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An eye for design—and the skilled hands to see those designs to fruition—have served Matilda Yenowich Dumbril well in her career. Her latest creations, beautifully re-purposed stage curtains, are part of the Chester Historical Society’s The Red Velvet Challenge. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Every auction employs objects from Chester and requires only that participants use them in original creations in whatever way they wish. This year’s Red Velvet Challenge uses 18-inch squares of the velvet cut from what were former stage curtains at the Chester Meeting House.
Earlier creativity challenges have used wooden pegs from the Brooks Factory that once operated in Chester; bone handles from another now-gone Chester factory, Bishop and Watrous Novelty works, that were used as crochet hooks; and yet another that used small, E-shaped pieces of rusted metal dug up on the property of one of the oldest houses in Chester.
Matilda, now in her late 80s, has had a long career as a designer and maker of custom clothes. It is a skill she learned from her mother, an immigrant from Russia, who was also an expert seamstress.
“She told me I had gifted hands,” Matilda says.
At a recent meeting at the home of Matilda’s sister Lillian Bella in Chester, Lillian got out copies of their long-ago student newspaper from Chester High School, which both had attended before Valley Regional High School was built. The teenage Matilda had contributed a regular page of her own fashion designs. Matilda recalls wearing one of her own creations to a Memorial Day program at the high school, a white one-shoulder dress.
“They sent me home. They said the dress was indecent,” she says.
Lillian is one of the few people who still calls her sister by her given name. For most of her adult life, Matilda has been known as Jerre. She got the name as a by-product of a sad family story. When the six Yenowich children were young, they spent four years in foster care before being returned to their family home. Matilda lived with a minister who, because of her curiosity and energy, called her Jerry after a popular comic strip, Jerry on the Job. She later changed the spelling of the name to Jerre.
The Yenowich children were a competitive bunch. Five of the six, including Matilda, were valedictorians of at Chester High School. Their mother encouraged study.
“The house was always a mess. My mother told us not to chase dust. She would say, ‘Go read,’” Matilda says.
The family had a farm on Wig Hill Road and when Matilda talks about growing up, she uses the phrase that was once current to describe the center of town, “downstreet Chester.”
Matilda’s own competitiveness came out in many ways. In high school, a classmate brought in a silver spoon that she said was the beginning of her trousseau collection. Matilda went her one better; she went up to Middletown and bought an entire silver place setting, and with her own money.
She had her own cash because she started working when she was 14 years old, first at the Susan Bates factory, once a major employer in Chester, best known for making needlework equipment, and later at the Russell Jennings Company, famous both for the augur bits it made and the spectacular fire when the old factory burned down in 1976.
Matilda recalls that factory work, not farming, was the main source of employment in Chester when she grew up.
“Most of the boys left high school to work in the factories,” she recalls.
Matilda took another path. She graduated from the University of Connecticut and went to New York City, working as a reporter for a classic fashion newspaper, Women’s Wear Daily.
Three years later she left for Arizona, where an old college boyfriend lived. It wasn’t romance. He was involved with someone else, but Matilda liked his mother who was in Arizona and admits she wanted to see why he had ended their relationship. Now she is glad that romance didn’t work out.
“He died young,” she explains.
In Arizona, Matilda opened her own dress shop, but it failed and, at the suggestion of a friend, she started making custom clothes for the wealthy women who vacationed in Scottsdale in winter. She refers to them still as “her ladies.” One of her clients was the wife of Time magazine co-founder Henry Luce, Clare Boothe Luce, who herself had successful careers as an author, politician, and diplomat.
“I knew what ladies at that level wanted. I knew their background,” she says. “A proper skirt, good details. It was a conservative time. But even if I did a simple grey suit, I always put in my own details, one thing to make it different.”
Matilda also did dresses for the wives of the architects at Taliesin West, once the winter home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Taliesin became both an architecture school and a gathering place for Wright’s architectural protégés.
One of the architects had a wife with a family background like no other: Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. She had defected to the United States in 1967 and in 1970, Alliluyeva, who died in 2011, married William Wesley Peters, once the head architect at Taliesin. The marriage lasted only three years, but in that time Matilda grew to know her.
“She [Svetlana] came for clothes but became pregnant before she needed anything,” Matilda remembers. “We did have a friendship, as two ‘older’ mothers; she was 45, I was 41. Our daughters born three months apart.”
Matilda met her husband through a Taliesin architect, Bernard Dumbrill. They were something of an item until she told him she liked the new Scottsdale Civic Center, an all-white complex of adjoining buildings. He simply said, “Oh, you like white,” and never called again, but on a visit to South Africa, she met his family, including his twin brother Richard. He did call again and the two have been married over 40 years.
In addition to her dress designing, Matilda has already written two books, My Bare Ladies and a Few Clad Men, stories of her adventures in the world of design, and a novel, Makhorka: The Green Cigarette, based on the story of how her family got from Ukraine, then a part of Russia, to the United States. The saga starts when her father deserted from the Tsar’s army in 1912 and came to this country, sending money back to bring her mother over. At the moment Matilda is planning two more books, a spy thriller, since she herself is a fan of the genre, and a book inspired by the two cats she inherited from her daughter.
“If she wanted to get married I had to take them,” Matilda explains.
A cat appears in Matilda’s second project for the Red Velvet Challenge, a red pillow with an applique cat in the center.
On a recent afternoon as she talked about her life, Matilda was wearing a design of her own, a red plaid skirt with a black sweater decorated with diamond cut outs in the same plaid. Matilda bought the material for the outfit in the mid-l950s and has used it in her couture ever since.
“I bought it all, 27 yards, because I didn’t want anyone else to have it,” she explains.
As an interview with a reporter ended, Matilda had one last request about how to identify her: “Please use the name Matilda Yenowich Dumbrill. I want to honor my mother,” she said.
The Red Velvet Challenge
The Chester Historical Society’s The Red Velvet Challenge silent auction is on Saturday, April 6 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Chester Meeting House, 4 Liberty Street. Tickets are available at Lark and the Chester Gallery in downtown Chester or by calling Sosse Baker at 860-526-9822. To create an object for the challenge, call Baker for material and instructions.
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