Renton Technical College tailors save money, customize fits

Jeanne Maimon would rather go naked than wear clothes for sale in today’s stores. But Maimon’s no nudist. Instead of nudity, she makes her own clothes.

  • Tuesday, August 12, 2008 1:45pm
  • Life

Jeanne Maimon of Seattle finishes edges on a serger at a recent sewing class at Renton Technical College.

Jeanne Maimon would rather go naked than wear clothes for sale in today’s stores. But Maimon’s no nudist. Instead of nudity, she makes her own clothes.

Maimon is 65 and lives in Seward Park. She does much of her sewing at Renton Technical College (RTC), where she has taken sewing classes since 1973, when her youngest child started kindergarten.

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve had all the teachers they’ve ever had,” Maimon says during sewing lab last Tuesday night.

Fabrics, elastic and other sewing supplies spill from the small suitcase open on the table in front of her.

All are components of her “many, many projects,” which include a yellow skirt.

Maimon’s sewing clothed her son and daughter during their “husky” and “chubby” phases. She even made a leisure suit for her husband in the late ‘70s. But now Maimon only sews for herself.

A distaste for today’s fashions is one reason Maimon sews her own

clothes. The other reason is necessity.

“I’m very hard to fit,” she says. “Basically I’m short, my neck goes forward, da, da da. I have to sew all my own clothes, and I do.”

Maimon is not alone. Renton Technical College sewing instructor Cyndy Lentsch says most people take her classes because they struggle finding clothes that fit. If done right, Lentsch says sewing can also be cheaper than buying clothes, especially if those clothes are fancy numbers like suits or dresses.

During Tuesday night’s class, Patricia Flournoy modeled a dress the color of a maple bar. The formal dress, with a matching jacket, cost her only $20 to make. She made the same dress in gold-flecked denim for a party called Jeans and Bling. She buys much of her fabric in New York.

“I like to be fashionably different,” says Flournoy, 64, of Renton.

She started coming to RTC’s sewing lab a year ago, at the recommendation of a co-worker.

With a short waist and a sway back, Flournoy, like Maimon, is hard to fit. Lentsch helps her find patterns and make alterations.

“This is the hardest part for me,” Flournoy says Tuesday night, while bent over a table of Butterick patterns. “I could never do this without Cyndy’s help.”

In addition to the three-hour weekly sewing lab, Lentsch teaches sewing basics and fleece classes at Renton Technical College, plus an occasional serger class. She also leads frequent fabric-shopping trips to Portland, among other places. She has taught sewing at Renton Technical for nearly 40 years.

Sewing classes started at Renton Technical College some 50 years ago, before the school was even Renton Technical College. Back then the college was called Renton Vocational Technical Institute, and sewing classes were taught at Renton High School.

Lentsch remembers when the college offered two sewing classes a day. Even now, there’s five sewing classes this fall quarter. Other teachers handle machine embroidery and quilting.

Although sewing may not seem as popular as it once was, Lentsch says the craft is returning to the limelight, thanks to TV shows like “Project Runway.”

“It’s kind of been an up-and-down program,” she says of the the college’s sewing classes. “But it’s kind of on the swing up again.”

Enrollment goes up when the economy goes down, Lentsch adds.

About eight to 10 people fill a typical sewing lab. And students aren’t always women.

Lentsch has one man already registered for fall quarter, and she sometimes gets two a class. One man was a pharmacist and took the class so he could make his own scrubs. Another man enrolled so he could learn how to sew clothes for his grandkids.

Ages vary. Lentsch once had a high-school student in the same class as 89-year-old Ellen Larsen.

Because many area high schools no longer teach sewing, Lentsch often gets students who want to go on to design school. She’s also had students who have gone into home-based sewing businesses, or alterations at places like Nordstrom.

Everybody has a different reason for sewing, Ellen Larsen says. Hers is necessity.

“I’m at the point I have to,” says the 89-year-old. “My body is out of shape.” She can’t get a single “ready made” she doesn’t have to alter. “I just get fed up with remodeling.”

Larsen says sewing is the only longtime activity she has kept up in her old age.

Looking for a sewing class was the first thing she did after moving to Renton from Vashon Island in 1973. She landed at Renton Technical College after trying a class she didn’t like at Seattle Central Community College.

At Tuesday night’s sewing lab she was working on a lightweight green, blue and pink seersucker bathrobe, which she’ll wear when recovering from her upcoming hip replacement.

Nightgowns make up much of Larsen’s homemade clothes.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay 40 bucks when I can make one for 10,” she says.

Like her classmate Jeanne Maimon, Larsen once sewed clothes for her family. She made everything for her four boys, including pants, and jackets for her late husband.

She only sews for herself now. But she will fix the occasional zipper for her sons. The four boys are married now, but none of their wives sew.

“None of ‘em sew, my daughters-in-laws,” Larsen says. “They’re nice girls, they have many talents, but sewing’s not one of them.”

Larsen’s lived through the decline of sewing, evidenced both in the lower number of classes at Renton Technical College and fabric stores in the Seattle area.

“I don’t know if people in the Northwest don’t sew or what,” she says. “I hope they never cut this (sewing lab) out.”

Larsen graduated from a vocational school in Seattle in 1937, and then went into the dry-cleaning business.

“Working in the dry-cleaning business, you have to love fabrics and style,” she says at Tuesday’s sewing lab. “I think every woman here does, or she wouldn’t be here.”

That’s true, at least for Jeanne Maimon.

“Sewing is very fulfilling,” she says. “I look at a suit I made, and go, ‘Did I really do this? It looks so nice. It’s nice to look at things and really feel good about them.”

Emily Garland can be reached at or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.

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