Lydia D. Armstead, the Tiny Tailor of Read Street, dies

Mrs. Armstead was a self-taught seamstress who cultivated a legion of fans at her Tiny Tailor Shop.

Lydia Darlene Armstead, a seamstress who made a legion of friends among customers at her Tiny Tailor shop on Read Street, died Nov. 11 at her Mount Vernon home. She was 58.

Family members said no cause of death had been established.

"People would come to her from near and far to get clothing altered," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who was among her customers. "I have known Lydia for at least 15 or 20 years. She was just a woman who was an excellent tailor."

Born in Baltimore and raised on Wentworth Road in Forest Park, she was daughter of Albert Armstead Sr., who owned liquor stores and clubs, and Janie Armstead.

She was a 1976 graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

"She decided almost immediately that being an entrepreneur was the life she wanted," said a sister, Linda Frost of Baltimore. "Her talent at her craft was absolutely genius.

"She also had a unique personality," her sister said. "She had an engaging wit and big heart that would ensure her customers' return."

Another sister, Lillian Armstead of Atlanta, recalled that her sibling began sewing at about age 10, when her fascination with fabric and fashion became evident to her parents.

"When she received her first sewing machine, she began sewing up a storm," said Lillian Armstead. "Lydia started off making curtains for the kitchen, then she made the transition to drapes for the living and dining room. Before long, Lydia was designing clothing for her younger siblings."

Family members recalled that as a child, she was her father's pet — he bought her a series of sewing machines that were eventually stacked in the family garage. They said she was a natural at the craft and had not taken advanced sewing classes.

She began visiting Baltimore's fabric shops, including Harry Guss Fabrics and Blank's. She found buttons and zippers at Morton Schenk & Co.

"Silk, Italian wool, linen, cotton, charmeuse, fur, mink and other exquisite fabrics — all embody the person of Lydia Darlene Armstead," said Lillian Armstead.

"She was as soft as cotton. At times, she was as smooth as silk. She could be as warm as a mink coat," she said. "Lydia's name — given to her by her father — originates from a woman in the Bible also named Lydia, who worked as a trader in purple fabrics."

While in her late 20s, she started her business, the Tiny Tailor Shop, at 218 W. Read St., near Tyson Street in Mount Vernon.

"She fell in love with the streets. It was quaint," said Lillian Armstead.

"The shop was very small, but it was nothing unusual to see people lined up on Saturday just to get to see her," said Mr. Cummings. "She had a very diverse clientele, and it's because she was an excellent tailor."

Asked if she had tailored his suits, Mr. Cummings said, "Yeah, she used to. But then she got too busy for me."

A fellow Read Street business operator, locksmith Scott Roberts, said she was always ready and willing to help children who needed costumes for recitals.

He also said she "was always one to tell you what she thought. She had her opinions."

"My sister was the type of person that you only meet once in a lifetime," said Lillian Armstead. "She is one of those eclectics that seem to have shuffled into the 21st century from another place and time. ... Lydia rarely sought advice, preferring to dispense it instead."

Funeral services will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Agape Christian Center, 4601 York Road.

In addition to her sisters, survivors include her husband of many years, Dino D. Merrick; four brothers, McKinley Watson Jr., Tyrone Armstead and Dwayne Armstead, all of Baltimore, and Albert Armstead Jr. of New York; another sister, Vicky Sloane of Baltimore; three nephews; and two nieces.

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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