Bullion rose. French knot. Feather stitch. Smocked chevron.
Unless you’re an embroidery fan or grew up sewing, these terms may not sound familiar. And some say technology has made obsolete what for decades grandmothers, mothers and aunts taught their children and grandchildren.
While there are machines that can make almost any stitch, there is at least one group of women dedicated to preserving the art of hand sewing and fine needlework.
Known as the French Handsewers, the group is the Baton Rouge chapter of the Smocking Arts Guild of America, which is dedicated to fostering “the art of smocking and related needlework for future generations through education, communication and quality workmanship.” The local chapter supports SAGA’s purpose through classes and by sewing special garments for its charitable projects.
SAGA’s national philanthropy is Wee Care, a program which requires each member to create a burial gown for a baby who never makes it home from the hospital. Every member of French Handsewers stitches a gown, bonnet and blanket ranging in sizes from preemie to newborn.
Member Roz Hirsius, 72, of Metairie, recently took 30 of the burial sets to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans where the staff, she says, was “thrilled to receive them.”
“It’s especially rewarding to help a grieving family,” says veteran member 64-year-old Susan Newsom, of Baton Rouge, who believes sewing is both fun and relaxing.
“Life is so hectic, but to be able to come to a group where women like what I like, it’s enjoyable and calming,” says Newsom.
The group’s president, Linda Alumbaugh, says members share “a common thread.”
“They are passionate about sewing,” says the 71-year-old New Roads resident. “We recently issued a challenge to our participants to learn five new stitches. We feel like we have made a difference. Lifelong friendships are stitched here.”
From its inception in 2004 with seven charter sewers, the group has grown through word of mouth to more than 40 members, ranging in age from 17 to 83. Some, like Nadine Laurent, 60, and May Wong, 66, travel from New Orleans, while others come from Lafayette and as far away as Liberty, Mississippi, to learn and share their talents and skills.
Heather Miller, 18, and her sister, Emily, 17, who are home-schooled, drive in from Greensburg for the meetings.
“It’s so special to me because everybody is so willing to share what they know. It’s a nice time to sew with other people who sew,” says Heather Miller. “Right now, I’m working on a baby coat for my hope chest. I would not be able to do it if they had not taught me the stitches.”
While not affiliated with Trinity Episcopal Church, for the past several years the church has opened its doors as a gathering place for the sewers each month.
In appreciation for providing meeting space, the French Handsewers have created dozens of handmade garments, including colorful dresses, skirts, boys’ pants and pillowcases for 140 children in Amistad, the Bolivian orphanage which Trinity has adopted. They are packing the items into three suitcases, which will be transported there by a team from the church.
In addition to sewing for others, one of the favorite activities at the group’s gatherings is “show and tell,” where others can get ideas and share their latest creations.
“I love to see children in pretty clothes,” says 83-year-old Lorraine Bergeron, of Port Allen.
She has smocked for 60 years and has a collection of more than 200 garments. With seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, there is always something in grandma’s closet that’s appropriate for special occasions.
Bergeron is a true fan of “heirloom sewing,” meaning all of the stitches in her garments are done by hand.
She and Lorraine Poirrier, 75, of Addis, are two of the original members of the group and are still active participants.
Yvonne Smith, who has been a member for more than a decade, says she has “always been fascinated by a needle and thread. I really started sewing on Barbie doll clothes. From there, it just took off. I have a love of special apparel for children.”
Smith, 62, and her close friend, Mary Dupont, 56, who both live in Plaquemine, recently opened MY Sewing Shoppe in the site formerly occupied by Carriages for women’s apparel in Bocage Village at Jefferson and Old Hammond Highway in Baton Rouge.
“People who sew are the most wonderful people,” says Smith. “They are willing to share their talents and learn to be creative. We see a lot of grandmothers who are sewing for their grandchildren.”
For more information about the organization, local chapters and enrollment forms, visit smocking.org.