Spotlight: Suzanne Mahoney

(I would like to start posting “articles” written by our members.  They can be about anything as long as they have you at the center of the story.  I think we have much to share with each other and learn from each other. 

 

This article brings up an issue that is rarely talked about, but it is real and even disturbing.  I want to remind everyone that whatever gets written and discussed here, stays here.  This article does not name names, but the subject matter is here for our discussion only.  Can I stop you from discussing things written here with other people?  No.  But I ask that we all respect the privacy of this blog by not posting about our discussions in other places.  This is supposed to be a safe place for us all now that it is private…if our discussions and/or subject matter show up outside of this blog or our forum, then our safety and privacy is null and void.  So here I invoke the Vegas Rule.

Now, after that totally ominous introduction, please enjoy Suzanne’s piece.

Cheers, Ann)

 

 

 

Lifting the Veil 

 

Long ago, when making an ID dress was much less technique sensitive, I dove in with youthful zeal! Trained in the necessary skills of the day, I bought the crepe gaberdine , skeins of floss, and mailed off an order for the iron on pattern of shamrocks surrounding a harp. The days waiting for the embroidery pattern were happily filled with family conferences around the dining room table (a.k.a cutting table) as my mother, sisters, and I planned the best, most efficient way to proceed. My mother was my ‘partner’ in the beginning and this first little class costume made it’s St. Patrick’s Day debut right on schedule. Deluged by requests from the ’non-sewers’ in the school, my mother smartly bowed out but encouraged me to do ’a couple for pin money’. Many a night I wonder where my life would have led had I bowed out too!! Just as many nights I wonder why we ‘decided’ that moving to a more competitive school was a good idea!!! 

 

The first time someone ‘lifted the veil’ for me was in the vestibule of the ‘new improved’ dance school and it was less than fulfilling. The Irish matriarch of the TC made it clear that there was only one acceptable path to a class costume and that path ran through her doorway! Two sisters dancing multiplied by the cost of two new costumes was beyond our families means. At that moment, my mother was DONE with Irish dancing. In a full frontal assault by myself and my sisters, we hammered out a compromise which involved a budget and me taking responsibility (at 16!!!) for the transportation.

 

The second time the veil was lifted was glorious! Another matriarch from Ireland who also had several daughters in dancing took pity on us ‘orphans’ and gave me the name of a recently retired dancer who might be convinced to part with her costume for a fraction of the new price. At 16 I had already been taught the values of a resale market! That ‘officially’ made dress became the template for my first ‘knockoff’!  I spent countless hours dragging this dress to commercial embroiderers and finally found an African-American tailor who agreed to tackle the job for a price within the budget!

 

In the day, I had more time than money and more stubbornness that sense. The hook for my addiction to this crazy world of ID dressmaking was set when the ‘knockoff’ went undetected at the first feis! At the venerable age of 17 I embarked on my first solo! The silent society refused to move the veil a fraction! In the many years that followed I stubbornly tried to force the veil open. Once in a great while the secret society would slip and the veil would crack for a moment and I tried to use the information to my best ability.

 

I experienced the same ups and downs as most dressmakers. Pride at the first ‘stranger’ to trust your skills and place an order. Pride-hurt at the first public criticisms. Giddy when the first little girl hugged her new dress in joy! Tearful when the first Mom slammed the dress down in disgust. In those years my connections to TC’s also grew and evolved. Then one of them ‘lifted the veil’ and showed me something so revolting that I still wrestle with the implications years later.

 

 

I still relive the moment and it has been over 14 years since the phone call that rocked my world. The TC opened by explaining that her established school was looking to develop a new school costume to ‘update’ their look.  I had some doubts since I was the person who had designed the competitor’s team costumes but vanity can cloud one’s judgment. We talked at length and then the reality struck and I asked how many dresses she was talking about, in what timeframe, and at what price point? The number of dresses and timeframe were reasonable BUT then came the discussion of money. She really wanted the price her dancer’s paid to be $X and she EXPECTED at least a $Y KICKBACK from ME for every dancer she sent to me!!!!!  I reacted with such negativity (and am still to this day DISGUSTED at the thought that a TC would expect to make money off of the sweat of my labor) that she ended the call. When I brought this information to the TC’s in my family they condescendingly informed me of my naivete. Everyone of them had some anecdotal and/or personal experience with the practice! One, in all earnestness, encouraged me to consider the “overwhelming benefits” of giving a TC kickbacks!!! This was one time that I wished I hadn’t looked behind the veil! My life used to be so black and white, and I found I did not like the gray palette! I no longer wanted to be in the ‘business’ of ID dressmaking. I had lost my reverence for An Comisun and most all of it’s members……how could they ‘do that’ to their dancers? The very few people who had the courage to talk with me about the subject fell into two camps:

  • 1) Forget about it. Don’t talk about it. It’s a sacred cow not to be disturbed and you will be targeted by those with the most to lose if they feel threatened! (Such sages! It played out just as predicted.)
  • 2)Fish or cut bait! Either join/condone the practice or get out of the business.

 

It must have been one of the survival genes that I wasn’t given because  I cannot ‘go with the flow’ on this one! A depression has waxed and waned for years, and I used to blame my Irish ancestors for donating a little bit too much moodiness to my mix. In a rare moment of clarity, it came to me! I have been avoiding having to acknowledge that the person I have spent 30 years forming must now change…and significantly. I had to ‘fish or cut bait’! I would never ‘fish’ so I guess it’s ‘cut bait’ time.

 

Just how does one just walk away from that much of their life? Especially when so many family members are still so very active in ID? Is there a compromise position I could accept?  I’m actively working on the new me. Some of my closest ID dressmaker friends have been some of the best help! They’ve given me ‘permission’ to re-invent myself and promised to support my decisions no matter the direction they go. Some things I do know include:

 

  • 1)I’m too addicted to walk away cold-turkey! Hopefully my gradual retirement will be graceful?
  • 2)I love to play with material! Like in the Sound of Music, “somewhere God will open a window” and the new venue will include sewing!
  • 3)I’m not in the ’business’ anymore. The very FEW dresses I make are for my enjoyment not for my bank account. 

 Some things I haven’t resolved are offered for your discussion…please.

 

  • 1) Trying to decide what factor my age may have played in all of this! At what stage in your life did you come to ID dressmaking and what place does it hold in your identity (be truthful with this part if you don’t want to ‘fess up to the first part)?
  • 2) Was a “veil lifted” on any part of ID that has shaken you to the core? …and how did you address the knowledge?
  • 3) Did you ‘know’ about the kickbacks? How long had you been in dressmaking when you found out? I’m open to any discussion on this since it has been a conversation killer within my circle!!!
  • 4) Would you/do you ‘lift the veil’ for other dressmakers and/or clients? How has that gone?
  • 5)Anyone willing to share other sewing venues that do not involve stage mothers, business models, competition and bashing? Oh, one more criteria…can it produce enough income to at least pay for the materials?? Going broke sewing fleece blankets for poor children which is the current project!!!              
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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 17:23:19

    I’ve never “known” for sure. The Irish lass who dragged me into this definitely alluded to it, so I’ve been aware of the possibility from day one. I wasn’t shocked by it – I’ve seen various and sundry forms of “bribery” in many businesses. [The one that cracked me up was when IBM sold a mini computer (about $40,000 more than the orginal budget) to my lame, un-techy boss. With a flare, the salesman turned the contract towards him and offered a shiny Cross pen. “Mr. S, when you buy this computer, we will, of course be sending you to our “EXECUTIVE DEVELOPMENT SCHOOL” in BOCO ROTON, FLORIDA!” Pause. Dick-the-prick says, “Can I go in February?” “Of course, Mr. S” Dick was befuddled for a minute trying to decide whether he needed to pack his clubs or sign first. Later, after the school, the computer is delivered. We plug it in and the lights come on. He says, “Make it do something.” I tell him that we need programs for that. “We do?” Learned a lot those classes, didn’t he?]

    The first TC(team dresses) with whom I worked had the dress prices broken down thusly: Embroiderer – $115; Seamstress – $100; TC – $155. That $155 was to pay for the fabric. Right. If she’d gone to G Street and paid top dollar it wouldn’t have cost her $40 per dress. She was wholesale purchasing it by the bolt from somewhere and if it averaged $12 per dress I’d be amazed. The embroiderer had to purchase the thread out her cut and the seamstress provided all the notions from hers. At least everyone in the school KNEW the TC was making a profit on the school dresses.

    Solos are another thing. Again, nothing was ever said directly, but she’d only tell her dancers about one particular DM company which I seriously suspect gave kickbacks of some sort. The TC’s spouse would always say weird things to me like “If you are *nice* to XXXXX, it will be worth your while”.

    Did I ever think about approaching her and feeling her out about a deal? Every now and then, but then I’d think about it and realize there wasn’t anyone in the school who wasn’t crazy and I didn’t want to deal with them anyway. It was more a matter or righteous curiosity.

    As to the other stuff. I have never been vested in ID. I’m the bystander watching the wreck in slow motion. Most of it I just don’t “get”, but I never have been turned on by dancing or music. Not my thing. I got into it because at the time it was less insane than working with brides. Now I’m not so sure, but at least the fabrics are prettier.

  2. terriedl
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 21:24:43

    I’ve heard the rumors, but never run into that predicament myself. You know, if a TC tried to do that to me I’m not sure if I’d turn down the business from the school or – (what would be much more fun) – ask straight away for her/his social security number so that I could mail a form 1099 at the end of the year. Granted, I could get away with it since I’m not affiliated with any school. I’m “just” a dressmaker;) But I’m not going to pay taxes on a single dollar that I “have” to give away to anyone.
    I don’t know if age has anything to do with it – or perhaps the perception of experience that sometimes comes with age and a tad bit of luck. I wasn’t anywhere near young when I was roped in in ‘98 which would have made me, um, 39 at the time. Geez… am I getting old? Though lately sometimes I feel much older than I am… But that’s another story.
    I’ve made dresses while living in two states. In the first, there were I think seven schools within an hours drive at the time and one dressmaker – a TC too busy to do everything. I took on one school, which turned into making dresses for branches in four states. I was “told” by the person who roped me in that the parents had been making their daughters own dresses but that I couldn’t charge any more than $300 per dress and would have to purchase the fabrics myself. Luckily they were not hard dresses and I could generally knock one out over two days time. I made over two hundred of those. Meanwhile I started in on custom solos at $1000 per dress, gradually increasing my prices to – if I remember correctly – approximately $1,200 by the time I moved to a different state in 2002. I had been keeping booked a year in advance but wasn’t rolling in the money at all.
    When we moved I decided that after 18 years of doing what other people wanted me to, I wanted to do my own thing – alterations and solo dresses only. No school dresses. Which led to the following….
    I’d say the closest that I came to what you have experienced was about five years ago. After doing alterations for a local school a lot of the families had seen solo dresses that I was working on for out of state customers. The first few local solo orders came in. Meanwhile, the ADCRG who owned the school asked me to make his class dresses. I really wasn’t interested, but after repeated begging I gave in, saying that I’d try a couple and see what I thought. The school owned the fabric and stiffener. I was to measure the dancer, draft and cut out the dress, ship it at my expense to the out-of-state embroiderer, and then put it together when the embroidered pieces were mailed back to me. I was to make $185 per dress, the embroiderer was around 250 — The dresses ran a total of $560 or so dollars, so do the addition. The ADCRG was extremely difficult to work with on the first three dresses. I made three more under a TCRG that worked with him that was wonderful. She told me that since one of those dresses was her own daughter’s, feel free to make that dress how “I” wanted to – she’d take the responsibility. I made the next three – the only other orders that I accepted – that way. I then told her that these would be the last three. The money and aggravation weren’t worth it.. She completely understood, though was disappointed. I really wanted to make only solo dresses, and had local orders for solo dresses pending, so I assured her that it wasn’t anything personal.
    The dresses — all made the way I wanted to make them — were delivered. I received a call telling me that the ADCRG made the comment “Perfect! Finally a dressmaker that knows what she’s doing!”
    Meanwhile we had purchased quite the fixer-upper home. We started remodeling immediately – ripping out the entire kitchen, carpeting, tile, some drywall. Quite the mess to live in. Had lots — $$$4 – of stuff on order to make it wonderful. Unexpectedly, the day we made our very first mortgage payment, my husband lost his job… I thought “Okay – scary, but I have plenty of work to tide us over for a short time. The locals have discovered me so I’m busy.” The ADCRG was miffed at me still for refusing to take on his school, so after catching wind of our financial predicament, he made the parents pull all of the dress orders from me. After approving designs, colors and fabrics…. I was floored! My husband was out of work for five months, but my out of state customers kept our heads above water. Good thing we didn’t have much debt at the time or we’d have been in serious trouble. He dropped our local branch of his school and moved out of state about a year and a half or so ago. I don’t miss that man…
    Meanwhile, new local schools have appeared and I’m the only dressmaker that I know of in this state, so work has been more than steady after my jerk-inspired drought. So much so that our family is in need of more mothering than they were getting because of my business – plus I need it too for my own sanity. Time to step back, reassess things and regroup. A couple on this blog know the situation. Ain’t some teenagers fun? Anyway, he’s my heart, and you don’t get any do-overs with kids…
    Darn it… Started in just to respond to Susan’r post and I’ve gotten carried away and weepy eyed. Think it’s time for a glass of wine…

  3. maryhorton60
    Feb 01, 2008 @ 21:49:39

    I have been a dress maker for 27 years, I first started IDD dresses in September past when my sister asked me to make her daughters dresses. So I said I’d give it a go. So with her and her 2 friends I started Gillian’s dress. Donna designed it and I made it. Mind you that’s when I first had contact with Ann, when I ordered the pattern. going well now, but some times at night when I’m tired and still working I wonder what I got my self into.
    My dancing dress knowledge came from Ann and all in the site. Also the soft look my sister wanted was trial and error.
    Word has got back to me that my dresses are making a serious impact over here. Some of the other dress makers are not pleased.
    At the last feis, 4 schools asked me to make their school dresses, which I turned down as I dont feel able to take on this task yet.
    I’m not aware of kick backs over here for dresses. If there is I would walk away. I do know they compare prices,
    I dont buy any material thats up to the client. This they are told when they want me to make it. I give them a fixed price for my work when I see the design Donna draws for them, ( they pay her for this ). I’m not much into Irish dancing so I dont care what people say about me. If they dont like my price or how I do things then they can go elsewhere.
    And yes when one dressmaker asked me how I made my dress I took her over to one and showed her. There is enough dancers around to keep all in work so I dont get the ‘veil’ which surrounds this hobby. IRISH DANCING IS A HOBBY FOR YOUR KIDS I think once mothers get this in to their heads it would be a happier life for us all.
    Sorry I dont know any other sewing venues.
    Mary H.

  4. jillsewsirish
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 14:38:40

    I got into sewing for Irish dance four years ago when my daughter joined a new school. The school had only been operating for a short time and didn’t really have any of its class costumes nailed down. When I went to a feis (first one with this school) with my daughter I was pretty horrified by what seemed to pass as a class costume. While observing the dancers in motion the TC came up to me and we began chatting. She explained that she hadn’t nailed a costume down yet. I told her I had been sewing theatre costumes for a quite a few years and I tossed out a few ideas. The next thing I knew two weeks later the TC arrived on my doorstep with boxes and boxes of nasty material and torn pattern pieces (unmarked with the exception of dirty thumb prints)asking me if I minded taking a look to see what I could do with it. Now I have to admit that I have always liked a challenge so I stupidly said I would see what I could do. It seemed at first that they had started out with some sort of horrible wrap skirt made out of cheap pulled viscose (won’t mention the colour as I don’t want the school identified). From that wrap skirt if you decided to stay with the school you were given the option to purchase one of their skirts. To be fair the skirt had some emboidery on it but it had been constructed from a pattern which was not only inappropriate but also overly time consuming to produce. The lining for these skirts I couldn’t even accurately describe (a cloth bag thrown up in the air and tacked into place hopefully straight so the dancer didn’t trip over it). When I figured out what a huge mess I now had gotten myself into I tried to sort the mess out. First I sorted pattern pieces and labelled them and put them in envelopes. Then I sorted fabrics (I think that is what it was called) and notions (an assortments of odd buttons and broken zippers) and put it neatly into boxes with the intention of promptly returning it. When my daughter attended her next class I brought the boxes along thinking that the TC would have to accept it with my gracious apology that I thought it was a job to big for me. To my horror she pulled me up in front of all of the mothers and told them I was their new dressmaker. Okay I know, I’m an idiot! I told the TC that we would have to discuss it in private. The next day she came to see me (with the boxes) and pleaded her case. She said she had no money because she was just basically starting out and if I would help her out she would repay me in kind somehow. I (stupid me) felt sorry for her and told her I would try to sort something out as an interim measure for her. I looked again through her collection of patterns pieces and found an IT pattern. I unfolded the pattern and believe me I had never seen one before tried to decide if I could use it somehow. I used the skirt pieces and simplified a pattern that could be used for beginners with a front panel for the embroidery. I made the TC up twenty skirts in various sizes, lined and embroidered and made up blouses and capes. At that point I figured (over 100 hours later) I had done my bit for Irish Dance and I could return it to her with the intention that she found a seamstress to take over.

    Never think all good deeds go unrewarded. Fat chance. Not in my case. To my horror a dozen more orders for these costumes came in immediately. The TC asked me if I would just run up a few more for her while she was in the process of looking for a dressmaker. Reluctantly because my own work by this point was suffering, I agreed. Finally I took the bull by the horn and found a chinese dressmaker who would reproduce the costumes for relatively cheaply ($120 skirt, blouse and cape). At least 200 hours later I handed the boxes and the new patterns back to her with the name, address and map of the new seamstress. Did I ever get thanked – – no. Did I ever get paid – – no. Did I ever do any more sewing for her. Don’t ask. Of course I did. I’m an idiot. Fifteen junior performance dresses designed by me and twelve seniors also designed by me. I didn’t get paid for those either. But in between all of this I had made my first solo costume and guess what? It was really well received and the veil was lifted. She owed it to me!

  5. mendylady
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 17:39:36

    Y’know… the more I read about what goes on in ID, the more horrified I am. To call the behaviors I read about unethical and unprofessional is like calling Ghandi mildly concerned. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration – but you get my point. Kickbacks, forced and unpaid labor, blacklisting – these are NOT OK. Some of this is inevitable; for example, I know we’ve all been caught by nice-person syndrome into doing “favors” we didn’t really want to do. I also know very well that it’s nearly impossible to get people to pay what our work is truly worth – that’s why I don’t try. I also know that sometimes you run into someone whose acquaintance or client list isn’t worth cultivating – unpleasant personalities and shoddy work are both legitimate reasons for avoiding someone. It’s also inevitable that in an elitist, secretive society (and ID is both!), blacklisting of that nature is very likely to happen – that doesn’t make it ok.

    Many of us here have backgrounds in theatrical costume, but I really wonder how comparable that is to ID dressmaking. It occurs to me that something like figure skating costumes might be more analogous – another highly competitive sport, requiring eye-catching costumes that enhance the performer without restricting movement. How are the people who make those garments treated?

  6. sewtto
    Feb 02, 2008 @ 17:41:04

    Wow! Do I feel Blessed! I was lucky enough to start out with a new teacher. She asked if anyone knew how to sew because she had ripped a costume and it needed fixing. I said that I would do it. I ended up serging the seams for her and fixing the dress as new. She was very pleased. Then she asked if she designed a dress (solo), if I would give it a try to sew it. I’m thinking “why not, what’s one more thing on my plate”. It took me three months of casual sewing to make my first solo. With tweaking, She loved it. She had gotten her first batch of 5 class dresses that she had designed and was very displeased. The design wasn’t proportioned to the dress…would I make a panel to fit the front of the dresses and attach them? And so I did. Then she wanted me to make her school dresses. And so I am. We have a great relationship. I measure the girl. She buys the fabric. I cut the dress. She Wonder-unders the design on the dress (she has 16 skirt and 16 top templates). I applique them and finish the dresses. We bill out seperately. She bills for the fabric, design and applique placement. I bill for applique and sewing. It works out great.
    I also sew her solos for most of the girls. At first, she would choose the color, buy the fabric and design the dress. She has taught me a lot about color and design. Now she has given me her blessing to design and sew what I want for her girls. Yes, a few of the girls have gone BN, but most still order from me. The veil was lifted for me (in a positive way) is when a girl who qualified for Worlds needed a new dress. She told the Teacher that she didn’t want a BN dress, but one of mine! This year at the O’s, I was soooooo excited to see my dresses “qualify” for Worlds and Nationals! Goes to prove that you don’t have to have a BN dress to win!
    I’m greatful that this gift was given to me and I took it as a Blessing.

  7. ginafoster
    Feb 06, 2008 @ 16:15:53

    I have done dressmaking – if you want to call it that – since Shaylah was 5 … went to her school and discovered the first feis for her class of 28 was in 2 months and no dresses available … got the comment well just put her in a blouse and skirt …. we moms looked at each other in horror … silly me .. pulled out my old sewing machine, grabbed some material and made up a mock dress – modified a line with the seams in front opened to incorporate satin for ‘pleats’ ….. 32 beginner costumes later (they had patch appliques on the front panel, side panels, bodice and sleeves .. no underskirt lining – everything in black).
    We stayed with that school long enough for me to make over 100 of those … got paid 15 each, well except for the first 32 – never got paid for them .. they were made up from material supplied by the school and I paid all the zippers, thread and ‘stiffener’ myself.

    First solo time came … Shaylah wanted black with dragons (it was a phase….) I came up with the design of the dragon dress … (photos somewhere) spent hours designing the appliques .. wanted to have the skirt be flush so it was edge with satin stitch -not a flip hemline ~ got told that was NEVER DONE … wanted to have ‘cutouts’ in the flames along the hem ~ got told that was NEVER DONE … arrrrggggggg.

    Well Shaylah never got to wear it – she outgrew it while on suspension … new school .. great TC’s … very affordable school costumes that they had established makers .. I could just make solos … made about 8 to 10 in the 3 years we were there … one I never got paid for … changed againg to hell on earth.

    We learned the horrid side of ID … the new school was lead by a team of female tyrants that dictated every aspect of everything … I was condescendingly allowed to make a solo for my daughter — but I was NEVER to consider myself good enough to make for anyone else in the school. my daughters dress (the orchid dress) was dictated down to the millimeter width of the thread connectors!!! all 3 threads!!!! … and the TC greeted it with “Well I guess its too late to do anything else” … at the Nationals the eldest Tyrant went off about how Shaylah would have a better chance to recall if she had a better dress designed by a pro. “Like that Gavin you are holding” … BWHAHHAHAHAHHAHA … have any of you seen the red dress with the checkered yellowblack underskirt? I called it Capt America Meets NASCAR … THAT was the dress I was holding … will never forget that … what a twit.

    Now with Drake – everyone can say what they want about his control of costume production by he and Elaine have an incredible nack of getting the right colors and style for each dancer – yes they use a BN, but the difference is Elaine is in SR every week monitoring the production and development of the dresses .. do parents pay for that??? I don’t know .. does Karl get a kickback – I doubt it, I know that one time he had to cover the cost of school dresses that were not paid by parents and he was furious.

    Now .. I make Shaylahs dresses with considerable help Susan and Ann … Karl and Elaine have input into color, style and some details … but they trust me/Susan/Ann to do right by Shaylah … would they let me do other students? no .. would I want to? no.

    I am no longer making dresses for anyone but Shaylah. Burned too many times and too far in debt to take any more chances.

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