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Pittsburgh 'sewists' mend textiles and memories

Abby Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Fashion Daily News

PITTSBURGH — When you think about fixing too-long pants or a holey sweater, you might envision dusty shops run by aging men draped in tape measures.

But take a walk down Butler Street in Lawrenceville, stop at Boheme Pittsburgh and go to the back of the marketplace. There, you’ll find two effortlessly cool women in their early 30s who only tailor ill-fitting clothing but also are on a mission to lighten the load of landfills, one mended textile at a time.

Tia Tumminello and Rebecca Harrison are the “sewists” behind 3-year-old Old Flame Mending. Their focus on mending attracts many clients with an interest in “slow fashion,” a philosophy that considers the supply chain and its ethical ramifications, such as the fashion industry’s impact on the environmental and human rights.

But other clients are drawn to the shop by different heartfelt motivations.

Doris Ullendorff lives in New York City, but when her Pittsburgher daughter had a baby this past year, she and her husband rented a “little place” in Squirrel Hill to make visits easier. She first brought a few pieces of clothing to Old Flame for mending, but, as a new grandmother, she felt an urgency to preserve something far more important than pants: her 67-year-old stuffed donkey, “Bella.”

“She really needed a fixing, but I never had any idea of where to take her,” she said.

 

Ullendorff, 70, was born in New York City but spent a chunk of her childhood in Switzerland, where she first met Bella. After moving back to the United States, she remembers pulling Bella along during walks through Central Park as if the donkey were a dog. When she had her own children, they were allowed to play with Bella only sparingly because those walks, and a lot of love, left her fragile.

But with a new grandchild and a pre-existing relationship with the Old Flame duo, she thought they might be the answer to reviving the German-made donkey. With Bella riding shotgun, Ullendorff drove to Pittsburgh.

Clients seeking help with “heirloom pieces” often regale the Old Flame owners with the stories behind their treasures, and Bella’s introduction was no different. Somewhat by accident, Tumminello had developed a specialty in working with stuffed toys and took on Ullendorff’s project.

Bella’s original stuffing was made from wood chips — a new sight for the sewist — and the stitches to contain it were seemingly done by hand. Tumminello thoughtfully added some modern materials and tightened the seams, preserving decades of memories and preventing Bella from joining the heaps of textiles discarded every year.

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