Award-winning seamstress Carol von Cannon’s work represents a lifetime of honing her craft. Perhaps even more than her blue ribbons, von Cannon finds pride in teaching the skills she learned from her grandmother to a whole new generation.
Carol von Cannon talks humbly about her remarkable sewing ability. She credits her grandmother for passing it down from one generation to the next. The Mansfield resident has been sewing since she was about 8 years old but only became an expert seamstress in recent years.
“I believe that you are given gifts and talents—and I got the gift from my granny—but it’s up to you to develop them,” said von Cannon, who has lived in Newton County with her husband, John, since 2003. “I believe that with all my heart. It’s something that was born in me, and I have worked to do the best that I can to develop my talent and to share that knowledge.”
Every August, when von Cannon was a child in Macon, her paternal grandmother came from Dubois for a three-week-long visit. She spent most of her time making back-to-school clothes for von Cannon and her sister, Kaye. “I watched her,” von Cannon said. “I would assist, but normally the way I would assist was fixing her lunch and staying out of her way.” Von Cannon continued sewing and even made her sister’s wedding dress in 1968. Still, she only considered herself an expert after she retired in 2000 and had time to devote to the art. After working for 10 years at Sears and another two decades at Allstate, von Cannon finally had the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
“That required so much of me as far as being available for customers in the evening,” she said. “I put it down. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“I think it’s become a lost art, and I want my girls to know how to sew.”Amanda Kirkham
Von Cannon attended a local sewing and quilting expo, where she found a $7,000 designer sewing machine—a price tag that nearly made her husband faint. “He said, ‘How do you know you would use it enough to make a purchase that big?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I won’t know unless I get it.’” The expensive machine still sews as well today as it did back then.
After purchasing the machine, von Cannon—a mother to two sons—became interested in making little girls’ clothing and heirloom outfits for christenings. She began to take classes from renowned women in the sewing industry, traveling as needed to hone her skills. Her education included attendance at a sewing school in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for three years and taking classes in Tennessee and Alabama. “I was self-taught until that point,” von Cannon said, “but when I see it once, I can do it, and I can do it well.” Over the years, she welcomed 14 grandchildren into the world, about half of them girls who were mostly grown by the time she started taking the art seriously. Von Cannon progressed to more advanced sewing classes and recalls that she knew she had “arrived” when she was given an assistant to help with her projects. “I no longer had to do busy work,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know that I had this talent until I retired and started taking the classes.”
Von Cannon decided to start entering her work in local competitions in 2021. Her first entries were submitted to a national fair’s advanced-level contest. They included several pieces: a christening gown, two little girls’ dresses, a set of girls’ pajamas, a play set and two crocheted Afghans. She was delighted to win four blue ribbons, one red ribbon and an honorable mention. In 2022, she entered two sewing pieces and three crochet pieces—all winners. Von Cannon took home four blue ribbons, a red ribbon and a judge’s comment that simply read, “Perfection.” The awards meant even more to her due to the fact that she had battled osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, in 2015. Von Cannon overcame the disease after six months of physical therapy and surgery to remove part of a bone in her leg.
“I didn’t even go down in the sewing room that whole year,” she said. Soon after, she added a new machine to her collection and started sewing again. “It’s important for people to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “You do have to fight it; however, even though I put [sewing] down, I picked it back up.”
Although von Cannon always has a project in the works, she gives away most of the items she makes instead of selling them.
“I usually keep a blue or pink blanket in my cupboard, so I have a handmade gift for someone if I need it, but if I know them very well, I try to make them something special with their name so it’s a treasure,” she said. “I don’t want the pressure of somebody saying they want [something] at a certain time or a certain way if I sell it, so I make it for my pleasure and I share it.”
Von Cannon also partnered with her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Covington, by making baby hats and clothing for the congregation’s children. She has taught several fellow church members how to sew.
“The dresses remind me of things you don’t see in stores today,” said Amanda Kirkham, whose daughters, Josephine and Jenevieve, have received clothes from von Cannon at church. “They have a classic look about them, and they love them. Carol is an expert. She is so creative and talented.”
Von Cannon has taught Kirkham’s daughters basic sewing skills and plans to teach them more. In a way, she has stepped into a grandmother role for two girls whose own grandparents live far away.
“I think it’s good for our children to learn from other people,” Kirkham said. “I think it’s become a lost art, and I want my girls to know how to sew.”