This July 4th Valley residents are getting into the spirit of the holiday, literally, by donning clothes from the era America was born.
Thanks to a local dressmaker, the Colonial look is staging a comeback.
Inside Sew Ladylike, a one-room dress shop on the top of Orchard Road in Millmont, time seems to have turned back with dresses and undergarments spanning more than 200 years of fashion.
“Clothes from the 1700s and 1800s were really unique, people put style into it,” Sonya Anderson, dressmaker and owner of Sew Ladylike, said. People want something original and distinct, she said. “There’s no real artistic flair in clothes today. It’s very cookie cutter.”
Contrary to most clothing stores, at Sew Ladylike, no two dresses are quite the same, from size to pattern to style. Dresses are made to order with Anderson often drafting patterns based on pictures her customers bring to the store.
Anderson, who got her start making quilts and doing embroidery, was a webdesigner by trade. After moving to Millmont four years ago, she began to pursue a hobby sewing clothes for herself because she really enjoyed vintage reproductions.
But she never did get to don her own colonial dress.
“I made a colonial dress for myself and before it was finished, someone bought it from me,” Anderson said. “So I started making another and the same thing happened. Every time I finished something, someone wanted to buy it.”
This prompted Anderson to start a virtual shop for her dresses on the Internet at www.sewladylike.com. The dresses became an immediate hit with Civil War re-enactors and colonial enthusiasts and for special events like school plays and Halloween costumes.
Her dresses also caught the eye of the executive director of the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum, Brownwen Sanders, who put together a temporary exhibit called Fashion Through the Ages, featuring clothes from 1500 to 1919, for which Anderson provided several dresses, undergarments and gowns.
While Anderson was busy setting up her shop for a May opening, she was also pouring over sewing books to design dresses for the Buggy Museum exhibit, which was scheduled for April 17 through May 17.
Anderson said she had a lot to learn in a short period of time.
It wasn’t by candlelight, but Anderson sat up through many nights pouring over dressmaking textbooks from the 1800s.
“If you learn how they do it,” Anderson said, “You can, too.”
Except a lot of the popular techniques and rudimentary sewing machines had been replaced by modern technology.
“A lot of the really complicated styles needed to be hand sewn. These styles were from before modern machines so the patterns just didn’t work with them. It needed to be done by hand,” Anderson said.
Despite the learning curve and the silencing of her modern sewing machine, it didn’t take Anderson long to finish the pieces for the exhibit.
“Everybody couldn’t believe how quickly she made the outfits, the majority were done in two weeks,” Sanders said.
In fact, Sanders was so impressed, she commissioned Anderson to make her an 1890’s bicycling outfit to wear at the museum and during walking tours.
“The museum’s time period is from the 1860s to 1940s and since I do tours of the factory it’s hard to be really ladylike, as in ballgown ladylike, but I wanted period correct clothing from the time period so I thought a sporting outfit would cover my needs,” Sanders said.
Anderson researched several patterns and Sanders selected the style she liked best, a mid-calf length skirt with a jacket made from gabardine, a form of twill weave that is a tough, tightly woven fabric. The outfit also comes with bloomers.
“It’s beautiful,” Sanders said, and very reasonably priced at $115, including fabric, for the five piece ensemble.
While she still hasn’t worn the bicycling outfit, Sanders said she’s thinking of commissioning Anderson for another dress. Specifically, Sanders recalls an early 1800s empire style dress, which has a high-waist gathered just under the bust with a long, loose skirt, that resides in Sew Ladylike now that the exhibit is over. It happens to be the first dress Anderson made by drafting a pattern based on a picture.
“I’d like her to make me a dress like that, to wear for everyday, not for reenactment,” Sanders said. “The dress looks like something you could wear out and people would have no idea it’s from the early 1800s.”
Anderson said she charges between $50 and $200 for most dresses, the price typically includes fabric and buttons, hooks, etc., although it varies depending on complexity and fabric. Anderson will draft a pattern based on pictures for time periods from the late 1700s 1940. Typically dresses take four to five hours to complete, Anderson said, though vintage wedding dresses are more elaborate and tend to take longer.
And some dresses, Anderson said, don’t have a price tag in time or dollars.
A close friend lost a son and Anderson knew the family didn’t have anything to wear to the funeral the following day, so she took it upon herself to see to that detail and sewed two dresses.
“That was a good feeling, knowing that I could do something to help the family,” Anderson said.
“Between the sweat and tears and screams I got it done by morning.”
AMANDA HOFFMANN: 570-742-9671