A Modern-Day Princess in Sheep’s Clothing

A True Story of a
Once-in-a-Lifetime Adventure in Reno, Nevada

By Richard E. Kelly (Erika’s Papa)

It had been an exciting three days for Ruth Waalkes at the American Sheep Industry’s annual convention in Reno, Nevada—a pleasant break from the day-to-day routine of cooking and cleaning. It was a special place for someone with a lifetime passion for sewing. For Ruth, a professional seamstress and one of the top sewing instructors in west Michigan, this was a golden opportunity to meet sewing peers and see up close state-of-the-art practices in how woolen clothes were being designed and sewn.

But that wasn’t why Ruth was attending the convention. What had drawn her here was an event that would be staged on Saturday, an event that a seamstress grandmother could only dream about. Her granddaughter, Erika Kelly Waalkes, was a contestant in the National Finals for Make It With Wool contest in the Junior Division. She would be competing with thirty other contestants, ages thirteen through sixteen, all first-place winners from their home states. They were here to model dresses, skirt-jacket ensembles or coats they designed and sewed, and awards would be presented at the end of the show.

The contestants had been sequestered for two full days away from family and friends while they attended workshops, shared stories with peers, and were introduced to the latest in sewing machine technology and pattern software. They had also met with custom sewing designers, sewing experts and fashion merchandisers—the six judges—who would inspect and critique the clothes they modeled on Saturday.

As Ruth fidgeted in her seat, thinking about Erika’s chances of winning, she wasn’t alone. Sharing her angst and maternal concerns were Erika’s mom, Kim Waalkes, and Kim’s mother, Nana (Helen Kelly). Ruth had flown into Reno from Florida, Helen from Arizona, and Kim and Erika from Michigan. For the two grandmothers, this was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure—a vicarious experience, to support their fourteen-year-old princess and her dream to model sheep’s clothing. (Okay, so I had to put that in somewhere to make the title work.) But for Ruth, with her long, passionate history as a seamstress, to be here with a granddaughter who shared the same passions and talents, it was an indescribable joy.

Ruth knew the contestants would soon be introduced and escorted onto the elegant stage. The young seamstresses would model the clothes they had designed and sewn. When the staging was completed, an emcee would announce the thirteen finalists. And Ruth, along with Kim and Helen, was thinking that if Erika could at least make it into the group of thirteen, this would be the crowning glory of their adventure in Reno.

Fashion Show Competition – (photo courtesy of Mark Mirgon)

Erika had first shown an interest in sewing three years before. It may have been patterned after the fact that Grandma’s sewing expertise was woven into the fabric of her family’s day-to-day life. If someone wanted clothes for a special occasion, they asked Grandma Waalkes to make it for them. But Erika’s decision to learn to sew like Grandma was triggered when Ruth won first place for Michigan Adult Division and third place for Nationals in the Make It with Wool contest for 2008.

With a little coaxing from Grandma, Erika entered the 2009 Make It With Wool contest for the state of Michigan, Junior Division. She wanted to make a red pea coat and found a pattern that allowed her to alter the design to fit her unique sense of what’s fashionable. There’s definitely no wiggle room with Erika as she has strong opinions. It’s either in style or, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” Just ask her Nana.

Competing with nine girls around the state of Michigan in 2009, Erika placed second and won a sewing machine. While the stitching, sewing and design of the jacket played a major role in how the judges scored, modeling was a big factor. And though Erika enjoyed the sewing experience, the modeling was critical in igniting her fire. She’s not a drama queen, but she definitely loves taking center stage.

Erika decided to participate in the 2010 Make It With Wool contest only thirty days before the event. To make it even more challenging, she kicked it up a notch, deciding to make a dress-jacket ensemble with a scarf. And, against the good advice of Grandma and her parents, she wanted to add ruffles to her outfit. The battle of wills that occurred over the “ruffles decision” is the fabric of another story, but not in this one. Okay, maybe it becomes trim at the end.

On October 30, 2010, Erika competed with twelve finalists in Lansing, Michigan. The judges inspected the contestants’ dress ensembles with the girls modeling them and then gave a more careful inspection with the garments laid out on a bench. Appearance/Presentation was worth 50%, Marketability 10% and Construction 40%. The contestant’s modeling skills were also factored into the evaluations.

When the judging was over, the emcee announced Erika as the first-place winner. The judges could find nothing wrong with her outfit. Her prize for winning the contest was a trip to Reno, Nevada to represent the state of Michigan in the Nationals on January 20 – 22, 2011. Grandma Ruth, Kim, Great Aunt Nella, Aunt Beth, and Erika’s cousin, Hope, were seated in the audience when the announcement was made. Almost immediately, they were reported to have responded with a jubilant imitation of family reacting when one of theirs wins the top prize on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

As Ruth now anxiously waited for the Awards Program in Reno to begin, she couldn’t imagine a better three-day experience. The Sheep Industry, sponsor of the Make It With Wool National Finals had pulled off a “fashion show of epic proportion.” Okay, that’s what they printed on the brochures, but they truly had gotten it right. And, in a few minutes, the first place winners from thirty states and the New England area would be announced and competition for National honors would begin. It couldn’t get any better.

Whatever happened, Grandma thought, even if Erika doesn’t make it into the top thirteen, this whole experience had been good for her. She was proud of Erika’s determination to tackle designing and sewing a complete outfit; that she had never strayed or wavered, or complained that it was too much work; and she had never mentioned that with time getting short before the state finals, she might not be able to complete it. Erika had been positive the whole time. In fact, she had probably spent eighty hours on the project in a thirty-day period.

As Ruth watched the contestants walk to their assigned places on the risers at the back of the stage, she admired the wide variety of fabrics they had used. And she recalled how determined Erika had been on the exact style, color and type of fabric she wanted. Ruth questioned the combination of fabrics several times, even near the end, but Erika was undeterred.

Ruth did not like the three colors together that Erika chose. But she had kept her mouth shut as she wanted it to be Erika’s project totally, and if in the end it wasn’t right, that was her choice. Now, as she looked at Erika walking onto the stage, she admitted that the colors combined for a very classic look. It would turn out to be a deciding factor in the judge’s evaluations.

As the emcee prepared to announce the thirteen finalists, in random order, Ruth turned to Nana and then to Kim, and they breathed a collective sigh, hoping for the best. Erika’s name was announced on the fourth pass, and with great stage presence she queued up in the horizontal line facing the audience. As more finalists were announced, it was easy to observe that Erika’s poise, engaging smile and pleasant eye contact accentuated her stunning dress. Or at least that’s what Erika’s mom thought, and for the first time, she began to visualize Erika in that elite group of seven—6th runner-up to 1st place—the seven best of the best.

The audience had been treated earlier in the show to an audio presentation from all the finalists, thirty-one of them, as they shared something unique and special about themselves. Kim began to think about Erika’s presentation, her speaking skills, diction and the fact that she stood straight and tall, with an air of confidence, not to mention her attractive figure. Those details wouldn’t go unnoticed by the judges.

When it was time to announce the elite group of seven, Ruth, Kim, and Nana were on pins and needles. The house lights dimmed and a spotlight beamed onto the stage where the seven would stand. The 6th runner-up was announced first, and a smiling young lady moved away from the line of thirteen close to the edge of the stage and was treated with an enthusiastic applause. Then the 5th…… 4th…… 3rd…… 2nd …… 1st ……. runner-ups were announced with appropriate fanfare and applause for each winner.

But now Kim’s stomach was churning and she could hear the thumping beat of her heart. “Oh my goodness, is it possible that my little girl’s name could be called next?” Kim gasped and anxiously turned toward Ruth. The impulse was immediate and their hands locked together. Kim turned to her mom and grabbed hold of hers as well. Kim had that intuitive sensation when you think you know what’s going to happen next but you don’t dare say it. Ruth squeezed Kim’s hand tighter and the three women braced themselves as the emcee announced, “And now, the winner of the 2011 Make It with Wool, National Finals, Junior Division is…. ERIKA WAALKES!”

Grandma, Kim and Nana remember the exhilarated, unbridled, raw, joyous eruption, although they don’t recall the pitch and pierce of their screams, the sheer volume of their verbal elation. But that’s how several people who were there reported it. So it must have happened that way. A very proud Grandma Ruth Waalkes later confessed, “I began crying and telling Kim and Nana that I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it. Erika won! Erika won! I never dreamed she could be number one.”

With tears streaming down her face, Kim turned to Ruth and attested to the judge’s decision in her best tongue-in-cheek, “It was the ruffles!”

Erika enjoying lunch with her mother, Kim, and her grandmothers, Ruth and Helen.

Click on photo below to see full-sized version; click again to return. Contest photos: courtesy Mark Mirgon.



  1. Dick,

    I know exactly how you feel. Helen must have just been beside her self as she watched the MIWW competition wind down. The thrill of seeing one of your grandchildren excel is among the proudest and best moments any grandparent can have.

    I know how it feels. Watching my 14-year old grand daughter Mia dance the lead in a semi-pro version of “The Nutcracker” last year brought me to such an overwhelming and emotional high. And then she did it again this year in a lesser, but more technically demanding role. Joy! Joy! JOY!!!

    Please give your Erika, her mother Kim, and both of her grandmothers our sincere congratulations on a most excellent win. What skill! What beauty! Sharon and I are so happy for all of your family.

  2. Barbara Hedgepeth says:


    Great story – but then I’m not at all surprised.
    Wouldn’t it have been fun to be there? Actually, I did feel like I was there and teared up at the end when Grandma cried.
    Thanks for sharing the event!

  3. Cathy Harris says:

    Hi Dick!

    Thanks so much for sharing this lovely story!

    You wrote:

    “Erika had first showed an interest in sewing three years before.”

    WOW! What talent she has to only be working on her skills for 3 years!

    congratulations to Erika and all of you who love her

    Cathy H

  4. Jacquelynn Hendershott says:


    Thanks for sharing this terrific, well written story. I felt that I was at the finals! knew that Erika was a winner from the first time I met her, but did not know in which form her talents would materialize, no pun intended. Please give her my heartfelt congratulations. I hope to be able to give them to her in person during the summer in Michigan.

  5. Norine Kasten says:

    Hi Dick,

    What a wonderful event! I felt the excitement as you told how it all came about. Grandma Ruth’s wonderful talent, and how she passed it on to Erika. Mom and Nana’s constant support throughout the whole experience. But, mostly, Erika’s determination, focus, great attitude toward hard work, and wonderful taste for what she wanted. Not only that, she had the poise to model it well and make her outfit the best it could be! I loved it – thanks for sharing!


  6. Hannah says:

    Dear Papa,
    Thank you for writing this story! The pictures are amazing! The story gave insight on what happened, and it was great to get that perspective. The talent that she exhibited in this competition is a tribute to he dedication and skill that she possesses in everything that she does. I am so proud to call Erika my cousin, and I knew she wouldn’t produce anything but the best! Congratulations and I hope to see you, Nana, Erika, Annie, Aunt Kim and Uncle Jon soon!
    With much love,
    P.S. I like your title of the story. ;)

  7. John H. Meulenberg says:

    Well written, Dick! A nice job of capturing a bit of a wonderful moment and sharing it with a broad audience that couldn’t be there.
    Congratulations to Erika and her team of supporters!

  8. Judy Titta says:

    Dick: Thanks so much for alerting me to the story. It was fun to read and put us all right there at the contest. As a former seamstress and student of Ruth Waalkes at Breton Village (many years ago), I especially enjoyed it from a sewing standpoint. Thanks for sending! A GREAT story!

  9. Barb Young says:

    Congrats Erika! What a wonderful story Dick.

  10. Kathy Choryan says:

    Glad you added the pictures. Awesome! Our Erin did 4-H sewing for 9 years so I really wanted to see the garments. Congrats. Please give my best to Kim. Looking at Erika is like seeing Kim! and about the age I last saw her. Wonderful story, Dick!!

  11. Cindy Teal says:

    Loved the story Dick. What a talented young woman Erika is. Love her spunk and her courage to stand on her own.

  12. Bliss FitzRandolph says:

    Love the story. Congratulations to your granddaughter

  13. Melissa Griebel says:

    Very nice Dick!

  14. Lisa Le says:

    What a nice story. Congrats Erika!

  15. Dale A. Eastman says:

    Thanks a million for sharing that story about Erika

  16. Jane Hanning says:

    Loved the story, loved the outfit! What a young lady. So happy that I know her and Annie.

  17. Kathy & Dan Foster says:

    What an amazing experience for a talented young lady. Grandkids are the best.

  18. Sharon Rose Hayward says:

    Thanks for posting! I read it aloud and could hardly make it through to the end for being so choked up :) We are so proud of her!

  19. Jane DeKorne says:

    What a great story – so proud of Erika’s accomplishment (though, I am not at all surprised!) Say hi, for me!

  20. Michele DeVoe Lussky says:

    How cute! What a great Papa!

  21. Kathy Thwaites says:


  22. Deb & Dan Dykstra says:

    Dear Dick,

    Thank you for sharing this joyful event. We enjoyed it for many reasons, but most of all to see you precious granddaughter blossoming is delightful.

    Thank you for putting a smile on our faces.

    Deb & Dan

  23. I think the best part of this story is the family togetherness and support. Erika is very lucky to grow up in such a supportive environment. Look at all the love coming in from these comments.

  24. Joey Geddes (Price) says:

    Congratulations Erika!

    It is great to also see Kim – my, it has been a long time! You are all beautiful and it is wonderful to see such radiant love.

    Erika, keep following your dreams and never put your needle(s) down. Hobbies are the spice of life and will support you when times aren’t so cheerful. You have talent from all sides – follow your dreams!

  25. John Hoyle says:

    Dick, you and Erika knocked it out of the park!!! And the day isn’t over!!
    So far, combining the home page views (where her article is on the top) and direct hits to her article, at 10:30 PM PST there have been 237 page views! Wow!!!

    Erika is obviously well-liked or loved by a lot of people. It’s not just because she won a sewing contest – it’s because she is so vibrant, alive, and social. She has a great life ahead of her. Sharon and I are cheering her on – as you and Helen are.

    I’ve attached a photo of your site stats and supporting information. I think you’ll be surprised and pleased. Feel free to share it. I’ll take a look tomorrow and see how long interest lasts, but based on the comments, everyone seems to like it a lot.

  26. Rose Debie-Bowman says:

    Papa is an EXCELLENT writer! What fun to read. I, like Sharon, had tears in my eyes! So sweet. Congrats all over!

  27. Bob Rogers says:

    So proud of Erika, and Papa’s telling of the story is great. I just posted to my Facebook for all my sewing friends, and there are many!

  28. Carol Duggan says:

    What an exciting, suspenseful story. Of course, I knew what the ending would be. What a proud Grandma you must be.

  29. Mary Whitehead says:

    Great story! Great pictures! You are a fabulous writer, Dick.

  30. Carolyn DuBuis says:

    What a wonderful experience and how proud you all must be. Congratulations.

  31. Dot DeYoung says:

    Wow! Great re-telling of a wonderful story!

  32. Bob Hafey says:

    Great story Dick! And very well written. Thank you for sharing your joy.

  33. Marie Lehfeldt says:

    Dear Mr. Kelly, Mary Jensen from The American Sheep Industry Association forwarded your story about Erika (“A Modern Day Princess in Sheep’s Clothing”) to me. What a wonderful article!

    CONGRATULATIONS to Erika and her family. As the National Coordinator of the MAKE IT WITH WOOL competition, each year it is my pleasure to get to know wonderful young sewers, of which Erika is one. It is truly amazing the talents that I observe year after year and also what gracious young people I have the privilege to work with. It certainly is nice to be involved with young people who are doing GOOD things. So much publicity is wasted on bad things that the minority (I am convinced) of young people are responsible for. I think your article is such a great testament to the many talents & attributes of our younger society.

    Thank you so much for publishing the heartwarming article about Erika, her family & the MAKE IT WITH WOOL competition. If possible, as Mary mentioned, I certainly would like a copy of your book.

    Marie Lehfeldt
    Nat’l MIWW Coordinator

  34. Cheryl Brown says:

    Dick, that was really good! Cheryl

  35. Susan Lamos (*_*) says:

    Thank you for sharing the tale!

    Erika’s flair as a young woman is so refreshing. Congratulations to everyone…most importantly her. I must admit to you that when I was reading…and the excitement built…I had to scroll ahead to see the winner. I’m laughing while typing that I couldn’t wait to know AND that I’m admitting it!

    Please continue to grace us with more words of all the grandchildren, this was really fun! The Waalkes – Kelly families are blessed beyond belief.


    Your ol’ Michigan neighbors

  36. Leah Leabres says:


  37. Tom Cabeen says:

    It was nice to see the pictures of Erika and her win. Thanks for sharing them, grandpa!

  38. Ruth Waalkes says:

    Dear Dick,

    Thank you so much for the wonderfully written story about our experiences at the Make it With Wool contest. I could never relate as well as you did to the excitement we experienced there. It was just as exciting as you stated in your story.
    My biggest delight was the experience spending such valuable time with Erika and her project. That is something I will always treasure, the memories of the time we could spend together. She always came to sew with much enthiasium and a positive attitude, and also knew what she wanted to do!

    Sincerely, Ruth

  39. Richard E. Kelly says:

    The following is an article written by Catherine Kelkenberg:
    Making it: A new generation discovers lost art of sewing
    Updated: February 3, 2011, 8:25 AM
    Last month, young adults from across the nation gathered in Reno, Nev., for the 2011 National Make It With Wool Competition. The competition is a sewing contest in which competitors must construct and model their own garments, which must be made of at least 60 percent wool.
    MIWW is designed not only to promote the beauty and versatility of wool, but to encourage young adults to sew and to help them develop life skills. The contest was founded in Utah in 1947. On average, contestants from 32 states enter each year.
    This year’s National MIWW Junior Ambassador is Erika Waalkes, 14, of Michigan. Erika, who has been sewing since she was 10 years old, says sewing “has taught me to be patient and not to give up.”
    While many classmates “told me how cool they thought it was that I could sew,” Erika says that “sewing is becoming a lost practice. I probably only know three teens who sew.”
    Erika’s favorite part of sewing? “I get to do it with my grandma.”
    As a national ambassador, it is Erika’s duty to help promote the use of wool. Erika will speak at various textile and fabric conventions. She also hopes to offer classes on sewing with wool at her local library.
    Emilee Koss, 18, a senior at Clarence High School, has qualified for the national MIWW competition for five years. Last year, she won the junior competition, becoming the national junior ambassador for 2010.
    Emilee, who has been sewing for about 11 years, appreciates each aspect of completing a sewing project: choosing fabric; seeing the versatility and possibility in each different fabric; construction; using new techniques and methods to create the exact effect you are looking for in a garment, and, of course, the end product –something personal and unique from what anyone else can buy.
    Entering the MIWW competition marked the beginning of Emilee’s passion for sewing.
    “The MIWW competition really drove me to improve my sewing and learn more because I wanted to compete with the high level the other competitors had set,” Emilee said. “I realized that not only did I really like sewing, but winning also gave me the confidence to pursue fashion as a career.”
    Emilee hopes to attend New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology next year, where she has applied to major in textile and surface design.
    Emilee says because of the competitions she has “become comfortable talking with people and in front of large groups, which is important for my future whether it’s a college presentation, a job interview or a work presentation.”
    Ana Lopez, 15, of Nebraska, describes her time in Reno as “a great learning experience and definitely a great memory.” Ana has been sewing since she was 8 years old. Ana’s sister, Marcela, 18, was first introduced to sewing in a 4-H workshop (4-H is a youth program devoted to enabling youths to reach their full potential and develop leadership). Marcela took her sewing skills further with the help of a professional sewing instructor. Ana followed in her sister’s footsteps; the sisters share a mutual love of sewing.
    Ana’s favorite part, she says, is “seeing the finished product.”
    Learning to sew has not only taught Ana sewing techniques, but has come to play a significant role in her life.
    “Before I started entering competitions, I was very shy and was not too confident,” Ana said. “Now, I am confident and it is easy for me to talk to judges or to the general public. I know that these competitions have given me the speaking skills I now possess.”
    Marcela took first place in the senior division (ages 17-24) and is the national
    MIWW 2011 senior ambassador.
    Annie Moore, 15, of Ohio, also began sewing through 4-H.
    “I love picking out the fabrics and the patterns and brainstorming the ideas to make the outfit,” said Annie.
    In her school, not many others sew, she said. When Annie told classmates about her trip to Reno for the MIWW contest, they “couldn’t believe [it],” she said. One of her favorite responses was” ‘You’re going across the country for sewing!?’”
    “Some people just don’t understand how much work goes into making our outfits,” Annie said.
    Annie is interested in careers based on fashion or interior design.
    Marie Lehfeldt, the Make It With Wool national director since 1994, oversees the contest and experiences firsthand the enthusiasm of each contestant.
    Lehfeldt said she has “enjoyed meeting contestants and watching them grow year after year, both physically and in their sewing abilities.”
    But there has been a slight decrease in the number of contestants attending the national competition, Lehfeldt said. In 2009, 1,915 contestants participated. In 2010, 883 were in attendance.
    “I think there is a danger of sewing becoming a ‘lost art,’” Lehfeldt said. “Therefore, hopefully my involvement in MIWW will influence teens and young adults positively and can educate them in the benefits of sewing.”
    Thanks to a new website ( http://www.makeitwithwool.com ), Lehfeldt “expects an increase in entries for next year –especially in the ‘Fashion or Apparel Design’ category.”
    Sewing is a timeless talent that can yield wonderful results. Many contestants in the MIWW competition go on to careers related to the fashion/design industry.
    There are many ways to learn to sew if you know where to look. 4-H often offers sewing classes, or has contacts of local sewing instructors. Local fabric shops and sewing centers offer lessons along with media instructions on sewing. The American Sewing Guild has various chapters, including one in Buffalo. The Women of the American Sewing Guild can offer advice and instruction. To find a Sewing Guild near you, visit http://www.ASG.org . For those who already know how to sew and are seeking information on entering the Make It With Wool competition, visit http://www.makeitwithwool.com or http://www.sheepusa.org .
    Catherine Kelkenberg is a sophomore at Akron High School.

  40. Kim Waalkes says:

    One of the contestants interviewed Erika (over facebook), and wrote an article about the contest in the Buffalo News. Here is the link:


  41. Dick Kelly says:

    Check out this link for an interesting article about Erika and her cousin Hope in the Sunday, February 13, Grand Rapids Press

  42. Catherine Stevens says:

    Thanks Dick, for sharing this.

    You have one incredible granddaughter. It will be most interesting to watch her growth, maturity, and success in the coming years.
    Obviously with Erika’s talent and drive her achievements will be monumental.
    Harvard or Stanford – what do you think?


  43. Kim Waalkes says:


    Lot’s of errors in this website and the pictures are a bit blurry, but new ones you may not have seen. She is in the photos section and this years winners.


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