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.