Leaving them in stitches

When Maria Simon of Fargo was growing up in Mexico, she had to sell flannel diapers she sewed and pick rice off the ground at weddings to help feed her family.

Maria Simon

When Maria Simon of Fargo was growing up in Mexico, she had to sell flannel diapers she sewed and pick rice off the ground at weddings to help feed her family.

When she was 5, her grandmother smuggled Simon into a sewing factory so the workers could pay her to fetch thread and clean up fabric to help increase their production.

At a time when women were expected to stay home, cook and sew, Simon disguised herself as a boy - once to get into vocational school and twice to earn money. The first time was so she could shine shoes on the street corner and the second time was so she could harvest pineapples for

50 cents a day.

In school, Simon rebelled against the sewing classes she was forced to take. Despite her protests, she was talented with a needle and thread, and her lessons in creating and following patterns later proved to be valuable.


She was a bright student and hard worker and earned a scholarship to take part in an exchange program in Gary, Minn. During her seven- month stay, she learned English, graduated from high school and got to be a regular kid with no worries for the first time in her life.

Things got really tough when she returned to Mexico. Having experienced something better, she didn't want to settle for less, so she did everything in her power to get back to Gary.

She later married Bill Simon and started sewing dresses from her home.

They moved to Fargo in 1991, and in 1996 Simon opened Alterations Sew Special in West Fargo. In 2005, she changed her shop's name to Sew Special and moved into the Old Chicago Plaza on

45th Street in south Fargo.

Simon alters formal wear and wedding gowns, and makes wedding veils, garters and jewelry.

She has also written a memoir about her life, which is available for sale in her shop.

Q: What inspired you to start your alterations business?


A: I guess I discovered I had the talent, and I always have to be challenged. When I opened my shop, my intentions were to work strictly on formal attire, but when I started I had to do everything, including small repairs.

Now I'm in the stage where I dreamed to be.

When did you first discover that you had a talent for sewing?

When my first child, Crystal, was born, we didn't have the income to get nice dresses, so I used to make all of her dresses.

When we used to go to church, people would ask, "Maria did you make her that dress? Oh, you've got to make me one," and that's how it actually started, from people just calling me.

When I started making formals, I designed them. The girls used to come in and they would show me a picture or several pictures, and they would say to me, "I like the body of that, I like the sleeve of that, I like the skirt of that," and then I would start drawing different choices and literally the dress would come alive on the piece of paper.

It's through education and God's gift.

Do you miss designing gowns?


The alterations are not just alterations. It is redesigning, re-creating, reinventing and in trying to make it unique for the bride.

How much time do you typically spend on a wedding dress?

Anywhere from seven hours to 18, on average.

Seven hours, chances are it's easy to fit. It's more of a domestic gown, kind of simple.

When you have the 18 hours, you have a designer dress. More imported materials, very, very elaborate beadwork, a combination of several fabrics.

When the designers combine several fabrics together, it is not sometimes the best idea. If you put polyester lining and you put interfacing to make it sturdy and then the silk is going to show every little lump. It might look good on the drawing board, but when you put it on, it looks horrible.

The bride doesn't know this. She sees a picture in a catalog, she sees the quality of the fabric and she loves it. I have to basically take it apart and redo the whole thing.

What is the best part of your job?


When I see the smile on their faces, when they walk out of here feeling like a million bucks.

Usually when I have a good day and I see my brides, it takes a couple of hours for me to come down; my adrenaline just goes high.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?


During prom, there are not enough hours in the day to accommodate 2,000 students going to prom in a period of one week. You like to please everybody, but there's so much a person can do. There are some days I put in 14-hour days, I come to work six days a week. That's tough, but you've got to love it. If I didn't love it, I wouldn't be here.

It's a tough industry. I think you have to have nerves of steel.

You have to be firm, and yet kind. And then sometimes you have to please the customer no matter what, knowing yourself it's not the right choice. That's tough, but if she's happy, I'm happy.

What changes have you seen in the industry over the years?


When we went to prom, it was sweet 16s. Now they look like Hollywood stars, Miss America. Everything is beadwork, everything is fitted.

I see some prom dresses that look like Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. That's tough for me as a mom, not as a seamstress. As a mom, I would like to see every girl look sweet 16. I think all the girls get a little lecture from me.

Do you have a style of dress that's your favorite to work on?

I think I fall in love with every gown as they come in. And I think that's why the girls are comfortable with me. I think enthusiasm is contagious. I think the gowns come alive when the girls put them on.

What prompted you to write a book about your life?

A lot of my customers come in, they get to know me and ask how I got started, when I learned how to sew, how young I was when I started sewing.

And I thought to myself, "My goodness, if I'm going to tell them, I should write a book." It was just an idea. One day, I just sat down and plugged away.

Tell me a little bit about your childhood that led you to where you are today.


My grandmother used to smuggle me to a sweatshop when I was 5 years old. When I was 5 years old, I swore I was not going to be a seamstress because I was afraid I was going to become my grandma.

I thought it had to be better. I had a vision and I wanted to get an education. Back in my country, women were not educated at all and I was not going to be like those women, I was going to be different.

I wanted to take typing because it would open the doors as a receptionist, maybe work in a bank as a teenager, maybe in a department store and then my counselor chose for me to take sewing and I didn't like that at all.

You've always been a business-minded person, haven't you?

Oh, yes. I remember when I did my first transaction.

My brother wanted me to polish his shoes so when I got tired of it, I conned him into paying me. To do that, I only polished one boot and if he needed the other one, he had to pay me and he did. I figured if people want it bad enough, they'll pay for it.

My mother told me one time I should give up. This was a man's world, and I better get used to it. And I'm thinking to myself, says who?

She told me the day that I bring money home, I will have a voice in the house, so I did. I went to the street, polished shoes, and came home with a few pesos in my hand.

I'm stubborn, too, so they just quit trying to convince me what I wanted and I didn't quit trying to tell them who I wanted to be.

If you go

- What: Sew Special

- Where: 2551 45th St. S., Unit 127, Fargo

- Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday; and Saturday by appointment

- Phone: (701) 277-9099



Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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