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updated: 10/5/2012 7:26 AM

Teacher hires her best seamstresses

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Associated Press

DECATUR -- Sally the Clown orders her colorful outfits from Hems Only.

The Decatur Fire Department depends on the business to keep their uniforms in good repair and to sew patches on new ones.

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A high school student who is tall and couldn't find a dancing dress that was suited to her statuesque figure found willing hands and an original design there.

Leslie Dunkak, who teaches Clothing I and II at MacArthur High School, founded her small business when her children were very young. Today, she's still going strong and hires her best students to work with her.

"Lately, I've been making bibs for a special-ed student," said Jessica DeBerry, a sophomore who is one of those "best students." "He drools a lot, and he needed some big boy bibs."

That student now has a whole stack of big boy bibs made of Batman material.

Jobs for teens are scarce, Dunkak said, and she likes to help her students make extra money when she can. She keeps four young seamstresses busy, and they learn more than just hemming and sewing on firefighter patches. They help figure payroll, what supplies are needed and go to the bank with Dunkak.

"I want them to learn all aspects of operating a small business," Dunkak said.

The fire department provided Dunkak with a manual with specific instructions for placement of patches and rank insignia, and she and her students follow it precisely. The sewing room on the second story of her home is stocked with professional machines and a steam presser, two racks of multicolored thread, bins of patterns, work lighting and a full-length, three-way mirror.

She rarely accepts dressmaking jobs, preferring to stick to alterations, and she makes certain she doesn't accept more jobs than she and the students can get done in a timely fashion. Right now, it's homecoming season, and she's received a lot of requests for help altering homecoming dresses. Brides come to her for help fitting their dresses and their bridesmaids', too.

One reason she and the students stay so busy is that seamstresses are a rare breed. Dunkak started teaching the clothing classes at MacArthur, and sewing and design classes in the summer at the University of Illinois Extension, because she wanted to stir up interest in sewing among a younger crowd.

It's working, too. She started her MacArthur classes with 60 students five years ago and now has 123, and some of them are boys.

Sewing and mending have been around for years untold, and often done in groups.

"Sewing is a community activity," Dunkak said. "We sit here and talk about our problems and solve all the world's ills."

"I can't work in silence," Jessica agreed. "It's just not me."

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