by Margaret M. Magnarelli

Behind several racks of clothing at the Without a Trace Weavers shop on West Bryn Mawr Avenue, four women quietly concentrate. They are mending expensive – though slightly torn – garments, using high-powered magnifying glasses and tiny needles to interweave the most minute of threads by hand.

One of the weavers, Maria, who is both deaf and mute, searches to show me the spot she has just repaired on a pair of men’s trousers. She has trouble finding it, which is not surprising. It would be difficult to separate her perfect hand stitching from that of the original manufacturer. It is hard to believe that there ever was a hole.

This is the kind of magic that occurs daily at Without a Trace Weavers, Inc. at 3344 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue. Opened in 1986, Without a Trace is one of only 50 such operations in the United States and one of only two in the Chicago area.

“It’s a dying art,” says company President Michael Ehrlich, who does indeed consider reweaving to be an art rather than a craft. But whether or not the art is dying, the need for reweaving is not. Ehrlich’s company is flourishing, having just opened a second location last September.

“Clothing is very expensive,” Ehrlich explains. “It’s easier to fix than replace.” The most common clothing injuries are small moth holes, cigarette burns and rips, most resulting from clumsiness. Repairing these in expensive, high-quality suits is well worth the cost of reweaving. “It’s saving them a whole new garment,” says Ehrlich.

The method of repair usually depends upon the type of problem. Without a Trace specializes in three types of reweaving: inweaving, French weaving and reknitting.

Inweaving is necessary with larger tears and works best with patterns. A patch of fabric, cut from the pocket or hem of the piece, is frayed along the edges and hand woven into the fabric.

Smaller holes are repaired using the French weave, also known as the invisible weave. The weaver takes strands of threads from hidden areas of the garment, then interweaves these threads together over the hole – as Ehrlich says, “recreating the fabric.”

Reknitting is the process used in repairing sweaters. As in the French weave, the knitter uses yarns from other parts of the garment to repair holes and pulls.

Besides reweaving, Without a Trace also does fur and leather cleaning and leather repairs, matching and replacing panels when necessary.

Business is best when the season changes, provoking customers to assess their wardrobes. And unlike other industries, business is good even when the economy isn’t. “When the economy’s good, things are good for me because people are buying expensive clothing,” Ehrlich says. “And in a recession, when the economy’s not good, people are trying to fix without buying and save money – so it works both ways.”

Although Ehrlich has been known to stand on Michigan Avenue passing out flyers, word of mouth about the high-quality craftsmanship at Without a Trace has been his chief method of advertisement, bringing in work from across the nation. “We had a lady just come in from California,” Ehrlich says. “She brings the stuff and then she goes back and has us mail it to her.”

His clients also include reputable corporate accounts, like Sulka, Nordstrom, Mark Shale and Neiman Marcus, which send their customers’ torn clothing to Without a Trace. The weavers have also repaired the extra-long pants of Bulls’ stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Patrick Katen, manager of Syd Jerome Men’s Wear, has been employing the services of Without a Trace for several years, sending over at least two pieces a week for repairs. Says Katen, “My customers come in to me and they say, ‘What can I do about this?’ and I say, ‘I’ve got Without a Trace and they do great work.’”

This great work has not come without struggle for Without a Trace. The most difficult task has been making people aware of reweaving. “A lot of people don’t know that it can be done,” Ehrlich says. He adds that lack of communication has been driving him away from doing wholesale work for dry cleaners. “We pride ourselves on communications here, where we can speak with the customers directly,” Ehrlich says. “Dry cleaners don’t let us talk to their customers because they’re afraid of us stealing their business.”

Boutiques and department stores, on the other hand, encourage communication between Without a Trace and customers, leading to greater customer satisfaction.

Another difficulty has been that Ehrlich, who used to be a driver for a now-out-of-business weaver, has had to train his employees from scratch in the art of weaving. It is a process that can take up to six months.

Weaving is also tedious work for the weavers, with shipments of 500 pieces coming in some days. It takes an average of two hours to repair each piece, Ehrlich says.

But those few hours pay off in the end. After the garment is pressed, the client can hardly tell that it has been reweaved. Maria and the others work hard on delicate stitches that are invisible to the naked eye – that’s because they do it Without a Trace.