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Your wedding dress: Turn something old into something new

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Where's your wedding gown?"

Through the years, Armelia Pannell has asked many married women that question. The answer is usually the same. Their gowns either hang in the back of a closet or languish in a box in the attic.

"What a waste. Do you know how much money they cost?" she asks. "They're such beautiful things. Don't hide them away."

And don't save them for your daughter or niece, Pannell says, because they probably won't want to wear an outdated style. Every woman wants to pick out her own gown.

Pannell, a talented seamstress who hates waste, has a solution. She and the ladies in the class she spearheads at Shawnee Senior Center have made more than 60 items from used wedding gowns. They'll show the treasures -- carefully embellished towels, table toppers, a footstool covering, lingerie bags, tea cozies, dining room tablecloths, jewelry and lampshades -- at a gallery show at 10 a.m. Sept. 15 in the clubhouse at Shawnee Park, Dunbar.

The time-consuming projects required the painstaking removal of lace, pearls and other fancy details and then sewing them to an item made from the gowns' fabric or lining. "Some gowns take seven hours just to remove the embellishments," Pannell said.

A christening gown and cap or a debutante or first communion dress make sentimental gifts, especially if the wedding gown was worn by a special family member or friend. Pannell made an exquisite white gown for her 8-year-old granddaughter to wear as a debutante.

"She loved it. She's prissy," Pannell said of the satin gown with a tulle overskirt and seed pearl trim.

Although she has married twice, Pannell didn't wear a formal gown for either ceremony, so she scoured thrift stores for used ones. She usually paid between $50 and $75 for the gowns and looked especially for heavily embellished ones to use for creations she and the women in her class created.

She gloats a bit over one of her best finds. She spotted a size-18 gown with a long train in a used-clothing store in Chicago, and paid just $23 for it. That's a lot of fabric. They used every part of the gown, as they do for all the projects.

The lining of an ecru gown covers a footstool. Another gown provided the fabric and decorative touches to a set of lined bags a bride could use to transport items to her wedding -- an insulated bag for a curling iron and a lingerie and shoe bag, complete with pockets inside to keep the shoes separated.

"Can you find the seams in the edges of these embellishments? No; I always match them," she said.

A woman in her class made a wedding doll out of a wedding gown. "That's really an heirloom."

The intricate lacy embellishments command a high price in fabric stores, so Pannell doesn't waste any of them. She applies them to vases, goblets, glasses and hand bells and fashions them into an ornate necklace and matching earrings.

An oval tablecloth edged with elaborate lace and seed pearls covers a dining room table. Matching panels made from the same gown cover the chair backs and seats. Each piece of edging was removed from the bottom of the gown and sewn into place along the cloth's edge. She sewed each of the hundreds of pearls into place.

Where does she get these ideas? "They just come to me. I've first thought about doing this a long time ago. When I started writing down the ideas, I came up with 40 right away."

Even the bride's shoes don't escape Pannell's notice. They become a container for flowers or a pincushion. Larger projects include a cream-colored, lace-edged shower curtain and a bedspread and shams trimmed in lacy cutwork.

"People can see all these at the show," Pannell said. I hope they'll see all the things they can do with their wedding gowns and be inspired to please get them out of the closet and do something with them."

Want to go?

WHAT: Gallery of Wedding Gowns Transformed, an open house presented by Shawnee Seniors Group and Armelia Pannell

WHEN: 10 a.m. Sept. 15

WHERE: Shawnee Park Clubhouse

COST: Free

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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