MERRY CANILLAS, Seamstress/owner
Hand Strands Sewing & Alterations, Saco
Merry Canillas loves what she does for a living. For more than 30 years she has pursued her passion for fashioning fabric creations through the design, construction and alteration of clothing and costumes.
Canillas, who grew up in Gloucester, Mass., attended the Montserrat College of Art, where she studied dressmaking and design while balancing full-time work and raising her children. She started sewing from home part time when her kids were small.
“It was something I wanted to do,” said Canillas. “And I had always done projects here and there for family and friends.”
Canillas continued to hone her craft and now works full time from Hand Strands, her shop on Common Street in Saco. She also employs student interns interested in learning about her craft through CCI Greenheart, a cultural exchange program based in Chicago. This summer, Marketa Horakova, a young woman from Hradce Kralove in the Czech Republic, worked at the shop. Canillas said the help is needed and appreciated, as her business lists 2,000 clients in its database.
“We have customers from Gray, Maine, to Texas,” said Canillas. “It often starts with a husband bringing in a pair of pants to alter or repair. The wife comes in next and then it’s something for the kids. I’ve even worked on toys for the dog. Even when customers move away from Maine they come back. My business is all about word of mouth.”
Maine Women had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Canillas about her craft, what she most enjoys about the work and what it takes to be a great seamstress.
Q: Have you always been interested in sewing? When did you decide to pursue it as a career?
A: Sewing is a skill and a hobby I’ve always had but my interest (in pursuing it) began in junior high. I started a sewing business in my house in 1994 when my youngest was then 3. I wanted to bring in some income and be an at-home mom. I did take a break from working at home to design costumes for a musical group. I also worked for nine years as a financial aid counselor at Maine College of Art. I’ve always been into the arts – painting and photography along with design. My experience at MECA, being exposed to the art students, their resourcefulness, uniqueness, and trips around the world collecting fabric, inspired me more and more in my own work. I designed a logo when I was at MECA. I saved it and now use it for my business.
But the bulk of my work has been as a seamstress. I’ve done it off and on throughout my adult life. I have been sewing full time for six years now. In October, it will be three years here in Saco.
Q: What kind of work do you do as a seamstress?
A: With my art background I have the freedom to design custom work, 3-D, home de?cor, and all types of apparel including prom and bridal. One of the 3-D projects we’re working on now is for a gentleman who wrote a children’s book. We’re making the characters from the book in fabric. We also work through local interior designers. Their client will give them a request and it comes to me for implementation. I work on all types of home de?cor, including cushions and drapes. I also offer basic alterations for prom, bridal and men’s suits and am happy to do simple repairs, too.
Q: Is there one aspect that you enjoy more than another? Is there something you’d like to try?
A: I definitely like doing custom work. It allows me the freedom to be creative and use all of my knowledge and skills. There’s no repetition. With the creative stuff I’m working more closely with customers. I give them “homework” to go out and look for fabric. I guide them through the process. They come back and we collaborate on the piece, making it work with the pattern. It’s usually someone who has an idea in mind of what they want but can’t find it on the rack.
My biggest dream would be to go to Hollywood and be a costume designer for a film studio. I think it would be really interesting, especially work on period pieces.
Q: What makes a good seamstress, in your opinion?
A: Passion, care and skill. You have to love what you do. For me sewing is relaxing and therapeutic. It’s similar to when you are painting. You get drawn right into it. You have to care. For most customers clothing is a very personal thing. They communicate that the item is special. It’s my job to respect and care for what they bring in. And weight, height, body shape can be an issue for people. I want to make them feel good about what they are wearing and let them know I care about their concerns. And you have to have skill. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and work smart.
Q: What do you enjoy about having your own shop? What are some of the challenges?
A: The independence of being a business owner. I don’t need to set my alarm anymore or drive to Portland. It’s a huge benefit. We open at 10 a.m. but I’m usually here by 7:30 or 8. We close at 6 but we’re often here after hours. Some days are so busy. There aren’t enough hours in the day!
Q: What advice would you offer to someone interested in getting into sewing, either as a hobby or on the professional level?
A: Learn as much as you can about it. Do some research, take classes, even go to YouTube. You can often find videos to show you how to do something you’re having trouble with. And get involved in the community. You’ll find out about groups and classes that can help.