The Old Sew and Sews: Pillowcase Dresses Donated Around the World

Angel Eduardo

Samples of the pillowcase dresses.

On Idealist Day 4/4, at Briarwood, a continuing care and retirement community in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, Jan Slaughter held a celebration. She and her sewing group, The Old Sew and Sews, had been meeting and working together for three years, and Jan wanted to mark the occasion with a party. Briarwood residents and staff came down to celebrate as well as marvel at the group’s work, which was on display around the room. “We wanted to re-energize the group,” Jan says, “and let people know how much has been accomplished in three years.” In fact, The Old Sew and Sews had accomplished something wonderful, having made nearly 1,200 dresses from thrift shop pillowcases and donating them to young girls in seven different countries. “I made a map to show where the dresses have gone and shared a collage of photos from many of our recipients,” Jan says. “We displayed dresses all around the room and sold several to help fund the project. All materials are purchased by me, so a little help is welcome!”

Jan started her pillowcase dress project long before The Old Sew and Sews came to be. “Five years ago, my mom and I went to a quilt show,” she remembers. “One of the ladies did her ‘show and tell’ about a dress made from a pillowcase. We both said Wow! and brought the idea to a family gathering.” Soon after, Jan, her sister, Diana, and their mother, Jeanne, got to work, with Jan refining a pattern she found online. “We went to her house, took over her three-season porch, and made 36 dresses. We had a blast! Our husbands provided us with tea and lunch, we listened to oldies, and we eventually came up with a streamlined process for cutting and sewing.”

Up until that moment, Jan hadn’t thought much about where the dresses would go once they were made, though she soon figured that connecting with people who can get these dresses to young girls in need was key. Her sister got in touch with a woman in the Philippines who was delighted to have them for the children she worked with, and so Jan sent those first 36 dresses out by mail. However, shipping became prohibitively expensive, and the package itself was held up at customs and eventually returned. “That was it for us,” Jan recalls of sending the dresses out by mail. “So we have worked to find people or groups going on mission trips who would take them.” In the meantime, Jan and Diana had made 60 more dresses, which were sent with a friend to Haiti. Once returned, the first 36 eventually went to Costa Rica with a local teacher on a mission trip. The dress donation project was now off to a great start—and was about to get even bigger.

“I don't remember how I heard about Idealist, but the idea was appealing. I love seeing all the ways people are working to spread hope and positivity and to connect with others.”

“My husband, Ken, and I moved to Briarwood, where my Mom had been living for a few years,” Jan says. “We thought some of the ladies might enjoy seeing this project, so we scheduled a demonstration.” As Jan suspected, the women at Briarwood were enthusiastic and quickly suggested forming a sewing group to make more dresses. “Someone said ‘We need a name,’ and Diana said, ‘The Old Sew and Sews.’ So here we are.” The Old Sew and Sews began meeting monthly at Briarwood, usually with about a dozen participants, with Jan developing the dressmaking process into to a science. “Ken, Mom, and I start one hour early to run extension cords and set up four sewing machines. We set up three stations with scissors and templates for cutting the pillowcases, and two stations for threading the ribbons that tie on the shoulders (Ken is in charge of that step). Other people cut one-yard lengths of ribbons from the big spools I buy on eBay, or sew on buttons and lace trims.” Jan and her family also still sew dresses twice a year on Diana’s porch. “Last fall we made 340 dresses in one weekend!”

Jan Slaughter, husband Ken, and mother Jeanne
Jan, husband Ken, and mother Jeanne

Over the next three years, the project continued to grow and the reach of donations began to widen. “As I read the daily and weekly newspapers,” Jan says, “I watch for local-interest stories of people going on mission trips, and I contact them about taking dresses. I make announcements at our community meetings and put notices in our community newsletter to ask for contacts.” In addition to Haiti and Costa Rica, dresses have been sent to Puerto Rico, Liberia, Ghana, Uganda, and Mexico, totaling nearly 1,200 dresses in just three years. The donations show no signs of stopping, either. “Another neighbor called me yesterday about her daughter, who will now take 60 dresses to Benin,” Jan reports happily, bringing the total number of recipient countries to eight.

“I don't remember how I heard about Idealist, but the idea was appealing,” Jan says of joining the Idealists of the World Facebook group in September 2018. “I love seeing all the ways people are working to spread hope and positivity and to connect with others.” Aside from her work with The Old Sew and Sews, Jan is always looking for ways to do good in her community and appreciates the connections and camaraderie made possible through Idealist. “For my husband’s birthday,” she shared with the group in December 2018, “he has asked to go to a small city near us to visit a favorite bookstore, but mainly to hand out bags of necessities to the homeless who line the main street.” She explains that “the bags have been a family Thanksgiving project—everyone brings small essentials, we spread them out on a table, then we fill one-gallon ziplock plastic bags. Combs, candy, socks, gloves, a drink, etc., go in the bags.” Jan also runs an annual baby shower to provide formula, diapers, and clothes for the 3,000 infants cared for by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. “We are not wealthy,” she says of her husband and herself, “but we both make charitable giving a priority.”

Since joining the Idealists of the World group, Jan has used Idealist Days to mark those occasions for doing good. “I did not realize at first what ‘Idealist Day’ was, but I was happy to share my 4/4 story. On 5/5, Ken and I walked in a 20-mile Hunger Walk in Boston and raised $750 for food programs in Massachusetts.” And, getting back to The Old Sew and Sews project, she notes that “our next Pillowcase Work Day actually falls on 6/6!” When it comes to her sewing group at Briarwood, the ranks keep growing despite potential setbacks. “There is a big construction and renovation project going on at Briarwood, so our workspace has been moved around,” she explains. “But rather than causing our numbers to drop, we actually have four new people, including two more men!”

Girls in Africa Sporting New Dresses

As Jan proudly displayed at the celebration on 4/4, photographs from all over the world show smiling young girls wearing the beautiful dresses made by The Old Sew and Sews. There are surely many, many more everywhere whose days would be brightened by not just the dresses themselves, but also by the kindness with which they’re made and given. And the supply, Jan is certain, will always meet the demand. “We have another 500 or so dresses that are ready to go, and another 700 that are ready to sew. The Old Sew and Sews will continue as long as there is interest in my family and my community—because I know there will always be a need in the world for little girls to have new dresses."

Angel Eduardo

Angel uses his skills as a storyteller to support and inspire job seekers and aspiring social-impact professionals.