The Associated Press
Marguerite Newman, second from the left, looks over a scarecrow ornament that Gayle Bortnem, left and Cindy Haliburton, center, sewed together as they and other members of the Storybook Land Sewing Ladies work on Wizard of Oz themed ornaments Oct. 16, at the Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center.
The Associated Press

Marguerite Newman, second from the left, looks over a scarecrow ornament that Gayle Bortnem, left and Cindy Haliburton, center, sewed together as they and other members of the Storybook Land Sewing Ladies work on Wizard of Oz themed ornaments Oct. 16, at the Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center.

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By KELDA J.L. PHARRIS Aberdeen American News

ABERDEEN, S.D. — It seemed this time last year that Marguerite Newman was in the final chapter of the Storybook Sewing Ladies group after more than half a century. She was the last active member.

She pushed the thought aside and busied herself sewing Christmas tree ornament sets of Dorothy and Toto, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion from the book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” She packed up her wares and readied for Winterfest as she had each year for decades.

At the 2018 autumn craft fair, people flocked to her modest table, which was much smaller than the surrounding displays of crafts and collectibles. On the second day her table was bare, and she threw up her hands in amazement. She blamed an American News story about the sewing group’s history and perceivable end for the successful weekend.

She also took 15 additional orders for sets and one earnest gesture to solidify a sequel to The Storybook Sewing Ladies, the American News reported.

Barb Imberi met Newman for the first time last year at Winterfest. Imberi showed interest in picking up what is less a hobby and more of a trade under Newman’s tutelage. Newman didn’t know how she’d get the 15 sets of the Oz protagonists to fill the orders.

By February the two were friends and a new crop of Storybook Sewing Ladies — some members of area quilt guilds — began to gather at the Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center to learn Newman’s skill set and fill her orders.

“All her knowledge on this stuff is just unreal,” said Imberi.

She spoke by phone and in person during a couple of weekly get-togethers at the Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center.

“It’s the order of putting them together that really impressed us,” said Imberi. “These are not just randomly sewn together. There are things you do first to last. They have to be cut precise to the pattern. If you trace you cut inside the line. All sequins have to be sewn and double-knotted ... she wants them double-knotted front and back.”

Newman is clearly the mentor at October and November sewing gatherings. Just like her patterns, her instructions are precise and methodical. Her background as a teacher is evident. She knows what works and what hasn’t and why each step needs to be taken at its correct time. It’s hard to venture how many figures have come through her still-graceful hands.

“I said yes because I read all the ‘Oz’ books when I was in the sixth grade and I loved them. So then, when I was in Aberdeen I used to go to the little craft fairs at the YWCA and these ladies were selling them,” said volunteer Theresa Fjeldheim.

“I think it’s kind of fun; I like to sew. I just kind of enjoy doing this kind of stuff,” said Betty Dobberpuhl, another volunteer.

In a rectangle round of tables there are small gray scraps — each identical in shape and size. They are the beginnings of so many Totos. A dozen headless felt lions lie in jumping jack pose. The red sequins on their jumpers glinted under the fluorescent lights. A few weeks later, the Totos had eyes and were getting stuffed. A dozen or more scarecrows were finished in their red and green outfits and unfurled yarn hair.

Each volunteer seems to specialize in a task. Together they work in a casual assembly line. As one cuts pattern after pattern, another sews, another stitches together embellishments and another stuffs the flat figures into three dimensions. At the end of a session one woman will hand off her batch of finished duties to the next person for the next steps in Newman’s workflow procedures.

The group donates its proceeds to Storybook Land improvements.

The figures are just a handful of about 92 that have developed in the 52 years the group has been active. Different women designed different meticulous patterns for everything from Mother Goose to Santa to Flipper and Christmas icons. Trees far beyond Aberdeen are adorned with the fabled characters.

In 1967, Vannie Larson adopted the Story Book Tree at the annual YWCA Festival of Trees. She started sewing figures from children’s stories. Angels and camels were the first ones she made, because “I started with the story of the birth of Christ, a story the children love,” Larson said, according to American News archives. One hundred dollars were raised for the YWCA that year. It was determined that a sewing circle should form to continue the community benefit.

Now, the newest generation of the group is solely working on the Oz character sets plus a separately sold Wicked Witch — for $15. New Oz character sets will be ready for purchase for $40 at Winterfest. If they run out again Imberi anticipates that orders will be taken.

As the women snipped, sewed and stuffed, each mentioned the amount of work that goes into the little figures. That’s part of the intrigue that has spanned generations — the attention to detail in the name of whimsy and history.

“If it was work I wouldn’t be here. It’s a pleasure,” Imberi said