Life List: Sew 50 little dresses for Africa.

One of the items on my Life List is to sew 50 little dresses for Africa. It’s a pretty simple task and even with my meager sewing skills I could possibly knock it out in a couple of weekends. But I added it to my Life List because it’s an important project for me that doesn’t need to get thrown in the closet along with all my other crafty attempts.

Little Dresses for Africa is a non-profit that donates homemade pillowcase dresses to orphans in Africa.  (there’s also a Britches for Boys, before anyone starts…) These kids are in remote villages that have been affected by the AIDS pandemic and in addition to donating the dresses, the group also hold camps and informal classes on sanitation, nutrition and health.

In order to volunteer, all you have to do is follow their pattern (or use your own) and construct simple, easily sizable dresses and then send them to LDFA. They then package them for mission groups to take with them to Africa, or mail the dresses directly. I chose to start making dresses because I love crafty stuff and have been trying to learn to sew for a very long time. (Sewing is less like riding a bike than it is like learning a language – you have to continue it in order to keep your skills. I spent a lot of time in the costume shop while in college and even had a summer where all I did was costume construction. Then I graduated and became the suck.) LDFA seemed a really good way for me to be crafty and spend time and energy on doing something good. A win all around.

As you may have guessed, the group is Christian-based. That usually troubles me because with Christian-based non-profits I’m never sure of their exact ministry message. I’m Catholic, but a non-practicing, hippie, liberal, pro-LGBT rights ones. (I know.) But here’s my thinking on this. You can never be sure of a group’s real message. I can spend a lot of time searching around to find a group that fits my exact ideology, or I go with one that feels right and spend that time doing some good.  And I’ll just have to go on faith that they are not embroidering “Man+Woman=Marriage” logos on the front my donations.

There’s a tendancy, when I mention this project, for people to go, “Well, don’t you think they need the money more than a dress?”  Well, yes.  But it’s not like these children are lying in the street starving and then the clean white folks walk up, hand them a dress and bide them good day. The kids basic needs are already being taken care of, and LDFA tries to help take care other needs. And this particular need is for clothing that is pretty and practical. Don’t you remember how it felt when you were little and wore something pretty? It didn’t have to be dress, just something that was fun and something you loved? I remember being heartbroken when I tried to “help” my mom do laundry and poured bleach on the clothes, ruining my blue and white striped sailor dress with the red piping. It’s really nice to think that maybe something I make might one day be the favorite dress of a stranger a half a world away.

And don’t get me started on the “we have children who need help here in America!” statements. I give blood, I’m an organ donor, I’ve been on the bone marroe registry for 10 years, I add a dollar to my grocery bill for the charity of the week nearly every damn time I shop and I donate to food banks when I can.  My conscience is clear.  When they start Little Dresses for Wisconsin, call me.

Here is one of my favorite attempts. I got the fabric after requesting clean linens and unused fabric on Freecycle and the bias tape that I used to finish the arm holes are with from a giant spool I got off of Ebay. So, in all, this dress cost me maybe 25 cents to make. And it’s cute, right? (It used to be a tablecloth.)

There’s no guarantee that the little girl who gets this dress will like it.  Or that it will fit right or that it will even get worn very much. But charity should not be done based on guarantees. It should be done based on the hope that what you’re doing will help someone at some point some day.  And true good isn’t accomlished with grand gestures, but small kindnesses.

Plus, sewing is fun.

So let me know what y’all think! If you care about this project, maybe it’ll spur me into action to get it completed that much sooner. Are there any charities or organizations that are near and dear to your heart?

33 comments on “Life List: Sew 50 little dresses for Africa.

  1. d-day
    February 21, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    this is an amazing project! maybe you could do a how-to post on sewing one of those babies? they’re adorable. or at least do another post when you’re done so we can see all 50 little dresses.

    my two favorites are and and of course good will.

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

      So many people are saying they’re gonna do it too, now I HAVE to! 🙂

      And I love Kiva! How can you lose when you’re helping AND you get your money back?? And Goodwill…the hours I spent looking for ironically cool clothing there as a teen…

  2. Christy
    February 21, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Ahhhh I love this! I’m all about it – especially that it’s for Africa (hello… my beautiful nephews?!) 🙂

    Also – that dress is SO adorable. I think I may send this info to my sis. She’s all about sewing and donating!

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

      YES! If I could put a smile on a kid’s face that is adorable as the pictures I’ve seen of your nephews, it’s SO worth it. And it’s so much easier than when I started, they have PDF directions now. (My first attempts were rather wonky…..)

  3. Sarah
    February 21, 2011 at 9:17 am #

    This just got added to my list. My goal is to have 50 completed and sent by the end of the year … so, 5 a month. Totally doable.

    I love it.

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

      YAAAAY!! That’s a great goal, I’m gonna copy you! Keep me updated on your progress, I think I’m going to post on mine and I can add it in there!

  4. Nicole
    February 21, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    This is fantastic! And now I want to do it too. It would give me a great excuse to get comfortable sewing again.

    And I love that you called sewing a language more than riding a bike. So. True.

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

      Seriously, it’s is SO easy. If you use an actual pillow case it’s crazy simple, but even if you don’t it’s very easy. I had more trouble trying to thread my machine than I did making the dresses.

      I keep meaning to get butcher paper and sketch out some patterns, but it’s almost not worth the trouble. I do have a J-shaped armhole template that I use, it’s made out of chipboard from a cereal box.

  5. Mary
    February 21, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    You are awesome, Alyssa. When I was in middle school I sewed a blanket for Project Linus for community service hours and it was a lot of fun! Also, I love charities where you’re not just giving money and you’re actually giving something tangible. I always hesitate to donate money to charities because you don’t ever really know where the money’s going.

    One of my list items is to learn to sew properly… Maybe I’ll pick up Project Linus again!

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

      Project Linus is great! I’ve always wanted to learn how to knit and quilt so I could donate. And baby blankets are so sweet…. I hope you post about it on your blog if you do pick it up again!

  6. Kristy
    February 21, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Alyssa, I love this. LOVE. I mean, yes, it’s super cute, but I think this is exactly the type of sewing project I need to (a) really start sewing and (b) that my grandmother – who taught me to sew – would’ve loved. I think I’ll join you in your project. 🙂

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

      YES! Definitely do! And seriously, I got most of the fabric from asking for it on Freecycle, let me know if you want some to start and I’ll bring it to the meetup!

  7. lizzie
    February 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    i think it’s a fantastic project, lady, fuck people and their skepticism for charity. i have a very personal need to give to the homeless because of some family stuff and what not and i won’t pass a homeless person without giving them whatever i have or running to mcdonald’s quick to pick up something from the dollar menu…anyways, when i’m with people, they always have the stereotypical things to say “he’s just gonna waste it” “he had his chance” and WOW “gross.”

    all you can do is give…what people or organizations do with it after that is no longer your concern, you gave with the right spirit, you know? if you find out some organization is crooked, obviously don’t KEEP giving money, but you know what i mean. people let too many excuses get in the way of being generous and taking care of fellow humans on the earth, you know? i think what you’re doing is rockin’.

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

      People are so horrible. And you are amazing for giving so much! I always try to, and it makes my stomach hurt when I have to wave someone away at a stop light because I don’t have any cash. (Although recently, I did get some cash back at a 7-11 and then ask the cashier to give it to the homeless man in the back of the store who was counting out his change near the coffee machine. I just wanted to make sure he had enough to get a drink, but I was too much of a wuss to give it to him myself. And then I drove away and suddenly thought, “OH GOD. What if he’s NOT homeless and in need of money, just unshaven and dirty?!?” If so, that guy just got 5 bucks. *sigh*)

      You’re so right, all you can do is give. If they do something horrible with it, that bad karma is on them.

      • Sarah
        February 21, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

        My grandmother used to keep those McDonalds $1 gift certificates on hand. If we passed someone homeless, she’d give them a few dollars worth of certificates and tell me “This way, I know they’ll get something to eat.”

        I loved that about her. It wa a good way to know you were helping get someone some calories, even if their inclination was to buy alcohol or something else with any cash they’re given. I wish more places still did the $1 certs, so I could continue it … but now everything is gift cards…

        Though I have been known to take any left overs from dinner with me and give them to the homeless around here. They’re always so stunned and grateful. It’s heartbreaking.

  8. Jessica
    February 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    I had never heard of this! I don’t think I’ll be able to add it to my list this year but I’ll definitely try to get some done next year. And I’m all for a tutorial!

    • kindofamess
      February 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

      I think I’m definitely going to do a tutorial now! Even if a couple people do it also, it’d be so worth it.

      Also? It gives me an excuse to tell my husband that I HAVE to buy a bias tape maker. 🙂

  9. Meg Mooney
    February 21, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    This is AMAZING! I’m on board! Also look at It’s a small load organization where you loan money to small businesses, and as the money is repaid, you relend it over and over. It’s a great way to have $25 that you spend once get regifted indefinately!

    • kindofamess
      February 23, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

      YES! A chance for you to use your mad sewing skillz….

  10. Jo
    February 22, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Yay!! This is lovely. I hate people who judge the way you give.

    What an adorable dress.

    • kindofamess
      February 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

      I know, right? Haterz gotta hate….

  11. Ms. Bunny
    February 22, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    Kind of crazy, but your post just helped me figure out what my gift to my brideswomen will be. When I visited South Africa last year we were introduced to an organization called Monkeybiz. They supply women in the squatter camps with stuffing, felt, and beads and then commission beaded animals. Monkeybiz then sells these beautiful beaded animals, which are really works of art, to tourists and all over the world. They pass the profits on to the women in the squatter camps. Many of these women have no other possibility of income.

    At the time, I couldn’t afford to buy anything from Monkeybiz, but I promised that I would when I had a job. Now I have a job and my ladies need a gift. I think buying these beaded animals not only allows me to give my ladies a beautiful piece of art, but helps a woman in a South African squatter camp. Win, win.

    I hope you plan on keeping us updated with your progress on this project. It sounds really awesome.

    • kindofamess
      February 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

      Ooo, also check out SoapHope. I heard the founder speak at a TED event and he’s amazing. They sell organic bath products and cleaning supplies, and 100% of their profits is invested in anti-poverty efforts and giving small business women the capital to start and maintain a business in their country.

  12. Rachel ONeill
    February 24, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    I’m the Founder and Director of Little Dresses for Africa and I’d like to thank you for passing the word along to others to jump in and help. I often hear about the kids here in America and that we should help them first, but I can tell you first hand that the poverty in America CAN NOT compare to the poverty in Africa. Also, don’t miss the point, as we distribute these dresses, we not only give them something that they need, but when we come in, we feed them and teach them things such as clean water, Nutrition and sanitation. We like to say, “We’re not just sending dresses, we’re sending hope.” The point is that we offer them hope and encourage them by showing them that they are not forgotten. It means the world to them. Trust me. And BTW, in Sudan, when the team got there to distribute dresses, they found the girls were absolutely naked. We didn’t replace a dress. We gave them the only one they had. We concentrate on girls first because of the hard road that they have. We do this to honor them, for maybe the first time in their lives. Thanks for your help. Rachel

    • kindofamess
      February 24, 2011 at 11:39 am #

      Thank you very much, Rachel for your message! Just the response to this one post has spurred me (and others) to make contributing a definte goal for us this year. I plan on doing a monthly post about our progress and hopefully that will spread the word even further!

  13. Libby
    February 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    I lived in rural African for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer and saw first hand the poverty and the reasons behind the poverty. These types of projects are great, BUT they don’t address the underlying issues that are the root cause of the problem. People don’t have clothes because they don’t have money because they don’t have access to the economic market to sell their produce because their government refuses to maintain the roads, build infrastructure or have laws that support entrepreneurship because the governments are waiting on foreign donors to give them funding for roads, infrastructure, and social programs (like education which would increase people’s knowledge and eventually their incomes). They are waiting on donors to fund it because donors WILL fund it and then the government won’t ever have to get its act together and actually be financially responsible and curtail corruption and embezzlement. Many governments in the region are completely dependent on NGOs and aid money to keep their basic social service programs afloat.

    I’m all for making clothes for the kids. One of my best friends was my neighbor and she had one dress and it was a dirty rag. If you choose to support donor organizations, I ask that you try to become aware of the unintended consequences of goodwill. When you give people something for nothing over the course of time it erodes one’s work ethic and eventually creates a government that is incompetent and unable to function without handouts.

    • kindofamess
      February 27, 2011 at 11:28 am #

      While I appreciate your comment, I most definitely disagree. My lack of research is in the exact ministry message of the group, not in aid to Africa as a whole. That’s something I researched a couple years ago when I was a sponsor for a child in Uganda.

      Considering Africa as a country in itself and not a continent with individual countries, as most American do, is a dangerous practice and something I’m sure you’re aware of having been there. But there are strong cases for aid doing well and to make a blanket statement on its ineffectuality isn’t accurate or fair. If aid isn’t the answer, what is? I’m not denying a problem, but the solution is the application of the current solution, not a removal of all aid as a whole.

      Little Dresses for Africa is not a handout. It’s a donation of dresses with education being applied to rural and remote areas so as not to impact the local economy. It’s also done with a group of children whose lives have been affected by AIDS and in most cases have lost their parents and become the caregivers of their family. As stated by Rachel above, part of the mission statement is to provide the girls with not just a dress, but to honor them as well, give them a sense that they are worthy. Something they might not be getting because they are in an orphanage and might not be receiving the attention they would in a standard family. The organization also helps other countries as needed, such Haiti. The child they touch could be the one that helps become the woman could be instrumental in turning their country around. OR, it could just be a child that gets a pretty dress and learns about sanitation and saves her future child with that knowledge. That’s okay too.

      I’m sure your frustration comes from seeing a lot of this firsthand, but to assume that this project is the same as a blind check being written in response to a maudlin commercial on late night TV in order to relieve some first-world guilt is inaccurate. We’re making little dresses for tiny humans. I can’t see the bad in any consequences of that.

  14. Brenda Moore
    April 27, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Loved your reasons why!!! I plan to quote you to those nay sayers who seem determined to find the dark underbelly of any worthy endeavor. Thanks for the ammo:)

  15. Ann Busboom
    August 5, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    Where should we send the dresses to make certain they go to where they are needed in Africa Ann Busboom

  16. Benjamin
    February 9, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Sweet project by Little Dresses for Africa which has also partnered with Urunji Child-Care Trust to provide dresses to orphan and vulnerable children in Malawi. We can all make a difference if we partner with guys like these.


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