Every Fourth of July, we celebrate our independence as a free nation. Most of us keep up with traditions like fireworks and watermelon, parades and potato salad. We celebrate the inalienable rights as U.S. citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We celebrate the opportunity that this country gives to those who come here seeking a better life for themselves and their family. What makes this country great is that we all have this background somewhere in our history, and we all can be proud to share this country.
One Rockford woman used her superb sewing skills to celebrate her adopted country. Velia Marinelli, an Italian immigrant, created a dress in 1960 to express her love for the land that embraced her. The satin dress is hand sewn with a red and white striped bodice and a blue skirt with fifty white appliqué stars.
In October of 1960, after completing the dress,Velia immediately applied for a patent for her original ornamental design. The patent was signed on January 9, 1962. The patent and Velia’s design can be viewed here:
The star-spangled dress was worn in one or two Rockford Fourth of July parades during the 1960s. It was then put away into storage.
Velia Blanchi was born on June 12, 1912 in Ferentino, Italy, which is about thirty miles from Rome. She learned to sew at a convent school when she was five. Her high standards were modeled after the nuns who taught her, whom she described as being very strict. Velia first sold a dress she made at age 11.
Velia’s older brother had a close friend named Leonard Marinelli. As a naturalized U.S.citizen, Leonard divided his time between school in Rockford and family in Italy. The two became enamored with each other and on Velia’s 18th birthday, she and Leonard were married. That same day in 1930 the newlyweds boarded the S.S. Augustus and sailed to the U.S.
Velia did not speak English but was determined to learn. When enrolling in an English course at the adult education night school, the woman she spoke with realized her sewing abilities and helped her become a sewing teacher for the Board of Education. She taught this class for 18 years. When she left the program, she bought ten sewing machines and taught classes from her home four nights a week. Velia taught these classes, “Sewing without a Pattern,” for a total of forty years. In addition to making her own clothes, she sewed garments for local residents. She created countless wedding gowns for brides as well as habits for nuns and vestments for priests and bishops, including Bishop emeritus Arthur O’Neill.
Velia obtained her citizenship in 1938. The beautiful gown that Veila made to show her pride in her new country sat in storage until 1999 when her family brought it back into the limelight. That year, family members offered the dress to be part of a holiday display in the window of Possession Placers Estate Exchange, located at 215 East State Street. It was spotted by Joe Marino, Rockford’s Mr. Fourth of July, who pulled some strings and got the dress to play a major role in the Fourth of July parade. It was worn by Jefferson High School senior Carina Hilstad. Velia, at age 87, rode in a convertible as honorary parade marshal.
Keeping with the parade’s theme “Let Freedom Ring,” Carina rang a replica of the Liberty Bell that had been housed at the former Colonial Village Mall on Alpine Road. This bell is currently on display outside of MidwayVillage Museum next to the entrance doors. The bell is an exact replica of the original Philadelphia. It was cast in the same mold at the same foundry, Whitechapel Bell Foundry inLondon, England, in 1976. Only 7 are known to exist in the United States.
Velia used her exceptional talent to express her affection for the opportunities the United States gave her and her family. She told the Rockford Register Star: “I love the United States… You can have anything you want over here, if you work.”
Afternoon with the American Pickers – A Benefit at Midway Village Museum
This Saturday, July 9th, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, hosts of the History Channel’s American Pickers, will entertain audiences at Midway Village Museum from 11 am to 5 pm. Guests can also enjoy an antique flea market, blacksmith demonstrations, a car and motorcycle show, architectural and garden talks, and more.
For more details and to purchase tickets online, click here: http://www.midwayvillage.com/event_calendar.cfm?id=1058