Custom tailor stitches pride into every Honor Guard uniform

  • Published
  • By William J. Sharp
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
No one here expects Chizuko Lowman to recite the Airman's Creed from memory or recall what it says about duty, honor and country.

That's simply because she's a civilian contractor. Instead, through her words and actions, the custom tailor lives the creed. Daily, she supports uniform requirements for some 250 U.S. Air Force Honor Guardsmen stationed here. As if that isn't enough to keep her busy, she also does work for the military assigned to the Pentagon, White House, security forces and others. Perhaps what's most remarkable is Mrs. Lowman's service above and beyond the call of duty.

"I willingly sacrifice some of my personal time to get the job done because our Airmen must sometimes put their lives on the line," she said. "I'm proud of the work I do and I made a commitment to this unit to do my best work. I want to help Airmen here be the best they can be."

If that isn't living the Airman's Creed, then it is hard to say what is.

There are more similarities than differences between Mrs. Lowman and honor guardsmen. They wear ceremonial or camouflage uniforms while she wears civilian attire, but her shop is surrounded by uniforms needing attention. Honor Guardsmen work with ceremonial rifles; Mrs. Lowman is armed with Juki industrial-quality machines, two for sewing and one for hemming. During a typical three-year tour of duty, each Honor Guardsman performs hundreds of ceremonies. In nearly 10 years of service here, Mrs. Lowman has tailored an estimated 10,000-plus uniform items including blouses, slacks, raincoats, overcoats, lightweight blue jackets, battle dress uniforms, epaulets, patches and more.

As owner of Kinjo's Alterations - Kinjo is her maiden name - her time is split between Building 7100 here a few days a week and her home in Woodbridge, Va., where she does the majority of her work.

Around the Honor Guard Mrs. Lowman is also affectionately known as "Ms. Chico," a shortened form of her first name. At 5feet 2inches tall, Mrs. Lowman may not be imposing in stature, but that's not to say she can't be intimidating.

"They (Honor Guardsmen) are sometimes afraid of me because I tend to be blunt," she laughed. "That's my personality. I like to pick on everybody and they can't pull rank on me because I don't have any rank. But they like to joke with me, too.

"Also, when I see the need, I help them keep their egos in check," she added.

Like his Honor Guard teammates, Senior Airman Kenneth A. Cawthon, colors element member, appreciates the camaraderie with Mrs. Lowman. He said he can personally vouch for her "egos" comment.

"She'll tell you straight up if you look good or bad in uniform, or if you should even be wearing the uniform at all," he joked.

Mrs. Lowman loves America. She earned an associate's degree in 1986 simply to learn more about the nation's justice system. Her black hair is lightly peppered with streaks of silver and gray. The daughter of a fish market owner and born in Okinawa, Japan, in 1949, she is married with four children ranging in ages from 24 to 38. As a teenager, at the urging of her father, she reluctantly concentrated on cooking and sewing courses for three years as part of the home economics program in high school. Later she attended a yearlong advanced course in tailoring where she learned stitching, fitting, cutting and design.

She arrived in the United States in 1973 "and ever since then, I've been doing some kind of tailoring work," she said. "There were so many other things I wanted to do, so many dreams I had when I was young but sometimes life takes us down a different path. Still, the clothing industry is big, so my skills come in handy."

She has tailored a variety of clothes in her career including women's and children's clothes. At one point, she made clothes for her children because at the time it was more of a hobby than a job.

"Not anymore," she laughed. "There's no time with my work now and besides, when you go home you don't want to eat the same food you had at work!" After awhile she decided on a change of pace and worked for five years for an oil filter manufacturer.

"I was tired of tailoring," she said, "but in those five years I learned an important lesson - you can't change what you're destined to be."

She returned to tailoring at the Fort Bragg, N.C., and the Fort Benning, Ga., base laundry and alterations shops where her husband, Gary, who was active duty military at the time, was stationed. They transferred to Washington, D.C., in 1998 and have been here ever since.

"The work here is mentally challenging, and that's what I enjoy about it," Mrs. Lowman said. "Wherever Honor Guard members perform, they have to look their best. That's where a tailored uniform comes in. It's not a simple matter to custom-fit a uniform, though. You have to have patience and a keen eye for detail as you take basic uniform items and match them to different body types. Knowing how to manipulate the material to each body type is the mark of an experienced tailor."

Each Airman who passes through Mrs. Lowman's shop tries on complete uniforms and then they are inspected. With just a glance she can quickly spot tiny differences in, for example, sleeve length that the untrained eye would easily miss. She uses tailor chalk sparingly, for it's really in her mind where the majority of calculations take place.

"The work is not difficult with respect to being physically hard to do," she said. "Everything for me is simply a matter of managing time. That's why my machines are always threaded with the threads we use most often here - to save time."

Perhaps the workload would be more manageable if she handled uniforms only once, but that's rarely the case.

"Something always changes," she said. "People gain or lose weight. Some people have high shoulders, others have lower ones. Old members go and new members arrive. And people are in and out of the shop all the time for fittings. There is always work to be done."

"We've (Honor Guard) been in crunch situations before where we've needed uniform items completed almost immediately," Airman Cawthon said. "Ms. Chico has always come through for us and that, combined with her work ethic and great personality, makes her a tremendous asset to our unit."

Senior Airman Clayton T. Perry, body bearers team member, agrees.

"You have to go through a lot of challenges to get to be an Honor Guardsman. Once you get there, you want to look good in uniform," Airman Perry said. "Ms. Chico is the only one we trust with our uniforms. As we constantly strive for perfection, she is a big part of getting us there."

Ever self critical, Mrs. Lowman said her best work is yet to come. But when she returns completed work to customers, Mrs. Lowman, in her own way, conveys to them to never forget about the "honor" in Honor Guard.

"I expect a lot out of myself and, because I put so much effort into my work, I expect a lot out of them," Mrs. Lowman said. "I sometimes see them performing on TV and I think nobody but me knows all the work that went into those uniforms. But when I make them look good, it makes me feel good and I think maybe we're all better people because of it."