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Stepping into the Coon Rapids headquarters of Satin Stitches feels a lot like entering a history museum on the sport of competitive dance.

The lobby is filled with racks of jewel-adorned dresses and leotards. Walls are lined with yellowed newspaper and magazine clippings. On the front desk are filing boxes full of high school state tournament programs (all in mint condition) dating to the early 1980s. And a display of faded scrapbook pages showcases dance team uniforms spanning four decades.

The “curator” behind this collection is Deborah Nelson, the custom apparel company’s president and founder. When Minnesota’s top high school dance teams take the floor at Target Center for the state tournament this Friday and Saturday, many will be wearing ensembles from Satin Stitches.

“It’s like seeing myself out there,” said Nelson, also the company’s head designer. “Whenever our costumes have success at a competition, it is me. And it is Satin Stitches. It is our success, too.”

Founded in 1978, just as dance was making its first ripples with Minnesota’s female athletes, Satin Stitches shares much history with the world of competitive dance. Over the years, Nelson’s company has created uniforms for more than 140 high school dance teams, plus a number of teams outside the state. “It’s been interesting to see the whole evolution of costuming,” Nelson said, reaching to caress the sleeve of a vintage sequined dress.

“It started out simple in 1981,” she recalled, alluding to the minimalist looks she once designed. But dance team uniforms grew busier over time, she continued, “with more and more sequins.”

Jennifer Sims, a former head coach for teams in Austin and Montevideo, Minn., remembered wearing a Satin Stitches uniform when she danced with Willmar Senior High School in the 1980s. When Sims became a coach in the mid-1990s — at the height of the sequin craze — she asked Nelson to create something special for her team.

“The costumes were heavy and didn’t breathe well because of all the sequins,” Sims recalled. “But they were gorgeous. Deborah understood how important this process was to us. She was genuinely excited to help us create something new and interesting.”

Dominating in dance

Nelson attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, graduating with a degree in fashion design in 1974. She spent four years working in the women’s sportswear industry, including a stint doing alterations at J.C. Penney, before launching Satin Stitches.

With the help of three part-time seamstresses, Nelson’s company started out creating wedding dresses and pageant gowns. “I always liked glitz and glamour much more than these normal clothes we wear,” she explained.

In 1981, four years after starting Satin Stitches, Nelson received her very first order from the Rosemount High School dance team. At the time, Nelson knew little about competitive dance. What’s more, the dance world hadn’t developed its own style yet; many teams wore uniforms resembling cheerleading outfits.

That first commission was a big success, though. The result was a simple blue double-knit polyester dress with subtle silver accents, similar to a figure skater’s outfit.

From there, Nelson started experimenting with different fabrics and color-blocking techniques. She started crafting uniforms from Lycra, a fabric beloved by athletes for its elasticity. By 1984, Nelson’s custom apparel business was consumed by dance team uniforms.

In turn, Nelson’s creations dominated the state’s high school dance scene. She estimates about 80 percent of Minnesota dance teams wore Satin Stitches uniforms in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Her impact over the years is unprecedented in Minnesota,” Sims said.

Over time, Satin Stitches became synonymous with extravagant designs. Before discounts, each uniform can cost $200 to $300 in 2019 dollars. That’s why Nelson’s dominance waned in the wake of the 2008 recession, with layoffs and budget cuts forcing Minnesota dance teams to shop for less expensive options. Nelson managed to diversify her business, finding new clients in the worlds of cheerleading, figure skating and show choirs, which combine group singing with dance.

And as dance teams scrimped and saved, Nelson noticed a trend: Dancers were reselling and recycling old Satin Stitches uniforms.

Satin Stitches furnished the Brainerd High School team throughout the 1980s and ’90s, according to head coach Cindy Clough. Both Nelson and Clough remembered a certain royal blue velvet leotard embellished with silver rhinestones that formed stars across the bodice, a favorite uniform that debuted in 1991. Nelson was pleased to see the piece reappear for several more state tournaments over the years: Brainerd High School’s 1940s-themed jazz routine from 2012, Brainerd’s Western-themed kick dance from 2015, and an America-themed kick routine from 2016 by the Montevideo Dance Team.

“[Her costumes] are made very well and they last for a long time,” Clough said. “She’s just stood the test of time, and the quality of her work is what has done it.”

Alex Smith is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.