Mary Lou Henry
Knox County Schools
Hometown: Morgan County, Tenn.
Education: B.S. in education and master’s in educational administration from Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville
Married 38 years to husband, Quenton
Lives in Knoxville, Tenn.
For 10 years before she became foodservice director for the 55,000-student Knox County (Tenn.) Schools, Mary Lou Henry was the home economics teacher at a local high school. During that time, she taught hundreds of students life skills such as sewing, cooking, budgeting and etiquette. Now, Henry continues to indulge her creative side by making Civil War Era clothing for her daughter.
“I don’t have a lot of spare time, but making clothing for my daughter, Summer, is something I do when I do have time. Summer has always been a big history buff and she enjoys doing things based around history, especially history of the South. She went to the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia this past September. I went with her to that reenactment. There were 20,000 people there. People came from out of state and some were even from out of the country.
For some of the events she goes to, she needs dresses, which I make for her. Last fall, she participated in a fashion show and she wore one of my dresses for that. She went to The Hunley—the Civil War submarine that was in the Charleston Harbor—barrel ceremony in 2000 when it was raised. There was a whole schedule of events that weekend. One of them was a ball, and she wore a ball gown I made to that.
A few year back, we got into the Daughters of the Confederacy—we have some Confederate ancestors. We are members of the local Ellen Renshaw House Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Knoxville. The chapter is an affiliate to the national organization, which has objectives of fostering of historical, educational, benevolent, memorial and patriotic preservation of Southern heritage.
With that brought opportunities for Summer to participate in events. So she’s needed dresses to wear. The first dress I did was a white ball gown. Then I did a green day dress with a hat. Now, I’m working on a dress for a Christmas ball.
All the top pattern companies have costume patterns and they all carry a Civil War line. Summer has also purchased some patterns off the Internet. I look through history books to see examples of dresses to get inspiration, and then there are some magazines that we get that have pictures and ideas. I’ve seen a lot of dresses that are just very gaudy that were not period accurate. I try to make everything as accurate as possible, even with the materials. Most of the dresses are silk with a cotton-blend lining. I’ve also used some antique lace that I had gotten at auctions and antique stores. Summer helps me pick out the fabrics. Even the gloves she picked out, she looked for accuracy. I do my own designing even though I use a pattern. The patterns just give you a basic guideline and I do all the trim and extras. These are one-of-a-kind garments.
In addition to the dresses, I have made a petticoat. I have a bloomers pattern, but I haven’t tried that one yet.
I haven’t really kept track of how long it takes for me to make a dress because I work on it at different intervals, but I would say it probably takes 50 hours or so. The skirts are usually like six yards of fabric, and then with the ruffles that adds another half a yard. The dresses average between 15 to 18 pounds because they have so much fabric and the hoop skirt and petticoats. I try to do a really good job. I line the tops and it has boning and interlining and interfacing. These are heirlooms of the future and almost like works of art.
I can relax and it is a destressor for me. When I sit down to sew or think about creating a project, I can forget all of the other day-to-day frustrations. And I get a lot of personal satisfaction from seeing the finished product. It also means a lot for me to see my daughter enjoying the dress.”