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“The old guard is passing away,” sighed Aunt Azelda. “Nobody wants monogrammed shirts anymore. Except my brother Wilfred, bless his heart. Help me out, won’t you, Evie?”

The first lady I called — a veteran embroiderer in Clairemont — seemed to confirm Azelda’s suspicions. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’m getting ready to retire,” she said. “Monogramming is a luxury item, and with the economy the way it is, I figure I’ll close up shop by the end of the year.”

Still, she was willing to talk to me. “I do only single-job items, things like shirt sleeves, towels, bathrobes, baby blankets, or Christmas stockings. I run the stylus — which is attached by an arm to the machine that holds the needle — by hand, and my letters are done with templates. I hold the stylus in my hand, my left foot controls the machine’s speed pedal, and my right knee controls the width of the stitch. All three have to be in perfect sync when I work. This is how monogramming used to be done; now it’s mostly by computer.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Computers do a lot of beautiful things, and they’re very flexible. They can do anything you want, while I’m limited by certain sizes and templates. But for towels and shirts, my way has an old-fashioned, handmade look to it. I use a lot of thread, and it gives a very rich look. And I use cotton thread — you can’t buy that anymore for my machine. Everything is polyester; it’s more durable and holds color better, but cotton gives a different look.”

Next, I tried Robbins Kelly, owner of Monographics in Coronado (619-437-8235). “I have a fabric-and-needlework store,” explained Kelly, “and I do monogramming as a sideline. I have a very basic machine — a Meistergram from the ’60s. It’s huge, and it’s a one-trick pony. It has a single head, so I can do ones of things: initials on shirts, towels. I’ll program the machine, hoop the garment, and lock it in. It stitches like a conventional sewing machine, using what looks like a zigzag stitch. Here in Coronado, a lot of kids play water polo, and I’ll do their bags. I pin the bag to a backing and then hoop the backing. I just need to be able to get to the backside of the fabric. But if you want 20 of something, that’s not my market. And I can’t digitize images. I use a poly-rayon thread that comes in a zillion colors; it holds up well to laundering. I charge $10 every time I hoop something, but if someone brought in a bunch of shirts for monogramming, I’d roll it back to $5 per — unless they wanted the letters on the pocket. That’s a pain; sleeves are much easier.”

Dee Dee at Millard’s Fur Service in North Park (619-296-0025) was similarly old-school in her approach. “I do what is called a satin stitch, using a Singer or a Brother machine as opposed to a Meistergram, which uses long loops. For towels, you’ll never see better work than mine; I do three or four laydowns, and it gives the letters nice height and real durability. When you buy a monogrammed towel from a magazine, they put only one stitch layer down, and in time, it fades away or falls apart. But my way is pricier: I charge about $16 a towel. For shirt sleeves, I charge $9.50. I’ll do pockets, but if I have to lift off a corner to get to the back, it’s $1 more.”

Finally, I called Shana Morgan of Morgan’s Monograms in La Mesa (619-589-0070; morgansmonograms.com). She told me that “we were the first embroiderer in San Diego, and our motto is ‘No job is too big or too small.’ We have large, industrial embroidery machines, ranging from one head to twelve heads. When you have twelve heads, you can do twelve pieces at a time. We can put out something like a thousand shirts in two hours. But we also have one-head or six-head machines for people who walk in and want their towels done, or their chef coats.” Morgan offers “about seven fonts to choose from, and we can also digitize. That means we can take any logo or font and then redraw it electronically so that the embroidery machine can read it and reproduce it. The image is very crisp and clean, and we trim every thread between every letter.” Costs can run from $10 to $30, depending on the size and number of letters or designs. “Initials on the sleeve of a dress shirt would run $12, but if you have six or more, it’s $8 per. We don’t do monogrammed pockets.”

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