Special dresses for special occasions

JENNY FRESHWATER,  left, her daughter Sarah, right, and Mary Ann Trinko specialize in making clothing for baptisms, first communions and confirmations. Their venture started after they discovered that finding a white dress for these occasions was not easy. Many stores only carried dresses for flower girls, which were modeled after bridesmaids' dresses and not always modest enough for a church ceremony. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

JENNY FRESHWATER, left, her daughter Sarah, right, and Mary Ann Trinko specialize in making clothing for baptisms, first communions and confirmations. Their venture started after they discovered that finding a white dress for these occasions was not easy. Many stores only carried dresses for flower girls, which were modeled after bridesmaids’ dresses and not always modest enough for a church ceremony. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Staff Writer
ARLINGTON — Sarah Freshwater, her mother Jenny Freshwater and family friend Mary Ann Trinko spend most of the workweek together sewing.
The women have found their niche: making custom handmade outfits for the sacraments of baptism, first communion and confirmation. The business, called Serendipity by Sarah: Unique Stitchery and Gifts for Special Occasions, is owned by Sarah who began sewing 11 years ago under Trinko’s guidance.
“I think our partnership here in this creativity blooms,” said Trinko. “One idea brings another idea to another to another.”
Sarah, 24, was diagnosed with a learning disability in second grade and was enrolled in special education classes. As she got older and began thinking about confirmation, one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic faith, her parents asked Trinko to be her sponsor.
Confirmation candidates at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, where the Freshwaters and Trinko are parishioners, are usually entering the eighth grade.
“I asked her a year before it was supposed to happen because Sarah has some learning difficulties, so Mary Ann agreed,” Jenny Freshwater said.
Trinko wanted to see if Sarah had a different way of learning so she decided to see if she could teach her to sew.
“My father taught me how to sew when I was 10,” said Trinko, 70. “He was a tailor and so his education was from that perspective.”
The summer before Sarah’s seventh-grade year, the two started spending an afternoon together each week.
“They’d spend time learning to sew, talking, learning different things. (Mary Ann was) just watching how she learned and how she didn’t learn,” Freshwater recalled.
Their first project together was a quilt which helped Sarah learn the basics of sewing. It took four years to complete. Sarah would learn one technique, then practice on other items.
“She did some pillows. She did some jumpers. Everything she was learning to sew was all involved through the quilt,” Jenny Freshwater said.
Sarah graduated from Arlington High School in 2009.
“They continued to learn to sew and cook,” said Freshwater. “It’s their time together.”
Sarah, who has become Trinko’s “adopted granddaughter,” said she enjoys the time spent with Trinko, who has seven children, 22 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“It’s fun sewing with Mrs. Trinko. I’d go there Friday nights when I was still in school and have dinner and sew,” she said.
That same spring that Sarah graduated, one of Trinko’s granddaughters was making her first communion. The styles had changed over the years and there was little available in the stores so Trinko made her dress.
At the ceremony, some of the mothers asked where the family had found an age-appropriate dress that had sleeves.
“Then we realized that we weren’t seeing baptismal things, either,” said Freshwater.
She called stores in the area and found that they were no longer carrying first communion dresses; orders would have to be placed through a catalog.
“How would you know the feel of the material, how it fit the child?” said Trinko.
After graduation, the three women got together and decided in lieu of Sarah going to college, they would start a business focusing on these items.
The dresses are lined with cotton material to make them more comfortable for youngsters, especially in the warmer weather of springtime, when confirmations and first communions typically take place.
The women had to find places to buy fabric, lace and buttons. Freshwater said the quality of fabric in stores has gone down over the years while prices have increased.
“We wanted pretty trims and we were looking for beautiful buttons. You can’t find nice buttons anymore,” she said.
They registered with the state and become a licensed business so they could buy wholesale and found a number of dealers online, including one in the Czech Republic who sells them glass buttons.
They contacted the Roman Catholic diocese to find out the appropriate dress code for first communion and were told that dresses should have sleeves, be no shorter than an inch above the knee, and have a modest neckline.
“Then we found out that they were having trouble with some of their confirmation students,” Freshwater said. “The bishop is saying ‘I don’t want to see the low neckline. I don’t want to see the short skirts.’ We found that people in charge of religious education didn’t know where to send people.”
They established their sewing headquarters in two rooms of Trinko’s home where they began making baptismal outfits for boys and girls, first communion and confirmation dresses for girls, and vests and ties for boys.
“(That first year) we did a lot of sewing and we just kept making and making and making, and really kind of questioning what in the world we were doing,” Trinko said.
The business doesn’t have a website, they noted.
“The concern was if someone saw a dress, three people, five people, 100 people could have bought that same dress in a matter of a click. That’s not what we do,” said Trinko.
They visited several Catholic churches in Ohio and Michigan to show their designs.
Fit is important so they offer a variety of sizes for first communion dresses from 6 to 14 along with half sizes and plus sizes.
“We have half sizes which we both felt were very important because you don’t want to put a slightly chubby child into a dress that is physically too big for her, or meant for a child with a bustline,” said Trinko.
Some mothers have cried upon seeing the children in the clothing because they’re so happy their child could try something on and have it fit, Freshwater added.
The women use a coding system so they know which pattern and material was used for every dress, and where and when it was sold. Only one of each dress style and fabric is sold at the same church during the same year so the dresses are unique.
“We can remake it in a different fabric or use the fabric in a different style dress. That’s how we’re keeping them one of a kind,” said Freshwater.
“We don’t want to make the same thing over and over again. We’d be bored,” she said.
Trinko said they each have their own ideas for dress designs.
“We’ll usually grab a piece of fabric. That’s usually the beginning of it. Or she’ll (Jenny) find a piece of lace she likes and say ‘all right, now what am I going to do with this lace?'” Trinko said.
Then she’ll pick a pattern or combine elements from different patterns.
“Most of our creativity happens on communion dresses,” said Trinko. “They’re different enough because we all have different tastes.”
The women said they had customers ask for veils which are typically worn for first communion.
“We hadn’t considered that early on. We did it immediately because what we saw was disappointing,” Trinko said. “Why would a parent spend $100 on a veil that had been glued together? We wanted something that the child would be pleased to wear but also could be put aside.”
She noted that she still has her veil that was worn by one of her daughters.
“Those are the kinds of traditions you want to pass on. And I’m discovering that more and more people want to pass their religious heritage on, not just their ethnic heritage,” she said. “To me that’s a real important thing, and you don’t do it with something that’s been glued or hacked up.”
Another request they had was for matching dresses for American Girl dolls.
“We weren’t really thinking we wanted to get into that. We were enjoying what we were doing. With communion outfits for girls, they are pretty much one of a kind,” said Freshwater. “So we say we’ll do a companion matching outfit for dolls because they can’t be 100 percent exact.”
The women also do restoration work, repairing first communion and baptismal outfits. They have taken old wedding dresses apart and made new garments. Remembrance embroidery, giving the person’s name and date of the baptism or first communion ceremony, can be added to a slip under the dress or to fit a frame.
They said they’re hoping to bring back a time when shopping for these items was a family affair.
“It used to be grandma and your aunts and you made a day and you went and made a big deal out of it,” said Freshwater. “And we’re hoping that we are providing that when you come to see us at a show or come to our home, that we’re giving you the attention to bring grandma and aunts and uncles.”
“In many cases I see this as a service,” added Trinko. “We’re giving people the opportunity to take a sacrament that I find very special, and make it special, and keep that reverence.”
For more information or an individual appointment, call 419-365-7111 or send an email to serendipitybysarah@hotmail.com.
Wolf: 419-427-8419 jeanniewolf@thecourier.com

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