Sharing Love, One Dress at a Time

This past Saturday, the Worcester County Library – Ocean City Branch held a sewing group. The free event, titled Little Dresses for Africa was organized by Berlin, MD local, Barbara Entwistle. Entwistle has spent the past few months hosting sewing parties at her home to create hand-made clothing for young girls that live in barren countries throughout Africa.

“This project idea came from a group of local girl scouts. It was a scout project, a way to help others in need,” said Entwistle about the concept.

Little Dresses for Africa is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide relief to children in Central Africa.  Some countries dresses are delivered to include Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and several more. As of today, more than 500,000 dresses and monetary donations, coming from all 50 states, have been distributed to children. Across the country, people quickly became anxious to be involved in something so simple that could make such a huge difference in the life of a little girl.

“At night, I’ll sit at home and sew dresses while I relax and watch TV. One night, I even watched a special about the Little Dresses for Africa program on the Nightly News,” Entwistle said. The Berlin resident’s friends frequently come over to help create dresses. They create an assembly line; one person sewing the seams, another inserting elastic into the bodice, one attaching the straps, another pressing the fabric. The group has sewn more than 100 dresses just in the past few weeks.

Nancy’s Notions, a generous sponsor that supports the Little Dresses for Africa, has mailed more than 50,000 dresses internationally. Nancy’s Notions has a package available online for $25 that includes dress-making instructions and shipping information. Dresses made by volunteers will be sent to Nancy’s Notations where they will then be packaged by employees and shipped to Africa for delivery. There is a free, downloadable pattern available on their website, too. That’s the pattern that Entwistle and the group of girls at the library used last weekend.

A group of 6 women and 8 young ladies bought their own portable sewing machines, a slew of new and slightly used pillow cases, fresh bias tape, elastic, ribbon, thread, and sewing kits to the library. Within 2-hours, the group had created 8 simple, hand-sewn dresses, to be distributed to young girls throughout orphanages in Africa.

“These dresses are going to be like prom dresses to the little girls who receive them,” said Susan Todd, a volunteer, as she held up a small, pink and yellow floral dress with straps made of bright pink ribbon.

Why are the dresses made out of pillow cases? It’s an easy answer if you ask yourself, Who doesn’t have at least one pillow case that they can spare? Pillow cases are readily available and because the hem is already in the material, even a novice seamstress can be involved in this worthwhile project. Usually, the light, soft, and durable material of a pillow case will make for a perfect dress fabric, too.

Cotton or cotton blend material is the best for the African continent climate. Some thin polyester fabric is fine, also. Those completing the sewing must realize that it is impractical to use fancy materials, like buttons or zippers that may be difficult to replace in the future. Standard size pillow cases fit most elementary age girls in Africa, but some dresses should be made to fit younger girls, too. An important guideline to follow is that dresses should not be made from solid red pillow cases or any fabric with patriotic prints.

Many of the children in remote areas of Africa have never worn clothing before. Those who have clothing will have to wear the same articles for several years. Some clothing becomes so dirty and worn that tiny insects begin to fill the seams of the items — like moths who eat holes into the clothing while a child is still wearing them. The gift of a new dress could make the world of a difference to a little girl who has no clothing or is in dire need of a new outfit. The condition that many of these children thrive in, is something that many of us in the United State could never imagine.

Little girls wearing pillow case dresses can be found in countries other than Africa, too.  After recent natural disasters, dresses have been sent to Honduras, Guatemala, Cambodia, Mexico, and Haiti.  Entwistle is assuming that some of the dresses she and her sewing groups have made will be mailed to some of these other countries.

It’s not all about donating to little girls in foreign countries; there are personal rewards as well. Besides doing a good deed by helping those in need of things, like clothing and hope, introducing a child to a new hobby is beneficial, also.

“I’ve taught two girls to sew recently… girls that have never used sewing machines ever before. They’re ages 11 and 14, and now they’re making dresses by themselves,” said Entwistle proudly.

After watching the girls at the library put their foot on a sewing machine’s pedal, projects being stitched together, and first experiences sewing — it’s safe to assume that teaching someone a new skill is a reward all in itself.  Some of the girls at the gathering learned how to sew on flower appliques by hand, attach iron-on rhinestone accents to fabric, thread a sewing machine, and follow pattern directions on Saturday.

A few groups in the Ocean City area hope that more sewing programs will be held in the spring to further the efforts of these volunteers creating dresses.  If interested in creating these dresses at home, visit the Nancy’s Notions website, download the free pattern, and begin turning your old pillowcases into sundresses.

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