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Sew Cool: Beth Cahill's tablecloth chic

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Afriend of mine lusted after a bright orange-and-pink flower-print shirt worn by a guy who frequented the same hangouts we did. Eventually, she got up the nerve to ask him where he got it. "The thrift," he answered, eyes never leaving his paper. My friend was almost ready to cry. Not only did she get major attitude, but The Shirt--unique, one of a kind--could never be hers.

Aside from thrifters, not many people can say their clothes are unique. Beth Cahill can. When the designer isn't sewing, she's scouring the aisles of supermarket-size thrift stores for stacks of discarded fabric or spot-free tablecloths from the 50s. How many people do you know who own a dress made completely of old aprons? If someone does, it was most likely designed and sewn by Cahill under her Like My Dress label.

Cahill used to tag along when her mom went thrift-shopping in the south suburbs but didn't learn to wield a needle until she was 21. "My sister Kris taught me how to sew," she explains. The first thing Cahill ever made was a clear plastic belt filled with toys, fortunes, and comics. "My sis actually invented [the belts], and I just made them because she was making them. They were very cool and very 80s." The reactions she got encouraged Cahill to venture into clothes, and soon she was sharing a studio with her sister and another designer above Reza's in Andersonville. To make her first dresses, Cahill drove out to a fabric-finishing plant where she could get white cotton remnants cheap, then dyed them in the bathtub. At first, "everything seemed like a flop." But soon her billowy dresses and pants were being sold in stores around town and paraded in fashion shows at the Limelight.

The dresses were a success, but making them was driving her crazy. "I stopped dyeing because my hands were always dyed, and someone said you can get liver damage from dyeing fabric. I wore gloves, but my hands still got dyed because the gloves would get tiny holes," she says. "Also, it was a sweaty, stinky mess dyeing every day. And backbreaking." She began to experiment with the piles of thrift-store fabric she'd collected during shopping trips. "Once I found some fabric that looked like it should be a pope's robe. I made a dress out of it." Soon she was making motorcycle jackets out of rugs printed with dogs playing poker as well as the apron dresses, still a hot seller. Cahill stumbled upon the idea for them one day as she considered all of the secondhand aprons she'd bought over the years. "They all looked so pretty that I decided to sew them together like a patchwork quilt."

It was around this time that Cahill, a longtime performer with ImprovOlympic and the Annoyance Theatre, was hired as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. By the time her stint ended in 1992 she had sold dresses to Ricki Lake and Amy Sedaris, who owns what Cahill considers the prettiest apron dress she's ever made--"a hot pink velvet waistband and a vintage tablecloth top."

Now Cahill splits her time between LA and Chicago. She was recently in an episode of Two Guys and a Girl and can soon be seen as a neat housewife in a commercial for Ziploc bags. Meanwhile she has created two new popular items: baby versions of her dresses made from vintage fabrics and head-hugging fake-fur kitty-cat hats, complete with little ears.

Cahill will be setting up shop this weekend at the 15th annual Bucktown Arts Fest, which runs from 11 AM to 8 PM Saturday and 11 AM to 6 PM Sunday. It's in Senior Citizens Memorial Park, Lyndale and Oakley. Call 312-409-8305.

--Lee Gerstein

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Davis Barber.

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