This piece was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
As a lover of clothing with a longing to become a fashion designer, nothing could have deterred me from introducing myself to a group of women whose sewing flourishes with creativity and design. Most of you may know these women as none other than the Wilbourn sisters. These talented women have been a household name for the past thirty years, not only in the surrounding counties of West Tennessee but all over the globe. As I entered through the front doors of Wilbourn’s Sewing & Alterations in Jackson, I was greeted by the humming sounds of sewing machines and by two amazingly energetic women, Johnetta Black and Mary Adams.
My nerves got the best of me from excitement, but I was instantly welcomed with open arms, exactly like their customers. It doesn’t matter if a person has been a customer for ten years or ten seconds; all are treated the same. “We are thankful to have customers who have adopted us into their lives,” Mary said. “And we feel the same way as they do. We are more than blessed to have them.”
Witnessing the interactions between the sisters and their customers proves how they value their vision of the type of business they have developed over the years. I spoke with one of Mary’s loyal customers, Jason Hollowell, who confessed his desperation to find a good seamstress before his father-in-law recommended these skilled sisters years ago.
“Mrs. Mary is a wonderful person to work with, and she has such a sweet soul. I can always expect a hug when I walk in the door and before I leave,” Jason said. “I love the atmosphere when I walk in the door. Friendly and helpful; that’s what they are. I can always count on Mrs. Mary to give me her undivided attention and do a great job.”
To this day the sisters are still amazed at the number of people who visit the shop because of recommendations. “Every day someone new comes in saying that a family member or friend referred them to us,” Mary said. “And we embrace them as well and welcome them to the family.”
With speed and perfection, these women work with ease and elegance without skipping a beat. It was incredible to watch. Johnetta tailored a beautiful red blazer in a matter of minutes while her sister, Mary, ironed a pair of black dress pants she had previously finished hemming. These women could do their work with their eyes closed.
As we continued to converse about their amazing craft of sewing, design, and alteration skills, they mentioned their mother’s name countless times. Faces blossomed and smiles enlarged, they referred to her as the Queen Mother Elizabeth. I sat comfortably at one of the work stations, eager to hear how it all began.
I asked how she received such an honorable name, and Johnetta proudly shared about her mother’s reputation for having a positive attitude toward all of life. Her presence exuberated love and care for her faithful customers.
Queen Mother had seven beautiful daughters and taught each one how to sew and design clothing at a young age. She encouraged them on a daily basis to love what they did and to become successful at it. “Queen Mother always told us, ‘Your name will go further than you will go. Your reputation will never die,’” Johnetta recalled. Her mother most definitely lived up to her words of wisdom.
Queen Mother enjoyed every aspect of her work because she was delighted to be the one creating smiles on others’ faces. She bestowed in her family a positive work ethic, high self-esteem, good morals, a strong sense of independence, and—most of all—faith. Johnetta shared her mother’s favorite Bible verse, Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” She wanted her daughters to learn a trade, even if it wasn’t fashion-related, dreaming of one day working with all seven of them.
Johnetta handed me two large photo albums overflowing not only with family photos but also with numerous newspaper and magazine articles written about the Wilbourn family, giving me insight into their fascinating journey. Several photos were taken at fashion shows in which each daughter designed and created radiant pieces that matched their vivid personalities. “Back in those days, we had so much fun on the runways, and the best part was that Queen Mother was the commentator,” said Johnetta. “She knew exactly what to say.”
Even though sewing was a passion of hers, Queen Mother worked at Jackson General Hospital until she decided to retire and started to sew for the public full-time. Her daughters also had other occupations, but when she asked if they would accompany her and start a family business, they graciously complied. They believed in their mother and the dream she envisioned, which eventually came to life in their shop. Four of the sisters—Mary Adams, Martha Hampton, Johnetta Black, and Ruth Osborn (since passed)—worked with Queen Mother at Wilbourn Sewing & Alterations until she was seventy-five years old, while their sister, Susie Ferguson, owned and operated an interior design business.
The two other sisters, Carolyn Wilbourn and Janice Wilbourn-Woods, are the owners of Wilbourn Sisters Designs, Inc., located in Lithia Springs, Georgia, with several more stores throughout Georgia as well as California. This second Wilbourn business has established clientele nationally and internationally and are known for hosting vibrant pop-up shops at the Essence Festival every year in New Orleans. These creative women have designed fashions worn by well-known celebrities such as inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant, television star Nene Leakes, and The Voice finalist Regina Love, to name a few.
Ending this interview with these women was not easy. They were filled with more stories to share, and watching them put smiles on the faces of their satisfied customers was priceless.
“Queen Mother always believed without God and faith none of this could be possible,” Mary said. “We love what we do. That’s why we work so hard and strive to continue our mother’s legacy.”
Johnetta agreed. “Apparently the family that sews together never becomes unraveled.”
Wilbourn’s Sewing & Alterations is located at 1296 North Highland Avenue, Suite #14, in Jackson. To learn more, find them on Facebook or call 731.424.2343.
Asanta Brooks is an author and freelance writer. Her passion for writing stemmed from creating and illustrating comic strips as a child, which lead to her becoming involved with the high school paper and excelling as a feature writer for her college paper. She resides in Brownsville, Tennessee, with her adorably energetic two-year-old son, Alex.
Kristi Woody is a photographer and storyteller for our Hello Jackson features about locally owned retail stores and restaurants. She also works as the university photographer for Union University and owns her own wedding photography business, Woody & Pearl Photography. In her free time, Kristi enjoys spending time with her husband and rambunctious beagle, Rhett and Chipper respectively. If you can't find Kristi in Jackson, you'll find her in her second favorite place: Disney World!
tags Jackson TN, Tennessee, local, local business, family business, family, sisters, mother, Asanta M. Brooks, Wilbourn's Sewing & Alterations, clothing, sewing, alterations, West Tennessee, Johnetta Black, Mary Adams, customer service, African American, women, entrepreneur, business, seamstress, Jason Hollowell, quality, Queen Mother Elizabeth, daughters, Bible, Christianity, Christian, work ethic, fashion, fashion design, Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Martha Hampton, Ruth Osborn, Midtown Jackson, Susie Ferguson, interior design, Carolyn Wilbourn, Janice Wilbourn-Woods, Wilbourn Sister Designs, Lithia Springs GA, Georgia, California, local shop, New Orleans LA, Iyanla Vanzant, Nene Leakes, Regina Love, Black History Month, Women's History Month