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Threads of the past

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Sara Gonzalez smiles next to two historical dresses she’s sewn. Through her business, Ensembles of the Past, she sews, tailors and designs historical dresses and garments for clients across the world.

On a small farm in rural Polk County, one seamstress sews threads to create unique dresses and garments worn across the world. 

In around six weeks, that woman — Sara Gonzalez — will pack her suitcases and fly out to Venice, Italy, to meet with her clients for dress fittings. 

That’s just a normal trip for Sara as she works with her small business, Ensembles of the Past.

Through Ensembles of the Past, Sara sews dresses and tailors and creates design work for living historians, reenactors, brides, dance enthusiasts, theaters, film companies, museums and individuals. 

Crafting the beginning 

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Sara Gonzalez poses next to one of her elegant historical pieces.

Sara’s first hand at seamstressing started at 8 years old, when her grandmother began teaching her how to sew, she said.

“It was a slow process to begin with because I didn’t particularly like it — but I didn’t tell her that,” Sara said, laughing.

Her true interest in sewing, however, developed when she introduced a historical aspect to her work at the age of 12, she said. 

“I decided to make an 18th century dress to wear to Colonial Williamsburg with my family on summer vacation,” she said, referring to the Colonial Williamsburg Historical Area, a living-history museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

The idea for that dress came from an older friend, who had been crafting historical clothing pieces, Sara said. 

In Williamsburg, tourists stopped and asked her if she worked at the museum, which made her feel more affirmed, she said. 

Four years later, for her sixteenth birthday party in 2008, Sara hosted an 1860s themed ball. She crafted dresses for herself and her family members, she said.  

“That was practically the start of my business at that point,” she said. 

She began taking commissions in 2009, she said.

Thinking back, she said she couldn’t have delved into this passion without her mother’s encouragement and her homebody life.  

“I was homeschooled my whole life,” Sara said. “That, I think, benefited me most because I don’t think I could have done this while being in school — not that being in school is wrong, but I had more time to devote to my passion and my skills.”

Additionally, living “out in the middle of nowhere” and having farm work to do helped her, because she became used to making use of her time and doing hands-on work, she said.

‘It makes me so happy’ 

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Sara shows a picture of her on the Great Wall of China, wearing a dress she crafted for the excursion. 

The historical scope of her work ranges from the 1500s through 1960. Although she can work before and after those centuries, that range is where the majority of her research lies, she said. 

Many of her commissions come from historical reenactors, living historians, theatres and films, she said. 

Besides Sara’s friends who commission garments, the bulk of her clients don’t live in Polk County.

“Most of my clients come from the east coast and the west coast,” she said. 

She plans at least 12 to 24 out-of-state trips a year, she said — both business and personal, but mainly for business.  

Every year, she travels to a costume conference in Los Angeles that draws in costume designers from across the U.S. and the world, she said. 

She either travels to do size fittings for her clients or does fittings over video using Skype, she said. 

Globally, she’s had clients from Australia, Switzerland, Mexico, Canada, Scotland, England, Ireland and Ukraine — “just all over,” she said.  

She usually makes an international trip at least once a year, she said. 

Her favorite international excursion so far was a trip to France and Switzerland, because she was able to fit in so many things in 16 days, she said, but she won’t be surprised if her trip to Venice and Rome next month beats that.  

Sara’s research for crafting historically accurate clothes used to strictly come from books, but now she utilizes the internet and a hands-on approach, she said. 

“My favorite form of research is actually looking at extant originals,” she said. “Extant means garments that are existing to the time period.” 

If she’s working on an 1860s ball gown, she will track down museums that host similar dresses and ask the curators if she can touch, measure and take pictures as a form of study, she said. 

“I’ve done that all across the U.S.,” she said. “When I have the opportunity to view originals, it makes me so happy. It makes me literally jump up and down, getting excited.”

A month-and-a-half ago, she visited the Lexington Historical Society in Kentucky to take pictures and notes on original late-eighteenth century waistcoats — something she’s currently working on, she said.  

She said some of her personal works that have stood out through the years are the ball gown she created for her 16th birthday and an 18th-century Chinese-inspired dress she made in 2016, which she wore on the Great Wall of China in Beijing. 

It’s not uncommon for Sara to create historical clothes for the various countries she visits. 

For example, in 2018, she crafted a blue gown for an annual ball held in the Chateau de Versailles in France. 

“There were probably between 500 and 800 people attending,” she said. “I danced in the hall of mirrors, and I listened to music in the chapel and then I drank champagne. It was just a tremendous amount of fun.”

She also spent time in Paris and then hopped over to Switzerland, where she met with a client, who was commissioning a gown inspired by the English 18th-century designer Charles Frederic Worth, for a fitting, she said.

On that same trip abroad, she went to the beach of Normandy for the 74th anniversary of D-Day — the day the Allies invaded Western Europe in World War II — and wore World War-II styled clothing for the occasion.  

How it’s made

It takes anywhere from 40 to 300 hours to make a garment, Sara said. 

“I schedule dresses usually one every week to one every two weeks,” she said.  

Detail-wise, the amount of detail depends on what the client wants, she said.  

Because of the fabric and labor hours, historically authentic commissioned custom garments aren’t cheap to make.

“A typical dress runs around $2,000 and proceeds upwards from there depending on details and fabrics,” she said.  

She said she doesn’t use historically accurate fabrics sparingly, because less-expensive, inaccurate fabrics make dresses look cheaper.  

“I mostly work from natural fabrics — cotton, wool — but I don’t mind working with synthetics if it’s a high-quality synthetic and not a costume-y quality,” she said.  

The amount of hours Sara pours into making her hand-made dresses and garments isn’t sparse, either.  

“I always quote the price before the customer pays, so they know what they’re getting into,” she said. “A lot of times, I spend more than I estimate on the garment, and if you broke down my actual hours, it ends up being not very much.”

Everything she makes is specifically fitted and made for each client, so if a client’s shoulder is lower than the other shoulder or if their hips are uneven, she fits the dress that way. 

“It’s all individually crafted and very thought out, and I can’t emphasize that more,” she said. “When I design a dress, I will literally sit in front of my sketch book and sketch it out, and then set it aside for an hour or two, and then come back to it and say, ‘I don’t like this,’ and then redo it, and then work with it until I like it before I even present it to my client.”

And Sara’s garments aren’t always strictly historical reenactments, she said. She also sells high-quality fabrics and her own line of nineteenth-century reproduction belt buckles, and she also sells dresses for a modern woman’s special day. 

“I make wedding dresses, and they’re either historical or vintage-inspired or modern,” she said, adding she sewed her sister’s wedding dress.

Teaching is a big part of her business, as well, she said. 

“I have taught private and group lessons in the past,” she said. “Right now, I just teach private lessons.” 

Sara recently taught sewing and garment construction as an adjunct professor for three years at Southwest Baptist University, and she also taught costume design for SBU’s theatre department, she said.  

In addition, she said she also teaches classes on techniques, history and construction at various conferences across the U.S. 

‘Clothing is a language’

Sara not only makes a living creating her historical recreations for others, but she also partakes in personally wearing vintage clothing on a daily basis.

“I do that because I love vintage,” she said. “What I wear on a daily basis is usually 1930s through 1960s.”

She has a special love for the 1940s through the 1950s, she added, because those decades are “classy and elegant.” 

Wearing her vintage clothes is also a great marketing opportunity, because she is able to pass out business cards, she said, and people who pass by are usually taken back to a different time. 

“All the time, I get complimented by the hats I wear,” she said. “I get compliments on looking like a lady, and it’s always interesting some of the compliments I get, because most of them are from gentlemen.”

She said she feels more like herself when she’s dressed in vintage clothes. 

“I do wear jeans sometimes, but very, very rarely,” she added, laughing. 

And being a seamstress is not only Sara’s livelihood — it’s also a passion that’s important to her. 

“It’s my passion, because when you wear clothing — no matter what clothing you’re wearing — you’re saying something about you,” Sara said. “Clothing is a language, and whether you’re just wearing a T-shirt and sweats, or you’re wearing a ball gown, it’s saying something about you and how you feel about yourself and what you want to believe about yourself, and ultimately what you want other people to think about you.”

Clothing brings those feelings to light in a whole new way, she said. 

“I can’t tell you how many times clients have come to me after I’ve made a garment, or after they’ve picked it up, whether they try it on for the first time — they have tears in their eyes, and they’re like, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever worn, it makes me feel so worth it,’” she said. 

That’s why this work is her passion, she said. 

Whether she’s making a wedding dress or a ball gown, she said she wants to make somebody feel beautiful. 

“We all aren’t perfect, but I love to be able to design garments that make people feel like they are,” she said. 

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