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October 29, 2008
Kansas seamstress’s costumes of saints go marching out to customers
By Joe Bollig
CUMMINGS, Kan. (CNS)—Debra Fuhrman is under the gun.
Barraged by orders arriving from Kansas, around the United States and even overseas, Fuhrman has been shipping out product as fast as she can. With All Saints Day just around the corner, you see, it’s high time for the saints—or rather, their costumes—to go marching out.
Fuhrman runs a business called Our Coats of Many Colors in Cummings, population 580 or so, and as best as she can tell, it is the Catholic children’s costume capital of the world.
That’s quite an accomplishment for Fuhrman, a member of the First Christian Church of Atchison. Until just a few years ago, she didn’t know the difference between St. Tarcisius and tartar sauce. Fuhrman gives a lot of the credit for her success to her Catholic neighbor and friend, Maria Rioux, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Nortonville.
Fuhrman began her costume career in 1999 with “princess style” dress-up clothes for her two daughters. When other parents began to ask her to make costumes for their kids, Fuhrman began a little bedroom-based business in 2002.
Initially, she only offered children’s costumes of historical and literary figures. Then Rioux encouraged her to consider making saint costumes.
“I can’t do that,” said Fuhrman. “I’m Protestant. What do I know about the saints?”
“The next year she said people in her e-group (e-mail listserv) were asking where they could find patterns (for saint costumes), and there wasn’t anywhere to go and buy or get a pattern,” said Fuhrman.
Rioux was persistent. She was certain that there was a market out there among her fellow Catholic home-schoolers for well-made saint costumes for children. Those already on the market were mostly of the gag type for adults—shoddy and vulgar. Parents hated them.
“I just didn’t see how it could work,” Fuhrman said in an interview with The Leaven, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City. “I never tried to create my own patterns before. But the third time she asked, I said, ‘Fine, you show me, and I’ll try it, but I can’t do this alone.’”
“That’s when I told her that I’d help her with designs and any questions she had about a saint,” said Rioux. “I’m just down the road; pick up the phone.”
“We were picking up the phone all the time,” Fuhrman added with a laugh.
Fuhrman began making saint costumes in 2004, and the saints must be smiling on her, because business has been very good. Her first order—which she considered “huge”—was for 16 costumes. This year, she’ll make and ship approximately 1,500 saint costumes before Oct. 24, her cutoff date for rush orders.
“We could double that if I had enough seamstresses,” said Fuhrman. Those first years, and costumes, weren’t easy. Starting with patterns for a Benedictine monk, a Franciscan friar and a Jesuit priest, Fuhrman sought both quality and authenticity.
A nun’s cowl and a bishop’s miter, for example, gave her fits. “I lost so much sleep over the miter,” said Fuhrman. “It’s very hard to do the middle section.”
And the secret to making a good miter? “I’m not telling,” Fuhrman said with a laugh.
It didn’t hurt that Rioux’s husband, John, is a philosophy professor at Benedictine College in Atchison. The college is sponsored by St. Benedict’s Abbey and Mount St. Scholastica.
One of the monks at the college let them use a habit, and Abbot Barnabas Senecal “let us use his miter,” said Rioux. Benedictine Sister Debora Peters took her and Fuhrman all around her order’s motherhouse, Mount St. Scholastica, and showed them the sisters’ habits.
About 90 percent of the costumes made by Our Coats of Many Colors are of saints, and the majority of those are bought for Catholic home-schoolers. Today, Our Coats of Many Colors offers 50 kinds of costumes, although the inventory is always in flux, said Fuhrman. Occasionally, the costumes of saints not often requested are replaced by those growing in popularity.
The company will, from time to time, take special orders as well, said Fuhrman: “If I get more than three requests,” I call Maria. ‘People keep asking for Padre Pio. Should we add him?’ I’ll ask. She’ll say, ‘Yes,’ or ‘Why don’t we wait?’”
“Or I’ll say that he’s Franciscan, and we’ve already got that,” said Rioux.