Members of the guild put together 500 pillowcases for donation to children at Camp COCO and the Ronald McDonald House. Jason Johnson/The State Journal-Register
By ANN GORMAN
THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
Posted Jun 12, 2009 @ 12:00 AM
As sewing machines whir around her, 86-year-old Helen Landreth of Springfield carefully feeds brightly colored fabric under the presser foot of her “old Singer Featherweight,” creating a multi-patterned pillowcase.
“It’s my traveling one. It has its own case and works so nicely. I was offered $10 for it on a trade-in one time, but I said no,” Landreth said of the black, portable machine she’s used since the late 1930s or early 1940s. She also owns two other sewing machines and a serger.
Landreth — the oldest member of the Springfield Lincoln Land chapter of the American Sewing Guild, recently joined other members at the University of Illinois Extension Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds to sew hundreds of cheery pillowcases for children who are ill or in need.
The linens are distributed at Camp COCO at Lake Bloomington, Camp Care-A-Lot at Lake Springfield and near Pittsfield, the Springfield Ronald McDonald House and the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota.
“It’s a big effort,” said Susan Sarwinski of Glenarm, as she put the finishing touches on a floral-print case with coordinating trim. “Some little girl is going to be tickled with it.”
“I don’t think there’s ever two alike. If a child’s not feeling well, it’s got to make (him or her) feel a little better,” Jeanne DeSollar said about the pillow slips featuring “Sesame Street’s” Elmo, teddy bears, polka dots, dogs, John Deere tractors, strawberries, Mickey Mouse, trucks, stars, Winnie the Pooh and more.
Founded in 1978 by the American Home Sewing Association, the American Sewing Guild was a way to keep the “tradition of home sewing alive and well as a valued part of American culture.” The guild was founded at a time when sewing education was being dropped from many high school curricula and women were entering the workforce in large numbers.
The first chapters were organized in Denver and Indianapolis. The Springfield group was formed in 1990 by Jean Pickett and chartered in 1991.
Longtime member Beulah “Boo” Koen of Chatham considers Pickett the “mother of the (local) sewing guild.”
“She was a great teacher,” said Koen, who usually sews daily and even made her daughter’s wedding gown.
“I doubt we’d have done all of this without her,” agreed JoAnn’e Glatfelter of Springfield.
Today, the chapter boasts 103 members, said president Beverly Donnan of Ashland.
In addition to pillowcases, members have sewn “neck coolers” for soldiers, quilts for patients of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, burial gowns for premature infants and “anti-ouch pouches.”
Designed by ASG member Deon Maas of Peoria, the anti-ouch pouch is a pillow that hangs from a shoulder strap and is meant to “cushion the underarm and breast area after breast surgery or during radiation treatment.”
The chapter also stitches hundreds of “chemo caps” for patients at St. John’s Hospital, Memorial Medical Center and Springfield Clinic.
Janet Rowell of Springfield prefers to call the caps “happy healing hats.”
“It sounds less grim,” she said of the headwear made of fleece for cold weather and lightweight knit for warmer months.
DeSollar said feedback from hat recipients has been positive.
“I had cancer in 1983, and I would’ve given anything to have one of those. I just had a bandana,” said DeSollar, noting that the hats are worn mostly by women who’ve lost their hair because of chemotherapy. Men, she said, typically wear baseball caps.
Glatfelter, who helps organize the community service projects, said the group often learns by word of mouth about the needs here and elsewhere.
“Sometimes the Lord just drops the project on us,” she said.
Material for the projects is donated by the public and by guild members, Glatfelter said. Families sometimes give the organization textiles belonging to a loved one who has died.
“We have a (use) for just about any kind of fabric — except the slinky fabric,” she said.
Undertakings such as the pillowcases require teamwork.
For example, several women sort and cut the material into the three different-sized pieces needed for the case. Coordinating fabrics are then matched together. Next, the pieces are folded, pressed, pinned, sewn and serged.
“You never know, when you have this big pile of stuff, what you’ll end up with,” Koen said.
Learning from each other
The ladies who met on a recent Monday morning worked well into the afternoon, stopping only for a quick bite to eat. The Wednesday-evening bunch (some women attend both meetings) would pick up where the others left off, and any unfinished cases would be completed at home.
“It gives you a good feeling to know that you’re doing something for someone in need,” said Elly Brandt of Springfield, ironing strips of cloth.
“It’s a fun way to give back,” said Cheryl Sugent of Petersburg.
“We sew from the heart,” Donnan added.
Members emphasized that the guild isn’t exclusively for expert sewers or women.
“It isn’t just for people who know how to sew really well,” Rowell said. “It’s for people who want to sew better.”
Many members began sewing as children, learning from their grandmothers, mothers or in 4-H. Over the years, they’ve made clothing for their families, home decor items, gifts and more.
Guild meetings often provide a chance to learn something new, with programs such as “Recycled Sweaters,” “Funky to Fabulous,” “Machine Embroidery” and “Zippers.”
Sarah Brogdon of Franklin, owner and operator of Fashions by Sarah, has taught many of the classes.
“It’s the little tips that you gain from all of it,” Glatfelter said of the lessons.
“If you have a problem, you can bring it up and someone usually has a solution or suggestion,” Landreth said.
Meetings also include “show and tell,” where members display their latest work, including garments, pillows, placemats or quilts.
The annual style show in April was a highlight. Grandchildren paraded down a makeshift runway in outfits designed by their grandmas; students from Flo Yoakum’s shop, Sew with Flo on North Grand Avenue East in Springfield, showed off their “Girls Rule” hooded pullovers; and Donnan wore a chic wool jacket she’d fashioned.
Aprons, purses, bags, doll clothes and other items also were admired.
Judy Black of Springfield — who sews professionally and owns a home business, The Pincushion — donned an elegant vest made from drapery fabric and decorated with art glass beads and “trapunto” stitching. She recently made two sets of outdoor furniture cushions for a client, using 20 yards of fabric.
“It took about 10 days for each set,” Black said.
Landreth modeled a blue polyester crepe dress with white braid trim that was sewn from a pattern she’d ordered from a newspaper ad in the 1940s for “some ridiculously low figure.” She finished off the dress with white buttons from her mother’s button box.
“I was pleased with the way it turned out,” she said. “The whole thing cost me about $5.”
Home sewing expenses can add up, however. The price tag for sewing, embroidery or serger machines can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Other tools and accessories include scissors, pins, needles, a tape measure, a rotary cutter, a seam ripper, iron, dress forms, quilting frames and notions, plus patterns, fabric and thread.
But members say they’re able to save money by repairing, altering or repurposing clothing they already own or buy cheaply at garage sales or thrift stores.
Koen noted that sewing has “evolved,” thanks to technology. Indeed, many of today’s high-end machines have built-in computers able to generate an array of stitches.
Although their charity sewing is important to them, the women also like to have a good time.
They challenge each other to create items from cloth the same color as a certain crayon, from a silk square or by reducing the large stash of fabric they all seem to have accumulated.
“I sometimes wonder, ‘Why did I buy this?’ when I’ve had (the material) for five years,” Brandt said, chuckling.
Out-of-town bus trips are memorable events.
“It’s an uproar from the minute we get going,” Landreth said of the ventures to the Simplicity Pattern Co. in Michigan, Nancy’s Notions in Wisconsin, Vogue Fabrics in Evanston and elsewhere.
“Sew-ins” are held at the Koinonia Retreat Center in Murrayville near Jacksonville.
“Our meals are catered. We sew until we want to quit, and we go to bed and get up when we want to,” Koen said.
Guild members young and old have developed bonds even stronger than the stitches they sew.
“It’s like an old-fashioned quilting bee. We help each other through the good times and the bad,” Koen said. “And they only make fun of you a little bit when you sew without thread.”
“You don’t make as many mistakes that way,” joked Arrettea Rumple of Waverly.
Pat Neuman of rural Springfield joined about four years ago after her husband passed away.
“I needed to get out of the house,” she said.
Marla Ridge of Chatham, also a widow, was invited to a meeting by a neighbor.
“It’s opened up a whole new world to me,” Ridge said. “I’ve met a wonderful new set of friends who’ve welcomed me wholeheartedly.”
“We’re sisters of the cloth,” Rowell said.
If you go
The Springfield Lincoln Land chapter of the American Sewing Guild meets at the lower level of the University of Illinois Extension Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.
Except for April, June, July and August, when special activities are planned, meeting times are:
* 9 a.m. on the third Monday of each month
* 7:30 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month.
A “neighborhood” group meets in Jacksonville at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month (except April, June, July and August) at the Times Square Sewing Complex.