A 19th-century farm and a 21st century prison may not sound like the most natural partners, but a unique program has stitched together the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm and the Topeka Correctional Facility.
The next time you see a dress at the farm, you might be admiring the work of a volunteer group at the prison.
One of Mahaffie’s big attractions is its reenactors, who are clad in clothes reflective of the 1860s. But keeping the staff, volunteers and visitors supplied with costumes is challenging.
Katie Lange, program coordinator at Mahaffie, had been sewing them herself, but keeping up was daunting, especially when one woman’s dress takes 20 hours of work.
Initially, she wanted to make an order through the prison’s work program to purchase garments sewn by inmates.
“The deputy warden officially said they had this huge order. They’re actually making uniforms for all the guards right now, but if (we) wanted to come in, we could start a volunteer group of ladies who could learn how to sew these things,” Lange said.
She applied for and received a $5,000 Freedom’s Frontier Interpretive Grant to cover the costs of the program and began meeting weekly with a group of women at the prison at the end of June. This is the seventh grant Mahaffie has received from the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.
“For me, period clothing is a teaching tool. I want it to be right, because when people come and experience Mahaffie, they expect they are seeing things as they would have been in the 1860s,” Lange said. “We try to have pieces in lots of places that our visitors can interact with, so it’s not just us as mannequins wearing it. It’s real, living clothing that they can touch and understand as well.”
She frequently teaches the women new projects, using appropriate fabric and patterns to the era.
Anything you can picture people wearing in the Civil War era is fair game. So far, they’ve made sun bonnets, petticoats, aprons and dresses for little girls. The next big project is women’s dresses.
Although she can only spend an hour or two with the women each week, the women have portable sewing machines available to them in their living area at the prison and work on the projects throughout the week. Some actually work in the prison’s sewing program and do Mahaffie projects on their breaks for fun.
Lange has been impressed with her 12 regular participants.
“We’re up to doing some pretty sophisticated garments now, so it’s been fun to watch their skill-sets grow,” Lange said. “I’ve got women who learned how to sew on buttons from Grandma. I’ve got women who learned how to sew through 4-H, and they’re all really excited to learn new skills and to make garments they’ve never made before.”
Participating in a sewing project in a prison does have a few challenges.
“We are not allowed to bring in serious sewing shears because it’s a prison, so we have to do all of the material preparation before we go in. We cut out all of the pieces, and then the ladies put them together for us,” Lange said.
Sometimes outside factors affect the program.
“We had a lady who had been sewing for us — she got into a little bit of trouble and was moved to a different wing, and all her things were confiscated,” Lange said. “We’re pretty sure in that pile of things are three dresses she was working on for Mahaffie, so I’ve been in contact with the warden trying to figure out how to get those back.”
Lange said she hopes that between now and next June, she and her group in Topeka can bank enough clothes to last Mahaffie for about five years to give her and her other volunteers some breathing room.
“We kill clothes pretty quickly when we’re shoveling manure,” she said. “I’m looking forward to having a stash to make this a little more sustainable.”