By Valerie L. Valdez

The art of sewing is a very empowering thing. Creating clothes for others to wear is a true expression of their identity. In many ways, sewing is the ultimate sign of femininity — seductive and passionate, yet comforting. An ancient craft, sewing is also a skill that one can learn, but a true seamstress is an artist who breathes life into fabric.

Family is where Barbara McClafferty’s creativity began.

“Sewing is in my blood because my mother was a seamstress,” said McClafferty, owner of Barbara’s Needle in Killeen. “I just love it. Anything with needle and thread, I can do.”

As the owner of Coccinella Bridal in Salado, Susan Salerno’s wedding dress designs are like architecture with fabric. She has been a professional seamstress since 1976, and owned the shop since 2005. Salerno sees the beauty in mixing different elements into one gown.

“I’ll look at a dress and often combine parts, the top from one dress with the bottom of another to make a unique bridal gown,” Salerno said.

Each seamstress views a wedding dress as art and a personal witness to a bride’s history and works to find the common thread that connects a dress to the woman inside. When a bride walks down the aisle, she is wearing a living canvas of that once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Both women were born abroad, McClafferty in Germany and Salerno in England, and trained at professional sewing schools in those countries. They credit their early training with teaching them not to accept inferior work. “Once I had a teacher tear up a piece that I had worked on because it wasn’t good enough,” Salerno said. “If it’s not acceptable, don’t do it.”

McClafferty and Salerno know the most important part of their work is customer service, and pride themselves on tuning into that person’s wants and needs because every client is different. Often a client has a photo or an idea for a dress, and both women listen and then help a client understand all the options available for the budget and time. “When they come to my shop, they are nervous because they are trusting me not to ruin their dress,” McClafferty said.

Working from her home-based shop for the last 14 years, McClafferty begins the alteration process in the same way.

“I have to have the foundation if I’m going to do a good fit,” she said.

She works from the top down using safety pins instead of straight pins and constantly asks the wearer if it is loose or tight.

“I’m the worker bee, but it’s your dress. I’m here to help you make the decision about your dress,” McClafferty said.

Salerno loves to blend something old into something new in her wedding dresses. Depending on the condition of an original gown, she’ll take a piece, such as a sleeve or an applique, from a mother’s dress and make it a part of an accessory in a ring bearer’s pillow or the veil.

“An on-line company may see a photo of a dress and duplicate it. I don’t do that. I take the time to craft a dress for the bride, and sew on every bead by hand,” Salerno said.

The seamstresses caution buyers to beware of purchasing online wedding dresses because the quality is never as good as ones that you can see and touch for yourself.

When she isn’t sewing, McClafferty loves to garden and ride one of her six horses. She is also teaching her two granddaughters the basics of sewing. Salerno is handing over the business side of the shop this June, so she can focus on the artistic side of formal wear — her first love.

McClafferty and Salerno have created the fabric of their lives by making beautiful clothing for their customers to use and cherish for years.

“I get a hug from everybody who walks out the door,” McClafferty said. “I’m blessed that I have this talent.” For Salerno, following the golden rule is the only way to do business.

“I treat people the way I want to be treated.”

If you go

Barbara’s Needle, Killeen, 254-526-5244

Coccinella Bridal, 230 N. Main St., Salado, 254-947-8442

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