Last Thursday night, a group of women traded sewing tips and fashion advice around a table at Louie's restaurant in Kenai.
"You know what I've found works real well to make patterns?" Norma Cooper asked her comrades. "Examination table papers."
She said a friend working in a doctor's office had taught her the trick.
"You can draw on it, it's stable, it doesn't tear easily," Cooper said.
Sitting next to her, Tina Hall said she'd have to try to get some of the paper.
But the dresses they wore and discussed weren't something you'd find in an issue of Vogue on the magazine racks today.
Instead, they looked like they came from an older time.
Hall wore a navy dress with short-sleeves and a lacey top. Cooper's gown was a lighter shade of blue, with a billowing skirt.
The two seamstresses are members of the Fashion of the Past club started four years ago by Erma Losser.
Losser, her husband Ken, and another member -- Promise Rodgers -- joined Hall and Cooper for the group's monthly dinner last week.
Losser said she loves diving into the past to create dresses.
"I love history," she said. "I love the history of fashion."
"You can really gauge the attitudes in society by what women wear," Hall added.
Cooper noted that giant layered skirts, which are a little inconvenient for modern life, reflected what women were able to do when they were in vogue.
"They didn't do much," she said.
The club started as an excuse to wear Losser's creations after a group of women wore them for a fashion show.
"I sewed for three weeks and we had 16 women," she said. "I made 16 dresses and 16 hats."
After the show at Peninsula Center Mall, organized by the Soldotna Senior Center, the women had elaborate outfits, but no excuse to wear them again.
"We decided to form a club so we'd have somewhere to wear them," Losser said.
That was in 2005. She started making historical dresses in 2004, based on a Parade pattern.
"I made a copy of it and wore it to the center and everybody loved it," she said.
Since then, Losser has made more than a dozen dresses, and the other club members have been busying sewing their own, too.
The membership has varied, with most enthusiasts coming from the senior center, but a few are friends the women have met elsewhere.
"There's about 11 of us now," Losser said.
The group is mostly women, but Losser's husband also joins them each month.
"He's such a good spirit," Cooper said.
He holds the door for the women, makes sure their purses are within reach and offers them an arm when they walk.
"He's been our chauffer," Cooper said.
The women rotate restaurants -- and dresses -- each month.
Quite a few members have night blindness, so in the winter, they stick close to home, meeting at the Caribou Family Restaurant, Ginger and other Soldotna restaurants.
"In the summertime, we venture out," Cooper said.
Their May meeting was at a favorite Kenai restaurant.
"We love Louie's," Cooper said.
While they each commented on how good the food was, the dresses were the focus of the evening.
"I have 10 dresses," Losser said.
"I have five," Cooper said.
"I have a dress for every holiday," Losser added.
"At Thanksgiving, we all wear Pilgrim dresses," Cooper said.
"Same at Christmas, we all have Christmas dresses," Losser said.
Losser and Cooper use a variety of patterns to construct their dresses.
Although Losser says she doesn't design the dresses, just following the patterns, she often uses a few patterns to get just the right look.
"I like both 1700s and 1800s," she said.
Among the dresses Losser has made is one styled after the fashion of the American Revolution.
"I call it my Martha Washington dress," she said.
That dress took 14 yards of fabric, which is more than a typical dress.
"That one was really a challenge," Losser said.
Sometimes Losser draws on movies for her inspiration.
One of her most memorable dresses is based on a McCall's pattern. It is a little more recent than many of her dresses, based on a movie set in the early 1900s.
"I also have a dress that I copied from the movie 'Titanic,'" Losser said.
Another cinema-inspired garment is based on "Gone with the Wind" patterns. She sold that gown to another club member, Losser said.
Losser said her hats are matched to each dress.
"I buy them on the internet and decorate them," she said.
Cooper, also an avid seamstress, said her favorite dress is a medieval piece.
"It's heavy, so I only wear it in winter," she said.
Cooper says she started sewing out of self-defense. She's shorter than average, which means it takes less material to make a dress, but more time combing retail stores to find something that fits.
"I make most of my clothes," she said.
Before she started sewing period dresses to wear to dinner with the club, she sewed costumes for her dance studio.
"I've been sewing costumes for probably 50 years," Cooper said.
And sewing was part of Cooper's life even before she started teaching dance.
"My mother was a dressmaker," Cooper said.
And now she's passed sewing on to her own family, Cooper said. She has a granddaughter interested in design, whom she recently gave a box of newer patterns. Those were designs from the 1950s.
Losser came to sewing for the flexibility of making her own attire.
"My mother taught me how to make seams, and the rest of it I got from sewing books," Losser said. "The first thing I ever made was a coat. My mother thought I was nuts."
Hall came to sewing in a similar fashion.
"Miss Norma invited me," she explained. Thursday was just her third dinner with the group, although she and her daughter have known Cooper through dancing for years.
"Are you working on a dress yet?" Losser asked Hall.
"No, I'm still working on a wedding," she said.
Most of Hall's sewing has been for her family, she said, but she's excited to work on her own dress.
"I have a lot of inspiration," she said, gesturing to the women around her.
Older members, like Rodgers, sport Losser's creations. But new members can't rely on Losser's work, because she had a stroke in December that makes it difficult for her to sew.
"In fact, I'm going to have to hire someone to do sewing for me," she said.
Molly Dischner can be reached at email@example.com.
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