By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Barbara Hamilton does good in the world with needles, thread, patterns and batches of fabric.
She was born in Memphis, and her family moved to Tupelo when she was 13. About a year before that, her mother showed her a thing or two.
“I started making my own clothes when I was 12,” Hamilton, 74, said. “My mother was a seamstress, so I got that from her. My father was a tool and die maker, so I got all that stuff from him.”
The stuff from her father came into play when she and her first husband were living in Hawaii. She studied fashion merchandising and pattern making at the University of Hawaii, and later applied those skills as a single woman at Hang Ten, a surf apparel company in California.
“I was hired to cut samples, but before long I was making patterns,” she said.
Working in the clothing manufacturing business brought her in contact with Don Hamilton, an Englishman who came to the states in 1962.
“When he would go back home, they thought he sounded American, but here, everyone thought he was English,” she said.
Don Hamilton loved a challenge, so he traveled from one opportunity to another, setting up manufacturing facilities for clothing companies, and his wife went with him.
In Bangladesh, they enjoyed the black-tie social season with embassy personnel.
In Panama, Hamilton got used to seeing young men with AK-47s at the supermarket and everywhere else.
In England, they spent their free time turning a big place into an intimate one.
“We lived in London, and we would walk all over the city,” she said. “It got to the point that it seemed like a small town because we knew so many parts of it.”
Don Hamilton eventually went into business for himself, opening clothing plants in Guatemala and Jamaica. His wife stayed at their Naples, Florida, home, where she turned to sewing as a pastime.
“But I didn’t need too many clothes. I would sew for my husband, too, but he didn’t need that many. I said, ‘Well, I love to sew. I might as well do it for somebody who needs it,’” she said. “I took the finished pieces to the abused children’s thrift store. They said, ‘We’ll take these right to the shelter.’”
The Hamiltons moved to Tupelo after Don Hamilton had a stroke. She continued her sewing and made quilts for her grand-nieces and stepgrandchildren.
“After that, I didn’t have anyone to give the quilts to,” she said. “Don said, ‘Who is that quilt for?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I just have to keep making them.’”
She’s still making quilts and they go to S.A.F.E. Inc. in Tupelo for kids who’ve had to leave their possessions behind to escape domestic violence situations.
“I don’t want the quilts to be put away,” Hamilton said. “They’re for the kids to cuddle with and play with. If they want to run around, dragging them on the floor and having fun, that’s what they’re for.”
Don Hamilton died about five years ago, and Hamilton eventually moved into a two-bedroom house in west Tupelo. One of those bedrooms became a sewing room, where she makes clothes and quilts.
She makes dresses, shirts and pants for children in Africa. She was inspired after reading a story in the Daily Journal about teens sewing for Little Dresses for Africa, a nonprofit.
“You see the kids on TV wearing rags, so they need clothes,” Hamilton said. “I try to make them in bright colors. I make small, medium, large and extra large dresses. They’re all the same width. I just make them different lengths because the kids are so undernourished.”
She has no idea how many dresses, shirts, shorts and quilts she’s made and didn’t seem to care what that number might be.
Hamilton knows she’s one of the lucky ones, and she wouldn’t trade away those exciting days traveling the world at her husband’s side.
She’s also lucky, now, to have her sewing room and a way to make lives brighter for young people she’ll never meet.
“It’s something I can do,” she said, “and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”