Handmade: Church group makes pillowcase dresses its mission

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Shawne Henry, who lives in Detroit, is often in search of a project she and members of the mission society at her church can make and donate to charity.

Three years ago, after doing an online search for "mission opportunities and ideas," she came across a charitable project for making dresses out of pillowcases that can be donated to children living in other parts of the world.   

She took the idea back to her missionary society, where it was well-received by members, who range in age from 40-80. "I try to find mission projects that will cross- interest a variety of those ages," she stated. 

Shawne Henry holds one of the dresses she and fellow members of St. Stephen AME Church in Detroit make for charity.

The first 65 dresses were donated to children living in Haiti. They were sent to one of their African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishops. Henry said, "I sent the dresses to her and she shipped them to Haiti. They were dispersed to orphanages, and some to families and church members." Last year, they sent dresses to Liberia, West Africa, and "This year," she said, "we're thinking about Puerto Rico, but we haven't decided yet." 

Making the dresses are 12 members of the Emily E. Vernon Women's Missionary Society, named many years ago in honor of a former episcopal supervisor, within the AME church. They meet at St. Stephen AME Church, 6000 John E. Hunter in Detroit, every third Saturday, from 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Some bring their own sewing machine and others use those that have been donated to the church, but only about four actually have sewing skills. The others are assigned duties that help make production run smoothly.

"Some know how to do a hem (by hand), and I have some who don't sew at all. So, we try to have a variety of different jobs for them. Some may come in and iron the material, some match up the binding with the fabric, some may pin the binding on, and some may cut out the sleeve and neck portion," explained Henry, who serves as first vice-president for the missionary society. So far, she figures they've made and donated close to 200 pillowcase dresses.

These pillowcase dresses were made by members of the Emily E. Vernon Women’s Missionary Society at St. Stephen AME Church in Detroit.

"The first year we did it, we had a couple kids from the church participate," she said. "I recruited them when I saw them walking around in the church." 

All the pillowcases are donated, and some are gently used, some are purchased from resale shops and hotels, and some are brand new in the package. "We use pillowcases from regular to king size, and the dresses are probably like a 5 to a 10 or 12 in children's sizes."

The little dresses are embellished with binding and rick rack. Scraps of fabric left from using a template to cut the armholes are used to make pockets and miniature dolls to go inside the pocket of some dresses.

And, because not all pillowcases are the same weight fabric or thread count, Henry said, "For some of the dresses, we take T-shirts and make a lining or slip because some of the pillowcases are thin and see-through."

Shawne Henry and her pillowcase dresses made from pillow cases, t-shirt liners, rickrack and bindings.

Henry plans to continue their service project in "pretty much the same" manner, and invites any interested person, even those from other churches, to join them in making the dresses. And, in the near future, she's hoping to get more children involved. "I want them to learn what it's like to help a child who doesn't have what they have." 

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or 

Contact Shawne Henry of the Emily E. Vernon Women's Missionary Society at (313) 268-4533. Email: