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Portrait Of A Seamstress: Nilah

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Every time I meet a seasoned seamstress, they have the same look and stance. Even the glare in their eye is the same. The best way I can describe it is “standing at ease,” or the stance military men and women get into when an officer is present. While in a standing at ease pose, heels touch each other and toes point away at a 45-degree angle. Legs stand straight, chests lift high, and shoulders are square. Hands also touch the side seams of pants. There is an absolute obedience to anyone who is ranked higher than you. When I met Nilah, owner and seamstress of Nilah & Company, her absolute obedience wasn’t in her stance but in her devotion to sewing. This women is good, extraordinary, in fact. I met her the Wednesday before Fourth of July and when I asked her how she was celebrating her holiday, she said she was taking the holiday off but working the remainder of the weekend. My kind of woman! She runs a tight ship, employing three seamstresses, including herself, who handle gowns for what I would guess is a large portion of the Philadelphia region (she is a sought after seamstress). She imparted smart words about our hobby and our industry during her interview, all while keeping a stern or “standing at ease” attitude the whole time. By the end of her conversation though, I got her to do what most officers can’t get their soldiers to do – smile! She has an unknown and untouchable devotion to our craft and you know what else, a killer smile and warm heart. Thanks again Nilah!

Nilah is looking for a skilled seamstress – if you know of any in the Philadelphia region, please email me at Maddie964@aol.com or Nilah at nilah@nilah.com.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATell us your story: I’ve been sewing my whole life. I started as a little girl, making clothing for my dolls and I continued throughout my childhood and adolescence. My career in sewing initially began in men’s suits but as men wore less tailored suits to the office, I got into evening wear and bridal and I’ve been doing it for over twenty five years.

What is the business of Nilah & Company? Nilah & Company creates custom-made gowns, restores vintage gowns, and alters purchased wedding gowns from individuals and companies such as Kleinfeld. We also have girls who buy a sample gown but want to redesign it. We are not a typical bridal boutique. We offer personalized service with our salon in the front and an attention to detail with the work that we perform.

How many seamstresses work for Nilah & Company? Three and then myself. We’re expanding another 1200 sq ft in the back of the studio, which will become another work area that is the size of our current space.

Why Bernina? Our home machines handle our more delicate work when we need to have more control over the fabric. I’m a Bernina fan, I won’t touch any other brand of sewing machine, because they’re actually built, equipped, and constructed like an industrial sewing machine but they’re finer. Most of their home sewing machines are smaller versions of their industrial machines and many of their machines have multiple uses – their sergers can do a serge, a serge and sew, and a rolled hem, so I don’t have to have to different machines for two different serging edges. Durable, cost effective, and quiet.

Bad experiences with brides? Everybody always asks me that! All the bad brides are on television on those not-so-reality-reality shows. It’s all played up. Two reality shows were filmed here and they clipped and snipped it to how they wanted wanted the brides to be portrayed. Don’t get me wrong, there are bridezillas but most of the girls that come here are a pleasure to work with. If they get stressed, it’s because their mother, mother-in-law, or relative is nagging them to do something or are nagging them about something that they didn’t do.

Do you get nervous working with expensive gowns? When I first started, yes. Now, no. Even water can stain a garment so we have strict rules – there are no food or drinks allowed in our workrooms or fitting rooms. Period. End of statement. We have a lunchroom and if anyone wants to eat they have to go to the back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMentor: I’ve had several mentors and I feel very blessed that they came into my life. I knew I was lucky when I met them but I didn’t realize how lucky I was until now. All of my mentors were old Italian men. One was the private tailor for General Bradley and he used to get chauffuered to Washington to tailor the general’s uniforms. Another one of my mentors was the private tailor for Walter Annenburg. Unfortunately, all the mentors were from way back when and their skilled was unlike any tailor today. They knew how to sew a black suit with white thread and not have one white stitch show through.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATips or secrets of sewing? Sewing is constantly evolving and every seamstress is constantly learning. Designers and patternmakers are always changing their methods and demands and that creates a challenge all the time.

Perspective of sewing: Sewing is a dying art and it’s a shame that it is because it’s a good business. There is a high demand for what we do and not enough people to fulfill it.

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9 Comments

  1. Reply

    Natasha Estrada

    Berninas as badass. In fact you should take tomorrow off work and go buy one. Not the most expensive one but whatever their current bottom of the line. That will be more than enough ‘nina for 20+ years. I’d had mine for about 13 years and its done everything from bras (without the skipping you’ve been having) to shoes (yes shoes the upper parts not the soles). I love mine I have a good selection of feet. My new love is the roller foot. Add the kneelift and your good as gold.

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      Kneelift on a home sewing machine? I’m sold. My first sewing machine was bought on impulse at Target and was a Singer. I didn’t know that I would get so involved in the hobby so I spent as little money getting a machine that wasn’t a cheap-oh ($50 or less). I upgraded to a Juki a year later and I liked it. No complaints. When I was in school, I upgraded again to an industrial Juki. That thing is powerful! But it didn’t have all the other stitches I needed for sewing knits, bras, etc, which I got into later on. Again, on impulse, I bought a Singer (Brilliance), not thinking that I would get into bra making so heavily. After interviewing Nilah and reading your comment, my next purchase of a home sewing machine will be a Bernina, hands down.

      • Reply

        Natasha Estrada

        I always thought I would have ended up buying an industrial lockstitch because thats what I grew up using but the Bernina has done everything I have asked for and if something has gone wrong it’s because I did something stupid like thread from spool directly to needle or rested my head on the control panel and reset the stitch length to zero. The Berninas are such a rock solid machine at all ends of the brand I would say only go as fancy as the buttonholes you’d want (which are excellent good old CB hook) I think they have gotten cheaper since I got mine I know my dealer advertises the equivalent of the model I have (145 which is the 330 now I think) for $800-1000.

        Don’t look at the MSRP those prices are fantasy prices lol. Even better get a used one.

        • Reply

          Maddie Flanigan

          See, I bought an industrial because I thought it was “better” than a home sewing machine. Colleges and manufacturers use it for their students/workrooms so it must be good? Not so. I think a seamstress is limited using an industrial because there is only one stitch and trying to service it is a pain. That thing is so heavy!

          Thanks for your recommendations too. I’ll keep me eye out on the 330 this holiday season (when the best deals are available).

          • Natasha Estrada

            Well they are good for if you have a factory and can have several different machines. Servicing just one in your house can be a pain. The only reason we had one in our house was because my mother did factory work out of our house.

            I’m fond of the slightly computerized models because I think they are good at maintaining even tension and stitch quality. I don’t think my tension dial ever moves. So with an industrial you get power and more speed than you’ll use and a sense of feeling “to legit to quit” but a good domestic machine you get refinement and little things that make life easier. I think my bernina made my sewing much better because it eliminated any machine headaches.

            Would make an excellent xmas gift. Mine was a birthday/slash wedding present when I first got married and we did the no interest financing and paid her off $15 at a time. A splurge for newlyweds but worth it.

  2. Reply

    Barnicles

    Great interview 🙂

    Barnicles

  3. Reply

    sallieforrer

    Great interview! Thanks Nilah and Maddie!

  4. Reply

    petal and plume

    i savoured every word.. thank you so much for sharing!
    xx

  5. Reply

    Angela

    How fun it must have been to visit Nilah’s workroom! I bet the gowns were gorgeous!

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