Ill-fitting pants haunted my childhood. Nothing off the rack worked, and countless tailors had let me down. I even spent two hours wearing “shrink-to-fit” jeans in a bathtub, hoping they would eventually look right. (They never did.) In 2014, I found Eta Gurban on Yelp and brought her a pair of pants I had come to loathe for the strange, alien way they fit me. They were too long, oddly flared at the bottom, and made my rear-end look, well, huge. But Eta assured me she could fix them. When I returned to pick up the pants, I was floored. There is a subtle correctness with pants I cannot describe but instantly recognized. Eta had nailed it.
Eta believes that with enough time and determination, most of us could probably learn to cut and sew. What makes a tailor truly great, she insists, is the way they conduct the initial fitting, visualizing order amid the chaos of loose fabric. I tell Eta what I’m after, and she places pins with precision, guided by instincts she says are God-given. She makes effortless conversation as she marks the clothes with a confidence that suggests, perhaps, this has been a lifelong pursuit. But in fact, Eta didn’t even touch a sewing machine until her mid-thirties, a week after she arrived in Dallas from the Transylvania region of Romania.
After WWI redrew European borders, Eta’s Hungarian ancestors found themselves living in western Romania. Eta’s husband Peter had added their names to a waitlist to escape to the U.S. with the assistance of Catholic Charities. But a decade passed, and in December 1989 protests broke out. At the time, Eta was living in Arad with her husband and their eight-year-old daughter Cristina.
The news that they had been approved to enter the United States came a few months after the revolution climaxed with the execution of President Nicolae Ceaușescu on Christmas Day. After weeks of filling out the complex paperwork required for their exit, Eta and Peter sold most of their possessions, netting about $500. The family packed 80 pounds of belongings and left for Rome, where Catholic Charities spent two weeks preparing them for America with English lessons and cultural education. Then, they flew to Dallas. Charity workers brought them to their new home just west of Oak Lawn, helped Eta and Peter find jobs, and enrolled their daughter in school. “They were incredible people,” Eta says of the charity workers. “Just incredible.”
Eta had been in Dallas for less than a week when she arrived at Martha’s Alterations, run by Martha Hatcher out of a modest house on Lovers Lane. It was the closest match Catholic Charities could find for Eta, who had worked for a sewing company—albeit, as an accountant—in Romania. At first, Eta’s limited English made learning difficult, and she often communicated with Martha on paper. “’Yes’ and ‘no.’ And ‘excuse me.’ And ‘sorry.’ That was my vocabulary,” she says. During the day, the two would work on English and sewing simultaneously. At night, Eta practiced at home with a sewing machine Martha had given her.
In 2005, after 31 years at the helm, Martha offered to give the business to Eta. At first, Eta wasn’t sure what Martha meant—the offer was so generous that she couldn’t quite comprehend it. “I had never dreamed something like this would happen,” she says. The prospect of becoming a business owner in the United States was exhilarating, but daunting. Martha insisted she accept, and assured her that she would only ever be a phone call away. (Martha still makes regular visits to the shop.)
Eta didn’t make any drastic changes, but she did begin noticing an increase in male clients. She first developed an eye for men’s fit by observing her dad, a man who took great pride in his appearance. Eta remembers how particular he was with his suits, typically made of wool or silk and always custom-fitted. Eta aims to strike a similar balance when fitting her male clients: not too loose, not too tight—exactly how her dad would have wanted.
Soon, my friends began to notice that I had really good pants. When they asked how I had achieved such perfection, I told them they needed to see Eta. One by one they inevitably joined the ranks of devoted regulars. It’s gotten to the point where we’ll all pile into the car on the weekend to get our pants adjusted, making a day of it. Eta’s sense of humor, joyful spirit, and genuine interest in our lives makes the occasion feel special. Peter Smith, one of her many loyal customers, dropped by during my interview with Eta. “It’s like she’s my Dallas grandma,” he said.
A week or so later, we’ll return as a group. A friend shouts from the changing room, “Eta, they’re perfect! You’ve done it again!” She lights up, thrilled to see someone love how they look. This is what drives her: a giving spirit and deep desire to make everyone look their best. Whenever I leave the little house on Lovers Lane, Eta always says, “I love you,” and I say it back. From the way she fixes my pants, I can tell that she really means it.