The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 8, 2012

Woman reflects on many years as a seamstress

Kelly Urban
kurban@tribdem.com

JOHNSTOWN — Smokey Kendig has lived most of her life in stitches.

The Elton resident has been sewing since graduating from the former Franklin High School in 1964, but it wasn’t something she ever dreamed she would turn into a career.

“I needed $100 to go to nursing school so I took a job at Bali Bra as a secretary,” Kendig said in the sewing area of her home, surrounded by six sewing machines and hundreds of colorful spools of thread.

While at Bali Bra, she became interested in the inner workings of sewing ­– such as how to set the machines, how to use and hold your hands and why certain pieces of fabric fit together.

“I was amazed. It was just great,” Kendig said.

She recalled making $1.10 an hour as a secretary, while the seamstresses where making between $4 and $6 an hour.

“In the ’60s that was good money and I thought, ‘Why not do this?’ ” Kendig said. “I told them I wanted to sew or I was going to quit and go to Bestform.”

She never did make it to nursing school and wound up spending 11 years at Bali Bra working in various sewing positions.

“I loved my job,” Kendig said.

“We sewed everything and did the swimwear.”

When the factory closed, she gained employment at JoAnn Dress Factory in Ebensburg. 

She quickly became part of management and ran a shop the company opened in Lilly.

She returned to the Ebensburg factory and was put in charge of managing 190 women and four men.

A highlight of the job was sewing dresses by Albert Nipon, a premier designer of high-end women’s clothing.

“Nancy Reagan bought all Nipon. It’s all she wore, and I was chosen to sew clothes for her,” Kendig said. “I never met her, but we sewed her complete fall wardrobe in 1981 when the Reagans went into office.”

Kendig said the first lady was a size 8 at the time.

Although she enjoyed the job, Kendig had to leave it when her husband, Richard, received a job transfer and the couple moved to Houston.

“In Houston I started sewing individual clothing, so I did wedding gowns, square dance costumes and ballroom gowns,” she said.

Working out of her home, she created a business, Sewn by Smokey. As her reputation grew, she started to get work from all over Texas.

“I was working 16- and 18-hour days, but I loved it,” Kendig said.

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