Q&A with Sharon Matsie
Residence: Warner Robins
Occupation: Owner-operator, Irene’s Custom Tailors
Q: Who taught you how to sew?
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A: My mother. I learned some with her and a lot on my own just by doing. I found I was good at it.
Q: How old were you when you started learning?
A: Around 15. I used to walk up to her shop after school then get a ride home when she closed.
Q: Where was that?
A: I went to Warner Robins High School, graduated in 1978. Her shop was on Commercial Circle then, so it was a little bit of a walk but not bad. I was young and didn’t think much of it at all.
Q: When did your mother start Irene’s Custom Tailors? And what was her whole name?
A: Irene Tweed. She used to sew for someone else and one day decided to open her own business. That was in 1974, and that first year she broke even and made her first dollar profit.
Q: Was her first shop there on Commercial Circle?
A: No, it was right near there on Manor Court until 1976, then she moved to Commercial Circle until 1986. Then she moved to Sunset Plaza on Russell Parkway, and in 1992 she moved across the road over here by Kroger. We’ve been in this location for almost 25 years — over half our 42 years in business. I think we’re one of the oldest — or the oldest — tailor/alteration shops in town. Officially, we call ourselves a professional alteration shop.
Q: How did your mom learn?
A: She’s from Germany and went to school in Germany and learned. That’s where I was born. My mom met my dad, Dewey, when he was stationed there in the Air Force. We moved to the U.S. when I was about a year old and were stationed several places like Texas and Colorado, and he went to Vietnam. After Vietnam, he was stationed here at Robins Air Force Base, and this is where we stayed. He retired from the Air Force after 20 years and retired from civil service after 20 years. He’s 80 now.
Q: So you followed right on into your mother’s footsteps?
A: No, when I graduated high school I worked a few little jobs then worked for Levi-Straus, then Boeing, then for a base contractor. I was also going to night school at Georgia College at the Robins Resident Center and got a bachelor’s degree in management and logistics.
Q: How did you get back to Irene’s?
A: I was laid off from the contractor in 2001. It was the same week as 9/11. I remember that. To tell you the truth, with the economy like it was right then I couldn’t find a job in my field around here to save my life. I came and worked at the shop.
Q: You seem to like it well enough — you’re still here.
A: I do like it. I love a challenge and love things that are hard. One of my favorite things is when a customer gets blown away that we can do what we do — when they think something probably can’t be done or be fixed, and we do it. Coming here was a tremendous pay cut, but I get a lot of satisfaction from meeting people and serving our customers. I like to see that they’re happy with our work. In this line of work I get to meet a lot of people, and I like that. I’ve had customers shed tears over things they brought us to see if we could repair. That’s really rewarding.
Q: When did you take over the business?
A: Mom died in 2007, and I still really miss her. Dad figured he’d close the shop, but I said I could handle it. He had always done the books, and he was with me until 2009 when I became sole owner. I’ve had it ever since.
Q: How many people work at Irene’s?
A: Including me, there are four full time and two part time. Linda Parham is manager; she was here with my mother. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with. We have a lot of fun and cut up a lot.
Q: You “cut up?” Pun intended?
A: Oh, no — but yeah, maybe it should be.
Q: You’re actually sewing as we talk — what are you working on?
A: I’m just sewing some buttons on a collar by hand to replace some broken ones for a gentleman. He wants some buttons on a vest, too.
Q: Do more women or men bring items in? More old or young?
A: Everybody. Women and men and all ages. And if we can get it under the presser foot of our sewing machines, we can do it. Our motto is: “If we can’t do it, nobody can.”
Q: What’s been some of the toughest jobs?
A: I don’t know; there are so many things. I’ve enlarged the leg portion of a pair of leather boots. That was different. We’ve fixed a lot of tears in leather, so you can’t even tell where it was torn. We’ve turned ruined mink coats into stoles. Ones that were mostly dry rot but we made something nice out of it.
Q: What are the more normal things?
A: Hemming dresses, pants, sleeves, coats, shirts and that sort of thing. We do a lot, a whole lot, of alterations for formal and prom dresses. We’re just getting out of our slow season and back into our busiest with prom and formal season coming up. Of course we work on wedding dresses all year long.
Q: Do you create clothes? Like suits or dresses from scratch?
A: No, we don’t. We work on things, do alterations and fix all kinds of things but not that. But our two part-time employees do, and we refer people to them. They do the work on their own at home. They’re good.
Q: I bet being in Warner Robins and being located where you are brings in a lot of military sewing. Patches and such, right?
A: We sure do a lot of that. But also, we do a lot of work for law enforcement and firefighters, coaches, referees, sports teams — all kinds of things.
Q: What’s your biggest challenge as a small business owner?
A: Hard to say. I guess just trying to hang in there when the work runs low. But God really blesses us. We’re still here.
Answers may have been edited for length and clarity.
Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at email@example.com.