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Handmade: Note brings two worlds together

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

One hundred years ago, Welda Felber was born in her maternal grandmother’s house on Detroit’s eastside, near the downtown area.

One hundred years later, Felber sat in her Eastpointe home, where she’s lived since 1950, and wrote a “thank you” note to yours truly, after reading my column on Royal Oak clothing designer Tina Givens. She said, it reminded her of when she was younger and made “all” of her clothes. As I read the handwritten note, I was deeply touched and almost moved to tears, as it brought back fond memories of my childhood — things that, unfortunately, had long been forgotten as one moves on with life.

Felber mentioned the old Hudson’s store in downtown Detroit, and at one point, referred to it as J.L. Hudson’s, a name few remember. Named after its founder, Joseph Lowthian Hudson (also known as J.L. Hudson), the massive 32-floor department store, which took up an entire city block at 1206 Woodward, had been where she purchased “very good material” for her sewing projects.

Her note took me back to when my father would drop my mother and I off at J. L. Hudson’s for an afternoon of shopping in our Sunday best, white gloves and all, as though it were Easter. And then at Christmas, it was where they took me to see Santa — “the real Santa!”

Well — since it’s not everyday that you receive mail from someone who’s been around over a century — 100 years and eight months to be exact — I decided to reach out to Felber. I was ecstatic to learn her grandmother’s house, or birthplace, was just a block and a half down from Mack, and on the very next street from where I grew up, which was just off Mack! When Felber was 4 or 5, she moved in with her paternal grandmother to nearby Canton and Mack. And, when I was 4 or 5, my paternal grandmother moved from New York to the upstairs flat of my parents’ house.

I was delighted to connect with someone from the neighborhood where I grew up — especially, someone who was there decades before I was born, and who gave me a sense of what it was like way back when.

Felber, who’s had a lifelong love affair with sewing, learned to hand sew from her mother when she was 8 or 9, before being taught to use the family treadle sewing machine. “In those days, you learned to sew from your mother. You never bought a dress,” she recalls. “In those days, unless you were really rich, you made your clothes. There were a lot of dry good stores where you bought your fabric. When I graduated from Marcy (middle school), I made my own graduation dress. It wasn’t fancy. It was a plain white dress — kind of kimono style with a blue tie around the neck. (What a memory!)

“I never bought anything. It was too expensive, (but) I liked nice, good clothes,” she continued. “I used to look in the (display) windows and see a dress I liked, and I’d run and get a pattern. Hudson’s had patterns. I did most of my shopping at Hudson’s. The girls used to run the elevators, and if you wanted to eat, you had lunch on the floor where they had lunch. I don’t know why the store closed.”

These days, Felber is more into creating crafts. “I don’t do too much sewing (of) clothes,” she said, “but I do a lot of crafts. I make nice bags out of place mats, and I make baby bonnets, using old handkerchiefs. My daughter goes to estate sales and finds old handkerchiefs, and every baby that gets baptized in my church (Hope United Church of Christ in Fraser) gets a handkerchief bonnet.”

Twice widowed, Felber, a mother of two, grandmother of three, and great-grandmother of two, has also enjoyed years of crocheting and knitting, something she learned during her 15-minute breaks back when she worked at the old Packard Motor Car Co., where she made seat covers.

Felber, who gave up driving last year, feels the key to longevity is going to church every Sunday and staying active. She still meets with fellow members of the Eastern Star, Ladies of the Oriental Shrine, and Daughters of the Nile. And, for anyone who may be wondering, she informed — “When you get to be 100, your mind doesn’t work as good as it used to!”

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.