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Coming to America: Russian grown, now American sewing

By on January 31, 2018 in Articles with 0 Comments

Showing three gowns, each tailor-made for elegant occasions, are (left to right) Olga’s husband Troy’s daughter Kristen, the proud seamstress herself, and Troy’s niece, Kelsey.

By Susan Lagsdin

Olga Lindsey, 33, is in the midst of tailoring a new life in the USA.

Four years ago, she brought with her from Russia to Wenatchee a tradition that was commonplace when and where she grew up but may seem antiquated in our fast-paced consumer society.

She designs and sews clothing, a craft she learned not only from her mother and grandmother but in the (required) equivalent of our now-obsolete home economics classes.

“When I was seven,” she said, “My mom bought me a book where you stitch a little rabbit. I taught myself to stitch by hand, and I learned to make costumes for dolls.” By 14 she was refurbishing, by hand, throw-away clothes into attractive dresses for herself.

For several years, Olga worked in the clothing production industry, which later suffered a decline as cheap goods came in from Vietnam. In one factory, she injured her shoulder with repetitive stress and was let go; another was too cold for half the year. Pay was low.

 She described some of her sewing jobs: tights (“about 500 every five hours”) multi-colored pillowcases, curtains, terry cloth bathrobes, lining for army boots — and sundresses (“Those were nice — the fabric came from Turkey… very stylish.”).

Her first sewing machine at age 27, a gift from her mother, empowered her with possibilities, as did the experience with high-output sewing followed by small-scale alterations. Now she can sew almost anything, though her jumbo-sized artist journal is filled with pencil sketches of women’s dresses, and she’s finally started her own business.

Olga distributes business cards, using her nickname, for “Olya’s Creations” and has started some advertising, but she’s content to keep her enterprise small and grow naturally.

She makes her own patterns, using light plastic see-through sheeting, and often accompanies her clients to Joanne’s, the local fabric shop, to pick out the best material for the chosen design. Her specialty isn’t cutting-edge high fashion frocks, but simple ones, often precisely fitted, often headed to special occasions

She said, “In Russia, men and women on the street dress formally — they dress to impress. The suit, dress, heels — all are commonplace in the cities.” Olga realizes American women are casual and favor more disposable clothing, but still she perseveres in her craft.

Only four years away from her life in Kilm, Olga knows common English phrases and many of the words of her craft but is often frustrated with her inability to communicate clearly. Friendly and animated, she can shop and do business in East Wenatchee but avoids in-depth conversations, and sometimes she grabs her smart phone for a quick translation.

As a busy mother of two it’s hard for her to take formal language classes, and her American husband Troy, who listens well and can quasi-translate, with his full-schedule job at AeroTEC in Moses Lake has little time to learn her language. “I want to take Russian along with Roman (their 3-year-old), Troy said. “That would be a great way to learn the alphabet and words together.”

Their teenage daughter Anastasia, from Olga’s former marriage, is by now, as Olga said, “Just a typical American girl,” even though when she moved with her mother to Wenatchee as an 8-year-old, she knew only two words of English.

Using our language may not be her forte at present, but Olga has an enviable skill set that few young Americans have, and she’s determined to make it work for her.

When she watches TV’s Project Runway fashion reality show, she realizes that high-pressure competitive designing is not for her. Better to have a woman walk back through the patio of her modest East Wenatchee house, around the end of the garage and into her little tailoring studio.

She’ll come with a dream (or a sketch) and a willingness to be measured and re-measured, and then she’ll wait a bit, come in for a fitting, and pay an honest price for the satisfaction of wearing a handmade garment with personalized fit and classic style. That’s where Olga’s satisfaction comes from, too. She said, “I love seeing a happy customer.”

Spring is a busy time in Olga’s studio. Soon in-progress prom and wedding dresses, pastels in chiffon, lace, crisp sateen, will be draped over the dress forms and hang on the wall, and she’ll have her hands full, quite literally, creating dream garments for dressy occasions.

 In the slower seasons, she keeps busy with more prosaic projects like hemming jeans, making theme aprons for a coffee company, Halloween costumes or a score of canvas boat cushions. “Those took me weeks — I work every day on the same pattern, the same material…” she said, not complaining, but glad now at this minute to be stitching appliqued flowers on to a formal.

For a few years after she arrived here, Olga was one of the busy seamstresses who did alterations and repairs at both Pins and Needles and the former Mills Brothers.

 Some old clients still bring her clothes for alterations. Or, said Olga, “They buy a dress cheap online, made in China. Then bring it to me because it doesn’t fit anywhere. They could save money if I sew the dress to start with. They bring material, I can make the same thing.”

With a toddler at home, she can divide her time between her house and the studio that houses her growing business, though she admits, “Sometimes when it gets crazy there with little child and big dog I come here… just to get away — a refuge.” Her updated professional sewing machine is perfectly adequate, but she still has big plans for her little space.

Troy recently built a mirrored dressing room for her clients, and she said, “I want another door – so customers come right in without going around and through… more shelves, and big, big closets.”

The big, big closets would be for commissions-in-waiting and for a few pieces she’s made that have no owner, yet. They’re colorful, they’re handmade, and Olga just couldn’t resist turning them from sketch to dress.

So, on balance, what’s a notable difference living back home and living here?

In a nutshell (or maybe, on a pincushion) Olga said, “In Russia, everybody smokes — everywhere, all the time. In restaurants, in the streets, at the subway stairs there’s always a big cloud of smoke… Here feels safer, jobs are better, more money.”

And then, wistfully, she said softly, “In Russia was my home and I didn’t have to think about every word before I said it.”

Want to learn more? Contact olga@olgalindsey.com. 

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