Dancing fingers

Rachel Murphy had never embroidered before when, at 22, she sat down before her mother's sewing machine to try to stitch tiny lettering on the hem of an Irish dance dress.

Now, five years later, she's tucked behind her sewing machine full-time, making similar dresses, liturgical wear and wall hangings from her pint-sized workshop in south Ashland, and the embroidery — still the most difficult part — is her favorite, she said.

"I totally fell in love with it," Murphy said last week, sitting in her studio surrounded by swaths of silk fabric and completed dresses hanging from a curtain in her closet — behind which she keeps most of her personal belongings, as the space doubles as her bedroom. "I love working with beautiful fabrics and I love making beautiful things."

That first dress, Murphy helped make for her teenage sister — who needed it for dance competitions — because the family of eight couldn't spring for the $2,000 or more designer frocks.

"I was so thrilled about the dress," said her sister Maire (pronounced Mara), now 19 and a sophomore at SOU majoring in theater. "She is fantastic. It's an extremely arduous business and I know that she puts so much time and energy in to each and every dress. Even from the get-go she had so much talent."

The deep blue, purple and gold dress was a knockout at competitions, Maire said, and soon a family friend commissioned Murphy to make another teen's dress.

Murphy's mother, Debra — who had bought a sewing machine and taught herself to make Maire's dress — showed the budding seamstress the basics.

"When she did the next dress, I walked her through it and she very quickly went way beyond anything I could have done. It's definitely her calling and not mine," said Debra, who owns the local book publishing company Idylls Press.

The following year, Murphy founded Silverlode Needlecraft, borrowing the name of a river in J. R. R. Tolkien's books, which she draws on for inspiration, she said, describing herself as a "Tolkien fanatic." In fact, the lettering she embroidered on Maire's dress was part Elvish, a language Tolkien created, and part Gaelic, an homage to the family's Irish roots.

With the help of her brother John, Murphy created a Web site, www.SilverlodeNeedlecraft.com, and started making dresses for dancers living as far away as Scotland, from her parent's home in Salem, where the family lived until moving to Ashland this June. The family visited Ashland each year for more than a decade to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and when Murphy's father, Daniel, was hired as the CEO of Community Works, a local nonprofit, the family decided to relocate, Murphy said.

"In Salem I was working for several years in a chilly, damp basement, pulling all-nighters and my family got used to seeing me all bundled up in my scarves and sweaters," she said, stroking her cat as it slinked through the shag carpet in the home she shares with her brother John, just down the street from her parents' house.

Her dresses now sell for as much as $1,750 and take her more than 100 hours to create. Murphy makes only about a dozen each year and is already booked through 2009.

"Once you get to a certain level in Irish dance, you earn a solo dress, which is a one-of-a-kind dress. No one should have the same pattern or color scheme," said Murphy, explaining how she must design each dress from scratch.

The designer does mostly custom work, but also has created a few readymade dresses, which can be bought online.

For custom dresses, dancers send their measurements, photographs of themselves and a deposit to Murphy, and she sends them swatches of fabric, sketches of her designs and cotton mock-ups of the dresses — before she even begins sewing the frocks.

She recently also started making embroidered wall hangings and liturgical wear, which are simpler projects than dresses, but rely on many of the same techniques.

The seamstress usually doesn't meet her clients in person, as she communicates with them mostly through e-mail.

"I love the solitary work," Murphy said. "I really have a passion for the quiet work — and there's a lot of quiet work. I rely a lot on audio books."

But Murphy also felt called this year to do work in the community, so she is attending training to become a part-time nurse's assistant at Linda Vista Nursing & Rehab Center in Ashland.

At least one part of the new job should be a cinch for Murphy: She's already mastered paying attention to detail.

"My mom says, if you've figured out how to make an Irish dance dress, you can probably learn to do anything," she joked.

Staff writer Hannah Guzik can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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