Four or five years ago, on a trip to New Mexico, I went to a museum and saw an exhibit of paper clothing. Actually, there were more than clothes on display; many everyday objects were also represented—laptop, guitar, bicycle—all made from colorful crepe paper. They came from Vietnam, handmade in tribute to people for whom those objects held special significance. Now, I won’t reveal anything more, that would be spoiling the story.
Learning about this lovely tradition stayed with me and was the key to writing “Sunday Dress.” First published by the UK journal ink, sweat and tears in March of 2020.
by DL Shirey
Ileana loved to make clothes. Afternoons after school she sat at my worktable, arranging patterns like jigsaw pieces to fit a length of fabric. These skills I taught her, daughter of my daughter, because her mother was not around to do it. Ileana made better choices. Ileana was a good girl.
It pains me now to sew, my fingers stiff with age. I can abide with the ache for my granddaughter, imagining the light in her eyes when Ileana slips on the dress. Every year, come winter, I make her one for spring.
The fireplace needs tending first because the workroom is cold. I strike a match and kindle wood, waiting for the flames to lick up and catch hold. The heat is a tonic for my hands. I rub them together, then search beneath bolts of unused fabric to find the old wooden crate. Ileana’s patterns, each tucked away in careful folds inside a paper envelope. I pull out Sunday Dress, the words printed in her exacting hand.
It hurts to hold scissors and cut the shapes. But when the task is done, I warm my palms once more. I trained Ileana to put things away before starting another step, so I fold the pattern into its envelope and place it back next to the others: Easter Dress, School Uniform, Summer Frock and a half-dozen others.
White seashells on a bed of ocean blue, off-white for the sleeves and waistband. I know she’ll like it. The fabric is crepe de Chine, light as ash, silky smooth. Working the crepe is easy and it feels good against my skin. I tack the panels together with a simple basting stitch.
Dressmaking is like a life, I remember saying to Ileana, with care, all those pieces will fit together. It will be done in no time, but no matter how old, you should wear it with pride. Everyone will see when you’re happy, for all the buttons and bows you’ll add. Or if the occasion is solemn or serious, the cloth can be darker, the hem longer. Nothing fancy.
“She loves the beach. She’ll wear this to a party,” I say to the room, holding up my handiwork. It hardly weighs anything, the fabric as fine and fragile as time itself. I drape it over the bare, well-worn torso, a dress form shaped like my little Ileana. Looks like a good fit. She’s such a tiny thing; it’s a wonder she can hold that big a heart.
Ileana made so many dresses with this pattern, for church, her best friend’s Quinceañera, a funeral. That’s the trick about sewing, simple changes can make it look like a completely different outfit: the material, the shape of the collar, maybe add a few pleats. Whatever is appropriate.
Carefully, I fold the new Sunday Dress at the waist and in half again, tucking in the sleeves just so. It’s a present, so I find some crisp tissue paper to wrap it in and a piece of pink ribbon long enough to fashion a bow.
How can a package so small mean so much? I pray my granddaughter will like it.
I leave the worktable as neat as I found it. Then kneel before the fire and place the dress atop the flames, watching the smoke rise to heaven.