TAMPA — Bobbie Kingsbury sketched the designs for three years.
She huddled in the sewing room of her Tampa house, drafting and making patterns and sewing sections of fabric until it looked like something. It was quiet there, away from the three children and money woes and stress. She could just sew, and think.
Each piece would be red, black or silver. There would be 20 pieces in all, enough to make a whole collection.
She made a shorts set, skirts and button-down blouses. She made dresses in six hours and silk jackets with lining over several days. Maybe she would sell them in a boutique one day, or maybe no one would see them at all. It didn't matter. She did it for a cause, even if it was personal.
"I got in a zone," she said. "And it made me think of my mother."
• • •
Ellie Gilbert's closet was a wonderland.
Scarves and hats and brooches and rings. Ballet flats and sneakers and dresses from Fashion Bug and Lane Bryant. A kimono of pink silk and black velvet, and a Tweety Bird sweatshirt that said "I bite."
Ellie was feisty and opinionated. She had an outfit for every day of the year.
"She was a hot ticket," said Bobbie, 40. "She was my first influence for fashion."
Ellie was a single mom to Bobbie and her siblings. She worked for the government for decades, doing administrative work and scheduling military flights, but she got home by 5 o'clock every night.
Ellie sewed her daughters matching dresses for holidays — one sister in purple and one in blue. She made clothes for Bobbie's friends, but never made money doing it.
Bobbie invaded her mother's closet, draping herself in jewelry and sliding her Size 8 feet into her mother's Size 81/2 shoes. Bobbie wanted to be Miss America, or maybe be a fashion buyer on the runways of Milan. She wouldn't need to sew, so she never tried.
"I wish I would have learned from her," said Bobbie. "When you're a kid, you don't really want to sit there and sew with your mom. I would blow her off."
Bobbie got pregnant at 16 and married at 23. She stayed home with her children, and years later paid someone to teach her to sew.
Ellie was pleased.
Bobbie moved from Massachusetts to Tampa and got divorced. She got the courage to enroll in the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa to study fashion design. She was 36.
There was no poignant moment when she told her mother and shared hugs about reaching for her dreams. By then, Ellie was fading. Her insides were weak from heart attacks and diabetes. Stents held open the channels of her heart.
Ellie's family came to the nursing home and brushed her hair and plucked her eyebrows, dabbed shine on her lips and spritzed her with White Diamonds perfume.
Bobbie visited her mother wearing a new ring. "That's fabulous," Ellie said. "Let me have it."
Ellie was buried in the ring in 2007. She was 59.
• • •
The year her mother died, Bobbie made a dress for an American Heart Association fashion show at her school.
Flowing red skirt. Prim jacket with gold buttons. Something a lady would wear.
It traveled a runway under a spotlight, and it shone on a mannequin in an exhibit, and it got its glory. But fashion design is hard and takes resources, and Bobbie took an administrative job to make money.
Still, she sewed piece after piece in the signature color of the heart disease cause, the color that honored her mother. She tucked them into her closet at home.
She volunteers with the American Heart Association now, giving tips on how to wear red, talking about her mother. She tells people to check their body mass index and blood pressure. She didn't know heart disease was so deadly until her mother died, she tells them.
Today, National Wear Red Day, she will visit fire stations to volunteer.
She had nothing to wear, though. So she planned to sit at her sewing machine, close the door and make something.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.