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Material Girl: Master tailor has her work cut out for her

September 3, 2011
By Dorothy McKnight - Lifestyles Editor ( , Daily Press

RAPID RIVER - She began sewing when she was only 5 years old and later turned her budding hobby into a career that has lasted more than 50 years.

"I learned on my mother's treadle sewing machine," said Master Tailor Mary Arp of Rapid River. "I used to watch her sew and couldn't wait for her to get out of the house so I could use her machine," she said, smiling at the memory. "But as soon as she came home, she'd say, 'You've been monkeying with my sewing machine, haven't you?' I'd always tell her, 'No, I haven't touched it,' but of course she always knew different."

The first thing Mary remembers sewing as a child was a dishtowel on which she embroidered a teapot.

Article Photos

Lost in a sea of wedding gowns in multiple shades of white, Master Tailor Mary Arp points out that brides don’t need to be regulated to wearing solid white at their weddings. She is pictured with one of the gown featuring bright red accents on the bodice. (Daily Press photo by Dorothy McKnight)

"I still have it somewhere," she said. "It was in pink and blue. Come to think of it, everything I did was in pink and blue back then. When I look at it now, I realize how good it was."

Under the guidance of her mother, Mary graduated to sewing aprons and her own skirts to wear to school. By the time she was in high school, she was making almost all of her own dresses and skirts.

One of four daughters, Mary was born in Escanaba, but spent the majority of her adult years in Lower Michigan.

"I was raised in a logging camp and when the logging camp went out in the early '50s, my family moved to Ypsilanti when I was in the fifth grade," she said. "Then my dad went into the construction business and when he started up his own business we moved to Monroe." She graduated from Monroe High School in 1958.

She began sewing bridal wear when she was only 18 years old. After high school graduation, she enrolled in Mercy College in the Detroit area where she took tailoring classes with the intention of becoming a home economics teacher.

"But I didn't graduate," she said.

But sewing and altering bridal wear was about to become an even more important part of Mary's life. When she married her first husband, she made the dresses, hats and gauntlet gloves for all of her seven bridesmaids and her flower girl. Then she and her husband opened up a dry cleaning establishment in Toledo, Ohio, which she managed and did all of the business's alterations and repairs.

"We took care of all the hotels and motels in Toledo," she said.

After her marriage failed, Mary obtained a position in the tailoring and alteration department of the Jacobson store in Toledo. It was while she was at Jacobson's that she tested to become a master tailor.

"I took different kinds of sewing tests," she explained. "I tested on making men's garments and all different designs to show I knew how to do the work."

Despite her busy schedule, Mary raised her three children - two daughters and a son - and sewing became a routine part of her family life as well.

"I sewed the wedding gowns for both my daughters," she said.

"One was solid beading very heavy and the other was heavy satin and Alencon lace that had a train that was 18-feet long. My daughter got married around the same time as Princess Di and wanted the same type of dress. I practically had to clear out my entire room just to lie it on the floor to cut it out."

In 1976, Mary married her husband, Jim Arp, who was a journeyman machinist, making robots for Ford and Chrysler automotive companies. When Jim was transferred from Toledo to Lower Michigan, Mary opened her own bridal shop in New Hudson and ran it for 11 years.

"I did just about everything," Mary said with a laugh. I now only did the gowns for the bridal party, I also did the flowers and the cakes and decorated all the halls. I did a lot of big Greek weddings where they practically have two of everything - two maids of honor, two matrons of honor, two flower girls. I used to pull a lot of all-nighters. Jim helped me. My sisters helped. My kids helped. My whole family helped."

After renovating an old hunting camp in the Rapid River area, Mary and Jim moved into it in 1996.

"It was in December, and I remember we moved in the biggest snowstorm I had ever seen and we couldn't even get into our driveway," she said, grimacing at the memory. The driveway, almost two blocks long, had to be shoveled out with the help of Mary's son, who drove the couple's moving van.

Shortly after moving to the area, Mary opened up "I Do Two," a bridal and consignment shop in Gladstone that featured bridal and prom wear, stocking the shop with much of the leftover inventory from her bridal shop in New Hudson. After almost three years in business, Mary closed her shop when water damage in her rented building all but destroyed her entire inventory. Since that time, Mary has been working as a seamstress at Beautiful Beginnings in Escanaba for the past 15 years.

As if her professional business wasn't keeping her busy enough, Mary has taught herself to quilt and enjoys making items for her family and friends.

"I made my bedspread and one for my daughter," she said. "I've made dozens of table runners and quilted potholders. I made a table runner with strawberries for my daughter and right now I'm working on quilting strawberry appliques on kitchen curtains for her."

In addition to Mary's three children and Jim's three sons, the Arps have 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Because Jim's health has been slowly declining in recent years, Mary has had to cut back her hours at Beautiful Beginning and spend more time caring for her husband. She also enjoys traveling to see her family in Lower Michigan and other parts of the Midwest.



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