If you walk into Pins & Needles Alterations, you’ll find a space crammed full of outfits waiting to be altered and employees busily working at sewing machines. But you might also notice the shelf full of stuffed bears right next to the door and wonder what the brightly colored creatures have to do with an alterations shop.
The bears themselves are undeniably adorable. One blue-and-gray bear has a Twins emblem emblazoned on its chest, while another is stitched out of plaid blue flannel. There’s a bear wearing a lab coat with the logo of a local business, while another bear is covered head-to-paws with thick, fuzzy brown fur.
But the story behind each bear is equally touching. That blue-and-gray bear was crafted out of a favorite Twins jersey someone’s grandfather always wore for games. The plaid flannel comes from a beloved relative’s work shirt. The bear with the lab coat is waiting to be given to an employee retiring from the business, with parts stitched out of her own coat. And the fuzzy brown bear was crafted out of a grandma’s cherished fur coat.
These are only a few of the hundreds of “Memory Bears” that the staff of Pins & Needles has created over the years, ever since former co-owner Judy Marben started offering them. She and her former co-owner (and now sole owner) Sarah Breitbarth have crafted the bears out of everything from wedding dresses to bath robes, military uniforms to sweaters. While the bears all make use of the same pattern, they’re all custom created for each customer in order to best showcase the material being used.
A lot of times, they’ll come to pick up the bear, and they just burst into tears. It’s wonderful because they’re seeing what they’re supposed to see. It makes us feel good.Judy Marben
“A lot of times, they’ll come to pick up the bear, and they just burst into tears,” Marben said. “It’s wonderful because they’re seeing what they’re supposed to see. It makes us feel good.”
Both Marben and Breitbarth discovered a love of sewing when they were young. For Marben, who grew up on a farm outside of Blue Earth, her mother started teaching her how to sew because she wanted to create new fashions for her dolls. She experimented with print feed sacks, eventually making clothes for herself as well, and she continued to learn about the craft during high school home economics classes and 4-H projects.
Marben’s first official “paid” job was at the age of 15, when a relative’s friend hired her to sew back-to-school outfits for her children. “She paid me for it, and I was so excited!” Marben recalled with a laugh. “I was… thrilled to get $15.”
After graduating high school, Marben attended a vocational school in Minneapolis to study in its “needle arts” program, then found a job at a furrier in Minneapolis. After moving to the Mankato area, Marben began working at the newly established Kayc Kline Alterations in 1994. “And I’ve been in that building ever since,” Marben said.
Meanwhile, Breitbarth grew up in the Gaylord area and said her first memory of sewing was with her grandmother, working on a cross stitch picture stamped on turquoise fabric. Some of Breitbarth’s pieces from her childhood now are framed and hanging on the shop’s wall.
“In our house, growing up, we didn’t have lots of money, so if you wanted something new and you could find a piece of fabric and a pattern and make it yourself, you were more likely to have a new item than a used item,” she said. “That was part of the draw.”
While Breitbarth continued to sew countless items for home economics class, 4-H and beyond, she didn’t go into the sewing profession until much later. She explained that she and her husband live on a farm, and when the farming economy took a hit in the late 1990s, that’s when she started looking for another profession to help pay the bills. While she first tried visiting area department stores to find work in an alterations department, she was surprised to find that most major retailers no longer offered their own alteration services. Instead, they all sent their clothing to Kayc Kline Alterations—and one department store staff member let Breitbarth know that the alterations company was hiring.
“So I marched myself down there,” Breitbarth said. “It was a rainy day, and I looked like a drowned rat. But I thought, ‘What the heck?’ At the time, the owner was quite ill, so I went to her house. I marched in and said, ‘I heard you’re hiring.’ If you can’t beat them, join them. I had my fabric resume—a suitcase full of dresses and clothes that I’d made for my daughter—and I flopped them onto her dining room table. I remember the girls telling me later that [Kayc] was so impressed by that. She’s like, ‘Who carries around a bag of what they’ve sewn?’”
Breitbarth started working at Kayc Kline Alterations in 1998, joining Marben. Only two years later, Kline offered to sell the business to the two of them since she wanted to retire. Marben and Breitbarth became the new owners, changing the name to Pins & Needles Alterations. Marben retired from being a business partner a few years ago, but she continues to work there as a seamstress.
A Multitude of Services
Now, 20 years later, Pins & Needles Alterations offers clothing construction, repair and alteration, along with rag rugs (crafted on the business’s loom) and Memory Bears. While formal wear (such as wedding and prom dress alterations) is the business’s biggest revenue generator, staff members also hem and resize regular clothes, as well as replace zippers — “hundreds of zippers every winter,” Marben said — and work on leather repairs. They’ve also worked on small upholstery projects.
The staff will also take on custom projects, such as creating filter bags for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The bags were used to move water from one pond to another while preventing invasion from zebra mussels. “Our joke is that we’ll try anything once,” Marben said.
One thing that they won’t try again, though, is hot tub covers. Marben explained that they started working on repairing the covers during the last recession, but because of the covers’ size and how dirty they usually were—including being covered in mildew a lot of the time—the staff decided not to take on any more after a few projects.
“That was one of the things that we decided, after doing a few of them, that they were so awful,” Marben said. “We thought, ‘Nope, this isn’t worth it.’”
Perhaps surprisingly, Pins & Needles doesn’t do a lot of custom garment creation. While Marben said the staff is up to it if someone does make a request, they simply don’t receive many projects because it’s much cheaper to buy items that were manufactured overseas. The shop rate at Pins & Needles is $58/hour, which means it can be quite costly to have something created from scratch.
“The majority of clothing is constructed overseas for a very low price, and so, for us to start from scratch, the price comparison is too high for most people,” she said. “Most people, even if their body shape is really off of an average ‘ready-made’ garment, it’s usually cheaper for them to buy one and then have us adjust the rest of it. Some people just want what they want… It just doesn’t happen often.”
While Pins & Needles’ Memory Bears have become famous throughout the last several years, they actually started as something quite different.
Marben explained that she was inspired to start making bears for gifts by a fellow sewing friend around 2005, using vintage chenille fabric. She hunted down vintage bed sheets and transformed them into bears, and she and Breitbarth decided to start offering them at the shop. While Breitbarth said people found the bears interesting and would often comment on them, not many actually bought them.
If someone has just passed away and [a client] asks for a bear … we’ll push it ahead of everything else and try to get it done. It’s worth it. If it helps someone move on in their healing process, it’s worth it to us.Sarah Breitbarth
Everything changed, though, when a customer came in one day asking if someone could create a bear out of her old bathrobe. She explained that her daughter had always loved the bathrobe, and she wanted to make a bear out of it to send it along when her daughter left for college.
“It ended up being the first bear that we made to sell,” Marben said. “It was a great inspiration. We’ve made them out of just about everything since then.”
“[We realized] that we needed to use fabric that people already wore and were already attached to,” Breitbarth added. “It’s kind of surprising sometimes how connected people are to garments. You don’t realize how precious they are to them. People really embraced the idea. There have even been people who’ve said they didn’t think it would be anything they’d ever like, but now they carry [the bear] around and talk to it. It’s a very comforting thing.”
Customers often come in with garments such as a grandfather’s favorite sweatshirt or one of the sweaters a grandma always wore at the holidays. Button-down shirts are the most popular garments used for bears, while jeans, T-shirts and baby blankets are also popular.
It takes about 3-5 hours to create a bear, depending on how creative the seamstresses have to be about the design to ensure it accurately represents the garment. “That’s the best part—coming up with the design and seeing it work,” Marben said. “Sometimes I spend as much time figuring out how to cut it to get the end product that I want as it takes to sew together, but that’s the best part.”
According to Marben, Pins and Needles also creates other items out of favorite old garments if people aren’t interested in bears. She’s created pillows out of materials such as flannel shirts and wedding gowns. The pillows are easier to make, she added, so they’re significantly cheaper.
There has been a steady stream of memory bear requests in the last three years, Breitbarth said, with most requests coming around Christmas. There’s sometimes a six-month waiting period, but Breitbarth said that staff will always make time to work on a bear if they think it will help someone with their healing process.
“I always make an exception if someone has just passed away and [a client] asks for a bear,” she said. “I ask if the time frame is important, and if they say yes, [for] healing, we’ll push it ahead of everything else and try to get it done. It’s worth it. If it helps someone move on in their healing process, it’s worth it to us.”
According to Breitbarth, while the business certainly charges for its Memory Bears, the bears end up being more of a “community service” because she tries to keep them affordable for people who could find comfort from them.
“They’re more of a heart gift than a money-making thing,” she said. “Sometimes it’s tempting to say, ‘We’re just going to give that up because it doesn’t make us any money and we’re so busy.’ When it comes right down to it, it’s so heartwarming, it’s just impossible to give it up. They pay for themselves when a person comes in and their eyes light up and they start hugging it.”
For More Information
Pins and Needles is reopening for in-store shopping on June 1!
Both Marben and Breitbarth have created bears for loved ones out of special garments. Breitbarth recalls how her mother-in-law used to love wearing sweatshirts with pictures on the front and amassed a collection thanks to gifts from family members. When she passed away, Breitbarth gathered up the sweatshirts, asked family members to pick a favorite, and created bears for them.
“It was so healing for me to be able to transform all that… and turn them into keepsakes for everyone in the family,” she said. “I really treasured the fact that I got that blessing, and that I was able to do that.”
According to Marben, some of the most interesting memory bear projects in the last year have been requests to use military uniforms. She said she always tries to include all the patches, medals and insignias in the finished work to keep the sense of what the uniform really looked like. Sometimes, she’ll create little uniforms for the bears themselves.
Just before Christmas last year, she worked on several “sailor bears” that were made out of a clients’ grandfather’s Navy uniforms. The sailor had written his name in all his uniforms, and Marben was able to collect enough to include his signature on all the bears.
“That was special,” she said.