Lillian’s Dress, a New Style for Little Dresses for Africa

DressesForAfrica NancyZieman2

Lillian’s Dress, a New Style for Little Dresses for Africa

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Many of us have a couple pieces of “extra fabric,” and would be interested in knowing more about charitable initiatives. In 2008 Little Dresses for Africa was formed by Rachel O’Neill. Her non-profit organization offers dresses and britches to children at orphanages, schools, and churches. Donors from around the world send stitched items, monetary donations, or travel to Africa.

I invited Rachel O’Neill to do another Nancy’s Corner segment with an update on Little Dresses for Africa. Since her first interview in 2011, Nancy’s Notions has shipped your generous donations totaling 132,949 dresses and 5,449 britches to Little Dresses for Africa.

DressesForAfrica NancyZieman2

Each year, Rachel leads a team to deliver the dresses.

DressesForAfrica NancyZieman1A New Little Dresses for Africa Pattern

Ms. Lillian makes raglan sleeve dresses using a pattern given to her by Geraldine Lowery. We have adapted those directions and included them in a FREE pattern project sheet. You can download the pdf file HERE.


Nancy’s Notions is also carrying a fabric kit to create three little dresses.DressesForAfrica NancyZieman3These dresses are fast and easy to make. Lets walk through the simple dress construction together:

DressesForAfrica NancyZieman FirstImageDraft the Pattern Pieces

Dress Body: 

  • Tape four pieces of paper together to form a rectangle, 17″ x 22″.
  • Draft a rectangle measuring 10″ x 19″.
  • Along the top edge, measure 5-1/4″ from the left edge; make a mark.
  • Along the right hand edge, measure up 14″; make a mark.
  • Connect the two marks and add a 1/4″ seam allowance to the diagonal sleeve line.
  • Cut away the corner.
  • Along the remaining 19″ edge, write on the pattern piece “Place on Fold” and “Cut two on fold.”
DressBodyPattern LittleDresses NancyZieman3Sleeves:

  • On one sheet of paper, draft a rectangle measuring 8-1/4″ x 9″.
  • Along the top edge, measure 5″ from the right edge; make a mark.
  • Along the right hand edge, measure down 5″; make a mark.
  • Connect the two marks and add a 1/4″ seam allowance to create a diagonal line.
  • Cut away the corner.
  • Along the remaining 9″ edge, write on the pattern piece “Place on Fold” and “Cut two on fold.”

Sleeve LittleDressesRuffle:

  • Draw a 5″ x 10″ rectangle.
  • Along one 5″ edge, write on the pattern piece “Place on Fold” and “Cut two on fold.”

Lillians Dress Ruffle

  • 1-1/4 yd. 40″ wide cotton fabric OR 5/8 yd. for dress body and 5/8 yd. for sleeves and ruffle
  • 17″ of 1/4″ wide elastic
  • Coordinating all-purpose thread
  • 1 pkg. 1/2″ ready-made single fold bias tape OR make your own bias tape
  • Optional: Bias Tape Maker
  • Optional: 5-in-1 Sliding Gauge
  • Optional: Flex ‘n Glide Bodkin and Elastic Lock Set
  • Optional: Fuse ‘n Gather Tape 
  • Optional: Little Dresses Fabric Kit from Nancy’s Notions
FuseNGatherCut Out Dress

40″ fabric folded twice

  • Fold selvages of fabric to the center of the fabric on each side.
  • Fold the fabric in half lengthwise meeting folded edges.
  • Place pattern pieces on the double-folded edge.
DoubleFoldedFabric NancyZiemanNote from Nancy: The illustration above will create a dress in one single fabric. Consider cutting two dresses at a time, of coordinating fabrics, to mix and match sleeve and ruffle pattern pieces with their coordinating dress body pattern pieces.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 2

  • Cut two of each pattern piece by placing patterns on the double-folded edge of fabric.
  • Place ruffle pattern on the double-folded edge of fabric TWICE, cutting a total of four (4) ruffle sections.
  • Use 1 pkg. of ready-made bias tape OR cut one bias fabric strip 1-7/8″ x 40″ for bias tape.
  • Press all fabric pieces.
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  • Open hem and press edge to the hemline, about 3/8″ to create a double-folded hem.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 8

  • Match right sides together, pin the sleeves to the dress body front and back.
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  • Stitch the sleeves to the dress body using a 1/4″ seam allowance. DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 10
  • Stop sewing 1/4″ from the armhole edges. Leave this unstitched.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 26
  • Press seam allowance open.

DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 11Create Bias Tape

  • Use the 1-7/8″ x 40″ bias cut strip of fabric and Clover Bias Tape Maker to create custom tape.
  • Following the directions on the bias tape maker, feed the bias cut strip into the tape maker.
  • Press the strip as it comes out the narrow end; edges folded toward the center.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 11a

Finish the Neckline and Sleeves

  • Unfold one edge of the bias tape and pin to the dress neckline opening starting at center back. The bias tape forms casing for elastic.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 12

  • Carefully pin around the curved edges.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 14
  • Use the fold as a guide; stitch the bias tape to the neckline with a 1/4″ seam allowance. Leave the first and last 2″ unstitched.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 13

  • Fold the unstitched portions of tape onto themselves, making their folds meet. Press.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 15

  • Open the unstitched tape, match right sides together and pin.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 16

  • Join the tape ends by stitching directly on the pressed mark.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 17

  • Use a rotary cutter to remove the excess seam allowance; 1/4″ past the stitching line.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 18

  • Press the new seam allowance open.
  • Join the unstitched portion of tape to the dress body.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 19

  • Press seam allowances towards tape, pressing tape up.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 20

  • Press the bias tape to the wrong side of the neckline.
Note from Nancy: Notice, on the left-hand side of the bias tape (pictured below), you can see a small amount of the dress body fabric. This is called favoring the seam and creates a more professional finish to the neckline edge. The bias tape will be completely concealed.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 21

  • Unfold the bias tape edge.
  • Clip into the seam allowances at the curves to allow the tape to lay flat once finished.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 22

  • Working from the wrong side, edgestitch the bias tape.
  • Leave a 2″ opening at the center back edge.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 23
  • Unfold the pressed sleeve hem.
  • Stitch front to back, right sides together, using a 1/4″ seam allowance.
  • Press seam allowance open.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 24

  • Refold and topstitch the sleeve hems.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 27

  • Using the bodkin elastic tool, glide the 1/4″ elastic through the bias tape casing at the center back opening.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 28

  • Use a piece of scrap fabric to join the elastic cut ends. This reduces bulk.
  • Zigzag stitch over each elastic cut end, where they meet.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 29

  • Trim excess fabric.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 30

  • Gently stretch the neckline to ease the narrow elastic into the opening.DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 31
  • Evenly space the neckline gathers; edgestitch the opening closed.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 32

Ruffled Edge

  • Sew ruffle ends together to create a circle.
  • Press seam allowances open.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 33

  • Hem the lower edge by turning up a double-folded 1/4″ hem; press.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 34

  • Edgestitch hem, working from the wrong side.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 35.DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 36

  • Use an iron to apply the Fuse ‘n Gather Tape to the wrong side of the unhemmed edge.
Note from Nancy: I like to use Fuse ‘n Gather Tape for gathering. The results are fast and easy to accomplish. Press Fuse ‘n Gather, with blue threads facing up, to the top edge on the wrong side of the ruffle fabric. Pull blue threads to gather.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 37
  • Divide the bottom of the dress into quarters, placing a pin to mark at each quarter mark.
  • Divide the ruffle into quarters, placing a pin to mark at each quarter mark.
  • Wrap the blue thread of the Fuse ‘n Gather Tape around a pin and easily pull to create gathers.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 38

  • Pin ruffle to bottom of dress, right sides together, matching pins. Adjust gathers to fit.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 39

  • Working with the ruffle-side-up, stitch ruffle to the dress using a 5/8″ seam allowance.
DressesForAfrica NancyZieman 40

  • Press the seam allowances toward the dress body.
How to Sew Little Dresses for Africa with Nancy Zieman | Sewing With Nancy
You can read more about sending your donation on the Little Dresses for Africa websiteFREE pattern project sheet. Nancy’s Notions has also assembled a dress kit for the pillowcase style dress and the Lillian’s Dress designs. Nancy’s Notions can receive your dresses at the following address:

Little Dresses for Africa
c/o Nancy’s Notions
333 Beichl Ave
Beaver Dam WI 53916-0683

Watch the Little Dresses for Africa interview on Sewing With Nancy online.

To watch Sewing With Nancy on your iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone, download the app.


Bye for now,

Nancy Zieman The Blog

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  • Janice Howell
    October 24, 2015

    I was wondering if there was a project like this for the United States?

      • KayZee
        October 26, 2015

        Nice article, Nancy, but I was especially pleased to see your response to Janice Howell inquiring about a similar project in the U.S….”TLC Ministries”. The founder of the organization used to be a member of my late mother’s church and I have sewn little boys shirts and pants for them for about 16 years, and love the fact that my efforts stay right here at “home”.

    • Lore williams
      November 9, 2020

      Can I make mccalls 5797 and 6912?

  • Angela regan
    October 24, 2015


    How can my embroidery club donate dresses in the UK

    October 24, 2015

    Thanks Nancy for sharing some love for Africa and Ms. Lillian’s Dresses for all that your organization does. I will definitely come aboard and begin sewing for a cause like this. I love the tutorial and I shall begin with my daughters and friends to help also.

  • Sandy
    October 24, 2015

    Thank you, I have been trying to create my own sleeve pattern with this I can make my curve and continue to make more dresses.

  • Candice
    October 24, 2015

    Fabulous! Thanks for sharing all the information and instructions.

  • peaceful
    October 24, 2015

    Beautiful smiles on those girls. I will see if I can make what appears to be an easy pattern. Thanks for sharing this story and for your continued support of these worthy projects.

  • Wilma Loo
    October 24, 2015

    Does the organization also collect quilts? If so, what is the preferred size? Thank you.

  • Pam Hopp
    October 24, 2015

    Thank-you for the update and will share it with others, and lighten my stash with the new version.

  • Sharon Siacci
    October 24, 2015

    i look forward to trying this. Also mentioned in the article was little britches. Do you have a pattern for those too?

  • Veronica
    October 24, 2015

    I am wondering what sizes the “dresses for Africa” are? Perhaps a size 3, 4, 5……………..?

  • Linda
    October 24, 2015

    In the opening of this post “britches ” were mentioned. I’m assuming these are for the boys. Is a pattern available for the britches?

  • Angela Cardwell
    October 25, 2015

    i would like mailing information for the US. Also can do any adjustable dress pattern? I am thinking of making dresses for teen girls.

  • Sue Barton
    October 25, 2015

    Thank you so much for your segments about kindness in sewing. It challenges me to be generous with others instead of focused on my own and my self. I do think self-centeredness is a constant drag of our society. These sweet little dresses have given these dear little girls such joy. Thank you again.

  • Micki
    October 26, 2015

    How do I make sleeves for the bigger dresses? Are the dimensions somewhere on your site?

  • Rose
    October 26, 2015

    I found a large supply of double knit fabrics at our local Salvation Army store. Can I use that for the dresses and britches?

  • Sandra Johnson
    October 29, 2015

    Very easy and simple, but still pretty enough for any little girl
    Thank you for sharing

  • Jeanne
    November 11, 2015

    Perfect! This is exactly what I was looking for! Our church sewing ministry has been making pillowcase dresses for a particular orphanage in Uganda, but we have to send a coordinating T shirt with each dress because the girls are required to wear sleeves. In my brainstorming I thought about a peasant style dress and now I find this here, complete with pattern and directions. Thank you!

  • Martine
    November 12, 2015

    Good morning, i’m living in South Africa and just wanted to thank you all for what you do. People and specially children are so in desperate need here. Nothing makes your day better than when you see those littles with a smile! Thank you for them

  • Natalie Signor
    January 24, 2017

    Thank you so much. Will try to contact the ladies directly about shipping dresses. Looking forward to having a mission. Been sorta lost, saw your show on Little Dresses. Seems like a worthy cause.

  • Alice Hokenson
    March 28, 2017

    How do I make a bigger size of the dress with raglan sleeves?

  • Theresa W.
    April 29, 2017

    Hi Nancy, Are you still accepting dresses for the Girls in Africa? If so where can I send them? Thank you.

  • Susan D Curtis
    July 31, 2017

    is there a way to draft a pattern for different sizes of this dress? I have the size 6, but would love to be able to make other sizes too!

  • Anita Santana
    August 22, 2017

    I’m interested to see dresses and boys pant and shirts. Can you send me information, like if you use special patterns and fabrics. I’m in Florida.

  • Berkeley
    March 30, 2018

    I’m interested in making some of these dresses and I wanted to make sure you are still accepting them!

  • Berkeley
    March 30, 2018

    I’m interested in making some of these dresses and I wanted to make sure you are still accepting them. Thank you!

  • Mildred
    April 15, 2018

    I have started sewing pillowcase dresses for little girls in Africa. Would you please tell me if you are still accepting them.

  • Jane Smith
    May 31, 2018

    I’ve just read that UMCOR (United Methodist Commission on Relief) will no longer send kits to other countries, but will donate money instead to help local economies. They say they are getting feedback saying that’s a better way to help. I’m wondering if Little Dresses for Africa recipients are feeling the same way. I have a group that has been making dresses and am wondering if we should continue.

  • Sandra Allen
    September 5, 2018

    Where do I find Nancy’s original little girl’s pattern for African dresses from back about 10 years ago – using fabric & not pillowcases. Thank you so much —

  • Rene Powell
    December 9, 2019

    I saw this documentary on the news and was very interested in helping. I am making 50 dresses and have a volunteer at my church who is willing to sew also. This is a very good cause and I love doing outreach. God bless everyone who is participating in this cause.

  • Marsha Starr
    June 29, 2020

    I would love to make some dresses for Africa.Where do I mail them once completed?

  • Heather
    June 5, 2021

    Can anyone please shed some light on how to deal with the bias tape at the corners of the neckline, where the seams are that connect the body and sleeves? After finally getting it attached to the front side, I find I cannot get it to lay flat without pulling when flipped to the back to sew it down, even after clipping into the seam allowance. There just isn’t enough tape on that edge once flipped, because of the corner. Since Lillian made over 1,000 of these dresses, it can’t be this hard.

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