WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Sewing up the deal

TRAVERSE CITY – As little girls do, I spent hours making doll clothes out of whatever was available. When I couldn’t get fabric scraps from my aunt, I’d improvise and create wedding dresses out of toilet paper, space suits out of aluminum foil, and coats out of old woolen socks. These sessions allowed time for experimentation and creativity, and gave me an appreciation for people who can take a piece of lifeless fabric and turn it into a real, usable thing.

Cherie Brazaski and Sue Sprenger, the women behind Sew Unique, don’t think that what they do is all that special. They’re basically shy, will tell you they’re terrible at marketing, but yet have a growing business that is, indeed, unique. And, it’s mostly 12-hour days doing something that’s becoming a lost art.

Cherie recalls, “The business name came from our inability to define all the things we make. We tried thinking of something short to put on a business card, but when we started listing the variety of sewing jobs we can do, the card would have had to be huge!”

After a lot of thought, they settled on ‘Sew Unique: Customized Sewing our Specialty. Commercial, Personal, and Residential.’

It would be nice to have enough room on that card to say, ‘made with true affection and a lot of laughter,’ but most people who work with Sew Unique figure that out pretty quickly anyway.

Cherie started making doll clothes for Wee-Line Ltd., a designer doll fashion catalog out of Muskegon, and Sue was making sports accessories and outerwear for Traverse Bay Manufacturing when they met.

“Sue walked into my basement workshop, realized we were both doing the same thing in our homes, and a week later we decided to work together. That was four years ago, and we’ve sewed a lot and shared a lot in those years,” said Cherie.

Cherie sews thousands of doll-sized items each year for Wee-Line, 11 full outfit styles. Among those are signature bunny suits for baby dolls and dresses for American Girl dolls. As nice as that account has been, though, she would much rather tackle commercial work, which includes some creativity mixed with problem solving.

She explained, “A company like Sara Lee or the Grand Traverse Resort will call and say, ‘this is what we need; can you do it? Then Sue and I get together, make a prototype, and if it’s accepted, we’re in business making something for an entire company to use.”

Among the items they’ve made for local industries are faucet filters and arm guards for Sara Lee, laundry bags, cart liners, draperies, and decorating accessories for hotels and other businesses, and tunics and aromatherapy wraps for the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. They’ve worked with Britten Banners locally and in Lansing, and with Chrysler-Dodge for NASCAR.

Among their more well-known creations are all the costumes and fabric animals for the Northwoods Festival of Lights display at the Grand Traverse Resort, the Buckley Bear mascot, a replica of Sesame Street’s Ernie for the Kingsley Marching Band, and a replica of a Beanie Baby bear for the American Cancer Society.

Recently, they even made a stuffed beaver head out of fake fur and mounted it on a trophy plaque for a client.

“It’s our little joke on the client’s husband and brother. They insisted that all the draperies, pillows, and bedspreads in the guest rooms be totally masculine–nothing floral in the room. We’re going to share in the laugh when her husband sees that beaver hanging on the wall,” said Sue.

Along with industrial accounts, they do drapery and banner projects for area churches, costumes for local bands and In-Motion Productions in Traverse City, home decor items like slipcovers, pillows, and placemats, and exterior and interior items for boats and recreational vehicles. Cherie’s son showed one of her hand-painted, beaded deerskin gun cases to a storeowner in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and she hopes to expand that line.

“It’s rewarding to do even a small sewing or embroidery project, especially when we see the look on a customer’s face and know they really like what we’ve done,” added Cherie.

Especially rewarding are the fashions Sew Unique has made for people with special needs or the wheelchair and seat ski accessories they’ve devised. There are many memorable clients, and no project is too small.

“Our motto is, ‘A lot of work to have a lot of fun,’ and we’re hoping more businesses give us a chance to work for them,” said Cherie. “We have a lot of good ideas just waiting for someone to use,” Sue added. BIZNEWS