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Last month, young adults from across the nation gathered in Reno, Nev., for the 2011 National Make it With Wool Competition. The competition is a sewing contest in which competitors must construct and model their own garments, which must be made of at least 60 percent wool.

MIWW is designed not only to promote the beauty and versatility of wool, but to encourage young adults to sew and to help them develop life skills. The contest was founded in Utah in 1947. On average, contestants from 32 states enter each year.

This year's National MIWW Junior Ambassador is Erika Waalkes, 14, of Michigan. Erika, who has been sewing since she was 10 years old, says sewing "has taught me to be patient and not to give up."

While many classmates "told me how cool they thought it was that I could sew," Erika says that "sewing is becoming a lost practice. I probably only know three teens who sew."

Erika's favorite part of sewing? "I get to do it with my grandma."

As a national ambassador, it is Erika's duty to help promote the use of wool. Erika will speak at various textile and fabric conventions. She also hopes to offer classes on sewing with wool at her local library.

Emilee Koss, 18, a senior at Clarence High School, has qualified for the national MIWW competition for five years. Last year, she won the junior competition, becoming the national junior ambassador in 2010.

Emilee, who has been sewing for about 11 years, appreciates each aspect of completing a sewing project: choosing fabric; seeing the versatility and possibility in each different fabric; construction; using new techniques and methods to create the exact effect you are looking for in a garment, and, of course, the end product -- something personal and unique from what anyone else can buy.

Entering the MIWW competition marked the beginning of Emilee's passion for sewing.

"The MIWW competition really drove me to improve my sewing and learn more because I wanted to compete with the high level the other competitors had set," Emilee said. "I realized that not only did I really like sewing, but winning also gave me the confidence to pursue fashion as a career."

Emilee hopes to attend New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology next year, where she has applied to major in textile and surface design.

Emilee says because of the competitions she has "become comfortable talking with people and in front of large groups, which is important for my future whether it's a college presentation, a job interview or a work presentation."

Ana Lopez, 15, of Nebraska, describes her time in Reno as "a great learning experience and definitely a great memory." Ana has been sewing since she was 8 years old. Ana's sister, Marcela, 18, was first introduced to sewing in a 4-H workshop (4-H is a youth program devoted to enabling youth to reach their full potential and develop leadership). Marcela took her sewing skills further with the help of a professional sewing instructor. Ana followed in her sister's footsteps; the sisters share a mutual love of sewing.

Ana's favorite part, she says, is "seeing the finished product."

Learning to sew has not only taught Ana sewing techniques, but has come to play a significant role in her life.

"Before I started entering competitions, I was very shy and was not too confident," Ana said. "Now, I am confident and it is easy for me to talk to judges or to the general public. I know that these competitions have given me the speaking skills I now possess."

Marcela took first place in the senior division (ages 17-24) and is the national MIWW 2011 senior ambassador.

Annie Moore, 15, of Ohio, also began sewing through 4-H.

"I love picking out the fabrics and the patterns and brainstorming the ideas to make the outfit," said Annie.

In her school, not many others sew, she said. When Annie told classmates about her trip to Reno for the MIWW contest, they "couldn't believe [it]," she said. One of her favorite responses was " 'You're going across the country for sewing!?' "

"Some people just don't understand how much work goes into making our outfits," Annie said.

Annie is interested in careers based on fashion or interior design.

Marie Lehfeldt, the Make It With Wool national director since 1994, oversees the contest and experiences firsthand the enthusiasm of each contestant.

Lehfeldt said she has "enjoyed meeting contestants and watching them grow year after year, both physically and in their sewing abilities."

But there has been a slight decrease in the number of contestants attending the national competition, Lehfeldt said. In 2009, 1,915 contestants participated. In 2010, 883 were in attendance.

"I think there is a danger of sewing becoming a 'lost art,' " Lehfeldt said. "Therefore, hopefully my involvement in MIWW will influence teens and young adults positively and can educate them in the benefits of sewing."

Thanks to a new website (www.makeitwithwool.com), Lehfeldt "expects an increase in entries for next year -- especially in the 'Fashion or Apparel Design' category."

Sewing is a timeless talent that can yield wonderful results. Many contestants in the MIWW competition go on to careers related to the fashion/design industry.

There are many ways to learn to sew if you know where to look. 4-H often offers sewing classes, or has contacts of local sewing instructors. Local fabric shops and sewing centers offer lessons along with media instructions on sewing. The American Sewing Guild has various chapters, including one in Buffalo. The Women of the American Sewing Guild can offer advice and instruction. To find a Sewing Guild near you, visit www.ASG.org. For those who already know how to sew and are seeking information on entering the Make It With Wool competition, visit www.makeitwithwool.com or www.sheepusa.org.

Catherine Kelkenberg is a sophomore at Akron High School.