Chatfield group making dresses that end up going around the world

SUBMITTED PHOTO Dresses made by Chatfield residents brighten the world of girls on the other side of the world.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Dresses made by Denise Smalley and other Chatfield women brighten the day of girls and young women who may not have much brightness in their world.

The Chatfield resident, a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, regularly convenes with several other Chatfield area residents in the church’s basement to stitch up some international love for children and youth whose lives may not be filled with the happiness that their colorful new dresses show them to be. It’s all part of the Dress a Girl Around the World project that gives dresses to girls and young women to uplift them and show that they are worthy of respect

Smalley became interested in this project due to a friend in Illinois, where she lived before moving to Chatfield.  The friend had started this mission project at the church she belonged to when she lived in Illinois.

Smalley kept going at it in Chatfield, eventually enlisting her St. Paul congregation to join in. The local group has partnered with the Illinois church, where the dresses are sent for delivery. Approximately 250 dresses were sent overseas this year.

Labels of love

“This project reminds us how fortunate we are in the U.S.  We take for granted the clothes in our closet,” Smalley said.  “These girls receiving a dress from us, it may be the only dress they will have.  Living in countries where they may be subjected to abuse and sexual predators, these show them they are loved.  The dresses have a label sewn on the front to show others that they are under the care of an organization.  We’re making dresses for girls and young women to help them feel loved, have dignity and empower them.  When poverty, disease and low self-worth is a daily issue, we can brighten their day.”

The Dress a Girl Around the World is a campaign under Hope 4 Women International, a nonprofit organization bringing dignity to women around the world since 2006.  Hope 4 Women International is a nondenominational independent Christian organization founded by Rachel Eggum Cinader, who has said people are always giving her ideas to make a difference in the lives of women.

The initial idea was to teach women at Smile Africa in Uganda to make pillowcase dresses. Soon, the administrator of the program sent Cinader pictures of the Karamojong girls – the most despised group in all of Uganda – and they were all wearing dresses.  People from around the United States began to write and ask if they could make dresses, according to the Dress Around the World website.

As the project grew, the material used turned to beautiful, sturdy cotton fabric.  Dedicated volunteers throughout the United States and around the world gather to sew and distribute dresses to girls in need around the world because they believe that every girl deserves at least one dress, noted the website. Since its start in October of 2009, the recorded number of dresses delivered is more than 1 million to 81 countries.

The program is expanding. Although members are going to continue making dresses for girls, they are adding sex trafficking awareness to the program and holding Dress a Girl camps and Kids’ Days around the globe – teaching girls to give back. 

Local effort growing, too

Initially, Smalley began in August sewing dresses on her own, but she soon realized the time and expense that one person could incur while making clothing for other people, so she enlisted her St. Paul congregation.  She asked if St. Paul Lutheran could inquire to Thrivent for assistance in acquiring the supplies.  Once Thrivent agreed to help, she announced this project to the congregation. 

“Everyone that sews has a different level of comfort and knowledge.  Asking church members and word of mouth has increased the women joining us in the church basement,” Smalley said. 

There were no scheduled meeting times over the holidays, but she is hoping to start up again in January.  She also has fabric and supplies in bags for those wishing to sew at home.

Lost art

Smalley was inspired by the talent within her own hands to use a sewing machine and donated fabric to make dresses that change lives, rounding up friends and new friends to meet in the St. Paul Lutheran basement as often as time allows. 

“Sewing is a lost art, a gift that I and others have been blessed to have and can use to benefit others,” she said.  “Not many people feel confident to sew after putting that sewing machine off in the corner of a craft room.  I started to encourage people to try with me helping in their efforts.  I demonstrated on my machines and gave a few lessons in sewing and how to construct the dresses.” 

The group has met a few times, the first time with just a few sewing, including two young girls who would sew just pockets as they were learning the craft.  The next meeting, 10 people showed up and they really started to produce dresses, noted Smalley.  She brought about 30 dresses to Illinois for the ambassador there to send off to the girls in need — ending up in Africa.       

Community effort

Recent donations of supplies and fabric, along with the arrival of new volunteers, has made all the difference as Chatfield’s seamstresses strive to help girls on the other side of the world.  In addition to the assistance of Thrivent for supplies, Mary Bailey donated fabric from her stockpile, so the group now has about 30 bag kits ready to sew.

Smalley has more fabrics yet to be cut to size, but knows they will need cotton thread of various colors and double-folded wide bias tape in many colors as well.  The bias is used around the armholes and tied at the shoulder.

“These cotton dresses with pockets to hold their most cherished belongings are special to them. They have no other place for safekeeping things they possess,” she said.  “The conditions in which they live require clothing to be washed in rivers, using rocks to scrub them, so they need sturdy cotton fabric. 

“We can always use more helping hands and machines.  I can be contacted if people are interested in sewing dresses with us, and I’m glad we can use our God-given talents to bring joy to those less fortunate than us.  I can just imagine the happiness in their hearts when they receive what might be their only dress they own, and how proud they feel.”   

For more information on how to join the Chatfield Dress a Girl group, call Smalley at 847-502-5864. More information on the project is available on the Dress a Girl website at