishing department, learning to use all of the different sewing machines.
At the time, this area was thriving with factories. Mary says that there were at least 15 between Asheville and Weaverville, and they would hire anyone to work in the sewing factories. The goal of the course was to train them to be supervisors. This was a lucrative trade, but it just didn’t sit well with Mary.
“I didn’t like manufacturing,” she says. “I didn’t like repeatedly doing the same thing all day long.” And although the program urged her to go on to college, her father’s old-fashioned beliefs forbade her to pursue that route, even with a scholarship. So she instead decided to go into alterations.
When she was 18 years old she worked at a clothing store called John Carroll’s, what she describes as the most exclusive store in Asheville. This is where she learned to cut patterns.
“Of course I couldn’t afford to buy any clothes there, I had never even seen anything that cost that much,” she says. “But I would try their designer dresses on and try to sketch them out and then go home and make them.”
A Focus Shift
At the age of 21, Mary got married and a year later had kids of her own. She was out of the work force for the next 10 years, focusing on raising her children. She still sewed, making clothing for her kids as well as her husband. Often times, this was done out of necessity. There were hard times in which excess money was scarce. One Christmas she decided to make a Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy doll for her children. When friends and neighbors saw her finished product the orders started to pour in. She remembers that fabric was a fraction of the cost that it is today. She was able to purchase a yard of fabric for 25 cents, what today would be an average of $15. Mary could make four dolls for $1 and she charged $25 per doll. Not too shabby for a stay-at-home mom.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Mary’s husband passed away and she was suddenly faced with raising two kids alone. She explains that this was a time when the general public’s awareness of the adverse effects of Agent Orange on military personnel was just starting to become widespread; Mary found herself fighting with the government over compensation for her husband’s untimely death. Her claim denied, and without a steady income, she was forced to find a job. She saw an advertisement in the paper for a tailoring position at a department store called Zachary’s. After a bit of training, she got the job, and found that her reputation preceded her.
“When I answered the ad, the manager and all the people at Zachary’s had heard of me. They knew me before I walked in… from working at John Carroll’s 10 years before. I was so honored, it wasn’t even funny,” Mary says, a look of amazement on her face even after all these years. At a time in her life when she felt everything was going wrong, a bit of encouragement went a long way.
For the next seven years she worked and built her clientele, and when Zachary’s closed she took a position at a clothing store located at 555 Merrimon Ave, the exact location of her business today.
Putting Together the Pieces
Originally, the clothing store was owned by Benjamin Lewis and his wife. Mary joined the company in 1991, and although Mr.Lewis eventually decided to pursue a career in finance, Mary and Mrs. Lewis decided to stay on, with a specialty in tuxedos and alterations. After a couple of years, the Lewises decided to close up shop and Mary was once again faced with a crossroads in her life.
“I had no place to go, so guess what? I stayed! They couldn’t run me off. And I was scared to death.”
She started out doing alterations in just one of the back rooms, for around $100 in rent. Her loyal customers got dressed in the bathroom because there was no space for a dressing room. Even though the fear of expansion, expenses, and failure loomed over her head, she eventually outgrew her one room operation and took over the entire space. Over the years, she has added various machines and employees.
She refers to her monogram machine as her “baby” and her “gravy”—a profitable asset to the business. There are three employees sewing in addition to herself, and her granddaughter, Micah, works at the front greeting customers and completing various other tasks. As Mary walks through the space, she proudly introduces her “grandbaby” while at the same time instructing her to put away the vacuum and pick up the plastic wrap, a familial love mixed with a business owner’s authority.
“The biggest challenge was finding people to work,” Mary admits. “Whenever we were growing up, everybody sewed. It was taught in the schools and it was a necessity.” She says she sees it as a dying art, and she has high ambitions of preserving her craft and teaching others.
A Seasoned Teacher
Although Mary’s shop is bustling with activity and she has made quite a name for her business and herself as a Master Tailor, starting a sewing school in order to teach others her carefully honed skills is her ultimate dream. “If you learn to make a blouse with a collar and sleeves and buttons and button holes, and you learn to make a skirt with lining and pockets and a waistband, then you can make just about anything you want to,” Mary explains.
She feels that this is a service she can provide that is lacking in society today. She remembers as a child using the wire from hay bales and old newspaper to complete arts and craft projects. Over time, a bit of this ingenuity has been lost and Mary would love to play a part in reviving it.
“You really had to get creative,” she reflects on her younger days. “You had to go out and find your pine cones; you didn’t buy them already scented. I would like to see more of that done now, for the kids to get creative. It’s too easy for them now.”
Despite growing up in a strict household, Mary experimented with her own creativity and rule bending. She remembers dress codes that prohibited girls from wearing shorts so she designed a skirt with a slit up the side and shorts built in underneath. She enjoyed the challenges of her time and it undoubtedly shaped her future endeavors.
As customers enter her shop with simple tasks such as sewing a hem or attaching a button, Mary ponders the idea of charging a small fee to teach them these basic skills and techniques for them to practice themselves at home.
Mary feels lucky to be part of a supportive community that enables her to keep her doors open with minimal advertising. The majority of her customers come to her by word-of-mouth, and she upholds a professional relationship with local stores that refer clients to her.
“We are busy all the time, and we are just honored that people come to see us, because there are several people in this area that can do what we can do,” says Mary. “But the bottom line is, there is enough work for anyone who really wants to do it.”
For the holidays Mary decorated an ironing board to resemble a Christmas tree, adorned with antique sewing paraphernalia. Each iron-on patch, wooden spindle, and pin holds a story from the past and demonstrates the creativity of a woman who truly loves what she does.
When Mary first opened her own business she contemplated what to name it. Her original thought was to call it “Mary Tailor Moore,” a witty name. But her sister recognized the special talent that Mary possessed and commented that not just anyone could do it. She mused that there was a little bit of magic in her work: Mary’s Magic Tailoring was born.
“People ask me if it is hard to do,” Mary says. “I don’t think anything is hard to do because I have been doing it all my life.”
As she proceeds with designing and altering garments for her customers, she continues to dream of ways to share her magic.
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