ST. LIBORY — Looking at petite, blond Marie Nelson, you'd likely not be surprised to hear she designs wedding gowns and pretty dresses.
But you might be surprised to learn she was once a competitive hockey player who tried out for the Olympics four times.
Nelson, 29, has been sewing since she was 8 years old. The daughter of Bob and Tammy Witchey of rural O’Neill learned the craft from her grandmother and honed her skills through projects as a Knox County 4-H’er.
Four years after picking up a sewing needle, Nelson tried her hand with a hockey stick. She played on a boys hockey team in Sioux City before moving onto women's teams in high school.
She also played in college in St. Cloud, Minn. She trained in Colorado for the Olympics. Although she tried out four times, she never made the team.
Nelson doesn't give up easily when it comes to fashion either. She auditioned three times for Omaha Fashion Week before making it into the spring show. She will have 12 pieces in the show on Feb. 28.
"Third time's the charm," she said with a smile.
The show, which is going into its fifth year, provides a professional platform for regional independent fashion designers to show their work on a biannual basis, according to Omaha Fashion Week's website.
Nelson owns By Faith Custom Tailoring and Alterations. Her clothing label is Only by Faith. Nelson's middle name is Faith and, as she puts it, creating clothing is something she does by faith as well.
"It's by faith that I can do it," she said.
Shortly after she started sewing, Nelson began altering patterns so the clothes she made would fit her. She said people were surprised that, at 10 or 11 years old, she was able to personalize the patterns so easily. By 18, she was using more difficult patterns, such as Vogue suit patterns.
When she was younger, Nelson was home-schooled, partly because her family lived 30 miles from town. However, she did get invited to a prom in high school. She made her own dress, of course.
"I found one in the store that I liked, so I went home and made it," she said. Buying the material was cheaper than purchasing the dress from the store.
She continued with the hobby as she attended college and began working. Her family — her husband, Shannon; daughters Emily, 7, and Abigail, 6, and son Larry, 4 — moved to St. Libory last August. She now works at Nova-Tech in Grand Island.
Nelson has converted an enclosed porch at her home into a sewing studio, where she works daily to fix garments for customers and create the clothing line she'll show in Omaha. The line includes nine dresses and three children's pieces, she said.
She had the fabric for some of the dresses custom-printed by a Canadian company and is combining purple and sea green with wedding white. She's also tatting designs on at least one of the dresses and has used the looping design to create a headpiece as well.
To get accepted into Omaha Fashion Week, Nelson had to present her resume and ideas, along with a "mood board," which is a display of the colors, styles and inspirations for the line. She had to make her pitch to the fashion week panel.
According to the organization's website, Nelson is one of 16 designers who will be featured in the show, which will run from Feb. 26 through March 2.
Brook Hudson, producer of the Omaha show, said the group works with about 55 designers every year between the spring and fall shows. The group receives an average of 90 applications annually.
Nelson was selected for the spring show because of her "innovative designs and high-quality work," Hudson said.
"She's a pro. We're really excited to have her," she said.
Hudson added that quality is extremely important in the bridal lines, and although they have several bridal designers in their shows, Nelson is a new and welcome addition.
After being turned down the first two times she applied, Nelson turned her attention to building her resume. She has photos of her various creations on her website, www.byfaithcustomtailoringandalterations.yolasite.com.
"I hope this is a step toward more custom work," she said.
That custom work has included designing kolache-printed dresses to sell at Verdigre's 125th-anniversary celebration last June, ties for boys, pillows, bags, and dresses for her daughters and friends.
Two years ago, she made a short, off-the-shoulder, lace-covered dress for her friend Jill Roeber of Carroll. Roeber had five weddings to go to in one summer and asked Nelson to make her a dress she had seen in a fashion magazine.
"I got a lot of compliments on that dress," Roeber said.
She liked Nelson's work so much she asked her to make a short, backless dress to wear at Christmas.
"I have complete faith in her," Roeber said. "She can make anything.”
Roeber will help Nelson with the Omaha fashion show. The two friends have attended the show together in the past. But this time, rather than sitting in the audience, it will be Roeber on the runway and Nelson backstage.
"She's awesome at what she does," Roeber said.
Nelson is excited to be involved in Omaha Fashion Week because it's a step toward having her work recognized on a larger scale.
"It'll give me experience, it's fun, and it's a place to start," she said.
She hopes to sell some of her work at a small boutique but doesn't want sewing to become her full-time job.
"I have a job I enjoy," Nelson said. "I want this to be my creative outlet where I can make some beautiful garments. This is my relaxing moment away from life. I don't need to think; I just do."