Little Dresses for Africa/Nancy Zieman's Blog

Little Dresses for Africa has an amazing story that continues to astound Rachel O’Neil, the founder, and many of us who follow her mission. Beginning as a grass roots effort in 2008 with a goal to take 1000 pillowcase dresses for little girls to a single village in Africa, Little Dresses for Africa has grown to numbers well over 4.5 MILLION. Little dresses and Britches for Boys are currently sent to 81 countries in and around Africa, plus Central American countries. Collection and distribution points are now found all around the globe, changing lives here and across the ocean. One of those distribution points is Nancy’s Notions.

The Sewing With Nancy and Nancy’s Notions Connection

In 2011, I first interviewed Rachel O’Neil on Sewing With Nancy. After watching and hearing Rachel’s compelling story, many of you went through your fabric stash and started sewing. Nancy’s Notions soon became a distribution point, collecting and then shipping thousands of dresses or britches in just a few years. To date, 167,646 dresses or britches have been sent to Little Dresses for Africa. Thank you!

Little Dresses for Africa on Nancy's Corner hosted by Nancy ZiemanNancy’s Notions collects several thousand dresses, then makes a shipment to Little Dresses for Africa. Dresses and britches are organized by sizes and categories by a great group of volunteers. Our sewing community is extremely generous!


Photos from Little Dresses for Africa’s yearly trip

A New Little Dresses for Africa Pattern

Ms. Lillian Weber from Iowa had a goal to make 1000 Little Dresses For Africa by the time she turned 100.  She made and surpassed her goal, making 1,234 dresses before passing away on the eve of her 101st birthday.

One of Ms. Lillian’s favorite styles of dresses to sew included raglan sleeves—a pattern given to her by Geraldine Lowery. We have adapted these directions and included them in a FREE pattern project sheet. Download the FREE pattern project sheet HERE.

Rachel is pictured with Ms. Lillian on her 100th birthday. Ms. Lillian lived a productive, meaningful life!

Little Dresses for Africa, Ms. Lillian WeberNancy’s Notions  has kits available for the featured dress styles. The raglan sleeve dress kit has fabric for three dresses.

The pillowcase style dress kit includes templates to make the dress in one of four sizes.

How to Sew the Lillian Dress Style

Download the free instructions

Draft the Pattern Pieces

Dress Body: 

  • Tape four pieces of paper together to create a sheet 17″ x 22″.
  • Draft a rectangle measuring 10″ x 19″.
  • Along the top edge, measure 5-1/4″ from the left edge; make a mark.
  • Along the right hand edge, measure up 14″; make a mark.
  • Connect the two marks and add a 1/4″ seam allowance to the diagonal sleeve line.
  • Cut away the corner.
  • Along the remaining 19″ edge, write on the pattern piece ”Place on Fold” and “Cut two on fold.”


  • On one sheet of paper, draft a rectangle measuring 8-1/4″ x 9″.
  • Along the top edge, measure 5″ from the right edge; make a mark.
  • Along the right hand edge, measure down 5″; make a mark.
  • Connect the two marks and add a 1/4″ seam allowance to create a diagonal line.
  • Cut away the corner.
  • Along the remaining 9″ edge, write on the pattern piece ”Place on Fold” and “Cut two on fold.”


  • Draw a 5″ x 10″ rectangle.
  • Along one 5″ edge, write on the pattern piece ”Place on Fold” and “Cut two on fold.”


  • 1-1/4 yd. 40″ wide cotton fabric OR 5/8 yd. for dress body and 5/8 yd. for sleeves and ruffle
  • 17″ of 1/4″ wide elastic
  • Coordinating all-purpose thread
  • 1 pkg. 1/2″ ready-made single fold bias tape OR make your own bias tape
  • Optional: Bias Tape Maker
  • Optional: 5-in-1 Sliding Gauge
  • Optional: Flex ‘n Glide Bodkin and Elastic Lock Set
  • Optional: Fuse ‘n Gather Tape 
  • Optional: Little Dresses Fabric Kit from Nancy’s Notions
Cut Out Dress

40″ fabric folded twice

  • Fold selvages of fabric to the center of the fabric on each side.
  • Fold the fabric in half lengthwise meeting folded edges.
  • Place pattern pieces on the double-folded edge.
Note from Nancy: The illustration above will create a dress in one single fabric. Consider cutting two dresses at a time, of coordinating fabrics, to mix and match sleeve and ruffle pattern pieces with their coordinating dress body pattern pieces.

  • Cut two of each pattern piece by placing patterns on the double-folded edge of fabric.
  • Place ruffle pattern on the double-folded edge of fabric TWICE, cutting a total of four (4) ruffle sections.
  • Use 1 pkg. of ready-made bias tape OR cut one bias fabric strip 1-7/8″ x 40″ for bias tape.
  • Press all fabric pieces.


  • Open hem and press edge to the hemline, about 3/8″ to create a double-folded hem.

  • Match right sides together, pin the sleeves to the dress body front and back.

  • Stitch the sleeves to the dress body using a 1/4″ seam allowance. 
  • Stop sewing 1/4″ from the armhole edges. Leave this unstitched.
  • Press seam allowance open.

Create Bias Tape

  • Use the 1-7/8″ x 40″ bias cut strip of fabric and Clover Bias Tape Maker to create custom tape.
  • Following the directions on the bias tape maker, feed the bias cut strip into the tape maker.
  • Press the strip as it comes out the narrow end; edges folded toward the center.

Finish the Neckline and Sleeves

  • Unfold one edge of the bias tape and pin to the dress neckline opening starting at center back. The bias tape forms casing for elastic.

  • Carefully pin around the curved edges.
  • Use the fold as a guide; stitch the bias tape to the neckline with a 1/4″ seam allowance. Leave the first and last 2″ unstitched.

  • Fold the unstitched portions of tape onto themselves, making their folds meet. Press.

  • Open the unstitched tape, match right sides together and pin.

  • Join the tape ends by stitching directly on the pressed mark.

  • Use a rotary cutter to remove the excess seam allowance; 1/4″ past the stitching line.

  • Press the new seam allowance open.
  • Join the unstitched portion of tape to the dress body.

  • Press seam allowances towards tape, pressing tape up.

  • Press the bias tape to the wrong side of the neckline.
Note from Nancy: Notice, on the left-hand side of the bias tape (pictured below), you can see a small amount of the dress body fabric. This is called favoring the seam and creates a more professional finish to the neckline edge. The bias tape will be completely concealed.

  • Unfold the bias tape edge.
  • Clip into the seam allowances at the curves to allow the tape to lay flat once finished.

  • Working from the wrong side, edgestitch the bias tape.
  • Leave a 2″ opening at the center back edge.
  • Unfold the pressed sleeve hem.
  • Stitch front to back, right sides together, using a 1/4″ seam allowance.
  • Press seam allowance open.

  • Refold and topstitch the sleeve hems.

  • Using the bodkin elastic tool, glide the 1/4″ elastic through the bias tape casing at the center back opening.

  • Use a piece of scrap fabric to join the elastic cut ends. This reduces bulk.
  • Zigzag stitch over each elastic cut end, where they meet.

  • Trim excess fabric.

  • Gently stretch the neckline to ease the narrow elastic into the opening.
  • Evenly space the neckline gathers; edgestitch the opening closed.

Ruffled Edge

  • Sew ruffle ends together to create a circle.
  • Press seam allowances open.

  • Hem the lower edge by turning up a double-folded 1/4″ hem; press.

  • Edgestitch hem, working from the wrong side.


  • Use an iron to apply the Fuse ‘n Gather Tape to the wrong side of the unhemmed edge.
Note from Nancy: I like to use Fuse ‘n Gather Tape for gathering. The results are fast and easy to accomplish. Press Fuse ‘n Gather, with blue threads facing up, to the top edge on the wrong side of the ruffle fabric. Pull blue threads to gather.
  • Divide the bottom of the dress into quarters, placing a pin to mark at each quarter mark.
  • Divide the ruffle into quarters, placing a pin to mark at each quarter mark.
  • Wrap the blue thread of the Fuse ‘n Gather Tape around a pin and easily pull to create gathers.

  • Pin ruffle to bottom of dress, right sides together, matching pins. Adjust gathers to fit.

  • Working with the ruffle-side-up, stitch ruffle to the dress using a 5/8″ seam allowance.

  • Press the seam allowances toward the dress body.
How to Sew Little Dresses for Africa with Nancy Zieman | Sewing With Nancy
Ship your donations to:

Little Dresses for Africa
c/o Nancy’s Notions
333 Beichl Ave
Beaver Dam WI 53916-0683

Watch the Little Dresses for Africa interview on Sewing With Nancy online.

Bye for now,

Nancy Zieman The Blog

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