Merlene Davis: Lyric's dress-making project needs your help

Takira Sleet, left, Melanie Stewart and Teala Sleet  modeled dresses made from pillowcases by Joyce Gray of Detroit, who will teach the technique in Lexington.
Takira Sleet, left, Melanie Stewart and Teala Sleet modeled dresses made from pillowcases by Joyce Gray of Detroit, who will teach the technique in Lexington.

My parents thought that the busier my siblings and I were, the less trouble we could get into. Plus, our mother believed girls should learn how to sew, knit and crochet to become better marriage candidates, I guess.

Anyway, after washing several loads of clothes, hanging them out to dry, gathering them back up before they hardened on the lines or the birds bombed them, dusting and sweeping the house every day, and just before washing supper dishes, my sister and I learned to sew by making clothing out of flour sacks my father brought home from the granary where he worked.

Don't laugh. We didn't get into trouble, and some of those sacks were transformed into very nice summer dresses.

Take that same principle and add a healthy dose of purpose, and you'll get the Lyric's Little Dresses of Lexington initiative, which eventually help will young girls and boys learn to sew and encourage them to reach out to others who are less fortunate. It will be the first service project initiated by the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, said Yetta Young, executive director of the center.

The first phase of the seven-month project will begin Monday at the Lyric, where Young's godmother will teach any interested parties how to make sundresses out of pillowcases.

"My godmother, Joyce Gray, was working on Little Dresses for Africa, and she told me about these little pillowcase dresses," Young said. "Once I saw them, I wanted to implement something here."

Little Dresses for Africa is a successful program started by Rachel O'Neill of Michigan. In the three years since its inception, the national charity has shipped more than 500,000 dresses to young girls in Africa. Dresses have been donated from every state, and the project has been featured on the NBC Nightly News.

"I call it the pillowcase movement," Young said. "They are sending dresses to underprivileged girls in Africa, and we want to give dresses to girls in Lexington."

In eight months, Gray has sewn 100 dresses for the national program and has helped or encouraged women who made 500 more. At the Lyric, she will demonstrate how to make dresses from pillowcases or fabric, Gray said.

Once the technique is learned, Gray said, people can ask their neighbors for gently used or unused pillowcases, or contact hotels or motels for pillowcases they will be discarding.

"When I come, I will bring stuff to show how to doctor up a plain white pillowcase," she said.

The program Monday, which is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, will be primarily informational. There will be refreshments and time to interact. Times for future meetings will be discussed.

When school is out this summer, those girls who receive the expected 250 dresses will be invited back to learn how to make the dresses themselves. Their work will be distributed to other little girls, Young said, in war-torn and weather-beaten countries such as Haiti and parts of Africa.

You don't have to know how to sew to participate in the project, Gray said. You can help by cutting the fabric and ironing the seams, which will allow others to concentrate on sewing. Donations of fabric, pillowcases and ribbon are welcome.

Young got caught up in her godmother's enthusiasm for sewing and bought a sewing machine. But she didn't follow through on the promise to learn how to operate it.

"More than likely, it should come off the shelf now," Young said.

She hopes the project will catch on as quickly in Kentucky as it did in Michigan.

"We're going to start slow and branch out from there," she said.

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