Vickroy: Sewing students turn pillowcases into dresses for girls in Africa
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy May 12, 2014 7:10PM
Arielle Daniels works on the second dress she made for the Little Dresses for Africa project. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 14, 2014 6:36AM
In just four easy steps, a sewing student in Oak Lawn can brighten the wardrobe — and no doubt the day — of a little girl in Africa.
Once they learn how to sew, Carol Manny typically gives the students enrolled in her life skills classes at Richards High School the option to choose a second project.
Some choose to make a pillow or a bag.
This year, for the first time, Manny included in the list of options a service project: Students could make pillowcase dresses to be donated to Little Dresses for Africa, a Michigan-based Christian nonprofit that provides relief to kids in impoverished areas of Africa.
“I’m a big service person. I think what’s happening in Africa is a good thing for people to care about,” Manny said.
About 20 kids chose to participate in the dress project. A row of completed dresses now hangs in Classroom 152.
Shannon Meegan, a freshman from Oak Lawn, is among the participants. She signed up for the life skills class on her older brother’s recommendation.
“Learning to sew was frustrating at first,” she said, “especially because I have a lead foot and I was so afraid I’d catch my finger (in the sewing machine).”
But since she got the hang of it, it’s been fun, she said. She likes the idea of being able to apply her newly learned skill in an altruistic way.
“We’re doing our part, doing what we can at this point,” Shannon said. “We just learned about the genocide there. It’s horrendous and it’s the kids mostly being affected.”
Sophomore Anastasia Primm, who lives in Calumet Park, chose to embroider a flower design onto her pillowcase dress.
“I’ve always wanted to do something for the kids in Africa,” she said. “When I was little I bought a bunch of shirts and gave them to a foundation to send them over there.”
Manny learned about Little Dresses from one of the many sewing organizations with which she keeps in contact. When she decided to offer the project to her students, she sent out a request to Richards staffers for unwanted pillowcases. She was inundated with donations.
According to the Little Dresses website, the pillowcase pattern has been around since the pioneer days and is easy for even novice seamstresses to work with. Not only are they available in many colors and patterns, they already have a hem and sides.
“With just a little help they can be turned into bright little sundresses, perfectly suited for the African climate,” the site states.
“They’re so easy to make and a way for the students to use bright colors in their sewing,” she said.
With a few snips, some taping, stitching and their own personal design work, the students transform the ordinary rectangular pieces of cloth into wearable, comfortable articles of clothing.
“You just cut the seam at the top, cut out armholes, sew tape onto the raw edges of the seams, iron them and then sew together,” said freshman Molly Cunningham, who lives in Oak Lawn. Using a safety pin, a ribbon is slid through the top of the dress to create a tie, she said.
“Then you can add whatever accents you want,” she said. To hers she added a pocket.
Arielle Daniels, a sophomore from Calumet Park, was working on her second dress.
“I like the idea of being able to give back, because these kids are not as fortunate as us,” she said.
Though Arielle said she’s glad she now knows how to sew, she was especially happy to learn how to embroider.
“It’s something I always wanted to know,” she said.
Manny said only about 5 percent of the students who enroll in life skills, part of the family and consumer science curriculum, enter the class with any sewing experience. Those who do have some typically learned from a grandmother.
“But at the end of year, at least three or four ask me about buying a sewing machine,” she said.
Television shows such as “Project Runway” have helped refuel interest in the skill. But Manny thinks it’s a good thing for everyone to know.
“Sewing is a wonderful skill,” she said. “You have to use a ton of math and be able to follow instructions, but you can be so creative with it.
“In the end, you get to say, ‘Look what I made,’ ” she said.
Because the Little Dresses project was so well received, Manny said she plans to make it an annual thing.
For more information of
Little Dresses for Africa, visit