A job tailor-made for her

By on July 24, 2019

Legally blind, seamstress finds fulfillment crafting pillowcase dresses

Brenda Brown has never been to the Philippines, Guyana, Honduras, Kenya, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic.

But her hand-sewn dresses have.

In these countries, some 250 little girls have received the pretty dresses that Brown has lovingly made for them. Nothing makes her happier than to see photographs that have been sent from her contacts in the Philippines or Guyana, showing children wearing her dresses.

“It is a labor of love,” said Brown, who fittingly lives near Brownstown. “It’s something I can do to help others, and that’s very important to me.”

It might not seem that unusual that someone would sew dresses for little girls in other countries. Except since Brown is legally blind.

She lost vision in one eye and has only partial vision in the other eye, due to a medical condition that was caused by medication that damaged the maculae in her eyes. That led to multiple surgeries and retinal tears that further impaired her vision.

Brenda Brown, although she is legally blind, has crafted more than 350 pillowcase dresses. Photo by Laura Knowles.

As a result, Brown cannot drive, and relies on friends, family, and church members to help her with grocery shopping, getting to church, and doing the things she enjoys doing.

Since she cannot get out, she wanted to find something she could do to feel a sense of fulfillment. At her church, Akron Church of the Brethren, Brown learned about simple dresses made from pillowcases. She decided to try her hand at making the pillowcase dresses, and enjoyed it so much, she started to find places where children could use them.

She has met people through her church and in the community. Then she began making arrangements to send the dresses to other countries. One of those contacts is a woman named Grace in Manila, who distributed the dresses to little girls in the local school. She later sent Brown photographs of the children selecting their dresses and wearing them, with happy smiles on their faces.

“That is very gratifying to me,” says Brown, who is able to use a magnifying glass to make out the images on her smartphone.

Thanks to low-vision specialist Dr. Pamela Snavely, with Wertsch Vision Associates in Lititz, Brown has received special magnifying glasses that she can wear when she sews. They help her see her work as she carefully makes each dress.

“I start with a pillowcase,” explains Brown, as she deftly cuts sleeves out for a dress and creates strips of fabric that will be used to form the straps of the sundresses. Once she has sewn each dress together, she decorates each one with rickrack, ribbon, and trim. She usually adds pretty pockets, also detailed with trim, often in a contrasting color.

The pillowcases might be simple white eyelet, solid pastels, deep colors, floral patterns, striped, checked, cartoon characters, images of puppies or kittens, or even camouflage patterns.

She admits that she is rather partial to the ones with kittens on them. A cat-lover herself, Brown usually sews with a kitty purring next to her or keeping a watchful eye on her work from a perch on the back of her sofa.

Nothings makes seamstress Brenda Brown happier than receiving photos of little girls overseas wearing dresses she has hand made. This group of students lives in Manila.

The pillowcases come from her church, and other donations of pillowcases and trim. Brown has always enjoyed sewing, and was grateful to have her old sewing machine replaced with a donation of a nice new one.

“Sometimes when I get a donation of a pillowcase, the person is curious to see what I will do with it,” says Brown, adding that it’s always fun to come up with a unique idea for pillowcases with contrasting borders or unusual prints.

Brown estimates that she has made more than 350 pillowcase dresses and is always reaching out to find new contacts, such as Ecuador and West Africa. Postage can get expensive, so Brown often needs donations to help cover postage.

Her mission of making dresses is something that keeps her busy. Before her vision issues, Brown was always busy.

Originally from Lancaster County, she has lived in Montana, where she was a sheriff’s deputy. She has also worked as a pharmacy technician, for the Montana Department of Revenue, and for

Montana school districts. Nearly two years ago, she moved back to Lancaster County from Florida to be near her daughter and brother.

She is a member of the quilters group at her church, as well as singing in the choir. Now that the weather is nice, she is using her green thumb to grow tomatoes, peppers, beans, sugar peas, cucumbers, lettuces, and even peanuts in her backyard garden.

“I’m not the kind of person who can just sit around,” says Brown. “Helping others is how I find fulfillment in my life.”

To make donations of pillowcases, ribbon, trim or other items for Brenda Brown’s dress project, contact Akron Church of the Brethren at 717-859-2156.

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the pages of The Ephrata Review. She welcomes feedback and story tips at lknowles21@gmail.com. 

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