A stitch in time
When it comes to sewing, Molly Niven is a star. Her skill will send her to San Diego, Calif., next month for the national Family, Career and Community Leaders of America competition.
"I really wanted to challenge myself, do something different and strong and that would really showcase what I can do," said Niven, a Northwestern High School junior with a passion for fashion. She spent 47 hours creating a multi-layered ensemble from the 1880s.
"I really love the Victorian era so I kind of went all-out and I got a historically accurate Victorian patterns made by a small pattern company called Truly Victorian," she said.
The costume was made for competition, but it reveals a love of the past.
"This is my favorite piece, the long tail bodice," Niven said, brushing a peach-colored sleeve. "It has steel boning in it. It was very fitted and you could have found it in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1885."
Her fashion construction project included everything from foundation garments — a bone corset with a busk, petticoat, drawers and chemise — to a bronze overskirt. Those are high-level skills, said FCCLA advisor Kathy Lahti, and they earned her a gold at state competition.
"She just does an amazing job," Lahti said, so it came as a shock to find out that Niven had less than two years of sewing experience.
Subpar stage duds prompted Niven to take up needlework.
"I started sewing last year for drama because I wanted my costumes to fit," the junior said. She’d been unimpressed with the fit and flair of her costume for "The Importance of Being Earnest" and decided to put her fashion sense to work.
Cast as a barmaid for the next school production, Niven created a simple skirt, blouse and vest with her mother’s help.
"My mom taught me the basics; she taught me how to sew lines and how to make a simple skirt and read a pattern," Niven said. "Then I just went from there."
When she nabbed the role of one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, the teen’s sewing skills took wing. She fused a fitted Victorian skirt with a steampunk-themed jacket, adding pompons, feathers and embroidered accents as well as a feathered hat for her everyday dress. Her ball gown included beading, flowing sleeves and a peacock-feather collar.
"I think it was technically like Georgian time period, so I tried to go with big and over-the-top and of course with stepsisters, I got to have a lot of fun," Niven said. "That’s really what made me want to be a costume maker, was having so much fun designing and making these and coming up with themes and colors and picking all that out."
She was tapped to alter the other ball gowns, adding flair with tablecloth bustles, ribbons and streamers.
"I made headpieces for the other girls, too," Niven said. "I did a lot that year."
For her junior year plays, she created a 1940s-era dinner dress with a grey felt hat for "Rope" and a man’s costume for her role in "The King and I." Meanwhile, she was creating her Victorian showpiece on the side.
"She’s learned an awful lot about a lot of difficult techniques," Lahti said. "You know, no one makes corsets anymore."
Her contemporary skills are also impressive.
"I think she can make the best buttons around, and that’s something she’s made a lot of," Lahti said. "There are a few other things that she may be able to brush up on. She’s done a lot of really difficult tasks, for the types of things she’s making."
Niven’s finished dress includes box pleats, two different boning styles, freehanded pleats, dozens of tucks and yards of ruffles.
"I think this is Molly’s stress reliever," Lahti said. "It would give me stress, but she can sit and do this forever."
Niven said she’s glad she added FCCLA to her activities this year.
"Of course I still love acting and doing all that fun stuff, and I’m in DECA and the Art Club," said Niven, as well as choir and forensics. She even took a college screen-writing course through the Youth Options program.
FCCLA gives students with diverse interests a chance to strut their stuff.
"You can be really good at cooking or you can be more into community service or you can be into sewing like me and it just feels more all-encompassing," Niven said.
She’s already brainstorming for next year’s project, possibly a Georgian French court gown.
"I couldn’t sew a straight line, like, a year ago," the teen said, but if you put in the time you can learn. "It’s a lot of fun when you can look at things and say ‘I can do that.’"
Superior High School student Molly Bergum will also be competing at the national FCCLA competition, in the same category as Niven.
She made a jacket and dress from a 1940s Vogue pattern, researching the history of the clothing from that time period to make the garment as historically accurate as possible.
Bergum used tailoring techniques including bound buttonhole and pad stitching in the collar and altered the pattern to create a well-fitting garment.
This will be Bergum’s third trip to FCCLA nationals, according to her instructor Mary Beth Jacob. Last year at national competition in Washington, D.C., Bergum earned a gold for her digital presentation on reducing college debt.
Three additional Superior High School students — Haylee Hoyt, McKenzy Cich and Paris Ojeda —and Northwestern High School student, Paige Orlowski, also qualified for nationals, but they will not be attending.