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Slipcover seamstress is still at it after 50 years

By Douglas Imbrogno, Staff Writer

It’s not quite yet a lost art, but it’s getting there, and Doris Dilley is a master at it.

For 50 years now, Dilley, of Kanawha City, has been making slipcovers for chairs, sofas and stools.

“I’m 89 years old and I’m still making slipcovers,” she said. “I started out the year that Kennedy was shot.”

“I was doing my second set of slipcovers for Coyle & Richardson. They had brought a couch here and I had it in the basement. We only had one TV at that time, so I would sew awhile down there and then I’d come up to see what was going about Kennedy’s assassination.”

She got her start taking an adult education class where an instructor took an interest in her.

“When Coyle & Richardson needed a seamstress to do their slipcovers, she called me and said would I be interested in making slipcovers. I said I don’t know whether I could do that or not. She said, ‘They’re gonna pay me to teach someone.’ I was working at a grocery store at the time, here in Kanawha City, so I waited a few days and I called her back and I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll give that a try.’”

She worked for the store until it went out of business, then went to the Diamond Department Store in downtown Charleston.

“Then I stayed with the Diamond till they went out of business. After they began to phase out their sewing room, they brought material here to me and I made ’em in my basement. I had to hire a woman to help me.”

After the Diamond went out of business, “I just started making them here,” she said, in her Kanawha City home.

She scored two useful tools as the Diamond shut down — some workhorse sewing machines.

“They were Singers, and they were kind of heavy-duty. So I bought two of them. I paid ’em $45 apiece for them. And I’m still using them. I expect those sewing machines are probably close to 100 years old because they were way up there in age when I bought ’em.”

In her heyday, she worked every day, Dilley said. “Now I just do one occasionally. The month of January I didn’t do any. Since then, I’ve got that chair and I’ve got another order of two chairs and a stool to do. I just do ’em more now to supplement my income is all I do now.”

A finished chair sat in her living room, neatly tucked and fitted with slipcovers. Cost of job: $175.

One number Dilley can’t lay her finger on is the number of chairs, sofas and stools she has created slipcovers for through the years.

“I just am sorry that I never kept track of how many I did. Because I’ve did it for 50 years, so you know I’ve done a lot. I just never kept track of it.”

Her work life included a stint at a laundry plant on MacCorkle Avenue and a grocery store, “And that’s been it, other than doing slipcovers.”

Other then liking the work, she had a special incentive to want to do slipcover work.

“When I first started, my main reason for doing it was I had two sons and I could be at home when they got home. So that was my main object.”

These days, she does a lot of her jobs in people’s homes, or they bring the furniture to her.

One thing that all the jobs share is the same ancient wooden ruler she uses to tuck the fabric around the cushions. “This ruler that I’m using I’ve had it ever since I started. This one I have had ever since I done slipcovers — it’s 50 years old. You can’t buy ’em like that anymore. They make ’em out of plastic and whatever.”

People have asked her if she would teach them how to do slipcovers.

“And I could. I’m sure. A lot of the younger people, I don’t think they’re much interested. This is not easy. It’s a lot of stooping and crawling around and whatever. I don’t think a lot of younger people are gonna want to do it. It would be nice if some would. They say there’s not anybody much doing it. So pretty soon it will probably be a thing of the past. But I have enjoyed it and I still enjoy doing it. It’s just something you’ve got to be able to get up and down to do.”

So how many more years does she have in her, doing slipcovers?

“Come December, if I’m still a-livin’ I’ll be 90. And I probably will do it as long as I can get up and down. I’ve had open-heart surgery and had one other heart attack, in 2010. I have a pacemaker and a defibrillator. But I pulled through ’em all. The doctor said, ‘Do whatever you feel like doing.’ So, I just went back to work.”

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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