Compliment Katherine Cristelli on her outfit and the matriarch of four sons, seven granddaughters and one grandson will flash a small smile and modestly reply, “Thank you. I made it myself.”
She’s not talking about just the blouse or the skirt. Cristelli will have sewn by hand the entire chic ensemble of a dress, a camisole, a scarf, a jacket, an overcoat, a matching clutch purse and a hat.
“God gives everybody a story,” the Colorado Springs resident says.
Cristelli never figured hers would amount to much. Turns out, it just took a while to develop.
The short in stature but tall in wisdom Cristelli, who turned 81 last Sunday, grew up as poor as the piles of dirt that collected outside her home in southwestern Colorado, near the New Mexico border.
As a child, she remembers getting two dresses each year: one in the fall and one in the spring. “That was it.”
Sometimes they’d be new, but more likely they were sewn by her mother.
“We didn’t have a lot of clothes like we do now,” she said, pointing to a closet stuffed with her own pretty pastels, bold stripes and solid-colored creations.
Cristelli learned how to sew in 4-H when she was 7 years old. She perfected the half-apron in no time.
“In those days, we sewed. It was what you did.”
A necessity for decades, the chore of home sewing declined as more women entered the workforce and cheap off-the-rack clothing came on the market.
The pastime is not passé, however, as evidenced by brisk independent dressmaking pattern sales, increasing sewing machine sales and millennials’ interest in arts and crafts.
A recent study from the Association for Creative Industries shows sewing and fabric use is the fourth most-popular creative hobby in American households.
Being credited for the revival are the development of YouTube instruction, online social network sites such as Pinterest and the Bravo reality television show “Project Runway.”
Sewing can result in a “dream wardrobe, tailored for your specific figure, taste and needs,” says Gillian Whitcombe, a Canadian resident who founded and owns the Sewcialists, a sewing blog. “It’s also therapeutic. Many people who sew find increased body confidence. It works the brain and also is relaxing to hear the whir of the machine and see the flat fabric turns into something beautiful and practical.”
Still, it’s unusual today to meet someone who makes the majority of her wardrobe. And someone who donates hand-made clothing and accessories to those in need, as Cristelli does.
Cristelli’s interest waned while she was raising four boys and doing bookkeeping for her husband’s contracting business, which the couple ran out of their home in southern Colorado.
As her children grew up, left the nest and began producing grandchildren, she resumed sewing in earnest. Her pedal machine graduated to a sophisticated electric sewing machine, along with a zig-zagger and a serger machine.
“Along came seven granddaughters, so I could sew for little girls,” Cristelli said with a light in her eye.
Intricate Communion dresses, fancy Easter and Christmas outfits, contemporary prom wear and formal attire emerged from the work of her hands.
The girls would accompany Cristelli to the fabric store, which always made for a special trip, said granddaughter Mary Cristelli, who’s now 31.
“Like a magician, she would take the material and a pattern we’d picked out and make these beautiful gowns,” said Mary, who works as the recreation manager at Pueblo Community College.
“To this day, it blows my mind of what she was able to do. The clothes were beautiful and unique.”
Everything her grandma makes is high-quality, Mary said.
“She’s one of the most talented people I know,” she said. “The dresses did not look or feel cheap, and they lasted. It was so special to receive one of her outfits.”
In the meantime, Cristelli began sewing for herself.
“I decided I could tackle anything,” she said.
When she lost her husband eight years ago, Cristelli ramped up her skills and “really got into sewing most of my clothes.”
Cost-savings is one thing. A 20-dollar bill covers a handmade black faux-fur coat that in the store would cost close to $100, for instance.
But the heart of Cristelli’s sewing lies in her natural talent. Cristelli can look at a swath of fabric and envision a flair skirt or tailored trousers or a graceful shawl.
From warm wool to sleek silk and everything in between, Cristelli seeks out fabric that speaks to her heart and unleashes her creativity, as she adapts patterns and clothes she sees in stores to suit her taste.
“It’s like an art form because I design,” she said. “It’s more . than a hobby; it’s like a painter paints. I create outfits.”
Sometimes, Cristelli confesses, she has to force herself to refrain from shopping for material because she wants to buy a lot.
That leads to mulling over a favorite bolt of cloth, returning to the shop to study the fabric and starting a project in her mind before making a purchase and taking to her sewing machine.
Many times, mistakes become a fun experiment; out of scraps is born a mix-and-match top, for example.
Over the years, Cristelli has shared her skills with others. She routinely and often anonymously drops off home-sewn hats, clothing, comforters and pillows at homeless shelters, churches and nonprofit organizations.
She’s working on items for her church’s annual fall bazaar and other volunteer projects that she prefers people to not know about. She sews for friends and often gives clothes as gifts.
Cristelli fashioned a baptismal dress, hat, booties and a blanket for her friend Grace Donnelly, who is pregnant and due to deliver her baby soon.
“It’s so beautiful and so touching that it’s from her,” Donnelly said. “She’s always using her talent to help others. It’s a big part of her personality.”
Donnelly met Cristelli three years ago at church, after her grandmother had recently passed away.
“I told Katherine I didn’t have a grandma anymore, and she said, ‘I’ll be your grandma.’”
So Cristelli put on a surrogate grandmother hat and imparts sage advice, spiritual direction and knowledge gained from the joys and sorrows that have come with being an octogenarian.
“She’s such an inspiration to me,” Donnelly said. “I would call her a modern-day saint.”
Cristelli is humble about her volunteer sewing projects and her quiet yet impressionable guidance to anyone who desires it.
“It’s something I enjoy doing,” she says of her handiwork. “We all need love; I show my love through sewing.”
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.