Little dresses make big difference

Local fashions destined for African girls

Sandpoint resident Barbara Tritch spent her summer sewing 25 dresses that will be packed up and sent off as part of the “Little Dresses for Africa” project. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — Neighbors didn’t see a lot of Barbara Tritch this summer. While they were out and about enjoying the sunshine, she was busy inside at her sewing machine, turning mountains of fabric into a heartfelt gift for little girls in Africa.

The summer project started when she saw a segment called “Making a Difference” on the NBC Nightly News. In that broadcast, a woman who had heard about the need for children’s clothing in some African nations described how she decided to jump in and start making them herself. Tritch, an experienced quilter, knew she could do the same.

“I suppose I could have made quilts, but something about this just caught my interest,” she said. “And being a quilter means you already have huge stacks of fabric around.”

The fabric collection also was motivational, as she started to think about how her husband, Richard, might react if he knew just how much of it she really had.

“I started thinking, ‘If you die before he does, he’s going to be so mad at you!’” Tritch joked.

The first few dresses were made from gingham, but it wasn’t long before her husband got into the act, offering ideas about color schemes and designs and selecting fabrics for her to consider. Several of them found their way into her finished work.

“Richard told me, ‘Look at the pictures of little African girls on TV — they obviously love bright colors,’” his wife said. “He’s very proud of the fabrics he picked out.”

Starting this past July, Tritch worked daily on the clothes, at first spending a couple of days on each dress and then moving into more of a production line approach where she fashioned four at a time. The pattern she designed was simple, though not as rudimentary as the one recommended on the television program that started her on the project.

“They suggested using a rectangle shape or even a pillowcase with a hole cut out in the top,” the seamstress said. “That just wasn’t me. I’m not an over-achiever, but I knew I could do better than that.”

Tritch erred on the side of sturdiness, double-stitching the sides and adding a pair of double-stitched, bar-tacked pockets to the front of each dress.

“Every girl needs a pocket to put something in, even if it’s just a pebble you picked up off the road,” she said. “And I put ruffles on everything because they make me happy. I think a little girl should have ruffles.”

Her first goal was to complete 20 dresses — a figure Richard quickly shared with their friends, many of whom stopped by to check on Barbara’s progress as the summer wore on. In the end, she finished a total of 25, each festooned with colorful buttons that match the fabric’s colors or design.

This next week, Tritch will pack the dresses up and ship them to a Wisconsin-based organization called “Little Dresses for Africa,” which then will see that they make it to their new owners after being distributed through orphanages, churches and schools.

“As of last May, they shipped their 1 millionth dress,” Tritch said. “It took me all summer to make 25 of them, and that’s only a drop in the bucket as far as taking care of what they need.

“Even though we’ve got people over there building homes and providing medical care, there are still little girls in Africa who have absolutely nothing to wear.”

Within a couple weeks, 25 of them will be sporting the fashions that one Sandpoint woman created for them.

“It’s fun knowing somebody out there is going to be wearing these,” she said, straightening the ruffled hem of a dress before placing it on a stack of others. “Now all I have left to do is to pick off the stray strings, pack them up and kiss them goodbye.”

Normally, a sewing project of this size would have put a good dent in Tritch’s fabric supply, but, as the summer progressed and friends saw what she was up to, people kept dropping in and adding to the inventory.

“And here’s the deal,” Tritch said. “After making all these dresses, I think my fabric stash is even bigger than before.”

To learn more about the “Little Dresses for Africa” project, go online to www.littledressesforafrica.org.

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