June 19, 2018
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Maine woman turning military uniforms into wearable memories

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Some of our most memory-filled possessions sit in the attic, boxed up with mothballs. It is the flannel shirt of a woodsman father, it is the juice-stained skirt of a mother who made the best blueberry jam and, for many, it is the military uniform of a relative who served in World War II, Vietnam or Iraq.

But why should those precious garments, so meaningful that one would never consider throwing them away, remain hidden in a dusty storage space? What memories, then, could they possibly evoke? These questions led Johanna “Jodi” Ferro of Belfast to recently start a small clothing company she has appropriately named Walked in Fabrics.

Ferro reuses people’s old clothing to make new, custom designs. She calls it, “wearing a memory, and wearing it proud.”

It works like this: You ship her any clothing that holds meaning to you. Then, with some direction, she combines old fabric with new to create a custom dress, skirt, vest or handbag — whatever you like.

Though the company is in its infancy, Ferro predicts that much of the fabric sent to her will be from military uniforms.

“In Maine, there is such a huge military community,” said Chris Sheehan, Ferro’s boyfriend and business partner. Sheehan returned in June from serving in the military overseas. “I love being around so many veterans. I love the support up here.”

Their landlord and snow plowman in Belfast both are Vietnam War veterans, and they were touched by Ferro’s tiny, handmade dresses made of old military uniform fabric mixed with patterns of poppy flowers and ballerinas.

Ferro hopes to transform fabrics from those of all walks of life, from firefighters to nurses.

“I just want to personalize people’s feelings, what they’ve been through as a family member,” said Ferro, who was just 13 years old when she learned the art of sewing from her grandmother, Ruth Briggs.

Since then, creativity always has been an essential part of her life. After becoming a licensed cosmetologist, she graduated from the New England School of Floral Design, based in Massachusetts, and then went on to Burdette School of Fashion Design in Boston. But her career was put on hold when she decided to raise a family.

“Being mom and advocate for Luca and Rhiana became my world,” she said. “We traveled throughout several states due to being in the Coast Guard (her ex-husband’s career).”

Traveling made it difficult to maintain a sizable wardrobe, so for young Rhiana, Ferro designed the “flipover” dress, a reversible dress that is essentially two outfits in one. In Seattle and San Francisco, she gained a reputation for her creations and received steady orders for custom clothing. Her unique dresses are now sold at Boston Street Baby and at Home Accents in Scarborough.

But Walked in Fabrics is an entirely different enterprise.

A few years ago, Ferro pieced together a layered, wrap-around skirt from her fathers old, worn dress shirts — her first Walked in Fabrics creation. But the idea to help others transform memory-filled apparel didn’t hit her until she reunited with Sheehan, a childhood friend from their hometown of Lynnfield, Mass.

After 20 years apart, they started talking on the Internet while Sheehan was stationed in Germany. When he returned home in June, they met in person and became a pair, domestically and in the business of personalized clothing.

“Every couple says that they met for a reason,” said Sheehan, “but we met for a reason. Bringing her idea and my background together — it’s really something special.”

An engineer in the military for 10 years, Sheehan served two tours in Iraq. In that time, he has accumulated a number of uniforms and equipment that he’ll never use again. He offered this material to Ferro for the company’s sample designs.

“I actually wore this in Iraq, so this is very personal,” he said, looking down at the camouflage material sewn into a tiny dress, tailored to fit a toddler. On the chest is a grease stain that Sheehan acquired while repairing a bulldozer used to rebuild roads of Ouja, Iraq, home village and burial place of Saddam Hussein.

“I want to bring awareness,” Ferro said. “What better way to honor someone than to wear [their clothing] on your back?”

When Ferro first started cutting up Sheehan’s uniforms at the sewing table, it struck her just how powerful a piece of fabric can be.

“I was crying as I was cutting the pant legs out,” she said. “I was thinking in my head, ‘What was he doing at that point when he was wearing these? What did he put in this pocket?’”

They kept one of his uniforms intact, to which she sewed several of his significant patches.

One important component of Walked in Fabrics is their plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to a yet-to-be-decided military or veterans’ organization.

Ferro and Sheehan plan to reach out to the VFW and the Maine Troop Greeters, commonly known as the Bangor Troop Greeters.

“I know soldiers all over the world,” said Sheehan. “The reaction we’ve had in a short time has been unbelievable.”

Rhiana, Ferro’s now-11-year-old daughter, has outgrown the flipover dresses (made for ages 18 months-6 years old), but she’ll appreciate the handbags constructed from Sheehan’s old rifle kits and paracord. And 8-year-old Luca uses Sheehan’s military pack as a schoolbag, but some day, he may walk to school with a matching vest. Ferro’s first reversible camouflage vest, embellished with faux fur trim, has already been claimed by her mother, who wears it proudly.

Within a week, Ferro and Sheehan hope to have the Walked in Fabrics website up and running. But in the meantime, if you’re interested in working with them to create a wearable memory, email Ferro at johannaferro32@gmail.com.

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