December 4, 2011
By Rachel Wells
When a high-profile personality is asked "Who made your dress?" it's common to hear the names of top designers dropped.
But with Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, the answer is an eyebrow-raising "I made it myself."
Making that statement is a "thrill," said Simon, who makes her own clothes, including the full-length silk gown and 1940s-era wool suit she wore to her 2011 inauguration.
"Their eyes go big," she said. "Yeah, I'm pretty proud of it." While Simon created her inaugural suit from a vintage Vogue pattern, she designed the skirt of her inaugural gown.
Simon, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, famous for his bowties, lives in Carbondale. She taught law at Southern Illinois University until she was elected, as Gov. Pat Quinn's running partner, to statewide office last year. Ever since, she's split her time between Carbondale and Springfield, where her role includes leading a statewide commission to make primary and secondary education more efficient.
But aside from her official platforms, Simon is boosting the profile of a hobby sometimes seen as old-fashioned.
Deepika Prakash, the founder of international online sewing community PatternReview.com, said Simon's habit of wearing her own creations even for her most publicized events lets people see that homemade clothes don't have to be "happy hands at home outfits" or have a "Becky Home-ecky" look, Prakash said.
"The more we get people talking about this, I think it definitely changes the image," Prakash said.
Earlier this year for its 10th anniversary, Pattern Review invited Simon to speak and show off her creations at a convention in Chicago. Simon recognized Pattern Review's commitment to "a form of artwork that brings people together and is intrinsic to the historical and contemporary landscape of our nation."
"I'm 50 years old now and when I was little I think everyone had someone somewhere in the family who knew how to sew, and I think that's less common now," Simon said. But she also notes that those who do sew are as passionate as ever and that the downturn in the nation's economy could propel more Americans to sew.
"Certainly in the prom and homecoming dress department, we've saved quite a bit of money," said Simon, the mother of two daughters. Simon also sewed many a Halloween costume for her daughters, her favorite being a kangaroo costume - complete with a car seat-friendly detachable tail and a pouch for collecting candy.
Simon said she's passed some of her sewing skills to her daughters, who used to watch her and help her "work the gas pedal."
Simon's younger brother, Martin Simon, a photojournalist in Washington, D.C., said he remembers his sister watching their maternal grandmother. "She had a very fancy, old-fashioned pedal sort of sewing machine that Sheila sort of coveted a bit back in childhood," he said.
"She's been making things for family members as long as I can remember," Martin Simon said. He said his sister, before taking up the post of lieutenant governor, was known for choice in fabric. "Her trademark has always been wild patterns and colors - the more wild the better."
Sheila Simon got her official start as seamstress through her local 4-H, she said, first making an elastic waistband skirt. Eventually, the skill proved necessary when the now 5-foot 11-inch Simon grew too tall for most off-the-rack pants.
Her years of practice show, said Carol Alexander, co-president of the Taylorville Tourism Council, which is hosting an event featuring Simon's handmade garments on Dec. 3. In preparation for the event, Alexander stored Simon's inaugural outfits in her own home.
"I know from my own experience that sewing is not easy," Alexander said. "You want that polished professional look to it. You don't want someone to say ‘Oh, did you make that?' Hers don't have that look. The stitching is perfection."
Despite her busy schedule as lieutenant governor, Simon said she still finds time to sew. "I always keep my sewing machine up at home in Carbondale, so even if I've got 10 minutes I can sew one seam or pin together the next seam," she said.
"Negotiating between groups ... can be a major victory, but it doesn't get you to a tangible result at the end of the day," Simon said, referring to her government work. "To do something that is tangible is very satisfying."
She said sewing ensures that "I'm not too absorbed in government and politics that I forget real life."