“When you go in, you want to stand up tall and straight. Stand up nice and straight with your shoulders back so they can see what you’re doing, and they can see what you’re wearing, and you want to walk slow enough that they can see it, and then they’ll probably have you turn slowly, maybe stop. … Make sure and smile, and act like you’re having a good time.”
Lydia McKay, 15, calmly explains and demonstrates to 7-year-old Elizabeth Carraway how to handle a fashion review experience at the Clay County 4-H Youth Fair opening this week in Liberty. Lydia is standing in a living room filled with patterns and spools of thread, a special chair everyone uses for ripping out misplaced seams, an ironing board with a ready-hot iron and a full-length mirror to check fit.
Somewhere in the process of making a blue, dropped-waist creation of her own, Lydia stops to offer tips to the younger girl who just finished a pink leopard print skirt. This is no “Honey Boo Boo” pageant-queen experience but rather a more modest study that involves passing on skills, laughter and love from one generation to the next.
It’s all just part of the annual summer routine at Nelda Godfrey’s Liberty home. Girls who have sewn for a decade or more mix with first-time sewers, more experienced comrades, moms who have no idea what to do with batting or bobbins, and women who, though thoroughly experienced, are not above checking YouTube for tips.
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They come together to learn and teach the skill of sewing for projects at the fair. The girls kick off their shoes at the front door, pick out a pattern and choose a fabric to their liking. A dozen or more moms and daughters — sometimes dads and occasionally a son — gather several nights a week throughout June and into July to take on the task of creating a wearable piece of clothing. Four or more sewing machines hum gently in the background while busy sewers and advisers skitter around with patterns, scissors, chatter and support.
Godfrey has been opening her home for this kind of sewing assemblage since the early 1980s. A nursing professor by day, she turns her house on summer nights into a workshop where girls have the opportunity to explore a new skill and find pride in their creations.
She started the work in her 20s before she had her own kids. Godfrey’s mother had been a 4-H sewing instructor. When Godfrey, then a young adult, found out about a need where she was living, she volunteered. More than 30 years later, she’s still at it.
“I get such a kick out of the kids,” says Godfrey. “I’m amazed with them. They are just amazing people. The kids are so cool.”
The University of Missouri County Extension Service runs the 4-H youth development program for children ages 8 to 18. In Clay County, the program officially starts in the fall with a countywide open house. Families pick clubs. Children pick areas of interest to explore. Kids work on the projects throughout the year, sometimes with adult leaders in their club and sometimes with countywide experts like Nelda Godfrey.
The kids working at Godfrey’s house will present sewing projects in the category of clothing and the class of sewing expressions level 1, 2 or 3. They will also participate in a Fashion Revue experience, where they’ll wear and talk about their creations in one of three categories: junior, for ages 8 to 10; intermediate, for ages 11 and 12; and senior, for those 14 and older.
Moms are an essential part of the experience. Every child has to have a parent willing to participate. They do not have to know how to sew, but they do have to attend.
“In this day and time, it’s not so usual that kids get to interact with adults, and the moms come. I don’t do it if they don’t come,” says Godfrey.
She is quick to point to these other mothers and their commitment to the project as essential to making the sewing experience possible.
Lydia’s mom, Patty McKay, is a leader of the Golden Clovers 4-H Club. Going to Godfrey’s home in the summer gave her the chance to teach her kids to sew, and a deadline of fair time helped makes sure the projects actually get done.
McKay says sewing is not the only thing the girls learn.
“They learn creativity, how to tackle a problem when it happens and how to work through it,” says McKay.
The women also point to the camaraderie built behind sewing as a big draw, as well as the opportunity for kids to meet peers outside their schools and churches.
“The girls have become such good friends that sometimes they get too social and forget that we have to keep up with our projects,” says Susan Burns, another longtime involved mother and Golden Clovers leader.
This is the first year Godfrey and her team of sewing moms have opened up their work evenings to the whole county. In the past they have worked only with youngsters who were a part of the Golden Clovers Club in Liberty. At last year’s fair they saw so many younger kids watching from the sidelines that they decided to offer their experience to any 4-Her in the county who wanted to do a sewing project. They created a weekend workshop for first-year sewers, and 11 kids learned to sew for the first time.
It was more successful than they expected. Many of the girls were able to complete their project in just one weekend.
Some girls came because they really loved the idea of sewing. Among them was Christina Carraway, 8, who says, “I’ve been wanting to do it for most of my whole life.”
Grandparents gave her a sewing machine at Christmas, but Mom had no idea how to help Christina and her sister, Elizabeth, get started. The opportunity at Godfrey’s house provided the perfect jump start.
The girls both started with skirts, but they have big plans to make costumes — for their donkeys, as soon as Mom gets the donkeys.
Susanne Frecks, who helps lead the 4-Corners 4-H Club, said the work at Godfrey’s home was the best way her daughter could learn sewing.
“I wouldn’t have been able to help her if it wasn’t for Nelda,” says Frecks. “At the end of the year they have a fashion revue, and it is incredible. It’s so good for the girls. They are always very modest and very confident.”
First-year sewer Kayla Jump, 12, was already confident in her accessorizing skills, even if this is the first time she has sewn a piece of clothing to wear. She chose a navy blue polka-dot print. Kayla already had a shirt to match, as well as the necklace. She borrowed blue strappy shoes from Mom and got to make a trip to a store to find a matching purse and bow in the perfect shade of orange.
Kayla has also worked on cake-decorating and cooking projects for the fair, but sewing is her favorite, in part because she got to work with the other moms and older girls.
“They can help you out, so you aren’t on your own. You think of one thing, and they give you something totally different that goes so much better with it,” says Kayla.
Georgia Barge made a blue dress with white and black flowers. The 10-year-old first-time sewer loved her dress so much that she returned to make a matching one for her American Girl doll.
Although her dad sewed and mom worked on aprons with her, coming to Godfrey’s house and sewing with other girls was a completely different experience.
“I think that I really learned a lot more stuff than at home. I learned different vocabulary words and techniques,” says Georgia.
Sewing is something Mandy Ferrin would not have tried if it were not for the interest of the other girls in her Golden Clovers club. She joined 4-H to learn archery. She also works on art, cake decoration and photography. Last year’s project was a dress she liked that proved a challenging project for a first-year sewer. The pattern included 22 separate pieces.
“I didn’t know it was that difficult when I got the pattern,” says Mandy.
This year the discussion is about piping. Mandy’s mom, Genny Ferrin, has a background in interior design. Piping doesn’t sound daunting to her, but working with dress patterns is completely different than dressing windows and furniture. They came to Godfrey’s many times last year to get help. Thanks to the extra help, Mandy’s complicated choice worked out well.
“We just let her choose whatever she wanted, and she did everything excellent,” says Ferrin.
Lydia McKay started sewing because it was what the other girls in her club were interested in doing. Now she continues because it’s fun.
“It’s a challenge, and it’s always nice to see something at the store and know you can make it a lot more affordable or in a different color and alter it to fit you better,” says Lydia.
This year’s blue dropped-waist dress proved to be a bit more difficult than expected. The waist was a bit different than the pattern and required a little consulting with YouTube to figure out how to properly line, but it’s all part of the process.
After sewing for seven years, Monroe Pruett is familiar with the process. She sits in the “ripping chair,” giving out advice as she works on her own Hawaiian print retro-cut dress. The judges loved Pruett’s purple tennis shoes one year, so she confidently votes “yes” for one first-timer’s choice of a pink tiara. Godfrey counters with her input that a wise choice might be to avoid earrings when going with such a bold statement, and to make sure your finger nails are clean.
Although Monroe, 15, really loves being able to make something unique that fits perfectly, she sums up the draw of the program, for both the new and more experienced girls: “It’s family — all the girls are that here. I love that there are new girls here. It’s like a family, and it just doesn’t stop growing.”
The Clay County 4-H Youth Fair starts July 9 and runs through July 13 at the Earnest Shepherd Youth Center, 610 E. Shepherd Road, Liberty.