Seamstress shortage causes alteration backups, strains customers and staff

SPARTA, Wis. (WKBT) — If you need to get your clothes altered, there might be a long line ahead of you. A seamstress shortage is straining customers and seamstresses alike.

Plenty have experienced a last-minute popped button or ripped seam, but not everyone has the skills to make those quick fixes — and now, the wait for a professional is even longer.

“Sewing is a passion of mine,” said Bonita Sanders, master seamstress and owner of Bonita’s Sewing Studio and Alterations in Sparta. “It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little girl — little. Younger than 8.”

For Sanders, it is also how she makes a living. At her shop, she specializes in bridal gowns and formal wear.

“I enjoy taking a wedding gown apart and putting it back together and then seeing the smiles on the girls’ faces. That’s just enriching to me,” Sanders said.

Styles have changed during the past 50 years, she said.

“It was all beads and puffy sleeves, and then no beads, very plain and now we’re back to more beads and sequins and glitter,” Sanders said.

Demand for her work has increased, with with her business doubling in 2021, beating her previous busiest season the year before..

“I’ve never seen so many dresses,” Sanders said.

Many aging seamstresses have left the business, and there are not enough people interested in taking their place.

“We just, we don’t have someone to do that right now,” said Beth Zimmerman, manager of Sew Clean in La Crosse.

After its last seamstress retired, Sew Clean has had to turn some customers away because it cannot find anyone to do the work.

“We’ve been looking for the last year and a half to find someone who has the qualifications,” Zimmerman said.

Situations like these are leaving brides, bridesmaids and everyone else in need of help — holding their breath. Sanders and her team are doing their best to pick up the slack.

She has picked up some apprentices along the way to take care of small jobs.

“Hemming jeans, patching jeans, taking up a pair of dress pants,” Sanders said.

But after 50 years, seamstresses worry that, when they decide to hang it up, no one will be ready to take their place.

“If I don’t teach people what I know, when I die, it goes with me,” Sanders said.

Sanders is already taking young seamstresses under her wings and hopes to teach more students her craft when the busy season slows.

If you need an alteration for a July event, you might be out of luck, she said. Her shop has stopped taking orders for the month in order to keep up with existing demand.