Hollow to hem
Couple perfects the art of alterations and dressmaking at shop
Written by Heather Jones Skaggs
Photographs by Dawn Harrison
Hoover resident Sammie Robertson has traveled and worked all over the globe in a variety of service and professional fields since graduating high school.
The 1998 graduate of Hoover High School spent a year in Hawaii, another year in New York City, two years in Chicago and three years in Tokyo.
In Tokyo, he met his wife Ai, a patternmaker for Japanese designers.
The Robertsons were married in 2009 and moved back to Hoover to raise a family, and unknowingly, to build a family business.
Ai, who grew up in Japan and England, graduated from the Intensive Garment Creation Program at Bunka Fashion College in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
While living in Japan, Ai began designing and making patterns for designers like Takeo Nishida and Lovely Queen fashion house.
After moving to the United States, Ai brought her expert skills to several bridal boutiques and continued with the art of patternmaking for designers – including hundreds of patterns for the Judith March label. (Judith March fashion designer Megan Crane Duncan is also a Hoover alumna.)
A patternmaker takes a designer’s sketches and creates both a sample (“prototype”) and pattern (“blueprint”) of the garment, which the factory will use for production.
A few years down the road and many spools of thread later, the opportunity to have their own shop emerged when family friend Seiko, of Seiko’s Alterations located on Lorna Road in the River Oaks Village shopping center, decided to retire from her alterations business of 30-plus years.
“We bought Seiko’s Alterations in 2015 and stayed open under that name for a time,” Sammie explains.
Family background brought out the seamster in Sammie.
“My adopted mother worked as a seamstress when she was younger and my birth mother, who passed away when I was very young, was a wedding dressmaker,” he says. “My father is also a retired builder, so taking things apart and putting them together is natural for me.”
You could say sewing is in his blood. A man who sews is called a “seamster.”
“There isn’t really a school for alterations,” Sammie says. “It’s something that was passed down to us from veterans of the art.”
When Seiko gradually started planning to retire, she and her daughter began to train Sammie on basic clothing alteration, and Ai began teaching him new skills.
The couple kept the business under the Seiko name and continued to offer the same alteration services. At the same time, they were redesigning and rebranding the shop.
“We did alterations during work hours and construction after hours,” Sammie recalls. “We did most of the work ourselves updating the shop, and my dad helped with a lot of the work, including a new wood floor and reception area.”
The shop reopened as Hollow To Hem in 2016.
“The name comes from the sewing term and represents the measurement from the hollow of the neck to the hem of the dress,” Ai explains. “We felt this name, without the word ‘alterations,’ was a good umbrella for what we might expand on doing in the future regarding design, patterns and dressmaking,” Sammie adds.
The couple now have two children, their 5-year-old son Ren and daughter Hana.
Hana is 19 months old and was born during the rebranding and upgrading of the shop.
With the new look and growing family came a new focus, primarily on wedding and formal attire alterations and customizations.
Both Sammie and Ai agree, changing the shop’s focus allows them to provide the best customer service and experience possible for their customers, and allows for more efficiency in the services they offer.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into making our shop feel appropriate for a bride who just spent thousands on a beautiful dress in a stylish bridal boutique. Our work spaces are clean and spacious, and we have strict rules on what is and isn’t allowed in these areas,” Sammie says.
When a client comes into Hollow To Hem, they are immersed in an experience all their own.
The Robertsons take custom care of each dress and tailor to each client’s vision.
“One of our clients was not happy with how the sleeves, or lack of sleeves, looked on the dress she bought for her daughter’s wedding. We were able to add sleeves to her Mother of the Bride dress and make a more comfortable and stunning garment for her,” Sammie says.
Combining talents and experiences with the professional skill sets of a patternmaker has allowed the couple to develop a more precise system for consistent, high-quality and accurate work.
It is truly a specialized art where needle and thread are the artist’s tools.
The Robertsons also have two expert seamstresses that work part-time at Hollow To Hem. “Our seamstresses sew by our marks,” Ai explains. “Sammie and myself do all of the fittings, measurements and markings required before any work starts on a dress, but the work keeps all four of us sewing on a regular basis.”
Along with wedding alterations, the shop also does a lot of pageant dress alterations and customizations that are highly specialized.
Ai also continues with patternmaking, samples and custom dressmaking for designers and is currently working with Cavanaugh Baker out of Nashville, Tennessee.
The demand in the wedding and pageant industry keeps Hollow To Hem busy. The turnaround time for a typical wedding dress alteration is usually two weeks, depending on how many fittings are required.
“Custom work like adding sleeves and fabrication takes a little longer. We recommend booking several months in advance for a wedding dress,” Ai says.
Working with brides builds many memories. Every bride and her dress is special, and that’s what the Robertsons love about their work. But the single most memorable item the Robertsons say they have worked on wasn’t a dress at all, but a pair of leather gloves. “Before we rebranded, an elderly man came into our shop with a pair of lined, soft leather gloves that had ripped,” Sammie recalls.
The man was visibly shaken and holding back tears. He explained the gloves had been a gift from his wife, the last gift she gave him before she passed away after a long battle with cancer a decade ago. The man had spent those last few years caring for her every need. “When he spoke of her, his voice trembled. You could feel how strong their love was, even a decade after her passing,” Sammie and Ai recall. “He said that when he wore the gloves, he could remember how it felt being with her. We repaired them, like new, and have never felt deeper and more heartfelt gratitude than the day he picked them up.
“Our wish is that every bride would have the chance to experience that kind of dedication and love in their marriage, and also see that same love in our teamwork as husband and wife as an example as we work on the dress for their special day,” Sammie and Ai say.
Hollow To Hem takes clients by appointment only and can be found on Facebook and Instagram.