Angel gowns bring some comfort for bereaved

Volunteer seamstress Janet Becker of Broadalbin holds up a donated wedding gown she will use to make Angel Gowns. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

BROADALBIN — Standing in her living room, Janet Becker handled a soft, white wedding gown with care, looking over the delicate beadwork and lace applique saying, “There’s a lot I can do with this.”

Becker is one of about 25 volunteer seamstresses throughout the area who repurpose donated wedding gowns and formal dresses for Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY, a nonprofit organization that makes burial gowns for infants who die at childbirth, are stillborn or pass away shortly after birth.

The completed gowns are sent to 49 hospitals and facilities along the East Coast including Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville and St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam to be offered free of charge to families who lose an infant.

“We usually send two of each size for each sex and when hospitals get low they call us and let us know they need more,” Becker said. “You wouldn’t think they would need all these gowns, but they do. That’s the sad part.”

Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY was started in 2015 by Carol Ann Selkis and has donated over 2,200 Angel Gowns to date made from nearly 1,000 donated dresses. Becker said she has made 178 gowns since she began sewing for the group in 2016.

The number of gowns that can be made from a single donated dress varies depending on the size of the dress, condition and types of materials used in the dress’ construction.

Becker said wedding dresses and other satin formals in light colors or pastels are typically used for Angel Gowns, because infants’ delicate skin can only tolerate soft materials and the significance of the dresses may help lift up grieving parents.

“It helps when they lay their baby to rest in something beautiful,” Becker said. “Wedding gowns signify a beautiful day in one person’s life.”

Angel Gowns are made for babies weighing under one pound up to about 13 pounds following simple patterns and are similar in appearance to christening gowns. Each gown comes with a matching infant cap and a small heart made from the same materials for parents to keep.

“I try not to think about the sad part when I sew, I try to think about making someone feel better,” Becker said. “It makes me feel good.”

Becker said she first learned about Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY through a newspaper article and felt compelled to volunteer.

“Something told me I had to do this. I don’t know why, I haven’t had any kids, but it just made sense to me,” Becker said.

Since she was taught to sew by her mother when she was six, Becker said she has enjoyed sewing all her life, looking for new projects to work on and new techniques to master.

“When I’m sewing, my mind is constantly going to what else I can do, even when I’m working from a pattern I think how can I make it different,” Becker said.

“Angel Gowns are something that spark my creativity,” she added. “They’re like a blank canvas when you cut them out.”

Looking over a recently donated wedding gown, Becker said she will cut basic Angel Gowns forms from the satin body and use lace and bead appliques from the top layer to create new embellishments for gowns.

“There’s a lot of material here,” Becker said. “I can’t wait to cut this one apart.”

She will also add a tiny fabric rose to most of the gowns, her signature.

Now semi-retired, Becker works on gowns in her free time, mostly on weekends, saying there is no minimum output for volunteer seamstresses, Selkis merely asks that sewers check in with her each month with an update on what they are working on.

“Carol Ann is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet and she believes wholeheartedly in the program,” Becker said. “If people haven’t had a chance to sew she understands.”

Selkis coordinates the group’s activities, taking in and sending out donations. She also manages the group’s Facebook page where she posts photos of completed Angel Gowns, requests for needed materials and copies of thank you letters from families who received a donated gown, something Becker said she would be overwhelmed to receive.

“I think I would probably cry,” Becker said. “I just like to think I’m doing something good for somebody, that’s basically all that makes me do it.”

To volunteer or donate, contact Selkis by private message through the Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY Facebook page. The Facebook page also features a link to the group’s Amazon Wish List and up to date posts on needed materials.

In addition to dresses, the group accepts donations of gift cards to JOANN Fabrics and Crafts, Target, Walmart and Staples and pre-paid Visa cards to help with shipping costs.

By Josh Bovee

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