Vicki Purnell opens up a Bridie’s Blossoms package and takes out a tiny pair of booties that fits into the palm of her hand, and a nappy that’s just five centimetres wide.
The Devonport woman is using her passion and talent for sewing to give stillborn and miscarried babies beautiful little outfits, and parents keepsakes they can treasure forever.
Everything she does is handmade, with materials purchased out of her own pocket, supplying all the hospitals in Tasmania that have birthing units.
“Before this was available, they used to wrap them up in a Chux superwipe and put them in a kidney dish,” Ms Purnell said.
“A friend of mine, who has since passed away, told me a few years ago that her daughter had a little one - I think it was born at about 17 weeks, and my friend worked at the hospital. The nursing staff said to her, ‘do you want to come and have a look’, and here it was wrapped up in the superwipe in a kidney dish.
“She said, ‘I’ll never forget it Vicki’, and she said, ‘that’s why you need to do something like this when you retire’. She knew I started it before she died.”
There are 40 stillbirths and 20 newborn deaths in Tasmania each year, with one in 135 births being stillborn and one in four women experiencing a miscarriage Australia-wide.
The name Bridie’s Blossoms comes from another friend of Ms Purnell’s who had a stillborn baby about five years ago.
“She was just about to have her second baby - a little girl, and a few days before she was scheduled for a cesarean, Bridie passed away. She was nearly full-term.
“So it was bubbling in my mind back then. When the time was right, I approached her, when I was planning on getting this project off the ground - I had a few ideas in place, and I thought, well I’ll ask her what she thinks about using the name.
“She was really pleased that her daughter’s memory was going to live on and to help other people.”
Ms Purnell has been creating the packages since late 2013, and has already made nearly 400 packages and about 100 separate burial outfits.
“Up to 16 weeks there’s no legal requirement to have a funeral, so you can take it home and put it in your backyard if you wanted to, which is what some people do.
“That’s how the coffin box came about. Once I started doing this, the Gateway Church got in touch with me and said, ‘would you be able to line the coffins we put out to the hospitals on the North-West’. So I came up with this plan and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The packages include booties, a hat, a nappy and a gown for the baby, as well as keepsakes for the parents. The keepsakes include a handkerchief, which Ms Purnell makes from scratch, two teddy bears – one for the baby and one for the parents to keep, a little lace angel, two keyrings – one that says, ‘I existed, I mattered’ and one that says, ‘fly free’, a keepsake nappy, an angel baby hanger, a guardian angel feather and a charm pin that says, ‘you are always in my heart’.
They say that it was just so good to see their babies were dressed, that they were farewelled with dignity
The parents often keep the gown the baby wears in the hospital, and bury them in a different outfit.
“The parents might keep the outfit the baby’s worn as a keepsake. They want to have something the baby’s worn so they have that smell - they know the baby’s touched it.”
Everything she makes for the babies needs to be easy for the nurses or funeral directors to put on and take off.
“They have such fragile skin - it’s paper wafer thin and it’s translucent.”
Nobody is charged for the packages, burial outfits or remembrance quiltlets Ms Purnell makes.
“While I am willing and able to do it, I will,” she said.
“Sewing is my passion. I’ve been sewing since I was very, very small. It’s my therapy, I enjoy sewing, so rather than waste money on something else, this is something I’m very passionate about.”
She puts a little note in the keepsake packages so that parents can get in touch and ask for a personalised remembrance quiltlet with the name and date of birth of their baby.
Ms Purnell receives feedback all the time from parents on her facebook page.
“They say that it was just so good to see their babies were dressed, that they were farewelled with dignity.
“I’ve had people who had a baby years ago say, ‘I wish you were here when I had my baby because they didn’t have anything at all’.
“It certainly is hard sometimes, especially when you’ve built up a rapport with the parents who’ve lost a baby.”