MaryBeth Dudley's lifelong interest in sewing can be traced back to her late grandmother, who used an old pedal-operated Singer to make clothes for the family. Two generations later, the 41-year-old Shelburne resident relies on modern methods to design and fabricate customized female fashions. She named her company Jes-hali; the Arabic word, pronounced jez-hail-ee, means "honor and glory of oneself."
In her promotional brochure, Dudley vows that "no design leaves my studio without first passing the Jeshali swirl of approval -- the focus is not on the piece but on how the woman feels wearing it."
A brightly lit addition to her suburban home serves as both studio and showroom. A large cutting table dominates the space, and several examples of Dudley's work are displayed on dress forms. Spools of thread in a rainbow of colors are arranged on shelves lining one wall. Bolts of cloth stand upright on the beige carpet. And two electric Viking sewing machines, far more sleek than her grandmother's Singer, allow Dudley to stitch apparel for the 21st century. SEVEN DAYS: You grew up in a sewing-friendly home?
MARYBETH DUDLEY: I started at age 7. That's when I first pricked my finger with a needle. My grandmother made my mother's wedding gown and formals, also things like pajamas for us kids. We lived in Connecticut, where my two sisters and I did our own prom dresses.
SD: So you always knew this would be your destiny?
MD: Not exactly. My mom, who is a retired music teacher, used to say that my sisters and I should go into business with her in a higher-end clothing store-bridal shop. We'd make the outfits and she'd do the selling. When I was graduating from high school, she thought I ought to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
SD: But you didn't.
MD: I wanted to be a travel agent. I got an associate degree in tourism and hotel management at Endicott College in Massachusetts, then moved to Vermont in 1981 because of a romance. That broke up. But I met my husband Tim, and stayed. He's an estimator for a construction firm. Over the years, I worked in a travel agency, as an airline ticket agent, as a hotel front-desk person. I discovered that career involved crazy hours, though.
SD: How did you make the leap to fashion?
MD: I went back to school, Trinity College, for a business degree. It took five years, during which I was pregnant with my first child. We've got three now, aged 9, 11 and 14. I was doing office work and always sewing on the side, turning out wonderful clothes for my kids. When they were all in daycare, I decided to make a mark for myself.
SD: Just like that?
MD: Yes. In 1999 I started batting ideas around and finally said, out loud: "What if I try running my own studio?" My husband told me, "I've been waiting for you to say that for a long time. Let's do it!" We tapped out all of our savings to make it happen. I began in the basement, but that was not the right image. Presentation is so crucial. After a few months, we put this addition on the house.
SD: How did you let the world know you were open for business?
MD: Through word of mouth, a little advertising. And I always wear my own designs and always have a business card ready. It took a year to build a small client base, which has continued to grow.
SD: Speaking of growth, what sort of learning curve have you experienced?
MD: I'm a member of the Professional Association of Custom Clothiers, which has online networking. I can discover new techniques or find out what suppliers have to offer. And, of course, I learn more with every project I take on.
SD: What are the nuts and bolts of your business?
MD: About 75 percent is custom work -- half of that being bridal gowns and wedding wear. Another 20 percent of Jeshali is alterations, tailoring. And my own velvet scarves and [original-design] dresses account for 5 percent -- I sell those in two Shelburne stores, Ara-besque and Mendy's.
SD: Can you describe the effort that goes into custom design?
MD: I work by appointment only. People generally have something in mind. They bring in a magazine picture or a sketch. We choose fabric, which I drape over the person. Then I make a pattern and mock-up from muslin. I create the dress, skirt, pants or blouse that matches their expectations. It can take as little as two months or much longer. I have one client right now with a complex project that began in October and won't be finished until the end of April.
SD: What is it?
MD: I'm restoring the off-white silk from her mother's 1935 wedding gown that had yellowed. It has sentimental value. The top was ornate and fitted, so this is just from the skirt -- a huge amount of material that had two crinolines and a hoop, kind of like in The King and I. I'm making it into a shift-style wedding dress for the daughter.
SD: What's the most unique article of clothing you were ever asked to do?
MD: A 10-year-old girl from out of state made a sketch for her great-grandmother, who's in a wheelchair, that was a two-tone purple gown with a lot of chiffon and ruffles. Not my taste, but that's what they wanted. I bet the great-grandmother had a blast in it.
SD: Has there ever been any creation you found painful to part with?
MD: Someone bought beautiful, sheer silk fabric in Italy. It had a light mauve background with darker mauve roses and green leaves and a gold metallic thread running through. There was also a texture. She wanted a simple, long sheath with an irregular hemline that had inverted pleats in back. As I was draping the fabric on her, she was almost hyperventilating. I think the process was emotionally overwhelming because she had trouble visualizing the results. Part of my job was to help her calm down.
SD: People skills must be important.
MD: Yes. I try to pamper everyone. Customers need patience and faith that it will all work out. I certainly don't want clothes that come out of here to be anything but fabulous.
SD: Is there ever any sticker shock? Your clothing must not be cheap.
MD: Some people think they'll save money with custom designs, but that's only true if you sew them yourself. This isn't the kind of thing that can be picked up in a department store.
SD: You know the way Ralph Lauren is associated with upscale country living or Tommy Hilfiger with sportiness? How would you describe the MaryBeth Dudley-Jeshali look?
MD: Hmmm. Classy, comfortable, elegant. Long, clean lines. Not frilly. Buttons and bows are not really me.