Kay Wallace, of Signal Mountain. sews “angel gowns” for infants who have passed away.

This is the second column in a two-part series

There is heartache in the scale.

The tiny burial gowns, some barely 6 inches long, look like doll clothes. They are way too small for a human baby, your mind tells you.

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Part 1: What to say when a baby dies

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Kay Wallace sews angel gowns for infants who have passed away.

But your mind is mistaken.

The gowns stitched by Kay Wallace, an amateur seamstress living on Signal Mountain, are indeed destined to be worn by human infants, babies that pass away during or shortly after the birthing process.

Wallace, a native of Michigan, says there is a bitter sweetness to the task. By sewing these "angel gowns" from the satin and lace of donated wedding gowns, it feels like the fabric has already been sanctified for recycled duty, she says.

"It's already been blessed by God at a wedding," she says. "For me, that's meaningful. When I make the gowns and box them up, I pray for the families."

Wallace says she fell into the volunteer work by happenstance. Sewing is a lost art, she says, and the number of people who can build a garment from a pattern and a swath of cloth is dwindling.

Wallace has a sewing machine in her spare bedroom, looking out over a scattering of trees that her husband Les planted so she could mark the change of seasons.

An Erlanger executive who knew of Wallace's work sewing costumes for Signal Mountain Playhouse productions reached out to her a couple of years ago. Since then, she has made 36 of the little smocks she calls "angel gowns."

"This is a gift for someone's precious child," she says. "I hope they feel the prayerful support I put into this."

For Wallace, sewing has been a lifelong hobby. As a girl, she remembers watching her mom sew dresses made out of patterned feed sacks her father brought home from his job at a feed mill. Wallace can still remember her mom gently rocking the pedal on her treadle sewing machine while drinking Coca-Cola and smoking cigarettes.

There's something about sewing that Wallace finds relaxing, even therapeutic.

When she was 13, Wallace remembers sewing a dress as a 4-H project to show at the county fair in Prattville, Mich. It was a blue dress with a big skirt and a V-shaped bodice, she remembers.

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Mark Kennedy

"It had lots of moving parts," she said of the dress. "And I hated it."

Still, over time, her skills improved and by the time she became a mom, sewing clothes for her children became second nature. Her two daughters went to a Christian school where pants were no-nos for girls, and so they grew up wearing dresses sewn by their mom.

That lifetime of dress-making paved the way for her angel gown sewing for Erlanger.

It takes about a day to make one of the gowns, she says, pink highlights for girls, blue for boys. Some of the boys' robes have little blue bow ties on the front.

"The dads want their boys to look like boys," she says.

At first, the work seemed morose, she said.

"I thought, 'This is a burial gown for somebody's child.' It weighed heavy on me," she says. "But I had to put that aside. I had to remember I was making something to help a family make it through a loss."

She makes a variety of sizes, from "micro" for the tiniest preemies to "large" for infants born full-term. She can only make so many before the repetition and emotional weight of the task wear her down.

"Sometimes it's just time to put it aside," she says of the sewing.

And then the seasons change, her energy for the task returns and her sewing machine chatters back to life.

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-645-8937.