ST. CHARLES - Ruthie Ratke doesn't blame her childhood doctor for a misdiagnosis that left her confined to her bed from age 6 to 19.
"Everything that happens in life makes you a stronger person," the 65-year-old said.
Her bedridden childhood not only made her appreciate life and simple pleasures like walking, Ratke said, but those years also nurtured her love of sewing. She hemmed skirts and dresses she wanted to wear, and as an adolescent, she decorated her bedroom with a bolt of fabric her mother gave her.
"I still love that room," Ratke said.
Now, as the owner of A Thimble Change in St. Charles, Ratke said she is living her lifelong dream of sewing as a career.
"It's so exciting," she said.
But Ratke said she didn't always feel like a seamstress, because she didn't have a formal education in sewing like her older sister, who went to dress design school in Chicago.
Her attitude changed about four years ago. Then unemployed, Ratke said, she responded to a Craigslist ad seeking a makeup artist for a fashion show at Navy Pier. She asked whether the show needed a seamstress, and the designer told her to be there the next day. She pinned some models and was tasked to make some changes, she said.
"I was so nervous I went home and threw up," Ratke said.
The designer, however, loved what she had done, she recalled, and he offered her the chance to work in England that summer as Michael Jackson's wardrobe mistress. She accepted, and they shook on it, she said.
With Jackson's death that June and no written contract, Ratke said, she doesn't know whether the designer's offer was genuine. But the promise of the opportunity gave her the confidence to start her own business, she said.
She rented the space above Fox Valley Travel, 1303 W. Main St., in St. Charles, just before Jackson's death, she said. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Ratke said she hems pants, takes clothes in, lets clothes out and works on prom and bridesmaid dresses, but her shop is too small to work on bridal gowns.
She feels especially fortunate to be able to provide children worldwide with dresses and shorts made from simple pillowcases. She started the ministry – Sewing for Smiles – about three years ago with help from her pastor at Hosanna! Lutheran Church, who, she explained, would ask the congregation for supplies to create the clothing. Her business quickly grew within a month of starting the ministry, so now she mainly delegates those responsibilities, she said. So far, she said, the program has provided more than 3,600 dresses and shorts to children in such countries as Liberia, Haiti, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nicaragua.
"It's really exciting the way it's taken off," Ratke said. "I feel very blessed to be able to help little kids."
People can contribute to Sewing for Smiles by donating new or used pillowcases, 1/2-inch or 1-inch elastic and double fold bias tape. Contact Ratke at 630-234-4794 or firstname.lastname@example.org.