BENNINGTON — The website for the Scarlett Creation is modern in design and provides information about the store’s fabrics, yarns, sewing notions, and its services – including quilt finishing and alterations to clothing.
The website lacks the buttons and controls which allow visitors to buy something. Their deletions were not an oversight during construction.
“I tried online sales, and I didn’t like it,” said Scarlett Burgess, the store’s namesake and owner. “It was a real pain in my neck. We’re brick-and-mortar, period.”
The colors and textures of fabrics cannot be fully appreciated on a smartphone or computer screen, Burgess said. This store is wholly dependent on people leaving with new purchases or tendering new orders at the sales counter.
“Alterations are the bread and butter of the business,” said Burgess, 68, standing in the store on a Saturday afternoon last month. “I do a lot of alterations on wedding gowns. That green dress on the table? I’ve been over an hour just pinning it.”
More than half the shop’s revenues are made from work on alterations, according to Burgess. She charges $10 for hemming a pair of pants and $25 to replace a coat zipper. For wedding gowns, the rate is $25 per hour but Burgess said she had never charged a bride much more than $100 to alter her dress.
Burgess, who retired in 2016 from the Vermont Veterans’ Home after a 33-year career, had taken up sewing when she was in high school. She grew up in Shaftsbury and has lived in Bennington for nearly 50 years. In 1990, she began offering apparel alterations out of her house.
“It was kind of a side gig,” she said, “just to make a few extra bucks.”
Burgess decided to move the business out of her home when some big-box retailers stopped selling fabrics — which pushed local shoppers to stores in Rutland, Albany, N.Y., or Pittsfield, Mass.
The first Scarlett Creations storefront, at 493 Main St. in Bennington, opened in 2008. Along with alteration services offered by the home-based business, the shop carried lines of fabrics and sewing notions such as needles.
“I just kind of jumped in with both feet,” Burgess recalled. “I said, ‘Here we go.’”
The store remained a part-time endeavor while its owner continued working for the state. Burgess did many alterations during evenings and staffed the store on weekends. She moved to 626 Main St., a much larger space, around the time she retired from the civil service.
“I have over 700 bolts of fabric in here,” Burgess said.
Destiny Crisp, a student at Williams College, approached the counter with two of those bolts and asked Burgess to cut fat quarters from each. She had a third fabric which had already been cut into one of the quarters, which are the preferred size for quilting.
“I’m getting these three fabrics and some thread,” Crisp said. “I want to make my mom a quilt. It’s not going to be massive. It will be kind of like a smaller quilt.”
The cost, after Burgess applied a 10 percent student discount: $18.97.
After the customer left, Burgess prepared to retreat to her sewing area — a large room at the rear of the store where she spends most of her day working on the alterations that are essential to keeping the business a going concern.
“I would be crazy if I stood up at the counter all day,” she said as she walked into the back room, which features a few sewing machines, tables, an ironing board and more bolts of fabric.
A video feed from cameras and a bell help to alert Burgess whenever a potential customer enters off the street.
The more complicated alteration jobs can remain at Scarlett Creations for several days. These advance along the tables as Burgess pushes the order towards completion.
“It’s a working process,” Burgess explained. “You get one thing started and you’ve got to wait until they come in to try it on again — and then you can finish it.”
A large podium is kept in the store’s dressing room. It has different heights and looks like something ascended by finalists after a track meet. Customers move up and down the levels as Burgess sits in a chair and pins their garments.
At home, Burgess has a long-arm sewing machine that she uses for quilt-finishing jobs. This means there are nights when she heads home from the back room of the shop only to sit down behind another sewing machine.
She does not consider it a toil, she said, and her outputs are very different from when she worked in accounts payable and purchasing for the state.
“That was bookwork, what I did there,” Burgess said of her time at the Vermont Veterans’ Home. “But this, here? This is handwork.”