Tuesday, the Wilmington Police Department, city council and state officials honored a humble but well established citizen, Theresa Walker, an icon of fashion and interior design in New York and other locales.
A focus of the Police Department’s Super Girl initiative, Walker’s influential past work and community service were the highlight of presentations from Mayor William Saffo, city council members, and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.
“Mrs. Walker is a beautiful example of what hard work and determination can accomplish,” said Linda Rawley, public information officer for the Wilmington Police Department.
At the height of her career during the 1940s and 1950s, the honoree’s exceptional sewing was featured in a Vogue Magazine, “Sag No More,” advertisement for the, “new,” white jersey fabric.
The ninety-five year old is the daughter of the late Clayton and Pauline Williams. She graduated in the Williston Class of 1938. Prior to completing high school she was a winning competitive sewing expert in countywide home economics.
“I took three years of home economics rather than two,” Walker said. I won first place in the sewing completion over all county students including the white schools,” Walker said with a quiet chuckle.
She made a blouse and a skirt, and remembers her excellent home economics teachers, Miss Scott, and Miss Gore. Her introduction to sewing actually began at home.
“I think I’ve been sewing all my life,” she said and recalled sewing grass for doll baby hair, and making their clothing from any available materials.
Walker’s mother gave her a, “peddle sewing machine,” for her twelfth birthday.
“There were nine of us. I sewed Easter dresses, and clothing for my sisters and brothers,” she said. Her mother, Pauline Williams was an exceptional quilter, who was featured in North Carolina Quilts, a book and project of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Her maternal mentor also became known in New Hanover County as a crochet artist with museum exhibition pieces, and Gullah Geechee Conference displays.
But Walker was fully focused on sewing when she left Wilmington in 1940 and eventually moved to New York City. She married Chef John Eng, whose livelihood in food preparations did not prevent him from assisting with her dreams.
“I was a member of The Society of Illustrators, and my husband sent me to the Chic School of Fashion Design of New York.”
That trade school education led to direct contacts with New York designers, fashion shows, and a well to do clientele including banker Franklin Rockefeller, and Martha Stewart.
She designed and completed the tapestries and furniture coverings for Rockefeller, and recalled Stewart’s Park Ave. area job for her daughter’s bedroom.
“It was done in all white for the young girl. There was a canopy bed, draperies and accessories,” Walker said.
Though fashion designing was her earliest venture in the New York scene, she found it easier to complete a project with less adjustments or alterations when she did interior decorating.
Her Nancy Bell Model clothing samples required tedious work that was featured in magazines and publications.
“I worked on a Bell Portable Sewing Machine to make sample clothing, and everything from under clothing to bathing suits,” she said.
In New York Walker hired six to ten sewers, and staff known as installers or, “Hang Bill Decorators,” to assist with work. Active with The Eastern Stars, she organized, “Big Apple,” chapters.
Returning to Wilmington as a widow,she completed many fashion and interior designs. She recalled being asked to createfabric-covered furniture for a sun room in the UNCW Chancellor Residence years ago.
Remarried and now fully retired, Walker enjoys attending services and Bible Study at her family church, Mount Zion AME.
There she often served as a delegate for the denomination’s area and general conferences. Walker was also honored for eight years of service as President of the Elia Price Missionary Society.
City and state officials honored her for dedicated work in fashion design, interior decorating, and community service.
“We are fortunate to have her in our community setting an example for young women everywhere,” Rawley said.
Walker and husband Ernest are enjoying their senior years. Sons John and Frank are close or nearby. She has four grandchildren and is especially gleeful that grandson, Bryant Eng is a new law school graduate.