Williston expert

Lifelong seamstress makes lap rugs for charity

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Last year, 87-year-old Williston resident Betty Gomnes crocheted 28 lap rugs, and this year she is trying to beat that record with 30 rugs. Gomnes’ has been crocheting the lap rugs – which she donates to charity – during the holiday season for the past two years.

“I figured it would be for some people that are alone, like an institutionalized patient, who perhaps has no family,” Gomnes said from her home in Williston Woods. “This is why I chose that time of year to do it: to give them something to be cheered up for.”

For the last two years, Gomnes has donated her craftwork to The Vermont Respite House on Allen Brook Lane; Hope Lodge of the American Cancer Society in Burlington; and Burlington Health and Rehabilitation Center.

Gomnes does not look for accolades for her time-consuming work; she estimates each rug takes eight hours to make. When she drops off her rugs, Gomnes said, “they don’t even know who I am. They just say ‘thank you.’”

Gomnes learned how to crochet three years ago, though she has decades of needlework experience.

“Mother was always a sewer,” said Gomnes’ daughter, Dianne Shullenberger. “I remember her making quilts from old clothes of mine, and she made my clothes. I just sort of thought all my friends’ moms would sew and make clothes and things until I was old enough to realize that my mom was unique,” the Jericho resident said.

Gomnes said she started sewing about the time she was in sixth grade. She told her mother she wanted to make a dress.

“She said, ‘Honey, you don’t know how to sew,’ and I said, ‘yes, I do,’” Gomnes said.

“She bought me some material. I laid the material on the floor and took a pair of scissors and started to cut. Well, the expression on her face was – I could see it yet to this day,” Gomnes says, laughing. Typically a beginning sewer might carefully trace what they intend to cut, but not Gomnes.

“I had envisioned what I wanted to make, you see,” Gomnes said. “That was the beginning of my sewing.”

Gomnes was born in Edinburgh, Indiana, in 1918. Involvement in 4-H was a meaningful part of her early years, she said, which included winning the grand championship in the sewing division at the Indiana State Fair for a dress that cost her $2.18 to make. Upon graduating from high school, she attended the Pratt Institute in New York City, where she majored in fashion design. She then became a model, and recalled doing a photo shoot for department store chain Montgomery Ward, where she had to wear a fur coat in mid-summer.

“It’s a very glamorous job when you’re young, but believe me you work hard,” she said of modeling.

In 1939 and 1940, she drove vehicles for Ford Motor Co., escorting international dignitaries who were visiting the New York World’s Fair. After moving back to Indiana, she served on the sales force for a fabric gallery. She moved to Vermont in 1987 to be closer to Shullenberger, her only child. Gomnes has two grandchildren and is a recent great-grandmother.

Nancy Davis, an Underhill resident, notes that Gomnes finds many ways besides lap rugs to contribute to the community.

Davis’ mother, Inez Watts, and Gomnes “were like two peas in a pod, always game to take off and do whatever,” Davis said. Before Davis’ mother passed away a year ago, Watts and Gomnes would look for bargains at discount stores like Mr. G’s Liquidation Center, and many of those items would go to charity – whether a food shelf or a Somali Bantu refugee family who had recently moved to the area.

“She’s always thinking of other people that don’t have enough,” Davis said.

A couch in Gomnes’ sewing room is filled with another pet project – several dozen salvaged dolls and toys. For the past eight years, Gomnes has cleaned toys she finds, makes clothes for dolls, and donates everything to Toys for Tots.

Davis said that Gomnes is “a wonderful, caring, loving person” who “gives with no expectations of having anything given back to her.”

Davis, Shullenberger, and a number of their friends from Mountain Mamas, a group of women who pursue outdoor activities together, threw a surprise birthday party for Gomnes at the 1820 Coffee House in Essex Junction last year. The women, who have adopted Gomnes into their group, gave her yarn instead of gifts so she can continue her lap rug work.

“She’s just a very, very special friend to many of us whose moms have passed away or whose moms live away from here,” Davis said.