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Mary Whitt transforms ties into purses
Gainesville woman deconstructs men's apparel to create woman's accessory
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Mary Whitt shows off a purse she made from ties at her Gainesville apartment. Whitt has made more than 200 purses in less than a year. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Mary Whitt is all tied up — in making purses.

Less than a year ago, the 80-year-old retiree from Aiken, S.C., started using her sewing skills to construct small purses out of men’s ties. Currently, she has sold more than 250 bags and stockpiled more than 100 ties to repurpose.

“I can make a purse out of almost any tie,” Whitt said. “The smaller ties make smaller purses, and the wider ties make larger purses. One tie makes one purse.”

Whitt, who moved to Gainesville two years ago with her husband, hadn’t planned on sewing as a hobby after retirement. But she saw a tie purse while on vacation in North Carolina and decided to start stitching again.

“I thought some of the ladies here at Lanier Village (Estates) would like these,” Whitt said. “They did. My big problem now is that every one I make, I want to keep.”

She has kept several for herself, including a colorful, animal-printed one, but the rest she sells to the women in the community or at events. She also totes the purses along when she travels to sell them to women she meets. She even takes custom orders and ships nationwide.

“I’ve sent them to Tacoma, Wash.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and other places out West,” she said. “I also have ladies here that will buy them and send them to their relatives as gifts.”

Some people bring Whitt ties they want converted into bags because it has a pattern the customer likes or a special connection to them. They also may choose from one of her premade purses or one of the ties in her collection.

“I have people (who) will bring me a tie that was their dad’s or grandfather’s and have a purse made from it as a keepsake,” Whitt said. “I also get ties from consignment shops, or people will just bring me a whole bunch.”

All of the small purses, no matter the fabric or size, are fashioned on a small Singer sewing machine Whitt has had since she was 13 years old.

“I wasn’t planning on sewing much, so I got rid of my big fancy one,” she said. “I had this one at our home in the mountains and got it and started making these bags and just loved it.”

Judy Dodge, one of Whitt’s friends from Lanier Village, fell in love with the small bags, too. She said they are just large enough to put their meal cards in for the dining hall. Then, she realized they would make perfect gifts for her granddaughters.

“She had a tie that I picked out that played ‘Jingle Bells’ around Christmas time, and it had Santa Claus on it,” Dodge said. “I told her as soon as I saw it that I wanted a purse made from it for my 7-year-old granddaughter.

“She put the song in as the flap that closes the bag, and my granddaughter took that purse everywhere she went.”

The flap, or closure, comes from the end of the tie and is weighted closed with a nickel. The rest is deconstructed to fashion the outside of the purse.

“I take off six inches from the top,” Whitt said. “That’s my flap. Then I strip it all to pieces and pick a lining for it.”

The linings are coordinated fabrics in solids or geometric prints to complement the wide variety of prints on the ties.

Whitt has made Disney-themed tie purses, golf-themed bags, paisley prints and more. Sometimes, she gets her most unique ties straight from their wearers.

“We were at a jazz party one night, and I was talking about the purses with some people, and by the end of the party a gentleman had taken off his tie and given it to me,” Whitt said.

The tie was piano-printed and jazz-themed.

The women among her circle of friends also have picked a number of different prints for their tie purses. Dodge noted her bag is done in some of her favorite colors.

“Mine is a modern pattern with squares in a geometric pattern,” Dodge said. “It’s cranberry, blue and white because those are the colors I wear the most. Everywhere I go, I get compliments.”

Although she only has one of the tie purses, Dodge mentioned she has purchased seven or eight as gifts.

The women at Lanier Village keep Whitt busy, as she has sold more than 100 of her bags in the community. But to construct the bags and enjoy the active lifestyle at the village, Whitt rises to sew as long as possible before community events begin.

“I get up around 6 a.m. and work on three at a time,” Whitt said. “Each one takes around three hours from start to finish. I get as many done as I can before bridge and mah-jongg.”

In addition to her sewing and activities, Whitt has other talents and hobbies to keep her busy.

“I’ve been caning chairs for 50 years,” she said. “I also paint, and my biggest hobby is cooking.”

However, all of the residents of Lanier Village Estates know Whitt for her purses.