In life and work, Evelyn Kennedy restores difficult pieces
If Evelyn Siefert Kennedy's life were patchwork pieces for a successful small-business career, they might appear disjointed, but the instructions would be direct, clear and peppered with Kennedy's emphatic self-assurance.
"I'm going to tell you something right now," she said, to make a point. Or "Women should know that;" or "This is important for women to know."
These affirmations don't rise from arrogance, but rather from a strong desire to share what she has learned as the founder and, for the last 43 years, the owner/operator of Sewtique, a "total sewing service center" at the top of Fort Hill Road in Groton.
"Anything that I have learned that I can pass on expands the horizon," she said.
Step 1: Do what you love
Kennedy grew up poor in Pittsburgh, one in a family of six, her father providing for them as a laborer and steel worker. She remembers her mother sewing.
"I was always picking up scraps and trying to make clothing for a doll, you know. I just loved it."
In junior high, "A teacher befriended me. Her name was Hughes, I'll never forget it … she is the one who would help me make my own clothes."
With no money for college, Kennedy took a job as a secretary for Pittsburgh's superintendent of schools and signed up for night classes at the University of Pittsburgh. Soon she was offered a job as secretary for the superintendent in Akron, Ohio. So she moved into Akron's YWCA and lived there until she and a friend took an apartment together.
"The first purchase I made was a sewing machine ... It's a passion," she said. "It's here," her hands moved to her temples, "and it's here," she said, touching her heart. "It's two places, and I love it."
Step 2: Be neat and well organized
Though the bright yellow Sewtique studio is small and filled with fabric, thread, dress forms and all the notions any seamstress could desire, it is uncluttered and organized. There's a room just for brides and another for alterations.
On one work table is a template someone has ordered for a custom boat cushion cover. On another, an 18th-century fire screen awaits restoration, as does a tattered men's dressing gown and a Judaic bread cover — a decorative, ceremonial cloth that covers the two loaves of challah during the traditional Friday night Shabbat meal — that dates to the Holocaust.
Sewtique regularly cleans, restores, repairs and preserves flags, rugs, fur, leather, blinds, tapestries, kimonos, men's suits, women's sweaters, "And oh," Kennedy laughed. "We do sewing machine repair. I forgot about that."
On a recent Friday afternoon, completed projects await shipment back to their owners just as new jobs arrive in the mail.
"This one's going out today to Sudbury, Mass. This tablecloth came in very, very badly broken," Kennedy said lifting the edge of what is now a pure white cloth that appears as perfect as the day it was made.
Kennedy carefully cut the tape on box from Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., and read the enclosed letter.
"She's sending me grandmother's wedding dress from 1913 and bonnet. Wants dress cleaned and bonnet to be fixed and she wants to have it packaged in an acid-free environment."
Kennedy extracted a tattered, yellowing ball of fluff from the box. "Now, you're looking at white Chantilly lace," she said, adjusting the ephemeral cloth. "The little roses are made from fabric, and this was probably the wedding bonnet from 1913. That can all be repaired."
She reached back into the box. "And this is a silk organdy from 1913. ... And the embroidery," she said, turning the fabric, "yes, I think that was hand-done. And look at the tiny, tiny little buttons."
Step 3: Don't give up
"People always ask me, 'how have you been so successful?'" Kennedy said. "You really must persevere. If you give up, you've lost the cause, particularly when women don't get some of the advantages that men do."
As a young woman in Akron, Kennedy met and married her first husband, George Siefert. The newlyweds moved to southeastern Connecticut 1954 and soon had three children, Paul, Carl and Ann.
"And I was quite content," she recalled. "It took about 10 years I guess, and I got itchy. I wanted to go back to school."
She enrolled at the University of Rhode Island, where they accepted all her previous credits.
"It was wonderful because URI was 50 minutes away from home and — put this in the print — gas was 37 cents a gallon. It was very affordable."
Then, "George and I used to go skiing, and I broke my leg. They said I would never walk again."
She spent the following year in a full leg cast and the next two in a brace.
"I could no longer function as a mother … I couldn't carry the pasta from here to here. I had to have Paul carry everything for me. ...I was very, very, very depressed," she said. But a turning point came in one session with her orthopedist. "I was in tears. ... he said, 'You know, your leg is broken, but your head is not broken. Why don't you go back to school?'"
Step 4: Take hold of opportunities
One gets the feeling that as Kennedy returned to URI, moving to and from her classes on crutches, the plan for what would come next was already forming in her mind.
Her injury had changed her perspective.
"Nobody liked me," she recalled. "I couldn't dance anymore … I couldn't wear pretty clothes anymore."
"I used to belong to the yacht club and beach club, this club and that club, and we did all social things, but now here I am, like this," she said, slouching onto imaginary crutches. "… and what a dilemma it was because I was not popular anymore."
But she thrived at URI and decided she wouldn't stop at a bachelor's degree.
She received a grant to pay for her graduate work, focusing on children with physical and mental disabilities, and how, as part of rehabilitation, their clothing could be modified to promote independence and improve self-confidence.
She earned her master's degree in 1972, and in 1978 founded the nonprofit PRIDE Foundation Inc., "Promote Real Independence for the Disabled and Elderly," which, according to its brochure, offers consulting services to families and organizations in the areas of home management and independence in dressing and personal grooming. She wrote an instruction manual for altering off-the-rack clothing, and a curriculum and training guide for workers in rehabilitative services.
In the mid-1980s, Kennedy embarked on a three-month world tour, giving talks and leading seminars in Los Angeles, Hawaii, Australia, Singapore and Japan on textile preservation and restoration, and on the best clothing for people whose mobility is compromised.
Step 5: Don't let anything stand in your way
Amid that success, Kennedy was divorced from George Siefert in the early '70s. Later, she was widowed from her second husband, Lyle Kennedy. She is now happily remarried to Fred Commentucci, a retired banker and a substitute teacher in Groton's public schools.
She is a breast cancer survivor, and she has had many surgeries, not all of which were successful.
"I've had two foot surgeries," she said leaning down to loosen the diagonal strap on her black sequined Sketchers. Her toes veered off from her foot as if they have their own destination in mind. She held up the shoe to reveal the orthotics inside.
She replaced her shoe. "So you wear glasses, so you have a hearing aid, so you wear orthotics, but you're functioning."
"I've had trauma in my life, a lot of trauma," she said. "I'm always able to go back to Sewtique and function on a daily basis."
"Now you're going to ask me how old I am," she said, her eyes twinkled behind her fashionable eyeglasses. Her perfectly cut, pure white hair is the only giveaway. Neither her bold jewelry nor her stylish confidence offers any other clue.
It's not vanity or pride. She's just not interested in having a number define her. When someone asks her age, she said, "I always say, 'Well, I do collect Social Security."