Rebecca Russell, owner of Bee Spoke Vintage and The 10 Dresses Project, walks up almond carpeted stairs to her workshop. Her short brown hair swishes lightly as she goes. Occasionally, she’ll turn back and make a light-hearted comment, her brown circular glasses framing her face as she smiles.
Just as she rounds the corner of the stairs is a room lined with bookshelves of boxes and papers tucked neatly into plastic bags and stored sideways. It is a small pattern library, an homage to vintage dresses and outfits of times past. Her large table in the middle of the room is covered by partial pieces of patterns, thread and multiple pairs of sewing scissors. It appears that she has stopped mid-creation.
Against the window are multiple mannequins with lavish silk dresses and a vintage, revolutionary-war era suit for a man. Russell is busy trying to complete some of the dresses, including her own and her son’s, for the Lafayette Grand Birthday Ball & Soiree on September 9th.
“He’s turning nineteen right before the ball and that was the age Lafayette was,” Russell smiles as she touches the sleeve of the navy blue coat. “… I’ll be toasting youth and the spirit of youth… and what’s possible for youth.”
Russell’s workshop is actually a room located in her home. What started out as a pattern organizer and a desk has grown into an entire rather large room. It’s packed with papers, patterns, jars of buttons and folded pieces of fabric. Vintage and newer sewing machines sit on surfaces around the room. Attached to the room is a closet packed with fine fabrics, thick lustrous silk rolls, vintage shoes and hats for all of Russell’s events.
Russell admits she needs more space — maybe a proper workshop or storefront, she says. She gushes as she talks about future plans of a storefront. For Russell, sewing has been a lifelong passion that began when she was only about six.
“My grandmother sewed all our clothes growing up,” she said. “I was always sitting right at her knee saying, ‘Let me sew. Let me get in there.’ She taught me.”
For the vintage dresses, from Revolutionary to Civil War and into the 1900s, Russell recalls starting that fascination around her sixth grade year.
“We moved to Virginia when the 125th anniversary of the Civil War battle started. We were right there in the thick of it. My dad was a really big history buff.”
At age twelve, Russell went out and bought a vintage pattern for a gunny sack. She took red lace to her parents' basement and worked on the dress all night.
“It was terrible,” Russell laughs. “I don't think I wore it out anywhere because I knew pretty quickly it was not right.”
The mistakes of her first try didn’t stop Russell. She next tried to copy a dress from “North and South.” Along the way, she recalls getting suggestions from a historian who helped her with making her dresses more accurate by giving her information about what would have been normal during those eras. For one, she taught Russell at that young age that those dresses didn’t have zippers in that time period.
“She was really kind. I think I was thirteen at that point. I started living in the library then because there was no internet.”
Russell grabs boxes from the shelves in her workshop and begins to flip through patterns. She seems to love each piece, having a verbal reaction to the patterns as she recalls them.
When she was a teenager, Russell said she even began drafting her own patterns. She grabs another book and opens it up. Books like this one, with simplistic measurements for dresses from the Revolutionary and Civil War times, helped her learn to draft her own patterns.
“This woman studied actual garments that were in museums and then she would sketch them out to scale,” she said, turning pages and pointing to patterns. “Basically you could reproduce the pattern yourself.”
She chuckles lightly and says she’s thankful there are more commercial patterns out now. Russell walks over to another table where jars of buttons have been stored. She picks up a blue glass jar, one she has had for a long time, and talks about all the people that have donated to her buttons and other sewing materials.
“When people find out you sew, they are like, ‘Hey, I have all this stuff.’”
Despite the long road in sewing, Russell took a break from the early 2000s until 2021. She worked as a government contractor and spent time with her kids. In 2021, Russell went back to sewing as a full-time business including doing workshops, balls like the upcoming Lafayette Ball, and other events.
“The time was just right for me. I said goodbye, other job. I’m going to do this full-time.”
Russell also sells her dresses online, all of which are custom made.
“I don’t make anything ahead of time then sell it,” she said. “ Things don’t exist until somebody asks to have it made.”
Her customers usually provide the fabrics for the dresses. The dresses span all eras but she does a lot from the 1930s. The 1940s and 1950s she says can often still be found in the vintage shops so those requests don’t come in as often. The requests though are some of the best part of what she does.
“The thing that is most fun about it is I get to make all these things I wouldn’t have necessarily made for myself and then I can send them on.”
In the future, Russell hopes to have a lending library at her store front and host events like movie night with themed dress-up eras. For her, she envisions sharing and helping others on their paths in sewing and keeping the art alive.
“I just think it’s a great way to keep expanding it and obviously you got to get young people into loving it so it keeps going on.”
Until the storefront is open, she’ll keep hosting events, bringing remembrance to parts of history through clothing and trying to open other people’s eyes to both history and a love of sewing.