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Stitching out a niche

Holdingford woman adds her flair, enhancements to western wear When Jennifer Brandl’s two sons were born in the early 1990s, she couldn’t find clothes for them that suited her taste: “There weren’t any cute boys’ clothes in the stores,” she says. “When they’re little babies, it’s fun to find something dressier for them.” From sewing outfits for the boys, she progressed to making riding gear for herself, because as an avid riding competitor, she couldn’t find breeches to fit her properly. Then a friend with long skinny legs and a short torso asked her to make her a pair of breeches. At the same time, she met other riders at the various stables where she boarded her horses, and heard them complain about the lack of warm riding gear suitable for cold Minnesota winters, particularly lined pants. “It was at that point that mills were coming out with stretch fleece, so I decided to play with it and see what I could come up with.” The result was “Hotliners,” lined to keep warmth in and moisture out. A line of summer pants, called “Comfort Riders,” joined her repertoire. She added deerskin patches to the seat and/or knees and cut the waist higher to keep them from sliding down. When her riding instructor admired a pair of harlequin-style riding breeches she had made for herself, with one black leg and one purple leg with leather on the seat and knees in the reverse colors, she made her a pair. The instructor, in turn, offered to promote her styles at various riding clinics she attended around the Midwest. Jennifer’s customer base grew from friends to other people attending area horse shows. It all evolved into Custom Made by Jennifer, based in her home in rural Holdingford. It was a bit of a stretch for someone who had never learned to sew. “I had no sewing classes in school,” she admits. “My mother sewed a lot. She made my riding coats for me when I was a kid.” Mom tried to teach her sewing skills, but, she says, “I didn’t have the patience to sit down and read a pattern. But when the boys were born, I started figuring out patterns and realized they made sense.” She notes, “The hard part was learning how to do alterations. I knew no one I could ask about this. It was a lot of trial and error.” Jennifer started riding at the age of five in Auburn, Maine. “I actually got my first horse when I was about 13, but before that, I went to a stable once a week for several years. Then my parents finally decided I was dedicated enough to have a horse,” she says. She progressed to teaching riding at summer camps and stables. In 1980 she and her family, along with her two horses and her collection of riding trophies and ribbons, moved to Minnesota. She attended St. Cloud State University and Alexandria Technical College, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and an associate degree in laboratory technology. She worked at Champion International until marrying Greg Brandl, who is now a process control engineer for Versa Paper, and starting a family. Some of Jennifer’s customers ride “western” style for shows or just hacking and are known to sit on a horse wearing jeans. But although jeans look cool, they aren’t necessarily comfortable or warm. Those who ride English style need standard frock coats for dressage. If they ride in international-level competitions, they wear shadbelly coats, which resemble a man’s tailcoat with colored points in front to give the appearance of a vest. (A real vest would be too hot.) Items such as these are hard to find locally and must be ordered from a catalog, with no guarantee that they will fit, especially if they are big-busted, heavy hipped, or generally not your average size rider. Jennifer makes muslin mockups of garments and sends them to her customers before cutting into the actual material. It helps that the style of such garments never changes from year to year. Jennifer started by transforming a bedroom into a workroom, but recent renovations to her home have given her a spacious working area. Bins of fabrics line the walls. A heavy-duty sewing machine and a serger make her tasks easier. Her embroidery machine means she can do custom embroidery of patches, sweatshirts and the like. One of her latest projects was to embroider a set of shirts which a friend will give away at a charity golf tournament. She created one design herself, a stylized horse and rider. Others feature a comic donkey, or patches proclaiming one to be a Barn Goddess or Official Mr. Fixit. Greg works at the long table in the middle, doing the cutting as he always did. “He has more patience than I do,” Jennifer says. Jennifer owns two horses. Lucinda, at age 29, is retired, but lives on in the comfort of her pasture and a photo montage of her various performances. Petie, whose show name is Privateer, is in the training process. Jennifer competes in a number of schooling shows both locally and in Mason City, Iowa, and occasionally acts as a judge, but on an unpaid basis so as not to lose her amateur status. She does not make up a set of stock garments and sell them at shows, as some other vendors do. Her work is all personalized. She says, “I think a lot of people are starting to get away from being concerned about the ideal body. They realize we’ve got to live with the bodies are given and deal with it.”

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