Daughter follows mother's interest in high-quality dresses

·3 min read

Jul. 16—Shirley Bryant's daughter, Kathy Hudspeth, doesn't sew, but her mother did.

Hudspeth's interest in the pretty dresses her mother created stems from renting them.

"I was upstairs one night, opened the cedar chest, and there were all the dresses mother had made for her two granddaughters," Hudspeth said.

"I thought of how much pleasure I got from them when dressing my little girl, and I thought how much enjoyment others would get out of them."

Bryant, 90, who lives in Anniston, began sewing during her teens. When her own two daughters were small, she made dresses for them and developed a special interest later in smocking.

Smocking involves using a special piece of equipment that creates tiny pleats in fine fabrics and stitches them together. Often, a seamstress uses colorful threads to decorate the pleats in the shapes of ducks, boats, holiday icons and more. Smocking was at its height in popularity during the 1970s, just when Bryant began making exquisite dresses for others.

During the 1970s, each dress sold for about $800.

"I figured out my time and materials, and, even then, I only made about 50 cents an hour," Bryant said.

Before sewing for the public, Bryant made dresses for her daughters, just as her mother had done when she was growing up in Plantersville, Miss. As each of Bryant's two daughters grew up and married, she made their wedding dresses, using exquisite laces from France, Imperial Swiss batist, and fancy stitchery. Her work was so good that one of the wedding dresses won a competition and was featured in the "Sew Beautiful" magazine, and the other daughter, Leah Waller, wore a dress her mother made that was also featured in the magazine.

Throughout Bryant's career as a surgical nurse for her husband, the late Dr. Kirby Bryant, she worked at the hospital only in the mornings. She spent her afternoons sewing, and eventually bought a small shop around 1996 that she named The Kangaroo Pouch. By then, she had retired from nursing and spent her time sewing. She taught her sister Dee how to smock fabric. Dee, in turn, began teaching classes on the craft.

At the Kangaroo Pouch, Bryant sewed smocked clothing for babies who needed christening gowns, for girls who needed flower-girl or holiday dresses, and for boys and girls who needed heirloom clothing to pass down to future generations. After two-and-a-half years, she was tired of sewing for others.

"I was tired of the work because I was a perfectionist," Bryant said recently as she led a visitor to a sewing room in her home. "So, Dee and I decided to close the shop."

Another high point in Bryant's career as a seamstress came later when she had a granddaughter, who was named Leah after her aunt. Bryant returned to sewing and made smocked dresses of all sizes and for all occasions as Leah grew. Leah is 30 now, and when she heard of her mother's idea for renting out her dresses, she suggested the name "Leah's Closet."

Bryant is glad her family and others are enjoying the dresses. Each dress, to her, represents the memory of a happy time in her life and beautiful granddaughters, Leah and another granddaughter, Anna Katherine, who is 19 and an Auburn University student.