Married once, Janet Scheller has a walk-in closet full of wedding dresses. It’s connected to her daughters’ basement playroom that is strewn with toys and stuffed animals.
Those wedding dresses — some decades old, some never worn and still with tags — are part of Janet’s mission. Allison’s Angel Gowns provides suits, snuggler wraps and dresses to hospitals to give the families of deceased newborns. In almost three years, Allison’s Angel Gowns has supplied hospitals nationwide with more than 5,000 bereavement outfits.
It’s a personal mission for Janet and several of the seamstresses who volunteer with Allison’s Angel Gowns. Janet’s middle child, Allison Ann Scheller, died at 24 hours old in December 2012. Allison was buried in a Livingston cemetery, wearing a cotton gown found by the family’s pastor.
Janet and her husband, Dustin, 33, had some time to prepare for Allison’s death. When Janet was 22 weeks along, the couple learned Allison had Trisomy 13, a chromosomal condition that is often fatal within days or weeks. Allison was born at 35 weeks.
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There was nothing you could buy that was beautiful and appropriate.
Janet Scheller, who started Allison’s Angel Gowns
“I had time to plan,” she said, a gift many families do not get. Janet is also a doula and specializes in bereavement. A doula assists the mother and family during and after birth by providing physical and emotional support.
“Being trained, (as a doula) and experienced, helps me to help them make the memories,” she said.
Her dearest hope, Janet said, would be that her daughter would be born alive and family and friends would see the girl.
“Everybody was there ... If I had minutes or hours, I wanted the memories,” she said.
The Scheller’s have a box of memories of Allison — including a shell that was used in her baptism — and a scrapbook devoted to the pregnancy and life with professionally taken photos.
“There was nothing you could buy that was beautiful and appropriate,” Janet said of looking for clothing while she was still pregnant, knowing her daughter would soon need burial. “To have that burden (of finding clothing for burial) off of me — that meant so much.”
Months later, Janet saw a Facebook post referencing a group in Texas that turned wedding gowns into bereavement wear.
“I can do that,” she thought. But she doesn’t sew.
She again turned to social media to ask for dresses and for seamstresses. Both poured in.
Allison’s Angel Gowns now has more than a dozen volunteer seamstresses who sew a little or a lot.
“My husband works afternoons, so I probably sew eight hours a day,” said Helen Scheller, of Benld. She is not related to Janet.
Each seamstress has her own style, Janet says, with some tweaking the pattern, if not making her own patterns from scratch.
“I have made a boy’s pattern, so it’s not a gown,” Helen said, showing how the length of the outfit is straighter from the arm to the hem than for a girl’s gown.
Gowns are made in six sizes, accommodating infants from less than 2 pounds up to 20 pounds.
Cut to create
During a recent Monday afternoon, five women took seam rippers, scissors and sewing machines to Janet’s basement with tables and lots of floor space to spread gowns to cut.
The first order of business was to “make it into fabric,” said seamstress Mary Nygard, of Fairview Heights. She opened a shiny white sheath dress with minimal decoration and removed the liner. She then started removing the stitches that had created a ruched bodice — valuable fabric that would increase the number of angel gowns it could make once it was ironed out.
There are some fabrics that are difficult to work into gowns, the seamstresses say, such as sheer fabrics. Puffy sleeves also present special challenges, but Mary says with careful work, those puffy sleeves can provide decorative fabric, too.
“This will make two or three dresses,” she said, holding up a lightweight puffy sleeve decorated with beadwork.
Boys’ outfits tend to be more colorful than the girls, Jen Rutherford, of Edwardsville, said, sorting through cut pieces of dark blue fabric.
“People donate bridesmaid dresses,” she said, which are made into boy’s vests or put on trim for gowns.
Jen, 34, worked quietly and carefully among the more chatty tablemates, with one of her daughters keeping near mom while her other ran around playing with Janet’s daughters, Olivia and Elizabeth.
I’m big on this being a very pure experience. I want (parents) to think this was made just for them.
Many of the seamstresses volunteer because of their own infant losses, Janet said.
“How many babies, Jen? Three?” Janet asked of the seamstress.
“Four,” Jen said softly, turning back to her pinning. Three of her late children were born in the second trimester.
The women have gotten closer through all their work and sewing.
“None of us knew each other going into this,” Janet said.
Janet’s grandmother died unexpectedly a month after Allison’s Angel Gowns started, and “these ladies became just like family,” she said.
Brenda Nurnberger, 67, of Brighton, laughs easily.
“I’ve gotten to where I just tell her what I think,” she said.
Brenda admired the tilted stand Sue Seibel had brought along for her sewing machine, allowing her to use the machine longer and more easily. She also admired Sue’s technique of using lace trim to finish the gown’s tied backs, a task Brenda dislikes.
Sue’s son would have been 38 now. Matthew, who had anencephaly, died at five days old. Sue, of Bethalto, never saw him. Her then-husband and her brother both saw Matthew, and she heard him cry.
“I never saw him,” she said. “I chose — and I don’t regret it — I knew I would love him. But if I couldn’t take him home...”
She sews Allison’s Angel Gowns for three or four hours a day, she said.
“God’s giving me this gift,” she said of her sewing.
Sue likes to work on the vintage gowns, including one that had been about a 100 years old.
“For some reason I tend to go with the antique gowns,” she said.
The seamstresses can use some embellishments from one wedding dress onto a newborn’s gown, but the majority of the fabric is from one dress.
“Whatever’s on the front, I put on the back,” Helen said of her yokes or sashes. “They hold their baby, so you see the back” in photos.
Part of what Janet does is make sure that each gown is “perfect.” After some experimentation, each gown is carefully folded into a netted bag, so that it can be seen without being touched. Keeping the gowns “pristine” is important to Janet.
“I’m big on this being a very pure experience. I want (parents) to think this was made just for them.”
At a glance
Volunteers take donated wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses to Allison’s Angel Gowns to create burial wear for newborns.
- To donate dresses or volunteer, go to allisonsangelgowns.com.
- Monetary donations, which help with shipping and other costs for the nonprofit, can be sent to Allison’s Angel Gowns, P.O. Box 528, Hamel, IL 62046