In room 104 at the Pinehurst Resort, seamstress Wanda Capel holds forth, one stitch at a time

By Haley Ray

In the Carolina Hotel, on the ground floor of the east wing, a sewing machine clatters. The hum comes from room 104, the last stop at the end of a hallway full of guest accommodations. It’s the office where hotel seamstress Wanda Capel holds court daily with fabrics that need her mending.

She’s saved weddings like Cinderella’s fairy godmother from bridesmaids dresses gone bad and put more stitches in golfers’ pants than there are range balls on Maniac Hill. Boxed in by three sewing machines, surrounded by spools of colorful thread and cloth, Capel has spent 26 years working at the Carolina. An Employee of the Month trophy sits high on a shelf among pictures of her children and grandchildren. She grasps a piece of fabric with a fashionably gloved right hand. More utilitarian than stylish, the glove helps manage the pain in her palm, the arthritic remnant of a car accident.

Capel nonchalantly explains the quick fix for the pain. “I just put some numbing medicine on it because it hurts right there, and the more I cut the worse it feels,” she says, pointing to her palm. “So, I just put the glove on there and the medicine to work my hands. Just the sewing is OK, but it depends on how much cutting I do. Sometimes at night my hands will ache and I know it’s nothing but arthritis. But once I get them going in the morning they’ll last all day. I refuse to let them shut down on me.”

Before taking over room 104, Capel had a gig at Quality Mills in Carthage, drove a school bus, picked up the odd sewing job here and there, and taught an evening sewing class at Sandhills Community College. “I had a girlfriend who worked here . . . and she kept telling me that the lady they had was leaving and they were looking for somebody,” says Capel. “She kept telling me to go and apply. I said, ‘I’m not going over there. I won’t get that job.’ I was in one of those times where you don’t think anything is going to work out for you.” Finally, frustrated with her daytime boss, one Friday afternoon she plucked up the nerve to submit an application at the Carolina. Four days later she had the job.

Flying solo on a sewing machine is about as far from workplace drama as a human being can get. Capel mends alone and couldn’t be happier. “When I came here it was like the best thing that could have ever have happened to me,” she says. “Now I don’t have to concentrate on nothing but what I’m doing. I don’t have to worry about anybody that don’t like me, because it don’t even matter.”

Peaceful surroundings are not all Capel gained from the job. She also found her husband, Walter. He was working in transportation at the hotel and needed his uniforms fixed. After bringing them to room 104, he kept pestering her for a date. “I wouldn’t talk to him, though,” Capel remembers with a smile. “I don’t date people I work with.” He quit his job to work elsewhere, and before long they were married.

Capel mends and cares for family members as carefully as she stitches a frayed collar, working through personal tragedy and long-term illnesses. It was a car accident in 2000 that left her with a broken arm, a broken pelvis and the injuries to her skilled hands that would eventually turn arthritic. Recovering at home, in traction, Capel stubbornly refused to miss the high school graduation of her daughter, Alycia. Her doctor told her she wouldn’t be able to attend the ceremony unless she obtained the proper medical transportation.

Talk about an entrance. “My youngest sister, she got up with the rescue unit and she got me a rescue squad,” she says. “The nurses came out and showed her how to take me out of traction and put me back. So that graduation morning she came and she got me dressed and everything. The rescue unit came to get me, and I went to the graduation by ambulance. They rolled me out on the ball field and that’s where I watched her graduate.”

While the accident forced Capel out of work for a time, not much else has. A two-year battle with an illness required her to take a handful of pills a day and have a shot once a week. One of the medications caused memory loss and Capel still feels the effects, admitting to randomly forgetting names or stories she’s known her whole life.

In 2005, Capel lost one of her three children, the daughter whose graduation she rode in an ambulance to watch, when 22-year-old Alycia McKinnon was babysitting at her half-sister’s home. A vengeful boyfriend hired a man to kill the sibling that night. Neither the boyfriend nor the hit man had accounted for Alycia’s presence, and she was the one murdered. The killer was sentenced to life in prison. Only months before the tragedy, Capel’s mother had succumbed to cancer.

To cope with the twin losses, she turned to her work, making the mends and alterations of a hotel seamstress. “I worked through the whole time,” she says. “It’s like, after I lost my daughter, all I could hear her saying was, ‘Mama, you know you gotta work. You know you gotta work.’ From that point on, I have needed something to keep my mind occupied because I don’t need to think about certain things. Concentrating on my work is like my way out.”

So Capel stitches a life together, clattering away at her machine in room 104, fixing what others cannot. PS

Haley Ray is a Pinehurst native and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate, who recently returned from the deserts of Southern California.

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