Veteran film seamstress Mache Mitchem’s remarkable career
By Dana Sachs
Not long ago, Mache Mitchem had a conversation about retirement with one of her colleagues. “Mache,” the woman said, “I need you to keep working for three more years.”
Mache and I are having lunch at Famous Toastery on Wrightsville Avenue and, as Mache recounts the story, her eyes — think of a powdery blue velvet — start to sparkle. “I’d be 90,” she whispers.
If you love movies, you’ve probably seen Mache’s creations. As a seamstress specializing in upholstery and draperies, Mache worked on her first films in the 1980s when Dino De Laurentiis arrived in Wilmington and built the studio now called Screen Gems. She covered seven sofas and 15 chairs and made “many, many” velvet curtains for the 2013 blockbuster Iron Man 3. She worked on Cold Mountain and The Notebook. For the recent hit The Greatest Showman, Mache sewed the lace curtains that decorate P.T. Barnum’s lavish home. Mache tells me that each box of curtains weighed around 50 pounds, but they end up as little more than a flash in the background of the movie.
Mache says that it doesn’t necessarily matter if the audience sees her handiwork or not. A film crew tries to create an authentic environment for the people who inhabit it. “We do it for the actors,” she tells me. “So they feel like it’s real.” Once, for a set on the film Betsy’s Wedding, the star, Molly Ringwald, requested that a sofa be re-covered three times before she felt satisfied with the result. It took that long, Mache says, “before it felt right to her.”
Mache learned her trade while growing up in the small town of Lowell, North Carolina, during the Depression. She was the eighth of 12 children, and by the time she came along, her mother — the driving force in the family — had gotten creative with names. “Mache,” which rhymes with “H,” came about as an homage to the child’s two grandmothers, Mattie and Mary Rachel. “I hated the name then, but I liked it when I got older,” she tells me. She feels lucky, too, considering what her mother called some of her siblings: “Thank goodness she didn’t name me Zeke or Alberta Tode!”
The family had very, very little. As a small child, Mache climbed beneath the house once a day, filled a jar-lid with red clay soil, and ate it. The ritual helped alleviate severe hunger, which causes “pain like a toothache.” Her interest in sewing sprang from hunger as well. Mache’s mother earned money by sewing clothes. Mache, standing behind her mom, would watch the sewing while sucking on discarded scraps of fabric. “I liked the flavor of the starch,” she says. She thinks the experience probably helped her equate sewing with nourishment.
Still, she says, “it never dawned on me to make a living sewing.” For her first job, at the age of 13, she worked at the local library after school. She earned $2.75 a week. Two dollars went to help her family. She spent the rest on deviled egg sandwiches, RC Cola and “fabric to make clothes.” Even as a young girl, Mache had an eye for color, texture and design. “There was beautiful prints back then and I always liked them.”
And how did Mache break into movies? Her story starts with a set of curtains. By the 1980s, she had married, raised two daughters, moved to Wilmington and divorced. She’d earned money in several ways. She worked as a caregiver and floral assistant. She made butter mints for weddings. And she sewed. When Dino De Laurentiis arrived in town and needed an upholsterer for his movie sets, he noticed the window treatments in the house he had rented. Mache had made them. “So they called me,” she says. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Mache no longer drives. “I love the bus,” she tells me. Today, a friend brought her to Famous Toastery. The restaurant specializes in breakfast, lunch and brunch dishes, so we start off by combining all three with the Sunrise Burger, which tops a grilled patty with bacon and a sunny-side-up egg. This unexpected combination makes sense when you bite into it and the yolk runs down over the beef.
“Delicious,” Mache says, “but I would never order this for breakfast.”
“When would you order it?”
Honestly, the burger is substantial enough for dinner, but because the Toastery closes at 3 p.m, you’d have to take it home for that. For the rest of the meal, we basically jump back and forth between lunch and brunch. The lobster roll — meaty chunks of aioli-tossed shellfish stuffed inside a toasted New England roll — works as lunch, as does the California salad, a tangy jumble of fresh greens, walnuts, strawberries, goat cheese and creamy raspberry dressing. For brunch dishes, we try a luxurious French toast — slathered with cream cheese and topped with berries — and then an Avocado Benny, which replaces the English muffin of a Benedict with two egg-topped avocado halves. Mache likes this alteration, adding, “It is better to dress up an avocado, isn’t it?”
In the movie business, Mache built her reputation as a seamstress who can get things done. In the past, that sometimes meant staying up all night to finish a project.
“Are you a perfectionist?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “It’s more about determination than perfection.”
It’s also about experience. If a set decorator brings Mache fabric and window measurements, she can calculate in her head exactly how long it will take to get the curtains done. “And nine times out of 10,” she says, “I’m correct.”
Toward the end of our meal, Mache shows me her hands. Decades of sewing have left her fingers bunched and knotty, as if they’re permanently poised to darn a hem or sew a pleat. Other than a sore thumb, though, her hands rarely bother her. “I can still thread a needle,” she points out, and she seems perfectly ready to do it.
Famous Toastery, at 6722 Wrightsville Avenue, is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. For more information, you can visit www.famoustoastery.com or call (910) 256-7030.
Dana Sachs’s latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.