When Carla Student wants something, she tends to make it happen.
Like the time in 1983 when she drove to the Hollywood Hills to tell a producer, “I think you should hire me.”
He did. And for the $500 a week that she had requested.
On her way home, she thought, “I should have asked for more.”
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After she moved to Ohio, as a widow with two small children, she had more time for her longtime love: sewing.
She walked into a Jo-Ann Fabric store to get some supplies and said, “I’m going to work here. I’m going to get a discount.”
And she did.
For years, she taught others to sew at the chain craft store. And she used her discount.
More recently, she decided she wanted to sew for a living, beyond teaching and beyond making alterations, which she still does from her home on Lady’s Island.
She wanted to be paid to make clothing, something she had taught herself to do as a teenager.
So she turned to Google to see what what the world had to offer.
Turns out “sewing jobs” are virtually nonexistent.
But she found two possibilities in Akron … places that weren’t necessarily hiring. But, as you know, that’s hardly an impediment for Student.
She made one call to Vera Wang.
Not the person, but the factory where Wang’s high-end wedding dresses are made.
“I thought, ‘That would be kind of cool,’ right?,” she said to me last week.
But working in a room lined with sewing machines wasn’t what she had in mind.
So she made another call to Polar Products, a family-owned business that manufactures body-cooling products.
This was 4 1/2 years ago.
Since then, Student has been Polar’s main sewer, which is a very unfortunate homonym.
She also helps with their research and product development — all from her home in the Lowcountry, where she moved full-time in 2014.
Student recently showed me some of the things she works on daily in her fluorescent-lit sewing room with four industrial sewing machines.
I’ll be honest, they’re no Vera Wang wedding gowns, but the clothes she sews serve a purpose.
And, like Vera Wang, they’re not cheap. Many of her handmade creations go for hundreds of dollars.
There are vests lined with tubing that help keep surgeons cold and alert while operating. There are hats for golfers that make them need fewer beers at the clubhouse. OK. Maybe not. But they’re meant to keep the old body temperature just a little lower than the sun and mild exercise want it to be.
The clothes and accessories Student makes help chill out animals, patients with multiple sclerosis, mascots, soldiers, race car drivers and even their fuel.
She showed me a cooling pod she helped Polar develop.
The pod is a portable unit like a sleeping bag almost. It’s meant to quickly lower the body temperature of people in distress from the heat, like concertgoers or athletes.
“The owner (of Polar) sent me body bags,” she said. “And raincoat hoods.”
That’s where they started. Student would sew a prototype, get feedback, sew another, get feedback and sew another until they finally had what they wanted.
They call this “Made in the USA.”
It’s probably not how you would picture it: one woman on a salty, woody island sitting behind an industrial machine that she repairs by herself in a bright room, listening to Fox radio and deconstructing and reconstructing products, sewing the same thing over and over as if she were a pianist practicing her scales.
But that’s pretty much what it is. In this case, anyway.
And she loves it. Here’s why: “I can do something really, really well.”
Student was raised by her father. When she was 13, he took her and her books of green stamps to get a $100 Kenmore.
From there, she started making herself school clothes. The very first outfit she remembers sewing is a pair of baby blue pants and a chiffon blouse that had a tie and puffy sleeves.
Then she began making costumes for the school plays she starred in, wowing the audience when she transformed from fat old Dottie in a caftan to the Dottie who lost weight for a boy and was now wearing a crop top and long skirt.
“Everyone went ‘Ohhhh,’ ” she said of the costume she made.
These days the reaction she likes getting from people is relief. She likes knowing that the products she’s making actually help people feel better physically.
And she really likes the confidence she’s gained in the past few years, something that’s helped her with her other professional love: alterations, helping people feel better about how they look in their clothes.
Student told me about a frantic bride who came to her with a gown that was now too small for her (she had gained some weight since buying it; don’t judge).
The wedding was in three weeks on Hilton Head Island, and no other seamstress would touch it. Buy a new dress, they told her.
Student looked at the bride, the dress and pretty much shrugged.
“I can’t turn someone away,” she said. “I can’t do it.”
She agreed to take apart the woman’s dress, and she got a few more inches out of it. It sounded like a surgical procedure, one the would require a cooling vest perhaps.
“I used to get very nervous,” she said about deconstructing wedding gowns. “But now, if I make a mistake, I can fix it.
“I love knowing I can do it.”