Written and photographed by William Bryant Rozier
“When I started out 28 years ago, all I had was a God given talent, an encouraging husband of 30 years, three children who were proud of me, a sewing machine, and a sincere prayer life,” said Thelma Russell, the owner of T-Lou’s Alterations and Sewing), about her business’s origin.
The 78-year-old’s shop is currently located inside the Penta Building, at 2315 South Calhoun Street.
T-Lou (Thelma Lou) is a nickname that came from her son-in-law. Russell thought it was a good business name.
Russell’s specialty is men’s clothes, but she can sew just about anything. A detailed price list in her shop shows prices for men’s suits and pants, women’s skirts and slacks, zippers, coats, etc.
A customer brought in a nylon lunch bag with loose straps for T-Lou to mend during our interview. There’s a sign in her shop that reads No Large Bag of Clothes. But “people don’t even read it,” Russell said. “If they bring in a bag, I’m not going to tell them to take it back home.”
Russell was the only one out of her siblings (5 boys and 5 girls total) who wanted to sew.
Her family (surname Griffin) is from Mississippi, where “people don’t name their daughters Thelma without the Lou.” T-Lou was a natural fit. “I made Lou my middle name.”
Russell was born in 1939 and spent almost all of her time working; racism was never really an issue for her and her sisters. “I guess my brothers had it bad because they were men,” Russell said. “You knew where to go [to avoid trouble]. But we weren’t allowed to go anyplace because we were young.”
The sharecropping Griffins picked cotton and pulled corn in the Cotton Belt. “It was hard work. Our dad felt sorry for us working out in the sun,” Russell said, so he migrated the family north.
“All the people we knew moved to Chicago, We moved to Fort Wayne,” Russell said. Some of her brothers were already living here.
Ethel and Herman Griffin were “good parents. My mom lived to be 95. My dad was 89 when he died.”
Russell was 13 when she moved to Fort Wayne, living on Buchannan Street. In 1953, “there were only about 10 to 12 blacks,” Russell said, at South Side High school, so she “enrolled herself” at the more-integrated Central.
After graduating in 1957, Russell began working in a sweatshop, sewing housedresses for older women in a basement at the old Wolf & Dessauer Department Store (it would eventually be sold to L.S. Ayres in 1969).
Russell stopped public sector working when she married Eddie (Kit) Russell and became a housewife. When their three kids (two girls and one boy) got grown and left the house, Russell started sewing professionally again. In 1985, she worked for Maier Brothers.
She honed her skills watching two tailors who were originally from Laos and Germany, learning how to alter men’s clothing.
“I used to sew clothes but to rip a suit open and put it back together, I didn’t know anything,” Russell said, about her learning curve. “I could sew by pattern [when I started], but now I don’t want to sew by pattern. I just want to rip and sew.”
After a short stint working for the Maiers, she quit. “I didn’t think they were paying me enough money for what I was doing,” Russell said.
Russell then worked for L.S. Ayers, tailoring for both men and women.
Then, in 1990…
Russell was getting her own customers; thing were progressing. “I decided I wanted to go on my own.”
She had developed the sensibility of an entrepreneur. “I couldn’t work in a factory because I had to punch a clock, and I couldn’t be there on time,” Russell said. And “I couldn’t work from home [as a seamstress] because I have to pretend like I’m going to a job.”
T-Lou’s first alternation shop was located at 116 West Rudisill, on the corner where Subway and Starlight photography used to be. “Starlight and I opened at the same time,” Russell said.
She didn’t have any equipment. “When you’re not sure what you want to do, you pray.” Soon thereafter, Russell bought a sewing machine, a cutting table, a whole box of zippers and thread for $300 from Sears, during a clearance sale. She bought her blind stitch from a lady in the country. “I was all set.”
Her husband passed away in 1993, so it was her kids who encouraged her to restart and move into the Penta building, after her supposed retirement. “My kids don’t think I should be a little idle.”
When she’s not sewing, Russell’s hobbies are crosswords puzzles (“the easy ones”) and playing my guitar, playing her down home blues. “I sing in the old people choir,” at True Love Baptist. “That’s what I call it.” She’s a grandmother now.
“I don’t claim to be perfect, but with the Lord on my side, I can do most anything, concerning sewing that is,” Russell said. “Just look where he brought me from.”
T-Lou’s Alterations and Sewing, 2315 South Calhoun Street, Suite 101, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46807
Open: Tuesday through Friday, 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.