Charity sewing – dresses


I’ve been enjoying myself hugely the past couple of weeks, with mountains of lovely fabric to cut and sew into  simple, easy peasant dresses for girls.

Mountains of lovely cotton!

Above are the three lovely fabrics I mentioned in my last post – a useful soft blue chambray, a vibrantly-crimson Rose and Hubble marble effect poplin, and a beautiful silky lightweight daffodil-yellow twill. The first two were one-off specials from the lovely Kath and daughter Janet, of Kath’s Fabrics on Preston Market, and the third a clearance offer from a specialist shirting wholesaler.

The old style of ‘pillowcase dresses’ are,  thank goodness, losing favour for impoverished girls in the third world.  I always thought they looked very dodgy myself, and apparently there have been some instances of people using old worn-out actual pillowcases to make ‘dresses’.

Yuk! I cannot accept that these were made with good intent, unless they were made by someone with intellectual or psychiatric issues. 

There’s no good reason to make clothing that we wouldn’t be happy to see worn by a child of our own family in a similar climatic and cultural environment.

Bright, clean and pretty fabrics – unworn! – are surely what should be used, and these need not be expensive to buy if a little time can be invested in the search for them. In any case, why not make the task as pleasant as possible for yourself, too? I’ve loved sorting through my remnants to find fabrics and trims which co-ordinate, contrast or tone with the main fabrics, putting together colour and pattern combinations which please my eye and which I hope will please the eye of a girl far distant from me.

Dress styles

When I read Jacqui’s (Jacqui Onslow, from DAGAW UK) request in her response to me – ‘Please, no pillowcase dresses’ – I thought that perhaps here was an appropriate and worthwhile outlet for the lovely cotton fabrics pictured above. 

Jacqui mentioned that peasant dresses were popular – ‘nice roomy ones’, she wrote – and this gave me a good excuse to indulge in some of my favourite reading. I LOVE costume and clothing history!

There are several different types of peasant-style, or rather, so-called peasant style, dresses from different parts of the world. They all have a few important things in common – they’re easy to make, fit and to wear, are designed so as to not be physically restrictive, and they offer a degree of coverage that makes them ‘respectable’ in societies where this was, or still is, important.  

The first batch of dresses I’ve sewn are a bog-standard style, with an elastic or drawcord gathered neckline, a roomy bodice and full ‘puff’ sleeves, simply cut in a way that gives a raglan effect. It’s similar to the Carmen or gypsy style blouse,  popularised in the 1930s and 40s by the film star Carmen Miranda. The Carmen style, however, is an off-the-shoulder look, which these little dresses most assuredly are not! 

The first five finished dresses are in the picture below – the other dozen or so still await their elastic or their drawcords!

The first five dresses – the first five of many!

Sleeves, pockets and, in some cases, hem bands, are sewn from contrasting or toning cotton remnants I’ve saved from dressmaking and craft projects over the years, or which have been given to me by kind friends, acquaintances and the ever–generous Kath and Janet.

I’m making these to fit 4 – 10 year olds approximately. I tried one of the smaller ones on a neighbour’s tiny, slight 5yo, and it was big, but not unfeasibly massive, on her, so I think my sizing is probably OK. Really, most of them are the same size, just with slightly different armhole cut-outs, neckline elastic/drswcord lengths and total dress length. I’m putting elastic in most of the sleeves, but not all of them.

Each one should fit a child for at least a couple of years, as children grow upwards much more than they grow outwards between toddlerhood and puberty.  So if it’s a few inches too long when a child gets it, it’ll be a few inches too short a few years later, and about right for most of the time in between, I hope.

This style of dress, tunic or top is very quick and easy to make. There are umpteen different, easy-to-follow, free, tutorials, diagrams and downloads available, although I drafted my own pattern, and it can be embellished as elaborately as you like, so could even be made, in the right fabric, and perhapswith a wide sash,  for a special little girl’s First Communion or  bridesmaid dress.

This first batch aren’t embellished or ‘fancy’ in any way, but a neighbour heard what I was doing (the village grapevine flourishes!) and came over with a carrier-bag FULL  of lovely, quality, braids, piping, ric-rac and other goodies last week, so who knows what the next batch will be like!


10 thoughts on “Charity sewing – dresses

  1. Just a question about fabric sources, if you don’t mind. I see you mention Kath’s fabrics on this post but do you know if Kath’s fabrics and the Liberty fabric man (Washable fabrics?) still have their fabric stalls on Preston Market on a Friday?


    1. Yes, Kath is there Monday Wednesday Friday and Saturday, but Jim (ebay Washable Fabrics) stopped doing Fridays a while back, and I’ve not seen him at the market at all for several months, since the renovation of the market started. If it’s Liberty you’re looking for, Standfast and Barracks is less than half an hour, door to door, by train and taxi from Preston; I was there a couple of weeks ago and they had more Tana and Lantana than I’ve seen there before. I bought Strawberry Thief in three different colours at £9/m … and that wasn’t all I bought!


      1. Thanks for the info. Maybe the Liberty chap from Preston market is just doing ebay now. Yes, I’ve been to S&B a few times recently for Liberty and fents, They do have a huge selection of Liberty fabrics – not quite as cheap as they used to be but still a fraction of the full price.


  2. What fabulous dresses. Lovely bright colours. You are absolutely right – these girls deserve nice dresses from new fabric. I’m admiring the wood store too – even if it is sycamore!


  3. Your dresses are lovely, and a wonderful use for the fabric score you wrote about. And for some well marinated fabric stash bits for more variety. No pillowcase dresses – I wonder if they’ve just been overdone, or if it’s more due to where the dresses are intended for, that covered shoulders are needed, especially as the girls get older.

    As for those who use old pillowcases, I’d bet they are the same ones who put outdated food from their own pantry to the food bank and tatty clothing to the charity thrift store. Good grief, these dresses are facing years of wear, they don’t need to be made of fabric that’s had half it’s life worn out already!


    1. I think the reluctance to accept pillowcase dresses is for a few different reasons, shoulder coverage being just one. I think pillowcase here in the UK and Europe are somewhat different to US ones, anyway, and often unsuitable for a simple conversion into dresses.


  4. Hello from New Zealand. You have a splendid stack of wood!

    These are lovely, and also practical – unfussy garments for all the activities that a child might engage in. Pockets are essential! I agree strongly that items made for charity should be of a quality that we would be happy for our family and friends to wear.

    Children do tend to be either growing into clothes or growing out of them. I often see little girls wearing too-short dresses as tunics, so getting a lot of mileage out of a garment.


    1. Hello back from rural Lancashire! I lived in New Zealand from early 2000 to late 2002 (Auckland). I was fortunate enough to see a good deal of the country in that time and have very fond memories of my time there.
      I agree, I have a good stack of wood! It’s not the best for burning – it’s sycamore – but it was free, cut and stacked for me, in exchange for some sewing work. I think I got the best of the bargain – although I know that the bloke who cut and stacked the wood thought that his bargain was the best!


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