Written by JD Arbuckle with Baron Realty
The next time you need to make an alteration on a difficult piece of clothing, you might want to search for a very special place on the south side of Lakeland called Taylor Alterations. It’s a small boutique shop ran by Wilma Taylor, tailor extraordinaire. Rumor has it she is filled with wonderful stories of business successes and past trials, so I had to find out for myself.
Stepping into Taylor Alterations, you immediately realize this isn’t just a storefront; this is a home, a creative maker space, and a collection of past memories for all to see. Wilma is hard at work behind her desk, sewing an intricate design of sequins on a light beige dress. Her actual age is closer to a loving grandmother, but her youthful energy makes you immediately think Rosie The Riveter. When I asked where to conduct the interview, she said, “The dressing room”.
Moving to the wicker furniture with Wilma’s customized handmade cushions, you may notice her entire shop is filled with labors of love. From wedding dresses to decorative wall art, there is a little bit of everything. But it wasn’t the beautiful craftsmanship that surprise me; it was the very first story Wilma was sharing before we even sat down.
“You may have seen my old shop. There used to be a big fourteen foot sign, but one of my rivals smashed it to bits and threw it in the garbage.”
“Excuse me?” I said, “like, a rival tailor?”
“Yeah, I’m almost positive I know exactly who did it too. They also climbed onto the roof of my old building and spray painted all over my name and phone number with bright red paint! I think they tried to shut down our online business pages too, saying we’re closed.”
Once the shock wore off of the revelation that ongoing tailor wars are happening all around us, we were able to start from the beginning. Wilma grew up in Ohio during the 40’s and 50’s, where she worked at a factory that employed only single women. When she met her husband, a Lakeland native, they tried to keep the marriage a secret from her employer.
But after the honeymoon, the boss was waiting for her. He had heard through the grapevine that Wilma had gotten married, and she was let go for simply trying to start a family. It didn’t take long for the factory to realize its mistake and ask the talented and hard working Wilma to come back, but she knew she was destined for better things.
Across the world in the 60’s, Europe was in turmoil and the Berlin Wall was raised. Wilma’s husband was drafted, and sent to Germany for seven long months. When he returned, he vowed never to leave the warm weather of the South again. With that promise, they moved all the way down to Lakeland.
Lakeland was much quieter back then. Over the course of 20 years, Wilma found work at the Owens-Illinois and Kraft Foods canning factories. Day in and day out, Wilma skillfully operated the delicate machinery.
“I’ve always worked with my hands,” Wilma reminisced, and those decades of experience naturally contributed to her mastery with needle and thread.
While making a living in Lakeland, Wilma and her husband raised a beautiful daughter. It was around this time that Wilma began to feel the entrepreneurial spirit rising up inside her, and she tells me another jaw-dropping story of how she got started.
“I was walking to the bank to make my house payments, and I passed an empty little building available for rent right down the road. So, I walked up to the front door and just tore off the ‘for rent’ sign!”
Wilma laughed, and seemed to be fondly recalling her first steps as a business owner.
“I called up the building owner with a check for $200, and that was that. My husband was the first to tell me, ‘You’ve never ran a business in your life!’, but that never really worried me.”
At this point, my cup of coffee now stood cold and untouched on the table, a stark contrast to the warm tales of hope and resilience I was hearing. Our quick interview had turned into a stroll down memory lane with a family member you haven’t seen in years.
“That’s a phrase you’ve said a few times today,” I noted. “People always telling you that you’ve ‘never done something before’. It sure seems like it hasn’t stopped you.”
Wilma happily agreed, and proved her point as she continued to tell me about moving buildings multiple times, dealing with unreasonable and angry customers, and even bouncing back after a terrible accident in the shop.
It was just a few years ago that Wilma was arranging furniture around her store and took a nasty fall that broke both her knees instantly. She was rushed to the hospital, and opted for a painful knee replacement surgery. What do you think Wilma’s very first words were when she woke up from the anesthesia?
“When can I go back to work?”
Truly, this shop is where Wilma thrives. Sure, she fondly remembers the trips she would take with her husband in the motorhome through the Appalachian Mountains. But she wouldn’t leave her family in Lakeland for anything, and she hopes to work until she can work no longer.
By the end of our interview, we were looking through old photo albums filled with some of Wilma’s best work through the years. The trains on some of her wedding dresses could fill the room, and the quality of repairs and alterations on difficult fabrics make you question if there was anything actually wrong with them in the first place.
Wilma Taylor’s special shop, Taylor Alterations, is on the south side of Lakeland, right behind Panera bread. She has yet to find a piece she cannot work with, including leather, beads, sequins, and even fur. Make sure you stop in for a garment fix, a laugh, and a story from Wilma to remind you we are all on a journey, and will probably end up right where we need to be.