After working hard at her downtown Duluth tailor shop for most of her life, Theresa Leone Olson was looking to slow down.

For years, she had worked nearly every day. Going in when her shop was closed. Bringing home work to do at night.

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"It's long hours and not a lot of pay," said Olson, 69, of Leone's Tailor Shop.

But when her husband, Roger, was diagnosed with leukemia, she decided to close the shop at 201 W. First St. for good to spend more time with him. The closing March 23 came after a deal fell through to sell the business with her staying on as a part-time tailor.

It wasn't easy for her to close Leone's Taylor Shop, the longtime family business named after her mother and the last of the downtown tailor shops.

"I feel bad," Olson said. "It was my whole life."

The business, doing alterations and repairs, had been started by her mother, Leone Mirtica, back in 1953 and had been a downtown fixture for nearly 60 years. Olson started working there at age 13, learning the trade from her mother. She took over the business in 1975, operating it for 37 years, most of that time with business partner Jim Smolinski, who died a year ago.

Closing the shop was heart-wrenching for Olson. She had many loyal customers who had become friends. And when it came down to it, she loved the work.

But then, she said, a miracle happened.

Home from the hospital, under hospice care and given two weeks to live, her husband began to improve. He became well enough to travel. And after trips to Florida and Mexico, he was even better.

"The chemo must have kicked in and is working," Olson said last week. "He's stronger and has more energy. He's doing amazingly well."

Back at it

With her husband doing better, Olson quickly realized retirement wasn't for her.

"I was having a little bit of a problem being home," she said. "You can only clean the house so much. As long as he was OK, I felt I need to do more than I was doing."

So she accepted an offer to set up a workshop at Ed Barbo's Columbia Clothing, 303 W. Superior St., to do their men's tailoring, a task she had been doing for them since the 1970s.

"I should be happy to be retired," she said. "But it's too much in my blood."

She moved her sewing machines, cutting table, ironing equipment and supplies into empty space adjoining the Columbia Clothing store, formerly occupied by Zoe's Boutique. She started working there as an independent contractor last week, without the pressures of being a business owner.

"I'm feeling better," Olson said after several days on the job. "I feel that I have a purpose. People may think I'm crazy. Most look forward to retirement. I feel better sewing. My whole life has revolved around sewing. I never opened myself up to anything else to do. It's hard for me not to be sewing."

Her husband has noticed a difference. She's happier.

"She's doing what she wants to do, and that's kind of important," Roger Olson said. "She just wants to work part time. That's fine. It helps keep her occupied a little bit. And she's not one to sit around. It's fine with me."

And for Columbia Clothing owner Ed Barbo Jr., Olson being back doing their tailoring is a godsend because, he said, she's the best.

During Olson's short-lived retirement, they were hard-pressed to find another quality tailor for their suits.

"It opened our eyes," he said. "There's tailoring and there's tailoring. There's nobody like Theresa. She learned from her mother and she's, by far, the best around. If she can't do it well, she doesn't do it."

Dying art

The declining number of tailors adds to the difficulty in finding good ones.

"People don't realize how hard it is to find a good tailor," Olson said. "There are very few. ... Some people say they're tailors, but they're just not very good. It's a dying art."

Olson remembers when there were four or five tailor shops downtown alone and when the big department stores also had tailors on staff for alterations.

Today, there are no independent tailor shops left downtown. But extend that search to the Twin Ports area, and you'll probably find six, including Patty's Tailor Shop in Superior, owned by Olson's daughter, Patricia.

There are a lot of reasons for the decline, Barbo and Olson point out.

Men aren't wearing and buying suits like they used to, while a lot of ready-to-wear clothes are sold. And technical schools are not preparing people to get into tailoring like they used to, Barbo said.

Olson noted that more women are doing their own alterations these days, and styles are more casual. Then there's the nature of the work.

"It's a very demanding job," she said. "If you're going to be successful at it, you have to be willing to work long and hard hours."

While her priority is tailoring for Columbia Clothing, past customers already have found her at the men's clothing store, and she has accepted a limited number of tailoring jobs from them. But if a former employee of hers who did most of her shop's women's repairs and alterations decides to join her, they'll take on more work from the public.

That's OK with Barbo, who hung up her Leone's Tailor Shop shingle in the store window himself on Friday.

"I just want to make sure she is enjoying what she is doing and not doing it too much," he said.

Olson vows to keep her work to three days a week this time around.

"If I'm only there a few days a week, I'll find other things to do," said Olson, who is looking forward to finding some new interests in life.