Cindy Willson's work is often top secret. The Shiloh seamstress alters wedding dresses for brides who want their dress to be a surprise when they walk down the aisle.
Monday morning's bride-to-be was no different. She didn't want anyone to see or know about the gown she'll wear in her Nov. 16 wedding in a small town "where everybody knows everybody."
The slender 5-foot-7 blonde tried on her gown for length.
"I've already cut a lot off this dress, about three inches," said Cindy, kneeling on the floor of her upstairs sewing room. "Some don't like their toes showing. Others don't care. They don't want to trip. You have to be able to walk."
She asked a couple more questions to determine just the right length.
"What's the floor like at the wedding reception?"
"Beer-filled," said the bride-to-be.
"No, is it carpeting or wood?"
The size 2 Maggie Sottero dress would be short enough to show off the custom Tom flats the bride plans to wear.
"I want you to walk and see how it feels," said Cindy.
The bride seemed to float along the upstairs hallway in the fitted strapless mermaid gown that has a beaded and jeweled waist and billowy train trailing behind.
Cindy also taught the bride and her mother the ins and outs of how to bustle a gown and lace the corset back, a detail the designer is known for.
"I've put pins in (the ends of the cords) to get through the loops," said Cindy, of the lacing process.
"And it still takes a while," said the mom.
The first attempt was too loose.
"How tight should it be?" asked Mom, "Until she starts yelling she can't breathe?"
Cindy had the mother place her index finger across the width of the laced back to measure how tight the fit should be. She then showed her how to make an end knot and hide both knot and cords.
"Stuff in as much as you can," she said, "and then go look for it."
The bride's mom chose Cindy because she had done a great job on her dress for her son's wedding.
Cindy estimates she alters 200 to 300 dresses a year, including bridesmaids and flower girls. She also makes custom veils, alters prom dresses and can turn a wedding dress into a christening gown.
Right now, she's sewing a black wedding gown.
"Vera Wang designed it. (The bride) loved it. The originals are about $10,000. I am making a faux one with her adjustments -- a V-neck, lace top, and racer back."
Cindy prefers altering to starting from scratch.
"I make more with alterations. And there's an end date. A wedding dress takes 10 months. I meet with the bride every two to three weeks.
"For alterations, they come one time, come another time, and the third time, they pick up the dress."
Cindy, 64, grew up in Troy, N.Y.
"I've been sewing for more than 50 years," she said. "I started at 13. Dad bought me a sewing machine at a scratch and dent sale at the five and dime store. Mom said I'd never use it."
Her aunt, who worked in a shirt factory, showed her how her to thread the machine. Cindy taught herself to sew. She has a degree in fashion design from the Fashion Institute of America in Atlanta, Ga.
"To pay my way through college, I sewed everyone else's projects because they didn't sew."
She made her own wedding dress and her sister's.
Cindy now has six sewing machines, all Bernina's. She has been altering wedding dresses for 30 years, full-time for the last 12. She uses an embroidery machine on outfits she makes for her five grandchildren.
"We were military," Cindy said. Her husband Dave, a retired Air Force pilot, still works in the flight industry. She's the mother of two. "We moved all over. I started custom sewing for people.
"I think what people like is the personal attention I give them."
What Cindy likes is the job's diversity.
"Look at how different these dresses are," she said.
Two long gowns, one with a balloon-type hem, seemed to billow from from an upstairs rail into the foyer. one ready for second fitting, other for first, In a spare bedroom, a simple retro dress from the 1950s hung over a door across from a mint green petticoat.
"The bride looks like 'I Love Lucy,'" said Cindy. "She bought the dress online. She's wearing her hair with a headband. She will have her reception at a bowling alley in St. Louis. They're having a hot dog and pizza bar."
She likes the one-on-one with brides.
"I especially like working with the plus people. They are so grateful that you've made them look like they want on the day they marry. By the time I am finished with them, they feel really good."
Cindy volunteers at Cardinal Glennon Hospital for Children on Thursdays, checking people in to the outpatient clinic.
"I have a daughter working there," she said. "I feel I give back something to the community. I also make (foam) plaques for kids in intensive care. They can have Sponge Bob or a Disney character hanging on their IV pole." Cindy, organized and diligent, occasionally changes the way she does things. She used to keep shoes and bra with the dress until a Lebanon bride on her wedding day couldn't find her bra.
"It was a Saturday," said Cindy. "Sometimes, we do five or six fittings on a Saturday. I went ... and bought the girl a bra. By that time, one of her aunt's took her bra off and the bride wore that to get married. From that time on, I never keep shoes or bras."
The price to alter a wedding dress ranges from $100 to $350. She also steams and presses the gown, a two- to three-hour process.
For more informaiton, email cindy at email@example.com
-- Choosing a gown: It's better not to go with a preconceived idea, said Cindy. "Be open to the shop. Let them bring out dresses for you to try on. Try on a variety."
-- Any dress trends you've noticed? "The trend is more toward the simple, with less beading. I was wondering when the Kate Middleton effect would start to come, a strapless dress with a lace overlay."
-- What about weddings in general? "The biggest trend is they're moving away from churches, getting married at a venue and doing everything at that place."
-- Can't find a wedding-related item locally? Check out weddingfactorydirect.com
-- Want a tan look to contrast with your white wedding gown? She suggests the spray tan at Blonde Salon in O'Fallon. Gold's Gym also does one she likes.
-- Don't forget: After the wedding, get your dress cleaned as soon as possible. "You can't leave it in your mother's house in a bag,"