By Liisa Andreassen
When she received an order for Miley Cyrus, she thought it was a joke. That joke turned out to be very real for Michelle Wheeler, founder of Hitch-N-Stitch, a custom show-apparel shop outside of Atlanta that makes colorful western chaps, chinks, shirts and a variety of other accessories. This middle school teacher by day, has turned a childhood hobby into a pretty cool business.
An inspiring evolution
In her youth, Wheeler spent many a summer vacation with her grandparents. Her grandmother taught her to sew and it was a way for them to spend quality time together. By the age of 11, she was good enough to make some of her own clothes. As she grew up, she continued to pursue her love of sewing and even made her wedding dress – beading and all. It took her nine months.
“I don’t think I would do that for anyone else, except my daughter or granddaughter (if I ever have one). It’s truly a labor of love,” she says.
After she got married, she took a job working for Cabbage Patch Kids for about one year. She designed and manufactured some of the doll clothes and also learned to stitch faces. She even worked at their “Bath Camp,” a place to send “Babies” in need of some extra pampering or repair.
“Every day was an adventure and challenge, and I loved it,” she says.
While working for Cabbage Patch, she became pregnant with her son. After he was born, she left the company to be a stay-at-home mom, but continued to sew. Her mom convinced her to start her own business and to “go for it!” She did.
Today, Wheeler, a mother of two – to a 25-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son – works as a full-time middle school math teacher. On the weekends and during school holidays, she can typically be found in her workshop, housed in her parent’s basement.
She says her business has grown mostly by word of mouth. Her mother, Mary, created her website and she’s donated items to raffles from time to time. Most of the time she works alone, but will sometimes bring in reinforcement, which includes Mary, her dad, brother and sister-in-law and even the kids – though they have no interest in pursuing sewing as a career, she says.
“The most difficult thing through all of this has been finding balance between day job, family, sewing and timely customer communication,” she says. “I once worked 41 straight hours with only a short nap and that happened when I fell asleep sewing. I need to get better at scheduling enough time between orders to anticipate the unexpected.”
Miley Cyrus and blind horses
When asked about her most memorable request to date, she says, without question, was an order for Miley Cyrus. She received a voicemail from Cyrus’ assistant, which she says she still has, requesting some pieces.
“I thought it was a prank and almost didn’t call back, but curiosity got the best of me,” she says.
And boy, was she glad she did. She was shocked to learn that Cyrus loved her stuff and wanted four shirts and a pair of chaps, custom-made of course. Wheeler was up to the challenge, but time was giving her a run for the money. She had four days to complete the order and deliver it to Studio City, California. She was also in the midst of pre-planning week at school. She called in reinforcement, but they could only do so much. She does all the construction.
“I lived at my parent’s house that week,” she says. “I taught by day and sewed by night. I was pressed for time and having problems. Nothing seemed to be going right.”
She was getting nervous that there would be no way she could complete the job in time. Then she had an “aha” moment; she’d deliver the items in person. She booked a flight for her and her mother and went back to work.
“Now I had plenty of time to finish the order,” she says. “We left Atlanta around 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning and returned that night so I could make it back in time for the first day of school the next morning. We didn’t get to meet Cyrus, but I got a text reporting that she loved everything and her bodyguard gave me a bag of goodies to take home.”
While she says that was one of the best orders ever, she also recalls one of the most unusual – a client who wanted a one-of-a-kind, lighted tree outfit for her and her blind horse for a night parade in California.
“The idea transformed several times before we agreed on her final design,” Wheeler says. “I created a shirt, chaps and horse collar that was all lighted. The chaps and horse collar had removable lights, fringe and embellishments so it could be transformed for other parades throughout the year.” (There’s a video of this on her Facebook page).
Wheeler says while the time it takes varies from piece to piece, she usually needs about 40-60 hours to create a shirt and chaps. There’s the pattern, cutting and construction and everything is done by hand. She gets her leather from Hide House, buckles from Tandy, and fabrics from several different companies like JoAnn’s, Vogue and Mood.
When she receives an order, she places a pin on a big map of the U.S. that hangs in her workshop. She’s shipped all over the U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska. She has some customers overseas as well. Where will Wheeler put her next pin? We’re not sure, but we’re sure excited to find out.
Hitch-N-Stitch / Michelle Wheeler