"The thing with re-enactors is they want everything exact," she said. Which, in this case, meant that the material she had to work with was lavender neoprene — the same fabric used in scuba diving suits.
The process took two years and a 400-yard bolt of neoprene to complete, but by the end, Johnson was able to re-create the costume so perfectly that the re-enactor was indistinguishable from the Star Wars actress when their pictures were placed side by side.
"It was absolutely the most challenging thing I've ever done," she remembered. "Surgery recovery shirts for a cockatiel were nothing after that" — a reference to the terry-cloth bibs she pieced together for a local pet owner who needed a way to keep her bird from picking out its chest stitches after an operation.
Johnson is full of these stories, but when she started her business 15 years ago, she didn't know what to expect. Her youngest child had just graduated high school and she was looking for another source of income, so she figured she'd try to make some money off of a long-held skill. In the early days, she ran her business out of her basement.
"I thought, 'Well, I like to sew; I sew pretty well; and I know there's a need for costumes because I've been volunteering for the last 15 years to make costumes for all my kids' schools and groups,' " she said, "so OK — I'll give it a try."
Soon, she was getting requests not only for costumes but for alterations, designs — even requests to make wedding dresses. Within five years, she was cramped for space and needed to find a studio.
That's when she first moved the business to Lafayette Avenue, a few blocks away from Main Street. Her first studio was a former auto repair shop.
"It was filthy," she recalled, "just grease and oil up the walls; the floors were black; there was a truck parked in the back corner; there was a compressor against the wall; the hoist things were still there in the floor. … It took us about six weeks to degrease the place and get it so you could bring a wedding gown in, but we did it."
Her most recent move may have required less degreasing, but it still required a good amount of elbow grease. Luckily, Johnson's family members, like her, are a handy bunch.
Her carpenter husband and son helped dismantle the lofts from the old building and reconstruct them in the new one. Her other son, an electrician, ran all the electrical wiring in the new space.
When it came to moving furniture, Johnson had some help from an employee with an architecture degree. Using her architect's software, she was able to enter the dimensions of the new studio as well as the measurements of all the shelves they would have to move.
"By the time we were ready to move, we knew exactly where everything would go," Johnson said.
And her own habit of keeping an orderly studio helped when it was time to move boxes.
"Someone once described me as the person who put the 'O' in organization, so pretty much everything is in boxes and labeled," she said.
The whole time, Johnson had a deadline in mind: Oct. 16, the date she announced as the open house for her new studio. The night of the event, more than 50 friends and local politicians, including Lehman, Laurel City Council member Ed Ricks and District 21 Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk showed up to celebrate.
"I wanted to come out to support not only a local business, but a woman-owned business," Peña-Melnyk said. She added that she had signed her daughters up for sewing lessons.
Bernie Robinson, branch manager of the PNC Bank on Main Street and president of the Laurel Board of Trade, said that Johnson's success bodes well for business in all of Laurel. "The business climate is improving," he said, highlighting new business in the new Towne Centre Laurel as a step forward for the community.
"Marilyn is one of the more involved people in Laurel," he added. "Her heart and soul is in the community."
With the moving process wrapping up and four employees [two full-time — one hired three years ago and one hired a year and a half ago — as well as two contract employees, both hired about six months ago] to handle day-to-day business, Johnson said she is looking forward to using her new studio space to work on some designs of her own.
"It's all new. It's all in place. There's a tweak here or there left, but basically it's all done," she said. "And it does very much feel like we've been here forever, but it's been a very intense few months."