Barbara Hettwer grew up in Southern California where she attended Catholic schools in the days when the nuns had everything in the huge pockets of their habits including scissors, glue, and smelling salts. She graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with a B.S. in Math and became a high school teacher serving in both public and private schools in California and Oregon. After moving to the Cascade foothills of rural Oregon, she eventually became the principal of a classical-curriculum private high school.
Now retired, she lives with her husband on timberland in a home he built. They have a blended family of 10 children and 19 grandchildren. She enjoys researching genealogy, playing the piano, riding horses, and swimming. Her mother was a seamstress in New York and a tailor in California. All of these experiences are combined into the seemingly real characters she creates in The Seamstress of Jamestown.
(Page 61) Jamestown, California 1870
Emma walked to the post office in the afternoon and once again passed the slovenly figure of the girl in the ugly dress on the porch of the Gold Bar Saloon. Emma had a little talk with herself. She was moping about her own troubles, which were not so great. She had always helped people. She came here to build her character. Maybe she could help this girl. She could at least make her a nicer dress. On her way back she decided to speak with the girl.
As she neared the woeful figure she said, “Good afternoon.”
The girl did not even nod in response. Emma wondered why she stood out there. If it were for the same reason Emma sat on the velvet chair on the National Hotel porch—to enjoy the scenery—then the effort was failing, for there was no joy in the girl’s face. If it were to draw customers into the saloon, Emma could not imagine that would be successful either. Emma halted and tried again. “Hello, my name is Emma Randall. I recently arrived here from Baltimore. Have you been here long?”
The girl raised her eyes slowly, without really lifting her head too far, and peered at Emma with her greenish-blue eyes. “Two years.”
“Well,” said Emma, “I’ve been noticing you out here in the afternoons and I thought perhaps we could help each other.”
The girl feigned a laugh that seemed more like a “Hmmmph” adding a shoulder shrug and not a genuine smile, just one side of her mouth twitching upward.
“You see, I’m a seamstress in need of employ. I thought perhaps I could make you a new dress. I am very aware of the latest fashions. Then, when folks ask you where you got your new dress, you could tell them I made it. This could bring me a goodly amount of business that I desperately need.” Emma cringed at telling this shell of a person her needs when she hadn’t confided in any of the kindly people she had met. But she was quite sure that this girl would not accept charity, so Emma had to make it seem that the waif would be doing the seamstress a favor.
Emma was met with a sideways curious stare. “I got a dress.”
“Well, yes, but I’m sure any lady would like a new one.” Calling her a lady was a stretch of the meaning, but Emma did not have the vocabulary that would have provided a more suitable word.
“I ain’t gonna spend my money on somepin’ I don’t need.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t charge you, as you would be doing me a favor. But I would appreciate it if you could pay for the fabric. But if you can’t, that’s all right.”
“I c’n. I got money.”
“Well, fine then. When might you be free to join me to shop for the fabric?”
“Well, I guess I could be free now. I dun have start work till two. Jus’ let me stop by the boardin’ house and git my purse.”
Soon the two women headed down the street to the general store. Emma questioned the girl and found out her name was Abigail Elroy. At least that’s what Emma surmised from “Ab’gail.” Also, her favorite color was blue. Emma studied her dress up close now. The bodice was striped pink and brown satin with uneven, sloppy gathers at the top. The skirt was a bright emerald green with a flounce, but her petticoat was hanging down a few inches where it was ripped. How anyone could have even conceived of putting such colors together she could not imagine. The entire dress simply did not fit correctly. It was too tight around the midriff and too large in the bust line so that it gaped a little right in the middle. “Do you mind if I ask where you purchased the dress you are wearing?”
“Purchased? Huh! Mr. Simpson give ita me when I come to work fer ’im. I think it wuz some other girl had it afore me.”
“Oh, I see,” said Emma. “Well, I don’t think it suits you quite right. My specialty is proper fitting. So the dress I make you will fit you like a glove.”
Abigail paused at the door to Butterfield’s. Emma sensed that Abigail was not accustomed to entering places with folks of propriety. “Come on, Abigail; let’s see if they have some beautiful blue fabric.” They entered and Emma began examining the bolts of material with her expert eye. She found a beautiful light blue satin with moiré water markings. She wouldn’t have minded using this in a dress for herself. It was exquisite. She held it up to Abigail, smiled and honestly said, “This brings out the blue in your beautiful eyes. Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s real perty.”
“Well, I think we could use this for either the bodice or the skirt, but not both. Let’s see what else we can find that would go with it.” She soon found a satin with muted dark blue and light blue stripes. The light blue was a perfect match for the other fabric. “Oh, I think this would go well,” Emma explained. “We could use this for the bodice and the other for the skirt with the stripes running vertically. Do you like it?”
“Oh, yes!” Abigail exclaimed with the first sparkle in her eyes Emma had seen.
Emma took the bolts to the counter and ordered the amount of fabric she knew she would need based upon her experience. As they had chosen the finest fabric in the store and needed much due to the gathering, the total came to an exorbitant $5. Abigail was looking at the candy counter, which gave Emma a chance to pull two coins from her purse. “Abigail, I’m sorry. It has come to $3. Is that too much?” Abigail gulped, reached into her purse and carefully counted out three silver dollars and handed them to Emma.
The two walked back out into the sunshine and Emma asked Abigail to accompany her to her room at the National Hotel so she could get proper measurements. There were quite some sideways glances from the other guests as the two women walked upstairs. Emma had Abigail remove her dress, which she seemed very reticent to do. Emma was more repulsed by the undergarments than the gaudy dress. They were dirty and smelly! No wonder she had smelled cheap cologne. Emma held her breath and quickly took the measurements she needed and wished she could throw her measuring tape away. She felt it was contaminated with the plague. It was nearly two o’clock, so Abigail hurried out and back to the saloon.
Now Emma had a true problem. How would she make a dress for a saloon girl? Her modesty would not allow her to make one quite as risqué as some of the girls wore, but she knew Abigail would not be permitted to wear a dress down to her ankles and up to her neck.
Emma settled upon making a gathered waistline with a full skirt, like most of the girls had, but made it come just below the knees. The bodice she made fitted to Abigail’s still girlish shape with the neckline cut low but not gaping open because it would fit correctly, lying flat several inches below the collar bones. The wide neckline revealed most of her shoulders, so plenty of skin was showing without being too immodest. There were small puff sleeves that gave it a princess look without being overly fluffy.
Emma truly was a seamstress and decided to have this dress reflect her greatest precision and care. She also put love into every stitch even though this was costing her money and she had little regard for the recipient. It was one of those sacrifices Emma had become accustomed to making throughout her life—mainly to forge her own character and perhaps bring some little blessing to another. It took her a week of hard work just to be ready for a fitting. She had only basted the dress together with large stitches. She went by the saloon in the late morning, but Abigail wasn’t in front. She went to the boarding house and asked for Abigail. She came sloughing down the stairs as though Emma were a bother. This made Emma angry after all of her hard work, but she did not show it. She asked Abigail to come to her hotel for a fitting.
“Yes, that is where you try the dress on, which is only loosely stitched together. Then I will make any necessary adjustments.”
The dress was beautiful and Emma heard a little “Ahhh” creep out of Abigail.
While making a few adjustments and pinning, Emma lectured, “Now, Abigail, I am a perfectionist. If you are going to model one of my creations you will have to do it properly. What makes or breaks a dress are proper undergarments. You see how a strip of lace is hanging down from your petticoat? And see how your camisole is clumping under the fitted bodice? This won’t do. I will provide you with undergarments that suit this dress and you must promise me you will wear them.”
A few days later Emma delivered the dress and undergarments to her customer at the boarding house. At this rate Emma would be broke in a year and have to go crawling home to Daddy.
The next afternoon Emma saw a beautiful young woman standing in front of the Gold Bar Saloon in a lovely blue dress, freshly coiffed hair and no undergarments showing. Emma stopped and excitedly blurted out, “Oh, Abigail, you do look lovely. We did a good job choosing the fabric. I’m glad you like blue. It is nice with your eyes. If you ever want another dress, I’d love to see what you look like in green. I wonder if that would bring out the green in your eyes.”
“Oh, Miss Emma, thank ya so much. I feels like a princess.”
Emma guessed that poor Abigail had never before felt like a princess. “Oh, you are very welcome. And remember, you have done me a great favor also.” Emma decided the sparkle in Abigail’s eyes was payment enough. Even if she failed in Jamestown, she would have brought one bright day to one lonely, sad girl.
But Emma’s generosity paid off in another way. Her excuse to Abigail of drumming up more business truly worked. The other saloon girls in town started coming to her one by one.