Debi Reichert finds soul in the needlework and linens women once relied on to decorate their homes: antique and vintage embroidered pillowcases, tea towels, table runners, tablecloths, hankies, doilies and bedspreads.
She sees beauty in them all, she says, sometimes even a story.
"It's important to honor these women from years ago by taking their beautiful work and helping it live again," Reichert said.
So she founded Cameo Kids Boutique, a business that transforms old embroidered items like pillowcases into girls' dresses, baby clothes and christening gowns.
Reichert finds old embroidered linens at flea markets, secondhand and antique stores — even on eBay — and then transforms them into custom children's clothes.
They remind her of a time long ago when mothers passed down skills to daughters.
"I've always loved things old," she explains, "but this has really sucked me in. These are beautiful heirlooms that we're bringing back by recycling."
A few years ago, Reichert spotted a handmade child's dress at a tearoom gift shop in Brandon. The dress was made of vintage pillowcases and ribbons and represented everything she holds dear.
"I bought it and paid $60 for it because I was afraid I wouldn't remember how it was made," she recalls.
Reichert was so inspired by the little dress that she began amassing a collection of her own vintage pillowcases, fabrics and handiwork items, much of it from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her sewing room at her house in Lithia's FishHawk Ranch, she began making her own pillowcase dresses for little girls. She sewed them from such beautiful old pillowcases that she said her hands sometimes shook when she had to cut the dress pieces.
In fact, she never cuts an embroidered pillowcase or vintage linen until the mom has selected the linen from Reichert's Web site and places an order with the child's measurements.
Reichert's own efforts at embroidery — she makes embroidered sachets to accompany some of the dresses — have made her understand the perfection that went into every stitch. When she first stumbles upon a hand-embroidered treasure, she's always amazed by the amount of labor that went into making it.
"My heart starts beating when I just touch it," she says. "I can really connect with these women in the past."
Reichert's finished products include three styles of pillowcase dresses, as well as pantaloons, jackets and baby "onesies." Prices range from $29 to $49.
Reichert sews on the old Kenmore sewing machine her father bought her in 1984. It sits on top of her maternal grandmother's antique sewing machine that, like many sewing machines from that era, was built into a table. Her grandmother, Beulah Rice, an expert seamstress, taught Reichert to sew doll clothes while she was growing up in Battle Creek, Mich.
"We didn't have a lot of money, and she made our flannel jammies and corduroy jumpers and blouses for school," Reichert recalls.
Reichert, now 53, often looks out her window at a church across the street while she sews. The whole room brims with antique fabrics, hankies, laces and pillowcases. The closet is stacked with vintage chenille bedspreads that she also cuts up and uses to make clothing. She thinks about how her life has come full circle now that she has found her niche making pillowcase dresses.
She says she's touched by the way the business has taken off for her, both in terms of popularity and self-fulfillment.
"I really started doing this quite by accident," she says. "My entire life I was always looking for something I could do so I could stay home with my kids. I sold Amway. I sold Avon. But I could never find the right fit so that I wouldn't have to work outside the home."
Cameo Kids Boutique, which is Internet based (though she's considering opening a brick and mortar store) has attracted hundreds of customers across the United States, but particularly in the South. Her Web site, cameokids.ecrater.com, offers a selection of vintage pillowcases embroidered with everything from Southern belles to flowers and parasols.
Moms choose the pillowcase; then Reichert sews it to fit. The dresses can be worn through childhood, especially if they're tea-length versions that can simply be worn shorter as a girl grows taller.
She sends it with a card telling the story of who made the pillowcase, something she always enjoys learning about.
She also includes a gift card telling the little girl how special the gift is and that she hopes she will tuck it away to give to her own daughter someday.
"I always envision the life of the women who first embroidered these linens, where they lived and who they were," she says. "I feel like I'm bringing their things back to life — bringing back history, really — through beautiful clothes."
For more information about the goods at Cameo Kids Boutique, call Debi at (813) 651-9402.
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.