There's nothing as precious as a family heirloom.

By Melissa Locker
September 19, 2017
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Caroline Hirt knew what she wanted to wear to her first day of kindergarten. It's the same dress that her big sister wore to her first day of kindergarten—and her mother, grandmother, and even great-grandmother before that. A dress that her cousin Sylvie would wear the week after.

Caroline Hirt and Sylvie Johnson 2017
| Credit: Jenny Hirt

Jenny Hirt

The so-called kindergarten dress was handmade in 1950 by Caroline's great-great-grandmother, with embroidery hand-stitched by her great-grandmother. "My grandmother, Helen, had four daughters. Her mother, Maude (my great-grandmother) made the dress for Helen's first daughter, Martha," explained Jenny Hirt, Caroline's mother, in an email. "My mother, Katy, is one year behind in school from Martha, so they saved the dress for her. Then my aunt Ruth was born and they kept the dress for her, then my aunt Sara. And on it went."

Emma, Martha, and Abby Esch
| Credit: Jenny Hirt

Jenny Hirt

Jenny Hirt (Johnson) 1981; Sara Levant 1995
| Credit: Jenny Hirt

Jenny Hirt

Ally Hirt with her mother, Jenny.
| Credit: Jenny Hirt

Jenny Hirt

The women clearly knew how to make a dress last. Since they first stitched the yellow dress with its jaunty purple plaid trim and dainty flower decorations, it has been passed down through the family.

Credit: Jenny Hirt

Of course, the dress is 67 years old, and can show its age from time to time. The family members all do their part to make sure the vintage dress is patched up and properly cleaned before school starts. When Jenny Hirt got the dress, which she herself wore to kindergarten in 1981, she had to patch up a few holes and re-attach a sleeve before Caroline could wear it to school, according to Today. While Hirt doesn't think her "sloppy" stitching skills are up to snuff ("My grandmother would be tsk tsking me," she wrote) the dress continues to survive. It has now been worn by 18 different women in at least seven states and it will soon dress a 19th family member, when Caroline's cousin Sylvie wears the adorable dress to her first day of kindergarten. It's a true family heirloom, in dress form.

This heart-warming story probably sounds pretty familiar to many Southerners as we've been making our own clothes for generations. Many of us grew up wearing nothing but the clothing—or hand-me-down clothing— that our mothers stitched together on Singer sewing machines based on McCall's patterns. For fancy dress occasions, sometimes a grandmother or a skilled aunt would be conscripted into carefully smocking an Easter dress or a Christmas morning outfit, or embroidering a delicate pattern on a dress for a school dance.

Those carefully stitched dresses would eventually be outgrown, of course, and passed down to young siblings or cousins who got to show up at church or school wearing the beautifully made pieces. While hand-me-downs started out as a thrifty necessity, it was also a way of preserving the hard work of the women who spent hours choosing fabrics, piecing together a dress, and adding ribbons or buttons. These carefully crafted dresses, skirts, and jumpers were a far cry from the fast fashion that could be picked up at a department store, they were made with love and sweat (ladylike sweat, of course) stitched into the seams.

As the years passed and the handmade garments lasted, they've now become wearable family heirlooms—and we all know that family heirlooms are an integral part of Southern style from heirloom engagement rings to handmade dresses proudly worn to kindergarten by many generations.

For her part, Hirt hopes that the story of her family's kindergarten dress will remind other families about the importance of keeping family history. "I hope that this story brings happiness to those whose families have similar traditions, knowing there are others who do value heirlooms from family members and do not take for granted the gifts they have given us," she writes. Hirt also hopes that the story will inspire others to start similar traditions, writing: "Maybe 70 years from now, their family can write a similar story of their very own."