Sewing becomes habitual for Hilbert woman
Karla Gebhart has kept an order well dressed for 36 years
By Tony Staley
HILBERT - Thirty-five years ago, Karla Gebhart started a sewing project that's turned into quite a habit.
She offered to make a religious habit for her brother, Angelo, a Norbertine priest at St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere.
Her initial challenge was that she had no pattern. She started by taking 13 measurements and fashioning a pattern from brown bags. When she finished, it fit perfectly. Soon, other Norbertines wanted her to make their habits.
Now, 350 habits later, Gebhart is an expert and can make a habit in 10 hours, from initial measurement to final product. She made the habits for the five novices received into the order last week and for two Norbertines who made final vows on Aug. 28.
But that first habit, which she made with her mother, Ethel Feldkamp of Wrightstown, was quite a project.
"We didn't know where to start. It's all lined, so it was like having to do two habits. And we had to make sure the hems didn't show. But finally, we figured out where everything goes," Gebhart says.
And they must have done it right, because her brother says he's still wearing it.
"I'm very easy on clothes," Fr. Feldkamp says. "It still fits, although it once needed restitching because the thread rots."
Each habit takes eight yards of 60-inch wide material. The material comes from New York on rolls of 100-150 yards each.
"Those buggers are heavy," Gebhart says. "They stay here in the kitchen, where I sew, until I get a couple of them cut."
She uses a polyester/cotton blend, rather than the old, heavy mohair blend. She buys the hooks, buttons and zippers locally at a fabric store. A woman in the parish uses the scraps to make a quilt that's a prize in the annual parish raffle. Or else they're used by another woman as clothes for dolls given to needy children at Christmas.
With the habit, she imparts a little advice: Wash all pieces of the habit at the same time so the color will continue to match.
Over the years, Gebhart has learned some things. For example, she cuts the habits a little loose, recalling how once several habits she made in spring were too tight by the end of summer.
And she knows that "the skirt at the bottom has to be bigger so they can go up stairs or ramps, or it's like a woman wearing a tight skirt."
She's also learned not to hem until the Norbertines come back for a fitting.
Over the course of 36 years, Gebhart has some memories:
The first and only time Fr. Alan Scheible wore the last habit she made for him was in his coffin;
She once put a zipper in the wrong way; another time she put a sleeve in upside down;
More than once, she's finished sewing a habit while she's being driven to the abbey;
Getting the buttons and button holes lined up on the abbot's cape used to be a nightmare - now she uses velcro and the buttons are only ornamental;
She recalls the biggest habit she ever made - a 56-inch waist, 23½-inch arms, 19-inch collar. It was so big that she and her mother could both fit in it. The first time she measured the priest, she was afraid that the tape measure - which she always carries - wouldn't be big enough to stretch around him.
Gebhart says she enjoys sewing the habits because it allows her "to meet the guys one-on-one. They introduce me to their mothers and we have our pictures taken together."
Having Gebhart make a habit is fun, says Frater James Herring, O.Praem., who last week made solemn vows and was ordained to the diaconate.
"She makes it a fun-filled experience and lots of laughter takes place," he says. "She puts on all the extra things we want. After she made my last one, I jokingly asked her to put on some buttons, like the abbots have. When I got it, she had put all sorts of different sized and shaped buttons on it. I was laughing so hard I was in tears. She adds the little touches like that just to make it an enjoyable experience."
It's become a year-round endeavor of 10-12 habits a year for an average of one a month, though sometimes she finds herself making 2-4 a month.
Gebhart says she can even sew while talking on the phone, pointing to the sewing machine on the kitchen table, which, she says is only her second sewing machine. Nor is it a fancy model with all the latest bells and whistles.
That's not necessary, she says. "As long as it goes forward and backward, that's all that counts. I'm not planning to get a fancy one."
When she's not sewing, Gebhart helps at her parish, assisting at the annual picnic and once serving on the parish council. She also helps her husband, Vern, milk their 50 cows and look after their 350-acre farm. She grew up on a dairy farm - her father, Hilary Feldkamp died three years ago - between Kaukauna and Wrightstown and was a member of St. Paul Parish, Wrightstown.
Besides making habits for St. Norbert Abbey, Gebhart makes them for the Norbertines at Daylesford Abbey in Philadelphia; for the priory in Albuquerque, where the prior, Fr. Joel Garner, has added his own modification - a real hood rather than the small, vestigial hood used by all other Norbertine communities. Norbertines in Hawaii, Colorado and Montana also wear habits made by Gebhart.
How long will she keep making habits for the Norbertines?
"I suppose forever. As long as they keep coming and are satisfied, I'll do it. Unless they find someone else," she says with a laugh, "and I don't think they'll start looking until I'm gone."
Abbot Tom De Wane, O.Praem., says there's no chance they'll look for anyone else.
"Karla has been extremely loyal over many years in making habits for us," he says "Whether the demand is five or six at a time or whatever, she always manages to do it. She has been very generous to us. We have deeply appreciated her services over these years and hope that she can continue to provide this service for us."
That's good news, says Gebhart, who professes to like her work. And why not, she asks, "They always keep me in stitches."