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Remembering Palmer/Pletsch Instructor Marta Alto

Marta Alto (1945-2024) knew how to make clothing fit—even when her methods stepped outside the orderly lines of the popular Palmer/Pletsch tissue-fitting method. A teacher of the method and a giant in the sewing world, Alto passed away May 10, 2024.

I was first introduced to Alto’s down-to-earth practicality, unconventional techniques, and pithy humor through the many videos she and Pati Palmer recorded for Palmer/Pletsch Publishing. Marta was generous as well as meticulous. She surveyed available ready-to-wear and brought the best of its techniques to her projects. She made numerous samples for every class and video, experimenting with combinations of thread, needle, fabric, and technique. She then shared the knowledge gained through these experiences with her students. She taught by example. Her clear instructions and sage advice made it possible for me to learn fitting from home with two small children. Going forward, Marta’s examples informed my own teaching.

A Generous Instructor

When I finally met Marta in person, at her last teacher training class at Fabric Depot in Portland, Oregon, I was amazed. Her knowledge and her generosity stood out as she made her circuits around the room, doling out wisdom at each student’s station. She was always beautifully dressed in perfectly fitted jackets and jeans, often embellished with the machine embroidery that she loved so much.

There seemed to be no figure problems that she couldn’t solve with scissors, tissue paper, and a little tape. That was, until I attempted a full-bust alteration on a surplice wrapped dress. Marta walked me through the complicated steps, patiently explaining the theory, and showing me how to rotate a dart into the surplice wrap. However, when I wanted to know how to redraft the huge drape’s pleats back into the dress’ side seam, pattern drafting theory met practicality.

“You can’t adjust the flat pattern for that, Elizabeth,” she told me. “That is what draping is for!” For Marta, practicality always won. Her work was all about the perfect fit, not the method it took to achieve it.

Costumer Beginnings

Marta started out sewing costumes for actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, later, at San Francisco State University. She focused on the practical needs of the actors who would wear her creations. From these experiences grew her unconventional approach to fitting and sewing. Marta carried this approach, and her focus on individual figures’ requirements, to her work as a custom dressmaker at Meiers and Frank. Eventually, Marta became a manager of Meier and Frank’s sewing school, where she taught custom and speed tailoring, machine quilting, and many garment sewing classes. In the early 1980s, Marta joined Pati Palmer at Palmer/Pletsch. With Pati, Marta co-authored The Palmer/Pletsch Complete Guide to Fitting, Pants for Real People, Jackets for Real People, Sewing Ultrasuede, and The Serger Idea Book. She also appeared in most of Palmer/Pletsch’s videos, including those where I first saw her.

A Fitting Legacy

Signed collage poster thanking sewing teacher Marta Alto

After such a full life in sewing, it is sad but somewhat fitting that Marta died after a fall on the way to her sewing room. Her legacy will live on through her son and daughter, through the myriad projects she touched, and through the countless students she taught, by video, book, or in person. It will also live on through my own teaching: Each time I use an unconventional approach to make a garment fit and each time I encourage students to practice their technique by creating multiple samples that mimic their project’s application.

I hear her words echoing in my own: “When you sew your garment, you never sew through a single layer of denim.”

In memory of Marta Alto

Marta’s family asks that memorial donations be directed to a scholarship program in her honor for the Apparel Design program at Oregon State University. Donations can be made online at osufoundation.org. They can be mailed to the OSU Memorial Fund, 4238 SW Research Way, Corvallis, OR 97333. Please note “in memory of Marta Alto for Apparel Design program” on the memo line or online form.

Palmer/Pletsch certified instructor Elizabeth Vana Bryant empowers people to sew clothing that celebrates their style and body. Her passion lies in helping those underserved by traditional clothing stores. Join the FitSewBeautiful community for sewing tips and inspiration: fitsewbeautiful.com.

Photos: courtesy of Palmer/Pletsch.



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  1. 13stars | | #1

    What a wonderful tribute, Elizabeth. Having lived in Portland for so many decades, I took many classes with Marta, Pati and Helen. Marta will be sorely missed. Deb Del Nero

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