Heavenly hats: East St. Louis church women treasure Carrie Redmond's creations

News-DemocratApril 20, 2014 

The late Carrie Redmond not only made women's hats, she gave instructions on when and how to wear them.

Jackie Croffett-Belk remembers one Sunday when Carrie motioned for her to meet in the restroom at Sonlight Missionary Baptist Church in East St. Louis.

"She told me that I was wearing a winter hat during the summer season, and I was wearing it incorrectly," said Jackie, 35, of O'Fallon, a schoolteacher. "She fixed it on me, then took it off my head and had me to put it back on the right way. She was serious."

Carrie was 75 when she died of congestive heart failure in December.

Her legacy is the hundreds of immaculately tailored, often elaborate hats she sold out of her East St. Louis home.

Some of her best customers were women at Sonlight, which she co-founded in 2000. It has about 50 adult members and 30 children.

"Every single one of (the women) has at least one of her hats, and some have several," said Jackie, who stopped counting at 40.

In other words, they're set for Easter Sunday.

No two hats alike

On a recent Sunday, Jackie was wearing a pillbox hat with black-and-white leopard fabric and a big bow. Carrie made her dress to match.

Carrie also used feathers, straw, fur and mesh for hats of all shapes, sizes and styles. No two were alike.

"They're unique," said church member Stacey Gibbs, 49, of Spanish Lake, Mo., a cosmetologist. "They're different. They have a certain flair about them. She made them to fit your personality."

Stacey's mother, Albirda Ivy, was Carrie's best friend. Stacey has about 65 of her hats.

Stacey's favorite is more like a fascinator with bright green, yellow and orange feathers.

"I love it," she said. "I can comb it with my fingers and make it look like hair, and it gives me a chance to wear these colors."

Some church members were more resistant to the idea of wearing hats than others. Laurencia Richardson, 43, a St. Louis schoolteacher, thought they were for "old people" until Carrie got hold of her. Today, she has six of Carrie's hats.

Laurencia is very protective of the hats. She carries them to and from church in boxes with handles.

"I want to make sure they don't get crushed or destroyed," Laurencia said, opening a box lid to reveal a black mesh hat with a wide brim and rhinestone-trimmed flower.

Seamstress at 15

Carrie grew up in St. Louis and began sewing at 15. She reared 10 children and started a business called "Carrie's Hats" in the 1970s.

Her line later expanded to include evening gowns and matching purses, dresses, hankies, lap scarves, gloves and men's tie sets under the name "Carrie's Originals."

Daughter Bernice Walker followed in her mother's footsteps as a seamstress, developing a children's clothing line called "Bernice's Unique Designs." She also got hooked on hats.

"I wear them all the time," said Bernice, 58, of Florissant, Mo. "I wear them to the grocery store. I wear them with sundresses. I wear them everywhere."

Carrie became a founding member of Sonlight because of her son, the Rev. Sam Willis Jr., who served as its first minister. His wife, Wenifer Thomas, took over after his death.

Carrie lived down the street from the church. She sewed in one bedroom and converted another into a boutique with hats on mannequins.

The hats sold for $50 to $100. Carrie's children wouldn't accept them as gifts. They paid for them like everyone else.

"I have over 100 hats," said Bernice, who is taking over her mother's hat-making business. "My husband counted them. They're in my basement. My husband made some shelves for them."

Hat humor

Carrie's hats take center stage each August, when Sonlight holds its Rev. Sam Willis Jr. Black Tie Affair fundraiser. At other times, they provide comic relief.

Bernice has a sombrero-like hat that is so big, brother Sam suggested she sit in a pew off to the side to keep from blocking the view of other churchgoers.

Bernice's husband, the Rev. John Walker, 72, also is known to give her a hard time about her hats.

"I'd like to sell all of them," he said. "I wouldn't have to work anymore."

"He always says that," Bernice answered. "My mother told me to number my hats, so I'd know if one of them was missing, and I did."

Like John, Jackie's husband, Cameron Belk Sr., a lay minister at Sonlight, built shelves for his wife's hats.

Someday, the hats will be passed on to her twin daughters, Corina and Coriana, 10.

"I think they're pretty nice," said Cameron, 45, also a construction worker. "They add a little extra spunk to outfits. The outfits look nice on their own, but you add a matching hat ... Now you've stepped into the realm of awesomeness."

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