Freeborn woman makes gowns for lost infants, plus unique first lady gowns
Her gift for creativity can also be found in 40 years worth of sewing intricate, remarkably detailed first ladies dolls dressed in their presidential inaugural gowns, which stand in a display case inside her modest home.
But more on that later in this story.
Elaine, 78, has been sewing ever since she was a young girl, as the oldest in a family of nine siblings. “Growing up I sewed all of my own clothes,” Elaine recalled. “My mom told me if you do the sewing, then the other kids will do the dishes. I didn’t want to wash dishes, so I sewed the clothes for everyone. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my dad always had enough money to buy fabric for me,” she said.
Later, when she married her husband George in 1953 at age 17, she sewed her own wedding dress complete with a long train. She sewed clothes for her husband and family of two children. They farmed, and George drove truck until he died 20 years ago. Elaine, who has lived on the same place for 63 years, at one time drove bus for the Freeborn school district for 14 years.
About four years ago she got the idea to begin sewing gowns, outfits and small quilts or blanket wraps for infants that didn’t come home from the hospital.
“I talked to my niece Rita who works with newborns at a hospital and asked if there was a need for any clothes to offer families of babies that passed away,” Elaine explained. “She said the hospital didn’t have anything for the infants to wear, and ever since, I’ve made about 20 outfits a year and donated them to be used to assist families at a difficult time.”
She began by using polyester fabrics for the babies’ clothes that she usually found in thrift stores before advancing to more fancy material from old bridal gowns, bridesmaids or prom dresses. While searching for material, word has spread about Elaine’s mission of compassion. “One lady donated her wedding dress to me which had been hanging in her closet for 40 years,” she said.
She’s made as many as eight little outfits from another donated wedding dress. “That person wanted to see what clothes I made for the infants from her dress, and she was pleased to know that the old bridesmaids dresses from her wedding party were also going to be sewed into more colorful outfits as well,” she stated.
After she designs and sews the outfits for both girls and boys, Elaine neatly folds them into boxes that she takes to the hospital. She’s received cards of thanks from the hospital auxiliary which appreciates her caring efforts.
But the real satisfaction, according to Elaine, comes from knowing that her project might help alleviate some of the intense pain that parents experience from the unexpected death of a baby.
“Having something readily available to wear is one less thing the family has to think about when the loss is so sudden,” she commented.
Her sewing interests also keep her busy as a member of two Freeborn quilting circles that donate to veterans and needy families. Her plans are to continue making the infant outfits for the hospital as long as she’s able to do it.
“It’s a good feeling helping others, especially the very young for a life not lived, but still dignified,” she commented.
Her highly personal feelings are self-evident on each little garment she sews. A label tag attached to the inside collar of the fabric simply reads: “Made with tender loving care by Elaine.”
First Lady Dolls Seath first became interested in ceramic doll-making through a community education pottery course that she attended in 1971.
“I took the class, learned how to do ceramics, got a kiln and opened up a little shop in a trailer on the farm,” she explained. After making several large dolls, she started her next project – a First Lady collection.
What makes the first lady dolls so interesting is Elaine’s exquisite attention to detail. “Before firing the slip clay in my kiln, I can carve the clay for the correct type of hairstyle and facial features if you want it to be different from the mold,” she explained. While some dolls are similar, earlier first ladies might have had braids or curls, while Michelle Obama’s modern hairstyle hadn’t been seen previously on a first lady.
Elaine sews the doll dresses exactly as to how the first ladies wore them to the inaugurals. That passion led her on a trip to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. in an effort to reproduce the original gowns as much as possible.
“In 1992, my son and I went to see a first ladies exhibit, but unfortunately, it wasn’t on display in the museum when we got there,” she recalled.
Undaunted, she located most of the dress patterns from old catalogs, while the more recent designs she found through online searches.
Elaine says she couldn’t pick just one doll as her favorite, as each of them have a story to tell. And she remembers the details about the dresses of nearly every first lady, as some took longer than others to finish.
“The dress style of Edith Wilson is something that could be worn today, and Martha Washington had 19 tassels on her gown that I wound around a fork and made by hand,” she recalled. “A lot of them had fans, and Grace Coolidge is the only one who had a short dress from the 1920s flapper era complete with ostrich feathers.”
She tries to be as authentic in details as possible, including having the correct color of the first ladies’ eyes to airbrushing their faces to hand sewing the garments complete with all the beads and accessories.
She said Mary Lincoln had flowers that had to be glued in her doll’s hair, and Francis Cleveland had butterflies sewn on the shoulders of her gown. Seath said it also took awhile to finish Lou Hoover’s and Florence Harding’s dresses before she got the look that met her approval.
And, it took nearly three days of sewing to get all the pleats, tucks and beads just right for Lucy Hayes’ gown. Other dolls in the collection have bracelets, jewelry, cameos and necklaces attached.
Then there’s Lucretia Garfield’s garment that has every bow and button attached to the dress.
“It’s been challenging and interesting,” said Seath. “I made Michelle Obama’s dress four times before I got it the way I wanted.” However, she confessed that her Lucy Hayes doll has a hidden secret too.
“It fell over in the display case and has three broken fingers on one hand, but I was able to cover that by placing the hankie she held over them.”
Her unique collection, which has been viewed by numerous visitors, contains all women, of course, but Seath is already looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election.
“If a certain woman runs for president and is elected, I’ll have to create a first gentleman doll,” she joked. “I’ll probably have to find a new ceramic mold for a man, look up some business suit or tux patterns with tails to sew for the first man’s inaugural outfit.”