Story by Natalie Parks | Photos by Isaac Janssen
When Portia Burgess goes somewhere, she goes big.
Burgess and her husband, John, wear matching outfits whenever they go out— all-white ensembles for a themed party; colorful patterned outfits for a birthday event; shirts to match their great-granddaughter, Zoe.
“We always look good, always,” Burgess said. “Everybody’s eyes on us. Every time I walk in the door, they be like ‘I know she made that.’ I’m like, ‘I sure did.’”
A self-proclaimed “jack of all trades,” Burgess has been making her own clothes since taking home economics in the seventh grade. The very first thing she made was a jumper and pair of pants; her teacher, Ms. Stivers, made Burgess redo the clothes after she made a mistake.
“I cut the face in two so I had to redo it, but after that I was good,” Burgess said.
She began making clothes first for herself, then sold to others after she graduated high school.
Hemmings, alterations, ball gowns, curtains, purses, scarves— Burgess does all this and more, often using her own designs.
“All of it’s easy to me because I’ve been doing it so long,” she said.
She gets inspiration by looking online at sites like Pinterest, Amazon and her favorite, Etsy.
Then she either buys a pattern or makes something up herself. Even when sewing to a pattern, she’ll change it up by taking away things she doesn’t like and adding something new in its place.
“I had one auntie, she could just look at something and go back and buy the fabric and sew it,” said Burgess. “I used to have to have a pattern, but now I can do that too.”
Burgess’s aunts, along with six years of home economics, taught her how to sew. But her creativity is all her own. She uses her designs for hats, scarves, and pillows, and often changes up patterns to suit her taste.
If she had a signature creation, it would be her skirt design. Burgess uses jeans or jean skirts as a foundation, cutting off the bottom and replacing it with fabric, and making a belt from the same fabric for the top.
“I like African fabric, mostly African outfits,” Burgess said. “Just plain, like a skirt and top.”
Burgess sources her fabric from Amazon, Hobby Lobby and an African store on Woodhill. Once, she got 15 bolts of fabric from a Wal-Mart that was shutting down. But for the African designs, Burgess can use something special.
People she knew from UK have given her fabric from Africa.
Burgess worked at UK as a crew leader for 25 years. In those years, she often sewed for other employees, making hats and scarves for her supervisors and faculty in the departments she was attached to.
“I don’t miss the job, I miss the people,” said Burgess.
Beth Barnes, a professor in the College of Communication and Information, has brought Burgess fabric back from her trips to Africa.
Barnes said she brought Burgess “a really pretty blue fabric” from Zambia, where CI formerly led a project. Fellow UK professor Mel Coffee suggested Barnes bring the piece back for Burgess.
“And I thought, ‘of course, what was I thinking?” said Barnes. “I brought it back and gave her a general idea of what I wanted, and she made me this really nice top out of it that… I still wear fairly often.”
African-American employees of UK have given fabric to Burgess from their homes or families.
“That piece right there that really came from Africa— one girl, her momma sent it to her, and she gave it straight to me,” said Burgess.
Burgess spent 20 of her years at UK working in Grehan with the CI college.
“She took such good care of all of us,” said Barnes, who served 12 years as director of the then-called School of Journalism and Telecommunications.
For all those 12 years, she kept an ivy plant in her office that “only lasted that long because of Portia.” When Barnes prepared to take her sabbatical, she offered the plant to Burgess.
“I said to her, why don’t you just take the plant because we both know it wouldn’t be alive without you,’” recounted Barnes.
Upon her retirement in May 2019, Burgess was gifted a clock that sits in her living room among photos of her family— her three kids, four grandkids and seven great-grandkids.
Family is important to Burgess, and her relatives frequently come to her house. She’s sewn pageant gowns for her granddaughter; pants and shirts for her brother, who works as a DJ and goes on cruises; and one year, she made UK hoodies for all her grandchildren
“I just make ‘em whatever I want to make ‘em,” said Burgess.
The only family member interested in learning to sew is her great-granddaughter, Zoe.
“Everything I make me, she wants one of them. I say, ‘you can’t wear what granny wears, you gotta wear little kid stuff.’”
Burgess will also teach Zoe how to cook. Cooking is another of Burgess’ talents, one she gets to display often.
“My husband, we make chopped barbeque together, NC style, vinegar-based, coleslaw baked beans,” said Burgess. “I can make anything.”
John also helps Burgess with her sewing, helping her cut out the pieces of fabric. Burgess said it takes her three or four hours to make something, and cutting out is the main part.
Her favorite thing she has made herself is a fleece UK-patterned overcoat. People often ask her about it when she wears it out, Burgess said.
UK items and other team gear are her most popular items. In addition to sewing for her family, Burgess also makes original creations for customers.
“I don’t care what y’all like— whatever y’all like, if I can find the fabric, I’ll make it,” Burgess said.
Customers hear about Burgess through Facebook and by word-of-mouth. For big items, customers bring her the fabric, but for small things like hats, Burgess will use her own supplies.
“I had one guy, I made him a UK hat and scarf to match, he went to work and laid it down and somebody stole it,” said Burgess. The customer came back for a replacement.
Sometimes, potential customers will show interest after seeing Burgess wear something she made.
“They always say ‘ooh, that’s nice, I like that,’” Burgess said. “Then I say ‘you want one made?’”
Recently, Burgess has been doing alterations on a ball gown. She said she likes sewing women’s clothes more than men’s— “I’ve made three suits, and I’ll never do it again.” But dashikis are all right, she added.
Dashikis are traditional West African men’s shirts, often with colorful patterns, and reflect Burgess’s love of African styles.
“Everything I got here, if I’ve got it, John’s got a dashiki to match,” said Burgess. She also made his suit for their wedding. Burgess said the pair gets lots of compliments when they step out.
“One guy, he said ‘are you from Africa?’ I’m like, ‘no— the fabric came from Africa, but I’m not from Africa,’” she said.
Burgess said seeing people wear her clothes makes her feel good, like getting a pat on the back.
“I love what I do, especially when it turns out good, when I don’t have to pick anything loose,” she said.
She spends around three or four days a week sewing something, and she likes making dresses and skirts best.
She said everything about sewing has changed since she first started, and that she’s mostly self-taught.
“A lot of people say you don’t see that anymore, people sewing at home,” said Burgess. Her family appreciates her talents, especially her daughter.
“She’ll come over like, ‘Mom, can you do this?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll figure it out.’”
Many times, Burgess’s creations are for special occasions, like the clothes she makes for her brother Russell when he goes on cruises, or the coordinating outfits for a long-time friend attending an African ball. She even made the wedding dress for her first marriage.
“I have made stuff for my daughter’s cousins when they was in school to get them good grades. My grades,” she joked.
Even after sewing for the better part of her life, Burgess still enjoys what she does.
“I like everything about it— cutting it out, stitching it, putting my own twist on it,” she said.
And she’s still finding ways to innovate. Soon she’s going to try putting zippers on the outside, a new technique she’s seen that she thinks will be easier than the traditional inside zipper.
But before that, she has a birthday party to go to, and she’s already made herself the perfect outfit.
And, of course, a matching dashiki for John.