Every jacket this 100-year-old woman creates contains a lifetime

Photo courtesy of Kendal at Lexington.
n October, Kendal at Lexington – a senior living community in Lexington, Va. – hosted an art show, in which about 25 women modeled custom jackets made by Nancy Epley, center.
Photo courtesy of Kendal at Lexington.
Epley wearing one of her custom creations.

One after another, the women appeared, each wearing a hand-sewn, customized jacket crafted by Nancy Epley. The jackets each told the story of the wearer’s life.

About 25 women, all wearing Epley’s jackets, modeled the garments and shared the stories behind them.

“They walked the runway,” said Epley, 100, who has spent the past 20 years crafting jackets by hand.

To date, she’s made more than 200 jackets – and no two are the same. She gives them to friends and family and, sometimes, total strangers.

“It’s a pleasure for me to work with fabrics,” Epley said from her home in Lexington, Va., where she spends most days making art. “I’ve always enjoyed it so much.”

Over the years, Epley’s custom creations have been on public display in several fashion and art shows. The most recent was held at Kendal at Lexington – the senior living community where she lives.

Epley began making jackets in 1980. She started by crafting one for herself, and as compliments poured in, she created them for other people.

“I’ve always loved clothes, so I just decided I would make a jacket for myself,” she said, explaining that, for fun, she quilted horses and a colorful carousel on her garment.

While wearing the jacket on a cruise with her husband, “two ladies came up to me and said, ‘Where did you get that jacket?’ I was so flattered,” Epley recalled. “It just went from there.”

Friends, family and total strangers began requesting custom jackets by Epley, and she got straight to work.

Before beginning a jacket, Epley asks the wearer questions about style and shades: What colors do you like next to your face? Do you want a collar?

Then, she instructs them to “make a list of all the things that matter,” and include what they love most in their lives, their hobbies and what they would like to remember.

For Ursula Keeley, 87, chief on her list were her family and her marriage.

“This jacket really represents my life and my family’s life,” said Keeley, who received her jacket 10 years ago, when her husband was very ill. “If there is a fire, this is the only thing I would take and run.”

Keeley wore the jacket – which showcases illustrations of her children, beloved family pets, front doors and cherished objects – to her husband’s funeral. She called it a “family treasure.”

“It’s an heirloom,” she said. “Everything is on this jacket.”

Each jacket is a “labor of love,” Epley explained, adding that she often gives the garments as gifts and, in other cases, charges only for the cost of the fabric, usually between $100 and $150.

It takes her roughly two months to make one jacket, which she crafts using washable cotton fabric and a sewing machine. She stitches together different fabrics to create intricate images and designs, and she also paints patterns and objects onto the material. She looks online for inspiration.

The result is a deeply personal piece of clothing, which stitches together the most salient elements of a person’s life.

Sandra Blanton’s jacket features symbols of her favorite places, including New York City – where she worked for 40 years as a literary agent – Paris, London and Venice. The pastel blue jacket also showcases noteworthy books she worked on, as well as shrubs and flowers to represent her green thumb.

“I wear it as often as I can,” said Blanton, 83, who got her jacket in 2007. “I love talking about it to everybody. Whenever I wear it, I get lots of attention.”

As with Keeley, Blanton’s jacket is her most prized possession.

“This is the most valuable thing I own, because it’s an original work of art,” she continued. “Nobody has anything like it, and nobody could have done it except this incredible woman.”

Epley – who has two children and one grandson – said seeing people wearing and enjoying her jackets brings her immense fulfillment.

“It’s something I love to do,” she said. “It gives me great pleasure.”

At the fashion show at her senior community in October, Melou Piegari, 81, strutted with pride. Her jacket features a Virginia Military Institute building – where she met her husband, who taught there for more than 30 years.

The jacket, she said, represents “our life together and our children,” Piegari said. “Nancy was extremely creative and fun to work with.”

“She is so engaging and interested in people, and I could see in her how much it meant to her,” Piegari added. “It’s very special to me.”

Recently, Epley started winding down with crafting jackets – given how time-consuming and challenging they can be. She is now focused on making custom wall hangings.

“The spirit is willing, but I question my ability to do the detail,” Epley said.

The wall hangings are a similar style, she said, but far less strenuous to create.

“I have a worktable, and I just always love having something going on,” Epley said. “It’s a major hobby, and a major pleasure to create.”

Epley believes making art has contributed to her long life.

“I’ve just lucked out, and I’ve loved it,” she said. “One is so lucky if you have something that you love to do.”