By Suzanne Buzek
When Jan Koebbe picks up a needle and thread, she means business. Her entrepreneurial venture—a company called Sewing, Plain or Fancy—launched in 2004 and fills her hours outside of the University.
“Before starting at Xavier in 2004, I concentrated on sewing and getting the business together,” she says. Laid off from her previous office job, she spent her free time working on her business and taking jobs from friends and family. “I have business cards and I give invoices. I do mother-of-the-bride dresses, upholstery, lots of alterations, curtains, table cloths,” says Koebbe, a secretary for the Department of Political Science and International Studies. “You name it, I’ve probably done it.”
Located in her basement, Koebbe’s “office” is littered with fabric samples, a pool table for measuring and cutting fabric, several in-process jobs, and tall stacks of boxes filled with more fabric samples.
“Working with fabrics and the different styles—Simplicity, Butterick and McCalls—is something I just picked up from experience,” Koebbe says. “It has been a gradual process. Each job is a new challenge for me, so it’s nice to see how things turn out.”
Koebbe was never a stranger to sewing and making homemade pieces. As a child, her mom made a lot of her clothing. Then, while in high school, she took a sewing class, which provided the catalyst for the sewing and knitting skills that she still uses today.
“I took a sewing class in high school, where we would have to make dresses and such, but my mother had always sewn my clothes for me growing up,” Koebbe recalls. “When my husband, Jack, and I first married, I made a lot of things to try and save money. He was in the Air Force making $173 a month, so I would just make whatever we could to get by financially.”
Even though Koebbe sewed from necessity, she never saw it as a burden. In fact, she enjoyed putting the needle to thread and, eventually, working on her first standard Singer sewing machine.
“When our first daughter, Kristen, was born, I made all of her gowns,” she recalls. “We lived in Texas at the time, and all of our family members were still in Cincinnati. It wasn’t like we could have had baby showers and things like that. When my girls were growing up, I made their Christmas and Easter dresses, and I still have all three of their First Communion dresses.”
Childhood dresses progressed to formal dances and proms when her daughters were teenagers. Once her daughters moved out of the house, Koebbe made curtains and other home decorations to furnish and accent their apartments or houses, and continues to do so today, especially now that her daughters have children of their own.
“I have five grandchildren, and because my daughters are so spread out—Kristen in Buffalo, Erin in Dallas, and Alison in Harrison, Ohio—I try to see them all as much as possible,” Koebbe says. “I have made their christening gowns, with their initials embroidered in them, and I like to make their Halloween costumes. Just recently I made two flower girl dresses for my granddaughters who were in a wedding.”
Family plays a major role in Sewing, Plain or Fancy: Many of Koebbe’s repeat clients are family members or friends of family members, who then spread her business through word of mouth. Her husband also has a hand in the business.
“Jack gave up his office in the basement for me to pursue this,” Koebbe says. “He is like the silent partner, helping me when needed for the installation process for a job, like if I make curtains or a valence for a client.”
In the long term, Koebbe hopes to complete someday quilts for all of her daughters. When Kristen got married, Koebbe made a quilt for to hang on her daughter’s two-story foyer wall.
“This project has kind of fallen by the wayside because other jobs have taken precedence, but I would like to make one for all three of my daughters, especially since I have all of the materials to quilt from this product called Quilt Block of the Month,” she says. “I also have held on to the quilt tops made by my great-grandmother. Back then, they made quilts from leftovers of anything, so they wouldn’t really coordinate, but I would still like to work with those.”