By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Marion Anderson is looking for a few good men to train in the art of being a tailor.
It all started on election day when Anderson, who operates the Manhattanville Needle Trade School on the first floor of his brownstone on West 141st Street, saw a group of young men with their pants hanging below their waists handing out fliers.
Did they know that the style of sagging pants they were wearing originated in prison, Anderson asked? Yes, they said. But that was the fashionable way to wear pants.
Fed up, Anderson had an idea.
"I said: 'I am on a campaign to end this fad. I will teach any young man to design a garment they can wear properly so long as they abandon that style,'" Anderson said. "Our young men need this exposure. They have a vacuum in their minds where this prison mentality is filling in. Clothing is a basic need. There is no reason it can't be incorporated into youth development."
Anderson, a native of Charleston, S.C., should know. He taught clothing manufacturing for 35 years and used the discipline of tailoring as an example when teaching his own kids.
As a high school freshman, Anderson's mother insisted he take up a trade. Anderson chose tailoring and discovered that he liked it. He worked in the fashion industry for several years before earning a bachelor's degree from Adelphi University and graduating from the University of New York State's Industrial Teaching Training Program.
Afterwards, Anderson became the first African American to be certified by the New York City Board of Education as a men's clothing manufacturer teacher.
At home, Anderson uses sewing as a way to teach his kids about hard work.
"I told them if you don't sew, you don't eat," Anderson said.
Two of his five kids have followed him into the industry. One son is a textile engineer and a daughter is a clothing manufacturer representative. Two other children followed him into teaching and another son is a New York City firefighter. Even his firefighter son learned enough to sew a pair of pants.
In 1981, Anderson fulfilled his dream of opening his own school. While the school had been located at various times in the garment district and the Bronx, today, it operates on the first floor of his brownstone, on West 141st Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Hamilton Terrace.
Anderson said the garment industry is no longer booming in New York, as it was when he started out. During a recent trip to the Macy's men's section, Anderson said he was upset to see that none of the clothes were made in America.
"In the 1950s, 60s and 70s there were factories everywhere," said Anderson.
Though that has changed, he said, students can still put sewing and garment-making skills to use.
"You can make clothes for family and friends. You could get a few friends together and start your own factory. The knowledge of how to make a garment is invaluable," said Anderson. "With the skills, there is hope. Without skills, there is nothing."
When he was working in the garment industry in South Carolina as a young tailor, Anderson says he learned that lesson first hand.
Working for a maker of fine menswear, Anderson says blacks were limited to the piecemeal work of pants-making. They were only paid for the number of items they completed. Many of the blacks had to take work home on the weekends to make ends meet. Meanwhile, whites were involved in jacket-making and paid much more.
"Pants-making was considered slave labor. I knew how to make a coat and I wanted to make more money," Anderson said.
Anderson went to management and told them he wanted to be moved to jacket-making. They flat out turned him down. So he quit, and ended up with a new, salaried position elsewhere.
"My training enabled me to say: 'If you are not going to let me make coats I'm moving on.' The only reason I could do that was my training enabled me to move through the system."
On Wednesday, Anderson had a full class in his studio. Beneath walls lined with fabric, different colored thread and patterns, were a beginning student working on stitching, an intermediate student creating pants pockets and an advanced student completing a suit jacket.
Anderson takes Wilcia Alexander, 26, a student from Brooklyn, into a corner to teach her to operate the Serger machine to enclose seams.
Alexander applies too much pressure to the machine's pedal and it takes off like a jigsaw, causing her to jump.
"That's not quite it but let's try again," Anderson says. Alexander steps softly on the pedal again and the machine purrs at a nice steady pace.
"That's the right thing!" Anderson said.
"He explains everything so well," Alexander said. "He's a good teacher. With him, I get it, I understand. If you don't understand he explains again. He has patience."
Sandra Beltran, 58, an advanced student who works in a nursing home, said she brought her 11-year-old daughter to class one day so Anderson could teach her.
"I'm going to use sewing to push my granddaughter like (Anderson) did with his kids," said Beltran who hopes to use her skills to make extra money on the side.
Stacey Howard, 45, and HRA worker, lives in the same Harlem neighborhood where Anderson's school is located.
"I lived around the corner for years and never saw this sign," said Howard, who is refining the sewing skills her family members taught her as a kid. "I would have loved something like this when I was younger
Anderson thinks a lot of young people would be interested in learning what he has to teach. That's why at 84, he wants to pass his skills on to a new generation.
"There's a part of me that just wants to share what I know," said Anderson. "Simply put, I get pleasure out of sharing my knowledge."