From wheat farm to couture fashion
The term "haute couture" doesn't come up very often in rural Oregon.
The French word "couture" is used to describe the process of creating custom design and construction of high-end fashion in women's clothing — usually by an experienced seamstress.
Shirley Smith of Prineville is not only familiar with the term but has lived it in her career as a teacher, author and seamstress.
Smith and her husband, Don, have been married for approximately 67 years. They moved to Prineville in 2010 to be closer to family. Their daughter Shellie Currier and her children live in Prineville, and Smith's focus is now on her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, husband and her rose garden. Her daughter Shay Smith lives in California with her two boys, and Smith loves spending time with all of her family.
Her other passion has been sewing, which eventually became a career. Smith was always a stay-at-home mom, and she had sewing classes in her basement.
"I've always loved to sew," she remarked.
However, she is developing an eye condition that is making it difficult for her to see the close work, including tasks like threading a needle.
When sharing memories of times past, Smith pointed to an older treadle sewing machine she inherited from her mother, which is one of her most prized possessions.
"That's what I learned to sew on," she said.
She had eight siblings, six boys and three girls. Their family had a wheat farm, and chickens were a staple. Chicken feed came in sacks with prints on them.
"We would go to the feed store with Daddy and picked out print fabric (made from feed sacks)," Smith said.
She has a quilt she treasures made from these prints, and she would also make doll clothes from them. She made things from scraps with the treadle, and by the time she was in high school, she was making all her clothes.
When she was in the first grade, the family had a chimney fire, and the house burned to the ground.
"We lost practically everything," she said.
They were able to retrieve a few things, and the treadle machine was one of them. Smith was fortunate enough to inherit it, which she is thankful for.
"(Sewing is) a creative, really nice thing to learn how to do. You can do anything," she said. "It's a specialized thing, but it's such a creative, wonderful thing."
After high school, Smith became a student of Elizabeth Nash in Portland. Nash started her career in a Vienna, Austria, couture clothing house, and worked her way to master tailor. Smith studied under Nash for a number of years, where she became proficient in European design and garment construction concepts.
She also worked with fashioner designer Charles Kleibacker, who was known for his complex designs that were always cut on a diagonal.
She and her husband often entertained the editor of Threads magazine, David Coffin. Smith wrote 10 articles for the magazine.
Smith and her husband moved from Portland to Denver, Colorado, in 1974, when Don was transferred there for an engineering job with a worldwide firm, Stearns Roger. Don worked there for 25 years.
"We moved there right after our youngest daughter graduated from high school, and he got a job with an engineering firm in Denver. We were there until he retired," she said.
Smith established a teaching studio In Denver and became well known in fashion circles.
"Everything I made was pretty classic," she added.
She soon attracted the attention of Douglas Ram Samuj, a Beverly Hills designer who created one-of-a-kind fabrics. He made his own dyes and hand-painted his fabric. Many of his garments were worn by First Lady Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and other Hollywood notables. His fabric could be recognized because of its vibrant colors and unique patterns.
Smith met Ram Samuj when she was attending one of his showings in Denver. He marketed many of his creations by partnering with a designer to have showings of the fabric, and then he had them fashioned into garments under the direction of the designer.
"At that showing, I bought this," she said, as she displayed a beautiful dress she had designed. "It just said, 'You can't go home without me.' I spent my hard-earned dollars."
When she bought the material, she, said, Ram Samuj commented, "You will make this into a dress, I hope. I want to see what you do with it."
A few months later, he followed up.
"He called me up, and said 'I'm in Denver, and I would like to come and see my dress." She said that he always referred to them as 'his dress.'"
Ram Samuj really liked what she did with her garment, and that started yearly showings for Smith and her students for the next 10 years. Partnering with Ram Samuj, she held one-per-year showings of his fabrics in her teaching studio.
Her students purchased his fabrics, and under her direction in the studio, she helped them create one-of-a kind garments. He only printed four yards of his fabric for each design he created.
"You had to get whatever you wanted out of that four yards," Smith said.
In 1983, Smith presented a showing of garments created in her studio at a sold-out fashion show at the Grand Ballroom of the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver. The fabrics were by Ram Samuj, and a contingent of professional models assisted Smith to show the garments. The show also included creations made by retrospective fashions of the 1930s and 1940s by Julia Tobias, a Denver fashion designer of that era.
Smith added that her students would create whatever they wanted out of the four yards of fabric they purchased from Ram Samuj. He would ship boxes of fabric ahead of time. She would send out invitations and encouraged them to wear the garments they had made under her direction.
"He loved that," Smith said, smiling as she recalled how much fun he had. "Everyone he greeted, he said, 'You have my garment on.'
"He was the sweetest guy and really a wonderful friend."
Ram Samuj died unexpectedly in the early 1990s. He painted his fabric in his small studio in San Francisco, California. He had been doing what he loved most when he died.
His legacy lives on in his vibrant fabrics, for those who are fortunate enough to have them. Smith's wardrobe contains many garments from Ram Samuj fabrics. She will be selling some of them, along with a stash of his fabric in the near future, using Etsy.
Denver is a big city, and Smith and her husband, Don, were both raised in more rural areas. They moved to White Salmon, Washington, to be closer to family and get away from the city. She said the home they had built was quite large, and she had a studio in the basement.
"It was beautiful." However, it was in a very isolated area in the Columbia Gorge.
She had students who drove from Portland; Seattle, Washington; Bellingham, Washington; and even some who flew in from Chicago, Illinois.
"I had a variety of people come to White Salmon, but nothing like I had in Denver," Smith said.
Smith had a fascinating career that started after her children were young adults. She also wrote two books in 1987, "The Art of Sewing" and "The Art of Fitting." She appeared in several television interviews, including one in Denver with Ram Samuj.
When reflecting on the value of sewing and creating practical things for her home, she is sad that home economics has all but disappeared from public school.
"I think it's a real shame," she said. "It's something that is very creative that people can use all their lives."
She pointed to the drapes and curtains in her house. She has made all her window coverings, as well as her entire wardrobe.
''I think sewing needs to be part of education — it really does," Smith concluded. "Kids need to know how to do things with their hands; that gives them some satisfaction."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.