Evanston’s Elisabeth Kalmar’s 60+ years in North Shore couture

Garment tips from Elisabeth Kalmar

• “Women who shop today should look for quality. Tailored dresses and coats with simple lines. Without frills, without embellishments. They can get a new dress, jacket, sweater. They can add a piece of clothing to what they have. They should also look for things in their closet to repurpose. That is how you make a wardrobe.”

• “You have to consider eye color, skin color, complexion, figure, personality. You have to take it all into account when you pick out a dress.”

• “Sew with quality fabric. A polyester dress does not last long.”

• “Silk cannot be let out. The stitches would show. Linen and cotton can be. You can steam it. You cannot steam silk, you will destroy it.”

• “There is a press indicator on the iron, that’s what you should follow. If it is linen, you press linen. Same for silk. You do not turn it up any higher, just to go faster, or there will be a hole under the arm.”

• “Garments which are lined, last longer. They look better, hang better, are protected. Otherwise when you sit down, your tush stretches out the fabric. Have you seen a woman walking down the street, in a dress with a bump on the back? That’s why you need a lining.”

Elisabeth Kalmar can identify fabrics by touch. And by flame.

“When you burn a pure fabric like silk, it becomes ashes,” she said. “But polyester becomes rigid. It closes up and melts, because it is made of petroleum.”

Kalmar, 85, has been a seamstress for more than 60 years. The long-time Evanston resident studied sewing, pattern cutting and fabric knowledge privately, as a teenager in Europe. As an adult, she sewed gorgeous garments.

“Our house was filled with threads,” said her daughter Edie Fortman, of Oak Park. “I can’t even tell you how many pins I stepped on.”

Raised in Croatia, Kalmar was forced to move to Hungary during World War II. She escaped to Austria during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and emigrated to America a year later. A wealthy family in Racine, Wis., hired her as their maid.

Kalmar moved to Evanston in 1959 and worked at a Skokie fashion boutique, then placed a seamstress ad in the Evanston Review. “And the ladies started calling,” she said.

As a seamstress, she began designing exquisite gowns for North Shore socialites, wives of doctors, wives of executives. She measured each woman once. If a client gained weight, Kalmar told her to diet. “Silk cannot be let out. The stitches will show,” she explained.

Kalmar would custom-make dresses for women from Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, Lake Forest, Northbrook.

“It was a life of people coming and going at our home. They’d stand on the coffee table and she’d fit them,” her daughter recalls.

Kalmar stitched on a Pfaff sewing machine, replacing it later with an antique Singer. She sewed fancy silk opera gowns, hand-beaded dresses, fine wool coats. A wardrobe for a China trip. A regal wine-colored costume for a woman playing “the queen” in a live, human chess match. The gown was based on a photo of Queen Elizabeth.

All that Kalmar needed was a verbal description or a picture. She rarely used patterns. “That’s what it means in Europe to be a seamstress,” Kalmar said.

Vogue Fabrics in Evanston made fabric-covered buttons for Kalmar, and she shopped for expensive fabrics and linings in their “silk room.” She only took on clients who could pay her, basing her decision on the cost of their fabric that they purchased. The silk room saleswomen said Kalmar was easy to work with, and that she knew the weave, texture and “hand” of a fabric.

“Many designers are uppity. But Elisabeth never was,” said saleswoman Dale Elikan.

From 1992 to 2010, Kalmar worked in alterations at Marshall Field’s and Macy’s. She could do alterations in an afternoon if necessary. For designer clothing saleswoman Lois Berger, a fitter could make or break the sale. That’s why Berger valued her talent and creativity.

“Elisabeth was always able to figure out a way, whereas another fitter might lose the sale,” Berger said.

Maral Erkor sold Armani, Celine and Issey Miyake at Field’s. She said Kalmar was excellent at alterations, even on silk, chiffon and organza ball gowns. “You have to work carefully underneath, to keep the style and shape. You have to be very experienced,” Erkor said.

For her own daughter’s wedding, Kalmar sewed dresses for the bridesmaids, flower girl as well as her own mother-of-the-bride dress. She created the bridal gown too. The top was elegant French lace that cost $100 per yard. The bottom was fairy-tale-like tulle.

Silk linen and wool/silk gabardine fabric is hard to find today, but Kalmar still has some, thanks in part to Vogue Fabrics. When Barry Sussman, the son of the founder, called her and warned, “Polyester is coming,” she went into crisis mode.

“I rushed over, and bought every fine fabric I could,” Kalmar said.

Garment tips from Elisabeth Kalmar

• “Women who shop today should look for quality. Tailored dresses and coats with simple lines. Without frills, without embellishments. They can get a new dress, jacket, sweater. They can add a piece of clothing to what they have. They should also look for things in their closet to repurpose. That is how you make a wardrobe.”

• “You have to consider eye color, skin color, complexion, figure, personality. You have to take it all into account when you pick out a dress.”

• “Sew with quality fabric. A polyester dress does not last long.”

• “Silk cannot be let out. The stitches would show. Linen and cotton can be. You can steam it. You cannot steam silk, you will destroy it.”

• “There is a press indicator on the iron, that’s what you should follow. If it is linen, you press linen. Same for silk. You do not turn it up any higher, just to go faster, or there will be a hole under the arm.”

• “Garments which are lined, last longer. They look better, hang better, are protected. Otherwise when you sit down, your tush stretches out the fabric. Have you seen a woman walking down the street, in a dress with a bump on the back? That’s why you need a lining.”

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