In Shannon, Co. Clare, a group of women are working together to produce little dresses with big meaning. The Shannon Angel Sisters create ‘Angel Gowns’ for babies born too soon.
At a time when a family finds themselves thrown into the world of neonatal intensive care units (NICU’s), their lives can be turned inside out. All of the ladies at Shannon Angel Sisters hope to aid parents during this difficult time as finding clothes for a child so small can be a major task. Parents have even resorted to buying doll clothes to find a decent fit.
“It’s a problem that a lot of families face, sadly more than you would think,” says Alice Myers, co-founder of the group.
So the seamstresses transform donated material into beautiful little dresses “handcrafted with love just to help even a little”. They may be used for Christening or naming ceremony gowns or as burial gowns for those “babies who have gained their wings”.
Material for these gowns come from donated dresses, such as wedding dresses or evening gowns, from women all across Ireland. Wedding dresses are used more for Christenings, while evening gowns may be used for occasions like the first time a child is placed in their parent’s arms.
When it comes to using donations “nothing goes to waste, every precious bit is used”, Alice says. “It’s a lovely thing for a bride to do and sometimes they dedicate their donation in memory of a specific baby. On a little tag attached to the dresses made from that bride’s dress, it says ‘in memory’.”
Alice started the group with co-founder Michelle Hickey Legge, an old friend and expert seamstress who happened to teach a sewing class. The two ladies put their heads together to come up with the idea, called up a few of Michelle’s old students and formed the Shannon Angel Sisters.
Names of families in need come from 19 different hospitals, typically from a backlog rather than request.
“Our dresses ship from us to the hospital, transported from the nurse’s arm’s in the NICU’s straight to the parents,” says Alice.
Recently a local family reached out in hopes of getting gowns for their two babies. According to Alice at the time of writing this piece, the two are thankfully still putting up a fight in the NICU’s and have been baptised in the gowns.
When it comes to volunteers, they are currently only admitting those who know how to sew simply because of the time as “some dresses give you more trouble than others”, Alice says. While every dress is different, for every wedding dress donated, it takes five hours to make an ‘Angel Dress’ out of it. Twelve dresses can be made from a single wedding dress, depending on the size.
The group has made 120 gowns so far which come in four different sizes, depending on the weight of the baby: micro – 1.5 to 2.5Ibs, tiny – 2.5 to 5Ibs, preemie – 5 to 8Ibs and newborn for 8Ibs+. All of them are fully lined and the backs feature satin ties to help with dressing fragile infants. If there is material left over, the sisters have come up with a great use for it.
“We take the same material and embellishments that we used on the gown and make two identical hearts. One is to place with the baby and the other is given to the mum. It’s a little keepsake that they can really hold dear,” Alice says.
At the moment, the sisters are coming up with a special keepsake specifically to give to the dads. Boys are not forgotten in the group’s eyes either, as they have received donations of men’s suits among the dresses. From this material they can make waist coats and bow ties for the special baby boys.
After the dress and a keepsake if there is still material left, it is used to make a burial quilt.
While these women work miracles to make every inch of the donated material count, they still have costs to pay. Time and effort given to this cause is all voluntary but the expenses are paid out of their pocket. The ladies have set up a go fund me page to help tackle these costs.
According to the page the contributions will go “to buy items such as lining fabric, ribbon, thread, buttons, trimmings, Perspex patterns, embellishments etc. Packing and delivery costs are among our biggest expenses to date and we would love to receive any help with our associated costs”. At the time of going to print the Shannon Angel Sisters page had raised €1,450 of their €2,000 goal.
“We are incredibly grateful to those who have contributed and supported us,” Alice says.