Reaping What They Sew

Sidney Payne and her band of seamstresses derive great joy from crafting dresses for girls in Africa

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Sidney Payne has made so many pillowcase dresses that she doesn’t even use the pattern anymore
Sidney Payne has made so many pillowcase dresses that she doesn’t even use the pattern anymore.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a missionary spoke at Sidney Payne’s sewing group about making dresses for little girls in dire circumstances. Payne, a special-education teacher, and her husband, a U.S. Marine, lived in Tennessee at the time. On that occasion, the dresses would travel directly with the missionary; but Payne also learned about Little Dresses for Africa, a Christian nonprofit organization founded in 2008.

What began as an effort to make 1,000 dresses for a village in Malawi has now distributed 10 million dresses in 97 countries.

Payne, who had been sewing since childhood, got on board and has never looked back. She has long since lost count of how many dresses she’s made. “I don’t even use the pattern anymore!” she smiles.

The pattern is a simple one that has existed since the pioneer days, when poor women made girls’ dresses from potato sacks; today it is based on a pillowcase.

Payne and her husband landed in Vero Beach five years ago, settling two years ago in Harmony Reserve, where she has established a group of seamstresses, numbering 25 in season, who meet twice a month for three-hour sessions of “sewing for a cause.” “My seasoned sewers make about three dresses at each meeting,” Payne says. And, like her, many members sew at home and bring completed dresses with them.

The dresses come in three sizes, with a king-size pillowcase making a large dress, suitable for a 10-to-12-year-old girl.

“I’ve really gotten a lot of joy out of it,” says Karen Alexander, who notes that she enjoys adding small accents such as a fancy row of stitching or a bit of fringe. In fact, most of the ladies delight in playing with the infinite combinations of colors and prints, mixing and matching shoulder straps and pockets, imagining how excited a little girl on the other side of the world will be to receive her new dress.

“It’s a good creative outlet,” says Payne. “Each one is a designer dress because no two are alike.”

The bright, pretty dresses are meant to help instill a sense of worthiness in girls who often lead very difficult lives. For some little girls, these dresses might be their first proper clothing and thus may represent their first opportunity to attend school. For the older girls, feminine hygiene products can be the difference between going to school and staying home. Thus, LDFA launched its Dignity program especially for these young ladies.

Bridget Lueck, Karen Alexander, Dinah Gabany, Sidney Payne, and Diane Pinelle show some of the pillowcase dresses they have created
Bridget Lueck, Karen Alexander, Dinah Gabany, Sidney Payne, and Diane Pinelle show some of the pillowcase dresses they have created.

In Payne’s group, the few women who are not ace seamstresses focus on making washable, reusable sanitary napkins—perhaps less glamorous than the beautiful sundresses, but a godsend to young girls living in poor villages. “Every time I make a sanitary pad, I think, ‘Somewhere in the world a little girl will be able to go to school,’” Payne says.

“Britches for Boys” have also been added to the repertoire—elastic-waisted shorts crafted from the more masculine-patterned pillowcases.

In just six months, the Harmony Reserve group has shipped 18 boxes to Michigan, LDFA’s home base, containing 282 dresses, 325 sanitary napkins, and 50 pairs of britches.

The ladies tote their own sewing machines to the clubhouse for each session. Some joined the group with the ability to sew but no machine—not an obstacle for Payne, who supplies machines when needed.

The sound of the machines is scarcely audible beneath the conversations and laughter that accompany the work. “I love the energy in the room,” says seamstress Judy Stang.

In addition to the meetings, Payne and a few others teach sewing classes at A Caring Center for Women. Payne wrote the curriculum and purchased the machines. Each time
a young lady completes the course, she goes home with a donated used sewing machine and 64 squares of fabric with lively prints to make an “I Spy” quilt that will help keep her little one warm and entertained for years to come.

Sidney Payne is a dynamo. In addition to her altruistic sewing exploits, she volunteers at the Veterans Council’s Victory Center Military Store in the Indian River Mall. She also belongs to the Marine Corps League, and, when that organization helped furnish new affordable housing units for local veterans, Payne equipped six kitchens at her own expense. A holder of a doctorate in developmental education, she is also a member of the AAUW.

We didn’t think to ask her what she does in her spare time.

Sidney Payne is happy to lead in-services for groups wanting to join in the dress-making. She can be reached at sidnwill@gmail.com.

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