The needle and the damage undone | Music Feature | Indy Week

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The needle and the damage undone

Raleigh woman's sewing skills rock



Thanks to the several pieces of fabric that are attached to pages between its covers, it is, literally, a scrapbook. However, this red book--which belongs to Jennifer Reavis, CEO and one-person workforce of AltStitch--holds other items in addition to those scraps. There are photos and handwritten letters and a drawing or two, everything coming together to tell the story of a restoration project with a musical connection. If you were at the show by urban roots rockers Marah this past Sunday, you might have seen the piece of clothing that's the star of Reavis' memory book: a World War I Austrian military jacket that Marah's Dave Bielanko bought off Mott the Hoople's original bass player when Dave and his brother Serge were in Wales recording the band's third album, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods. (And yes, that is a lot of history for one garment.)

"I sent Jennifer my coat in what I thought was terminal disrepair," Bielanko explains. "The lining was in tatters, the elbows ripped out, even the seams were failing." But as he found out and as is lovingly detailed courtesy of before and after shots in the red book, there are no lost causes in Reavis' world. "She resurrected my coat with a caring attention to detail and a seemingly charitable disregard for the time and money it took," says Bielanko.

And that wasn't St. Jennifer's first tour-wear miracle. Hell, it wasn't even her first tour-wear miracle in the Bielanko family. Several months earlier, Reavis resuscitated a vest that Serge Bielanko had bought in Europe in 1998 and proceeded to wear for every rock show since. In the middle of a Marah two-night stand at The Pour House last April, Reavis noticed the vest's sad condition and offered to help. "'I've had it to tailors all over the world and no one will touch it'," Reavis remembers Bielanko saying. Yeah well, those snooty international tailors probably aren't rabid music fans who hold concerts in their houses and dabble in mandolin.

Reavis fixed the vest, including the sides held together by safety pins and the dry-rotted back, completely remaking the outside in the process. And she did it in time for the next night's show.

Reavis has been sewing since she was 7 and using her skills to make gifts for people for almost as long, but she didn't go pro until the dot-com company she was working for went under a few years back. While doing some contract work and looking for a new full-time job, she decided to have a go at starting a side business. The extra nudge came when the band Hobart Willis and the Back Forty approached Reavis about making some tour jackets for them. Hello, embroidery machine. Hello, zoning license and business license and sales license. Hello, AltStitch.

Reavis eventually found that new full-time job, working in software testing at SAS. But she still carves out plenty of time to attend music shows (she and husband Tom are fixtures at alt-country shows in the Triangle and have opened their North Raleigh house for concerts on several occasions) and flex her sewing muscles. With AltStitch, she continues to find ways to combine those twin passions. In addition to her celebrated repair work, Reavis makes Western shirts, with hand-drawn yokes a specialty. She started making them for Tom, using a pattern she bought for her boyfriend when she was a teen in Salisbury, N.C., in the mid '70s. Her client list quickly expanded beyond the house when friends of the couple started requesting shirts to wear to shows. Soon, musicians--both locals and out-of-towners--were seeking out her stitchery. She's custom-made two shirts for No Depression magazine co-editor Peter Blackstock, including one for his wedding last winter. She's altered a blouse and dress for Tift Merritt and studded a pair of blue jeans. A couple shirts for Hooverville bassist Paul Dowd, alterations for bluegrass musician Greg Hawks, 40 embroidered hats for Patty Hurst Shifter? Sure, all in a couple of nights' work.

She's especially enjoyed three collaborations with Nashville's Jason Ringenberg, the one-time leader of pioneering country-punk band Jason and the Scorchers. When Ringenberg started talking about his Farmer Jason kids-music alter ego during a solo house concert in Chapel Hill, Reavis was inspired. "I started dreaming up this Western shirt that I'd put tractors and chickens on," she recalls with a laugh. When she approached Ringenberg after the show, he shared some ideas of his own, and a creative partnership was born. "Jason's unique in that he seems to have a lot closer idea in his head about what he wants," offers Reavis. He's jumpstarted Reavis' imagination with such suggestions as "Now think of a prairie farmer going to a barn dance, but a little more modernized" and, for a recent gold-and-black creation, "Think old Elvis paint by number on velvet. Okay, now he goes disco." According to Reavis, "It's truly collaborative work. He's got a concept, and then we go back and forth to figure out exactly what it is he wants." And Ringenberg couldn't be happier: "Teaming up with Jennifer has been a real blessing for me. She's very artist friendly and does fantastic work. That's just the way it is." (Check out the booklets for A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason CD and Ringenberg's brand new Empire Builders to see two of the shirts.)

The charitable heart of which Dave Bielanko speaks was on prominent display at last fall's benefit for Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo in Raleigh. In addition to embroidering and donating over a dozen hats (representing most of the participating acts) for the silent auction, Reavis created what turned out to be one of the most highly contested items: a denim shirt with a portrait of Escovedo on the back. "Jen's embroidery art perfectly captures his soulful eyes," says Durham's Sharon Massey, who got to wear the shirt home thanks to a stategically placed bid by her husband Wayland. "And the yoke on the back has the names of all the artists who performed at the benefit, many of whom are great favorites of mine: Thad Cockrell, Glory Fountain, Two Dollar Pistols, The Backsliders, 6 String Drag."

The Masseys were thrilled with the shirt, and as Wayland says, "Right away I started thinking there was some way embroidery could improve my life." Sure enough, he e-mailed Reavis a jpeg image of his favorite musical artist, Bob Dylan, and he's now the proud owner of a conversation-piece shirt of his own. "I've made a lot of new friends because of the shirt," he shares. "I tell them all that if Jen has a picture, she can reproduce it in thread." Now there's a quote for the scrapbook.

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