‘Dress a Girl Around the World’

Local dressmakers turn out for a great cause.

The goal is sublime: To come together and, whether you’ve stitched a wedding gown or never mended a hem, you bring a fresh bolt of material, and fashion it into an adorable “pillowcase” frock for a girl in a far-away community; communities in places like Haiti, Africa, and Tahiti, where new — or any — clothes are hard to come by.

Organizer Sarah Vail, dressed as the perfect fashion icon for a venture such as this one in black boots, apricot-colored tights, and a slim gray wool dress topped by a bouffant apricot scarf, said as she held up a completed outfit, “A dress like this could save a girl from being kidnapped for the sex trade. The traders only take children who are naked or dressed in rags, under the assumption that they’re orphans and no one cares about them.”

Eek! How could a sunny Saturday morning in the spacious events room of the West Tisbury library suddenly turn dark? And yet, how refreshing to learn that these dozen or so women who’d volunteered, some of them showing up with their daughters ranging in ages from 9 to 18, were not only having fun, but participating in a charity that’s crucially needed?

Ms. Vail explained the trim, sleeveless model: “It’s called a pillowcase dress because the original intent was to sew it from a literal pillowcase: The design is that simple. But the temptation to bring, perhaps, ratty old pillowcases made for not-so-nice outfits. This way, with the mandate to bring new fabric, we can provide these girls with something special to wear.”

This reporter was interested to know what becomes of all the castoff clothes so many people drop off at convenient Red Cross or Salvation Army boxes. Ms. Vail said these are normally sold by the pound to thrift stores, and the money collected is then sent to vulnerable communities for use for infrastructure. Thus outfits sewn by busy hands in overconsuming cultures are much needed in places where “underconsumption” is stating it mildly.

Here’s a sampling of the hands on deck for the sewing bee: Holly Wayman of West Tisbury said, as she headed to a cutting table with her fabric and printed instructions in hand, “I haven’t sewn anything since the eighth grade!”

Morgan Caruso, left, helps her mom, Laura Hearn, right, pin their dress. Morgan's grandmother, Linda Hearn, center, cuts her fabric. — Stacey Rupolo
Morgan Caruso, left, helps her mom, Laura Hearn, right, pin their dress. Morgan’s grandmother, Linda Hearn, center, cuts her fabric. — Stacey Rupolo

A three-generational team showed up: a grandma, Linda Hearn, of West Tisbury, who explained,“I used to sew my kids’ clothes, now I love to make quilts!” Her daughter Laura Hearn was tucking into a pink-and-red floral fabric, while at her side, her elementary school–age daughter Morgan Caruso said, “I like to sew by hand, like this morning I made a gym bag for my friend Aidan.”

Miryam Gerson of Vineyard Haven is also a devout quilter instead of a sewing gal, but she showed up at Ms. Vail’s request, and it was only a matter of seconds before she read the instructions, cut out a pattern, and commandeered a sewing machine.

Ellen Biskis and her daughter Grazina had driven down from Chilmark: Mom sews; Grazina, in elementary school, is “just getting into it.”

Kathleen Long of West Tisbury is another one of those quilter fanatics, belonging to the Martha’s Vineyard Modern Quilter Guild, a once-a-week program at this very same library.

Timi Brown, a blue-eyed lady with gorgeous white pigtails whom you might know from Middletown Nursery, has earned her keep in a lot of trades, including that of seamstress, way back when: “I worked in sweatshops,” she told Ms. Vail with a laugh as she cut, sewed, and neatly trimmed a first dress in under 30 minutes.

This reporter spent the lion’s share of her time sitting on the ground and chatting with the

Miryam Gerson irons her fabric before cutting. — Stacey Rupolo
Miryam Gerson irons her fabric before cutting. — Stacey Rupolo

estimable Willa Vigneault (Ms. Vail’s daughter), a senior at the high school who loves engineering with all materials. For example, not long ago she traveled to a disaster-prone area in Jordan, and the sad state of refugees inspired her to melt down plastic bags into tarps to provide shelter. And lest she sound overly serious, she also loves to make jewelry, and as we yakked on the floor, she happily scissored pockets from scraps of fabric for everyone interested in appending them to their snappy dresses. Ms. Vail provided this insight: “Pockets are vital for girls in poor cultures. They keep small items from being stolen.”

As I made my last pass through the room, the iron sizzled over Ms. Wayman’s blue-and-lavender batik number, and Ms. Brown was busy at a sewing machine on her third dress, an aqua item with red pockets. Ms. Veil took a moment from her busy enterprise to tell me, “I was Charlie’s [my son’s] home ec teacher at the Oak Bluffs School.”

Sigh. I love living here.