As I’m collecting some treasures to pass on to my daughters about their talented grandmother, I decided to interview my mom. She has no social media presence and no public recognition, but you will not believe the incredible impact she has had through her little sewing machine.
I thought she might have some business lessons to pass on, and she granted permission for me to tell her story. Perhaps her story will encourage a small business owner in your life.
In 1972, mostly self-taught, my mother established herself as a design seamstress. She made a smart business move that year: she designed the window treatments for the generals’ homes on the military base where my family lived. She never had to advertise her design business back then because people who dined with the generals wanted that look in their own dining rooms. My father and mother traveled to the city to buy my mother’s industrial sewing machine that she still has in her home today. She named her company Custom Interiors.
And her phone didn’t stop ringing with work requests.
Business lesson one: Place your product in the hands of influential people.
On every military base, my mother left a trail of fabric and thread. Before becoming a military wife, she tells me she was a fashion designer with a label called Bradford Originals: Elegance and Distinction. She occasionally designed wedding dresses for clients, and her designs were featured in international boutiques, but because of the travel demands of the fashion industry (and her military life with children on the way), she stayed local and focused on interior design.
Business lesson two: Decide how to thrive within the circumstances of your life.
When my dad was next stationed at the Pentagon, my mom ran a sewing workroom out of our home in Alexandria, Virginia that specialized in colonial window treatments. She advertised in the Mount Vernon Gazette with a picture of herself surrounded by bolts of fabric in her sewing room; she promised custom draperies delivered in two weeks. Eventually her business grew to include installers, upholsterers, and other seamstresses that she trained. That little workroom, the one where I heard the whir of the sewing machine and the music she played and the hearty welcome home when I walked through the door from elementary school, designed window treatments for dignitaries ranging from international lords and ladies to multiple senators and congressmen. Many of the establishments in historic Old Town, Alexandria, feature my mother’s work in every window.
She was an expert in a historical design, and people wanted it: My mother was also a key designer for the window treatments for the Ann Pamela Cunningham buildings at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate. Her workroom also, and perhaps most notably, designed the window treatments for the President’s Dining Room, also called the Oval Dining Room in the White House, installed during the Carter administration. Sometimes I think about presidents dining in the White House and how a little piece of my mother’s sewing workroom is part of something so special.
Business lesson three: small enterprises that create authentic products connecting people to beauty and meaning can impact the world and make a difference in history.
But nobody would know. The only way you would know about my mom is through a magazine spread years ago in House Beautiful. You might have seen her work in a Decorator’s Showroom or on a Tour of Homes. Mostly, you would only see her if you visited our home on Little Hunting Creek where, through the window, you would see her sewing away, designing the coveted Mount Vernon Swag and Jabot, the Roman Shade, the Padded Headboard, or the Working Balloon.
Business lesson four: Do the work. Don’t worry about success or fame or money. Focus on the art, and the rest follows.
She created beauty and authentic historical designs, and the rest is history. She loved to sew, and she made a career of her love of fabric, colonial history, and beauty.
Business lesson five: find a way to weave together things you love into a service to others. This kind of work just might sustain you for a lifetime.
My mom concludes the interview talking about her “humble little sewing business” and refers to herself as a design seamstress instead of the savvy business owner she was for nearly forty years. She reminds me that she didn’t just love interiors; she designed stunning exterior gardens as well that were award-winning and just as impressive as her interior designs. My mom’s retired life involves the cultivation of a beautiful garden, but her sewing machine occasionally whirs back to life.
I’m so thankful to have interviewed her about her career to pass on to my daughters. Perhaps you might ask some retired people in your life their memories of their “humble businesses” and learn their secrets that you sometimes can’t learn from textbooks.
And now, I’ve put it down for our family records.