published Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Alterations way of life for Palestinian tailor

Kamel Mahlot, left, shows customer Shirley Sanderfer an alteration at his shop at 737 Market Street.
Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Kamel Mahlot, left, shows customer Shirley Sanderfer an alteration at his shop at 737 Market Street. Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Kamel Kahlot’s life has been full of quick alterations.

On his first visit to the United States from Gaza City, he called his three brothers and said they had to start running the family clothing business themselves — he was staying.

Kahlot worked in textile-related businesses in New York and Michigan, but after his first trip to Chattanooga he gave his wife a similar call, asking her to join him in the city he instantly knew he wanted to call home.

And after he tried something new, opening a Palestinian restaurant and grocery store in the Scenic City that ultimately went under, he made the change back to the more familiar — clothing.

“Don’t do anything if you don’t have experience in it,” he said. “When you have no experience, you make a lot of mistakes.”

Kahlot, a tailor and designer by training, quickly learned there’s no money in custom clothes. A person can buy a $1,000 suit or dress, then get it altered for a couple of hundred dollars rather than drop thousands on custom-made garb.

In America, he said, the money is in the alterations.

“Alterations here are like the cost of clothes, whereas in Gaza you’d spend next to nothing to get clothes altered,” he said.

Because Kahlot has been involved in factory-produced clothing most of his life, he said he knows exactly how quickly to hem, pin and trim without leaving a trace.

Customers seem to take notice.

“Every sports shirt, my sleeves are too big, so he cuts them short,” said William Brown, who has been bringing his family’s clothes to Kahlot since the tailor relocated Kameel Master Stitch to Market Street three years ago. “He knows what he’s doing.”

Unlike most alteration shops, Kahlot said, he runs several sewing machines specialized for unruly materials such as stretchy fabrics and thick denims. This allows him to make quick work of difficult jobs, helping keep prices low and turnaround quick.

Men’s clothing tends to be pretty simple. Kahlot charges between $10 and $30 for work on a shirt and $10 for pants. But dresses are so varied, it’s difficult to tell how much an alteration will cost before a woman brings it in and tries it on.

“If the lady is big in top or bottom, you’ve got to change it,” he said. “And the dresses are always long.”

Dress alterations can get expensive as they get increasingly complicated, but Kahlot said even the most elaborate dresses can sometimes be fixed in just a few minutes.

A bride-to-be recently came into the shop on the verge of tears days before her wedding, Kahlot said. She had ordered a dress, and when she tried it on it was too long and didn’t fit right around her waist. The dress provider said it would take two weeks and $450 to fix, but after a few minutes of measurements, Kahlot got an idea. He pulled up the straps, sewed them, charged her $20 and sent her out the door with a well-fitting dress.

Kahlot said he enjoys solving customers’ dilemmas and his business does well because he takes care to address all their problems.

“I never hear complaining,” he said. “If the work’s not perfect, I’ll try it again. If it’s not perfect, you don’t pay.”

Contact Carey O’Neil at coneil@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525.

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