On a sunny Tuesday afternoon that promises spring is on its way, nine women gather in an unleased office in the Lincoln Trade Center.
They sit with their noses down and eyes glued to the soft pink and baby blue bibs, burp cloths and onesies before them. Their voices are barely audible over the hum and whirr of serger sewing machines.
These women -- ranging in age from 30-something to 91 -- once strangers, find common purpose and friendship in their passion for sewing and helping babies get off to a good start.
They are Sewing for Babies, a non-profit, volunteer organization that for 14 years has clothed newborns and toddlers, covered cribs and beds, comforted with handmade blankets and quilts, and given grieving parents a beautiful outfit in which to bury their child.
Since the group's start in 1999, Sewing for Babies volunteers have made and donated items to 30 southeast Nebraska organizations serving families, young mothers and expectant women. In 2012, more than 7,200 articles of clothing and baby care items were donated.
The independent Lincoln-based group was founded by Jeannie Sanchez and Nancy Engel, the organization’s official president. Originally, Sanchez (who now lives in Missouri) invited sewers to bring their machines and shears to her garage in the Bethany neighborhood. They gathered to sew “demise outfits” -- burial layettes and buntings for stillborn babies or those who died shortly after birth.
As word spread about Sewing for Babies, more requests came in: clothes for newborns, for preemies, for babies of students at Lincoln high schools, clothes for infants and toddlers in foster care, and for expectant and new mothers being sheltered at Friendship Home, People’s City Mission and St. Monica’s.
Special requests are enthusiastically welcomed. Among the most recent: shoe covers for high school parents when they visit the school child care center; prom dresses for pregnant girls at Cedars; high chair covers, nursing pads and covers, and duffel bags for foster kids going to camp; Ouch Buddies stick figure dolls for preschoolers getting shots; crib sheets and cot covers; eye covers for preemies; and 95 doll outfits for 18 naked baby dolls at Head Start.
“Our main mission is sewing for babies, but if there is a need, we branch out,” said Kathryn Murtaugh, a 12-year member and coordinator of the Tuesday afternoon sewing group.
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At 91, Ruby Lancaster may well be Sewing for Babies oldest and most prolific volunteer.
The Plattsmouth widow makes on average 1,200 diaper bags a year -- that’s 100 a month for those doing the math.
She sews from a room in her apartment at the Masonic Home. In the past, she recruited fellow residents to cut the fabric pieces while she sewed. But ailments and death have reduced numbers at “Ruby’s Sweatshop” -- as the Sewing for Babies members jokingly call her operation -- to a workforce of one.
She uses donated drapery fabric provided by a relative to make the colorful and stylish diaper bags, which also make great book bags and carry-alls. With the help of her serger machine, she adds embroidered embellishments to the bag edges and pockets.
Her grandson drives her to Lincoln once a month to drop off her donations and pick up supplies for more.
“She brings in a trunk-load every time,” Murtaugh said of Lancaster. “She’s our queen sewing bee.”
Lancaster sews every day.
“What else am I going to do? Sit and watch TV,” she quipped. “But I don’t sew all the time. I play bridge three times a month, and I sometimes substitute in pinochle."
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In its early days, Sewing for Babies members loaded their machines into their cars and drove to Sanchez’s garage in the Bethany neighborhood. Most of them also sewed for the organization at home.
Later, Sewing for Babies found residence at White Hall Mansion, then in a donated suite in Piccadilly Square and now the Lincoln Trade Center. Generous property owners lease the vacant suites and storefronts to the group charging only the cost of electricity and heat, Murtaugh said.
If the site gets rented to a paying tenant, the group moves -- always finding willing landlords to donate a new space.
One of Sewing for Babies biggest sponsors is the Capital City Kiwanis, which purchased serger sewing machines for the group so members would not have to haul in their own machines. It also provides funds for materials and sewing machine repairs.
Wilma Boles, a member of Kiwanis’ Young Children Priority One, is now a devoted member. To give her fellow Kiwanis members a glimpse of Sewing for Babies at work, she hosted an all-member workshop. That day they cut and sewed 88 baby gowns, 50 crossover shirts and a pile of bibs and burp cloths, she said.
Every $1 donated is put back into materials and sewing machine maintenance and repairs, Murtaugh said.
Sewing for Babies members are savvy shoppers. On Black Friday, Murtaugh and her daughter spent $1,900 on 1,200 yards of fabric -- a savings of $6,400 off original retail prices.
“We are very frugal with our money,” she said.
Sewing for Babies accepts scraps as small as 12-by-12 inches. Any leftover scraps are bagged and donated to the People’s City Mission for recycling.
Twice a month, Sewing for Babies delivers a bundle of layettes to St. Monica’s. Friendship Home also receives layettes and other baby items. A significant number of the women escaping domestic violence at the Friendship Home are pregnant, explained Tracy Hofmann, development coordinator. It is during pregnancy, when attention shifts to the baby, that controlling men can become violent, she said.
Friendship Home gives these women protection and support. But Sewing for Babies layettes give them something truly special -- hope, according to Hofmann.
“It is really special for women to know there is an organization out there that is caring about their baby, and that the gift is handmade,” Hofmann. “A lot of times these women feel isolated. Just knowing that there are people out there rooting for them is special and important.”
Marti Miller of Birthright has handed out numerous layettes during her 16 years with the organization.
“A lot of the recipients are low-income people -- people who don’t have anybody to throw a baby shower for them,” Miller said.
Mothers cherish the gifts, she said, recalling a young mother who returned to Birthright three years later. Wear, tear and endless love reduced her child’s Sewing for Babies blanket to a rag -- but still, her child wanted to be with it every night, Miller said.
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Regina Schwarz doesn’t sew, but she does crochet. The 80-something Lincoln woman used to sell her afghans. These days she donates them all to Sewing for Babies. To date, she’s donated 118 afghans -- averaging 1 1/2 afghans a week. Any remnants are used to make scarves -- which she donated to Catholic Social Services.
The only thing that slows her down is her deteriorating night-time eyesight and a shortage of soft yarn. Living on Social Security, Schwarz said she cannot afford to buy all of her yarn -- so she waits for donations.
Like now. She’s itching to get crocheting -- if she only had some yarn.
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Some of Schwarz’s blankets go to the Child Advocacy Center. Sewing for Babies is just one of several organizations that donates to the center, which helps sexually abused children.
“Those blankets provide them with comfort -- it is one thing to ease the trauma of children who are coming in here under traumatic situations,” said Rebecca Christensen, development of the Child Advocacy Center.
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Cathy Torske is among the original Sewing for Babies members. The 50-year-old Lincoln woman is a jack of all trades when it comes to the group -- sewing, crocheting and shopping for great deals on fabrics, yarn and clothes.
“Over the years she has donated countless yards of fabric and ready-made baby clothing, plus piles of new baby socks,” Murtaugh said.
All of it came out of her own pocket.
“It’s a good deed,” Torske said. “And it is fun to see what the people make out of the fabric. … It’s amazing to see some of the things.”
When Engel helped start Sewing for Babies in 1999, she just wanted to “sew for somebody who needs it.”
“I thought I would just do it for a couple of years and quit,” said the organization's president.
Although health problems prevent her from driving to the weekly sew-ins, Engel continues to sew for the group from home. The requests for baby items is never-ending.
“You always hope that someday you won’t be needed. It just doesn’t look like that is happening too soon,” Engel said.
Murtaugh added, “It takes a village to make everything we give out.”