Alterations That Bring Smiles to the Community
By Melissa Mendonca
The Perfect FitSeptember 2015
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Syerra Eickmeyer
The pages of Rhonda Johnson's photo albums reflect a veritable timeline of fashion over the last 25 years. Flipping through them, one can see the progress of prom attire go from long and frilly dresses to more sleek and short designs. There are highly decorated, very showy outfits for horse show contestants. And then there are wedding dresses. Whether they are completely original designs or reconstructions of family dresses for a new generation of bride, they all stand out because they are perfectly tailored to the individual wearing them.
“I am really proud that I am celebrating 25 years here,” says Johnson, gesturing across the expanse of her sewing room that encompasses the entire basement level of her Red Bluff home. The owner of We Sew 4 U, Johnson fell into her profession by necessity and now marvels at the outcomes of her small business venture as a full-time seamstress.
Her experience with sewing began during sixth grade. “In the wintertime when I couldn’t ride horses, I was bored,” she says. She picked up a pattern, cut it out, and discovered that she enjoyed the challenge of constructing with fabric. She would later take an aptitude test and score into the realm of architecture. “I liked figuring out how things went together,” she adds. Fabric became her favorite medium because it was forgiving and allowed her to create without having to be exceedingly precise. She works only with original patterns that she creates herself.
By the time she was 14, Johnson had a part-time job as a gift wrapper at Zuckweiler’s Department Store in Red Bluff and was sewing the signature shift dresses of a fellow employee who worked in Women’s Wear.
She continued sewing part time, enjoying the interactions with people it brought her as well as
the extra money it put in her pocket. She never thought she’d be forced to consider it as a full-time profession, but when tragedy struck, it was her saving grace.
When her three children were 2, 4 and 6 years old, Johnson’s husband left her and she says, “I was devastated at having to raise three kids by myself.” Though she had completed three years at the University of California at Davis, she did not have a college degree. Without it, her options felt limited, particularly since she had to keep herself available to her children.
“Just very scarily, I took a chance,” she says of her determination to turn her for fun, part-time venture into a career that would allow her to support her family. She enrolled in a business course at the Red Bluff Small Business Association, but still says, “Most of what I learned in business was from Mr. Zuckweiler,” the owner of the department store where she held her first job.
“I have really learned to appreciate the benefits of being self-employed,” she says now, noting that she had never planned to be so. Twentyfive years later, she feels the pride of having sewn for families that she’s been able to watch grow up. In some cases, she now sews for the children of her original customers. Her own children are now grown and successful, a point of great pride to her.
“Alterations are my bread and butter,” she adds. “That’s my gift. There is a huge difference between wearable and a perfect fit.” The perfect fit, she notes, can bring a smile to a person’s face, and that’s what she loves to see.
Along the way, Johnson managed to complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology through the Aspire program at Simpson University. “It didn’t change my profession, but it did change a lot of me,” she says. “It meant so much to get that college degree.”
It also gave her new insight into the value of her work. “I learned from psychology that how people feel about themselves affects their productivity and their accomplishments.” She also learned that “colors have power.” Hence, the importance of a perfect fit. “I really enjoy it when I can take stress out of people’s lives,” she says. “Because people do stress about their clothes.”
Johnson applied to season two of Project Runway and made it through four interviews for the show. Encouraged by her children to apply, she was disappointed to not make it further. However, she says, “My daughter said, ‘Mom, it was never about you making the show. It was about if you’d try’.”
Try is something Rhonda Johnson has been good at, and it has paid off. “I’m here now because I choose to be here,” she says. “I’m not stuck here.”
We Sew 4 U • Red Bluff