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Delia Carlota Cano, who founded her own Seattle sportswear manufacturing business, dies at 96

Delia Carlota Cano’s life was a series of remarkable journeys. Some were as vast as the distance from her hometown in rural Peru to Seattle in 1957 — a trip that entailed four long flights with three small children in tow, speaking no English, headed to an unknown new life. Some were as tiny as a needle’s trip along a seam, in the meticulous garments that she crafted in a lifetime of professional sewing that included years of running her own sportswear business from her Capitol Hill basement, making outdoor clothing and accessories sold by REI.  

Cano died of sepsis on Oct. 1, just a few weeks short of her 97th birthday. A collection of mementos at her memorial service earlier this month poignantly told her life story: a small brown Singer sewing machine, acquired not long after her arrival in Seattle; an exuberant purple hat, trimmed with a Delia-made flower; an array of delicate china teacups, representatives of a vast collection; a row of photos in which she always seemed happily surrounded by family.

“She sewed and sewed her way through life,” said her daughter Rose Cano at the memorial. Born in 1925 in a remote village in southern Peru, Delia Carlota Cano left school early to help support her single mother; her first job, at age 11, was mending silk stockings for 10 cents a run. By her 20s, she was a successful dressmaker and tailor in Peru. A black-and-white photo on display at the memorial, taken in Lima around 1950, showed an elegant young woman in a beautifully fitted jacket, gloves and upswept hat, gazing confidently at the camera.

Cano and her husband, Rodolfo Cano, had three children when they decided to relocate to Seattle; Rodolfo, who had a longtime friend at the University of Washington who agreed to sponsor his visa, came here in 1956. Delia and the children followed a year later, after he had paved the way. She quickly re-established her sewing business, first from a small shop in Lake City, and with her husband, hosted regular meetings of the “Spanish Club” to teach conversational Spanish. Many prominent Seattleites attended the club — among them, Lloyd and Mary Anderson, founders of REI, who offered Delia a job in the store’s administrative office in the early 1960s.

That job didn’t last long. Her son Rodolfo Jr. (Rudy) remembered his mother describing how she examined some of the products REI was then manufacturing: stuff sacks for sleeping bags, rain ponchos, gaiters. “She studied the articles to see how they were made, and she realized it was something she could do.” The Andersons agreed, and Delia Cano Sportswear Manufacturing was born — first just Cano doing piecework in her basement on Malden Avenue, and eventually growing to employ up to 14 workers at a time operating industrial sewing machines.

“Those things were really fast!” remembered her daughter Rose. “I was afraid to go down there. It was like a thundering freight train.” Among the many items her mother crafted: special climbing gloves for local climbing legend Jim Whittaker and then-Sen. Robert Kennedy, who climbed Mount Kennedy (in Yukon, Canada) together in 1965.

Rudy, who worked in the business as a teenager (as did many other family members), remembered the employees as “people from all different walks of life,” including some refugees from Vietnam, connected through nearby St. Joseph’s church. His mother was, he said, “a great boss” — she’d buy lunch for her employees once a week, serve up cake on people’s birthdays, listen to their problems. “She always had time for people.”

The business continued into the early 1980s, when overseas manufacturing ended the REI connection. But Cano continued to sew, working for a small company that made motorcycle clothing. And even in her 80s, she was designing garments for people with disabilities — ponchos, for example, adapted for those in wheelchairs. Throughout her life she made beautiful clothes for her family, including a wedding dress for her eldest daughter and a special prom dress for her granddaughter Melissa Hoyos, inspired by a dress worn by Jennifer Lopez in the movie “Selena.”

“I think we took for granted what an amazing seamstress she was,” Hoyos said, remembering happy times watching the movie with her grandmother, pausing the film to examine details of the dress. The sparkly silver gown was ready for prom night: “so beautiful.”

Though busy in her career, family always came first with Cano, who raised five children. She was a tireless advocate for her youngest, Guadalupe (Lupita), who was born with Down syndrome in 1968, and for all people with disabilities. For many years, she raised funds, volunteered her time (through The Arc of King County she mentored Spanish-speaking new parents of children with disabilities), attended conferences, worked with multiple organizations, and lobbied in Olympia to help pass legislation, including the landmark Education for All act in 1971. She was a founding member of LifeSPAN, a local organization that helps family members build networks for their disabled relatives, and contributed her family’s story to the book “Becoming Citizens: Family Life and the Politics of Disability,” published by University of Washington Press.

At her memorial, her children and grandchildren spoke, remembering her as a woman with an enormous capacity to love. Her daughter Venus Bravo De Rueda, describing her mother as a huge personality in a little package, said simply, “She made room in her heart for everyone.”

Cano, whose husband Rodolfo died in 1995, is survived by four of her five children (her eldest, Delia Angelica, died in 1992), nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. For those wishing to remember her with a charitable donation, the family suggests the Down Syndrome Community of Puget Sound.

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