In a basement bedroom in a log home in Kila, wedding dressing gain a new purpose at the hands of Connie Jones.
Jones, 61, creates angel gowns, burial outfits for lost babies that she donates to grieving parents through hospitals across the country.
Most of the materials for the gowns come from wedding dresses, a symbol of purity that Jones said also reflects the innocence of a child.
“They’re so little,” she said. “They never had a chance. They’re so pure and innocent.”
Jones became familiar with the heartache of losing a child 25 years ago, when she lost her 2-year-old son, Jacob.
Looking back, she said she thinks about how much comfort having something special to bury him in would have brought her.
Today, she spends hours each week laboring over the gowns she hopes will help ease some of the pain felt by other families.
According to Jones, each wedding dress she receives can be taken apart, cut and refashioned into around 10 angel gowns.
The going is slow, however, due to an injury that has limited Jones’s use of her right hand.
Around four years ago, a tendon transfer left Jones’s hand weak and painful, but as she healed, she discovered a new purpose for her lifelong love of sewing.
Using spring-loaded scissors, Jones manages to cut, sew and decorate three or four angel gowns a week, totalling nearly 300 to date.
“It’s very important, just trying to be able to save the other families in their time of grief and pain,” Jones said. “It just takes a lot off your mind. It’s a peace of having something so delicate.”
Each finished gown gets packed up and shipped to hospitals both locally and around the world where parents in need can pick from her designs at no cost.
So far, she has sent gowns to 11 different states and to countries like New Guinea, Australia and Mexico.
“Everybody has it happen. It happens all over,” Jones said.
And it happens for a number of reasons, she added, from complications during pregnancy, accidents or illnesses.
Most of the gowns she creates will clothe babies lost prior to delivery or who died soon after birth, calling for a variety of styles, adaptations and sizes.
Stacks of boxes containing every style and color of fabric, ribbon, lace and beading line the walls of Jones’s workroom, and a variety of miniature outfits hang over her work bench.
One tiny gown, made with light orange fabric and Velcro, might fit a Barbie doll and was designed by an obstetrician for a baby as young as 15 weeks.
The pattern for the gown allows it to unfold completely so the child, lost at such an early stage of development, can be laid on top and wrapped inside without harming its frail body.
Another larger, girlish dress with a layered lace skirt hung above Jones’s sewing machine and was made for a full-term baby from the bottom of a wedding dress, with decorative details like a little red bow and a charm stamped “made with love.”
Though she traditionally uses wedding gowns, Jones has accepted and used dresses for all occasions.
Brightly colored prom and bridesmaids dresses work well for gowns going to other countries, where colors hold different cultural meanings and also let Jones create more gender specific options for parents grieving over sons and daughters.
One pocket-like swaddling gown, meant to wrap around and envelope a baby boy, was made from silky black and white fabric to look like a tiny tuxedo.
“You don’t want to imagine,” Jones said. “It is sad to know that there is going to be a little baby, how tiny, that’s going to fit into something like that.”
Creating angel gowns, according to Jones, allows her to work through some of the difficult memories of losing her son.
She dedicates her work to his memory, and his portrait hangs on the wall behind her work station as a reminder of those lost and those left behind.
“You’re in shock. You totally don’t know where to go,” Jones said. “It’s helping them for what little it does, and it’s good work for me to be doing.”
Because parents receive the gowns at no cost, Jones said she funds most of the endeavor herself, including some shipping and materials.
However, the community has helped, she said.
Several businesses donated to a recent auction Jones held to raise money for sewing machine repairs and other associated costs, and when the Second Helpings thrift store closed, she had her pick of the dresses left on the racks.
Thanks to donations from people across the state, Jones said she also has no shortage of wedding dresses.
The two hanging in her workroom now came from Kalispell women, and she has more on the way from Eureka.
“I don’t have to go looking for them. They seem to find me,” Jones said.
One of an army of angel-gown makers across the country, Jones said she connects often with other creators as well as hospital personnel to get the finished gowns to where they’re most needed.
Her next shipment will head to Great Falls within the week, but with a box full of cutouts at her feet and about 25 dresses still on her rack, Jones said there is plenty more work to be done.
For more information about angel gowns, contact Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or email@example.com.