Margaret Bryant: Ever striving to be different

Published 11:42 am Friday, September 3, 2010

Margaret Bryant creates clothing using a variety of fabrics and colors; she likes to express emotion in her design. Photo by Kathee Kiesselbach

When Margaret Bryant walked into the cafe for her interview, she was glowing. Not only because of the slight mist on her face on this humid day, but because she was beautifully dressed. A classy lady on a bad day, she was wearing a gorgeous green and white long flowing skirt with front pleats and long matching deconstructed jacket over a black shell; Bryant looked like the artist she surely is.

Born in Cairo, Ill., the family moved to Dowagiac when she was just 3 months old where she attended Dowagiac schools, then headed for Southwestern Michigan College, where she majored in business. She was born into a family where her mother and grandmother both sewed, and Bryant loved sewing at an early age. The attraction was the ability to personalize the things she wore.

One of six children, Bryant’s mother had a habit of dressing the only two girls like herself, and Bryant often felt like she was fading into the background. Her aunt thought there was something wrong with her because she spent hours looking in the mirror fussing with her clothing. She would stand in the mirror tying or pinning parts of her clothing with safety pins and pieces of yarn and thread. Her cousins were so impressed that they told her she should protect her ideas. Using her mother’s sewing machine, she used her young cousins as models for her ideas.

Margaret married in her 20s and divorced in her 20s, but she credits him with buying her first sewing machine. She raised five children (losing her middle child to a diving accident when he was 43), and sewed at night when she had time. She sewed for her kids, especially when they were in high school. She made their jeans, trench coats, fur jackets and did upholstery. She tried her hand at men’s suits, square dance shirts and the occasional curtain for the house.

Later, she attended several design classes in Chicago and Mishawaka that focused on clothing for women. Bryant was recycling fabric and notions before it was in vogue. Like many families, she had a rag bag full of old clothing. She bought long full skirts at the Goodwill and Salvation Army because she could easily reuse the yards of fabric. She made ladies’ jackets out of vintage calendars printed on linen cloths. She has made clothing for entertainers, drag queens, female impersonators and customers who wanted to find something to wear for a special occasion.

Bryant picked up tricks like measuring with your fingers for inches, your forearm for feet and whole arm for yards. She also studied different sewing magazines like Thread.

Over time, she moved past those haute couture magazines and developed her own style, focusing on designs she saw in nature. She liked the challenge of expressing emotion using fabric — both her own emotion, and that of the wearer of her clothing. She uses the fabric like painters use color. She may cut the fabric, tear it, put holes in it, lining it with a different color that shows through to the front. She dyes it, paints it, writes on it and embellishes it with silk flowers, yarn or thread. She has used plastic and other found materials to bring out the emotion she is looking for.

Margaret says she is very much a homebody, though she ran a business for more than six years in downtown Niles called Margaret’s Boutique.

If she had a storefront today, she would try to reach the small creative group of people who want to express themselves through the clothing they wear. She would make limited edition pieces from casual to special occasions and everywhere in between. Clothing for all ages would have special surprises — the little details that you can no longer find in clothing: little pockets in unusual places, odd buttons, hidden pleats.

Versatility is very important, too. A scarf can change the whole look of an outfit. She knows when to make a flourish and when to keep it simple; when to use bright colors and when to be subtle. She can design a whole look for a person and make it appropriate for the occasion: simple things for everyday and special things for special occasions.

Artists especially love her clothing and seek it out to wear to art gallery openings. An artist herself, she sees her work as a vehicle to express herself; her art form is designing and making clothing.

She has seven or eight sewing machines set up at all times, some straight stitch/zig zag and some sergers. Her favorite is a Featherweight by Singer. Natural fabrics like silk, rayon and linen are her favorites. Linen is durable and still has movement.

You can see her work on Etsy,  Bryant will also be at the following shows: The All Members Exhibit through Oct. 7 at the Buchanan Art Center, Buchanan; the Celebration of the Arts, Sept. 18 and 19 in Chesterton, Ind; the HollyMarket, Nov. 5–11 at the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph; the Arts Cafe, Nov. 7 in South Bend, Ind.; and Longmeadow at Woodlawn Terrace, Nov. 14 in Niles/Buchanan.