Erin Retelle loves the science and the quantitative thinking required of her academic field, geology.
But when Retelle was laid off from her job as a geologist in 2008, she spent little time hunting for a new geology position. With her livelihood closely tied to the housing market, she knew she probably wouldn’t find one. Instead, Retelle turned to her lifetime hobby of sewing, and started making her living creating ballroom dancing gowns.
Now Retelle, 33, pieces together gowns for dancers from a studio in her basement, and supplements that income by teaching sewing nearby at Caledonia Fine Fabrics in Boise.
Although sewing is a meager living, Retelle isn’t sure if she ever wants to go back to geology.
“It’s such a different part of your brain,” said the Michigan native, who has a master’s degree in geology from the University of Wyoming. “I really love that scientific investigation process and the quantitative thinking that you do in a geology job. But at the same time, I just love the creativity that you can throw into sewing, and I like working with my hands. And producing something tangible is also very rewarding.”
Retelle has always sewn for friends and family. Self-taught, with some help from a home economics class in junior high, she used to put together Halloween costumes for others at her high school outside of Ann Arbor.
When she left Michigan for graduate school in Wyoming, she lugged along her parents’ old sewing machine, a wedding present from the 1960s. And it came with her again when she moved to Boise in 2004 to take a job with the state Department of Water Resources.
In Boise, Retelle met some fellow ballroom dancers who were paying more than $1,000 for gowns shipped from Hungary. She knew she could do better.
“Nobody did a fitting, and when the dresses came, they were not flattering,” said Retelle. “They looked like a swimsuit with a skirt sewn on. I thought, ‘I need to make my own stuff.'”
Soon, Retelle and her boyfriend, who works for an insurance company but also knows how to sew, were putting dresses together for other dancers through their new company, Oversway Originals. Even with rhinestones and locally purchased fabric, the dresses were less than half the price of the mail-order ones, said Retelle. And the orders started coming in. At the moment, Retelle is working on a gown for a dancer she met at dance camp at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Retelle wasn’t laid off from her state job; she had left that job in 2007 to work in the private sector, and when the market contracted, she and other workers were let go. But she’s not sorry now she left her secure job with the state.
“You can’t just stay somewhere because it’s safe and never do anything,” said Retelle.
The Treasure Valley has a moderately active ballroom dancing scene, with dances on weekend nights at studios downtown and around the valley. Retelle’s doing her part to stimulate the industry – and her customer base – with a position on the board of the local USA Dance social dancing chapter, and a committee for National Ballroom Dance Week, which takes place in September.
“I’m all about promotion and getting the word out,” said Retelle.
Meanwhile, she’s also creating a collection for Project Runway, the fashion design reality show on Lifetime Television, and she has started creating wedding gowns as well.
Despite the fact that so many of the ready-to-wear clothes sold in the United States are now made in the developing world, it is possible to make a living sewing in Idaho. Barbie McCormick in Nampa has been doing it for 16 years, raising two daughters on her income.
Much of McCormick’s business is creating custom-made wedding wear for brides and the mothers of the bride and groom. She also teaches sewing.
“My job cannot be outsourced because it’s custom work,” said McCormick, who employs an assistant. She’ll see her customers five or six times for fittings before she’s finished.
“I have clients who live in Ketchum and I tell them, ‘If you can’t be here this many times, I don’t feel we can get the dress done,'” she said.
Retelle, who takes classes from McCormick, said the key to competing with clothing factories is creating a product that just can’t be made elsewhere.
“That means the fit has to be impeccable, the quality has to be unparalleled, and it has to be a one-of-a-kind garment,” she said.