NORRISTOWN — It was an ad at Steve’s Sewing, Vacuum and Quilting in King of Prussia that first caught Nancy Hundley’s attention. The listing was for a charity sewing class called “Little Dresses for Africa.”
Rachel O’Neill of Brownstown, Mich., started Little Dresses for Africa in 2008 and has grown rapidly. After it was featured on “NBC Nightly News,” a viewer offered O’Neill warehouse space for the project’s expansion. Donations have arrived from all 50 states, and dresses have been sent beyond Africa to other countries in need like Mexico, Haiti, and Cambodia.
Those who have never handled needle and thread should not worry. Charity sewing does not preclude their participation.“Even beginner sewers could make them,” Hundley said. In addition to sewing volunteers, donations toward fabric and trim are also needed. The Haws Avenue United Methodist group estimates that each dress ends up costing around $12.
The dresses are not merely utilitarian, however. In fact, their aesthetic appeal has garnered interest for them outside of the typical 2 to 12 age range. “We had a lady ask if we could make one in her size,” said Nancy Dollahon, another parishioner spearheading the sewing at the Haws Avenue church.
While Little Dresses for Africa is religiously affiliated, church membership is not a prerequisite for participating. Church groups have provided a beneficial organizing structure and yet, many have learned of Little Dresses on their own and contribute individually.
Volunteers print patterns out at home, work on them at local sewing circles and send the finished product directly to the initiative’s Michigan headquarters, where they will be packaged and shipped to Africa or one of the many other countries needing donations. The dresses are then be distributed via orphanages, schools, and churches, and the children will receive them regardless of their beliefs.
In Norristown, after a dress or, in this case, many dresses are finished, they are taken to Steve’s, which pays to ship them to Nancy’s Notions, a sewing supply retailer based in Wisconsin, which in turn facilitates the shipping of the dresses to their final destinations. Nancy’s Notions alone has been responsible for transporting 63,000 dresses.
The Haws Avenue women recall that without a product to show, initial reaction to the project was tepid. Hundley said they received a “so what?” response when they first introduced the project to fellow parishioners. The project gained steam only when the women publicly presented the first batch of dresses during a Sunday service in which the Rev. Dr. Anita Powell, district superintendent of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, conferred a blessing on them and the congregation was able to see the product of just three people’s labor.
“I got the idea to send letters out to the community to see if we could get other groups,” said Schlosser, the other founding member of the Haws Avenue group. “And we’ve gotten three other churches and three or four individuals.” They have been joined by Hearts and Hands, a group from the Church of the Good Shepherd in King of Prussia, Faith Church in Worcester, and St. John’s Episcopal, also in Norristown.
Clothing drives are nothing new. And yet Little Dresses broadens the conventional understanding of charity by creating a more intimate relation between donor and recipient. The time spent crafting each dress deepens a person’s relationship to the donation and to the reality of the situation in poor countries.
“When I’m sewing, I envision the little girl,” Hundley said. In the midst of a community struggling to make sense of the violence that surrounds it, campaigns like Little Dresses for Africa offer a temporary relief.
“There’s too much bad news in Norristown,” Hundley said. Their church group plans to continue through the end of the year, and it is asking both for donations and more sewing volunteers. And maybe then, one dress per little girl will become two. “I was hoping they would give them two dresses, one they could wear and one they could wash, Hundley said. “How are you going to wash your dress if you only have one?”