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From pillowcases to pretty dresses

JoAnne Smith stands with some of the 39 pillowcase dresses she has ready to be sent to Orphan Grain Train. The dresses will then go to where there is a need in the world. Julie Buntjer / Forum News Service1 / 4
A colorful pillowcase with stripes on the front and polka dots on the back is adorned with lace and a front pocket. Julie Buntjer / Forum News Service2 / 4
This pillowcase dress features red and white checkerboard fabric that once was a kitchen window valance. Julie Buntjer / Forum News Service3 / 4
The pockets on this pillowcase dress were made using a piece from a tablecloth. Julie Buntjer / Forum News Service4 / 4

BREWSTER, Minn. — Tied at the shoulder and decorated with ruffles, lace and embellishments, one might never realize these little girl dresses are made of pillowcases.

JoAnne Smith, of rural Brewster in southwestern Minnesota, has made 294 of these dresses in the past two years, and currently has a batch ready to be delivered to the Orphan Grain Train. From the Nebraska distribution site, they are sent wherever they are needed.

Smith was coaxed into the project by Karen Doeden, a member of the St. Matthew Lutheran Church mission sewing group.

An experienced seamstress — Smith made her first top when she was just 9 years old as a 4-H member — she first declined because she was already too busy in retirement. But Doeden persisted, and encouraged Smith to take just one pillowcase home and give the project a try.

"Now I'm addicted," Smith said with a laugh.

Her challenge is to make ordinary pillowcases pretty so underprivileged girls in places like Africa and Haiti have something to wear to school. She decorates them with front pockets, using colorful fabrics or hand-embroidered doilies, and then adds lace, ruffles and occasionally buttons.

"They're required to have school clothes and if you don't have a dress, you can't go," she said. "I try to make something a little girl would like to wear. I know these kids probably have nothing and are appreciative of what they have to wear."

Smith said she couldn't have made so many dresses without the help of the women in the church sewing group. They cut off the top seams of the pillowcases, cut out arm holes and add elastic along the dress neckline.

"Then I take them home and do the fun thing — the designing and the decorating," Smith said.

She's found the project to be extremely rewarding. Not only does she get to honor her grandmother, who also had a love for sewing, she gets to use her knowledge to help others.

"Because of my sewing, some little girl can go to school," she said.

Smith has built up a small stash of used pillowcases for future projects. Many have been donated by members of the church, although she occasionally purchases some at thrift stores and rummage sales. She has also used kitchen valances, bed skirts and square tablecloths to add color and ruffles to the dresses.

Anyone interested in donating pillowcases — or supplies such as lace, buttons, three-eighths inch elastic, extra wide bias tape and embroidered or crochet-edged doilies that can be used as pockets — may drop them off at the north entrance of St. Matthew's church, 1505 Dover St., Worthington, Minn.

The pillowcase dresses will be displayed in the church's Great Hall leading up to Undie Sunday — an event planned in October in which church members will be asked to donate underclothes for little girls, to be paired with the pillowcase dresses.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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