Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner wrote,
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking
As I visited Irene Venema, owner of Denim and Lace Custom Sewing and Alterations, I had a sense that she was living that reality. Irene exudes deep gladness when she talks about the work she does and the impact it has had on the lives of many people.
I’ve always loved sewing. It started already when I was five. My mom gave me scraps of fabric, I had my own dolls, and I hand-sewed everything. And then it grew. I love fabrics. I can go into a fabric store and just run my hands through all the textiles. I love it! And I love thinking outside of the box. So for girls who come in and have a dress that is way too small and nobody wants to tackle it, I love to take those dresses and I love to work with those girls.
Irene keeps busy with graduation and wedding garments, uniforms, casual wear, curtains, mattress covers and home decor…anything fabric. Working from a cozy, fabric-filled room in her home in rural Langley, her work has become so much more than custom sewing. She has made her business about building relationships.
Mostly I listen. When you measure someone, you can’t just measure in silence. We talk about their family, the day that’s coming, where they’ve grown up. Amazingly, people are very happy to open up and tell stories about love. Some stories just give you the goosebumps. I get to be part of those stories.
Irene shared many stories over the course of our visit:
- A burial dress she made in less than two days for an unmarried Polynesian seamstress whose family wanted to bury her in a “bride of Christ” dress so she could meet Christ in white. “I sewed my face off!”
- A dress for a woman who never thought she would find love again after her husband left her when she developed cancer, but was so delighted to be marrying someone who was deeply committed to her.
- A pillow-case made for a grieving daughter from the un-laundered shirt of her father who died. She had wanted to keep his scent for as long as possible.
- A $100 wedding dress a woman bought on Craigslist that no one else would touch; certainly not a bridal shop. “They would laugh me out of the store.”
- Clothing for someone with a hormonal illness that causes her body to grow oversized.
- A dress for a woman who has very little money but still wants to look good.
- A dress made of fishnet fabric that needed to be altered for a tiny bride. “Fishnet! Do you know what it’s like to sew fishnet? It wobbles everywhere!”
Irene is up for all these challenges. She spends time at the kitchen table over a cup of tea and finds out what the client wants and works hard to make it so. She builds relationships with her customers by listening to the hopes and dreams they have for their special occasions. She is able to translate those hopes and dreams into dresses that make the wearers look and feel amazing.
I had a lady who was getting married in four days who had a dress that had to be modified and she hated it. I said, “Sweetie you chose this dress so there must be something lovely about it. Put it on and let’s make it work.” I called her the day afterward and said it’s ready to go. She came in and she cried and said, “It is exactly the dress I wanted it to be. You saw what I wanted.” But that’s a gift I’ve been given. I love it that I’m able to use it.
Irene says she often has tears in her sewing room. Very often they are tears of joy. She loves it when she helps women who “are not the size off the rack” and who “don’t want their clothes to look like a bag on them.” The joy is amazing when they see how lovely they look. She gets to see the transformation in their faces as they begin to feel accepted and good about themselves.
She also sees tears of brokenness. Her clients often share stories of hurt, embarrassment, body shame, or poor self-esteem. Irene sees it as her mission to help them feel better about who they are.
Quite often I get girls who have more hip than top and they are embarrassed. My goal is to make them comfortable in their own skin. We are all created different and we are all so beautiful in our own way. You have to move on from thinking you have to fix your look. The man you are marrying loves you for who you are. You need to go forward in confidence.
Irene meets people who have been wounded deeply by the church. As a devoted churchgoer, that is very difficult for her to hear and harder to speak into. She shares the anger toward those who are in a position of power who have hurt a child or a young woman and have wounded their faith, their soul, so deeply. She shares her tears with these women. She can’t preach to them, but she can share their sorrow and be present with them.
Irene’s cozy little room often becomes a safe place for deep pain to be expressed and validated. She will often get calls from former clients asking to come over for a cup of coffee to share some of their hurts. Like the woman from a sewing class whose husband unexpectedly left her, who needed a coffee and a listening ear. Irene will provide that safe place for healing conversation and acceptance.
The deep sorrow that comes into some of these lives, honestly I don’t know how they manage without the Lord. I really don’t know. I can witness but I can’t preach. And I’m here.
As a Christian who has received the grace of God in Christ, Irene sees it as her mission to give grace to those she meets. That involves developing relationships characterized by listening and acceptance as well as using her skill and passion for fabrics and beauty to help people feel good in their own skin.
It’s much more than just getting a dress made or fixed or curtains fixed. It’s a relationship. My husband would laugh. He thinks more matter-of-fact, in terms of numbers, and says “Honey I don’t know how you can make money this way because you spend way too much time just visiting with them.” But we get things done. And there are just so many beautiful people out there who need to be recognized for their own sake and they’ve been marginalized in so many ways by so many people that they come in sort of expecting to be pushed down again. But because of my reputation I’m getting more and more people coming in and asking, please can you help me. And that is what I’d like to see.
Irene is inspired by Lydia in the Bible, who was a seller of purple cloth in Philippi, and the first Christian convert in Europe. Lydia showed hospitality to the missionary Paul and his companions. Irene is inspired to show hospitality as she does her work, opening her kitchen table for tea, her sewing room for custom jobs, and her heart for relationships. She wishes she would also work with purple dye and the manufacturing of fabrics. “That would be such fun.”
But for now she’s happy to show others in her teeny corner of Langley what God’s grace means.
God is using the skills that I have and the love and the passion that I have for all things beautiful. It’s a joy to do it. I love it. In this tiny little room—even my husband says “You’ve got a mission and I can’t deny it.” Which is pretty awesome.
In her tiny sewing room in rural Langley, Irene is creating a safe place of beauty and transformation. She exudes the joy of a person whose deep gladness meets a deep hunger in the world.