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Stitch in time saves more than nine

14 June 2024

The ‘Dorcas Dress’ is helping women from around the world learn skills and earn a living, Sarah Lothian discovers

Dorcas Dress Project

The Dorcas Dress

The Dorcas Dress

SITTING in the workshop at the end of her garden in Oxfordshire, Maria Skoyles places her grandfather’s sewing machine on the table and smiles at the six expectant faces on her laptop screen.

The women are located on the other side of the world, in Uganda and Kenya, but they have one thing in common: their sewing machines are broken, and Mrs Skoyles is going to demonstrate how to mend them. By the end of the morning, 12 machines are fixed, enabling the women to continue their work as part of the Dorcas Dress Project.

Mrs Skoyles is the founder and chief executive of the charity, whose aim is to support people by providing skills training, resources, and pastoral care to enable them to emerge from financial hardship. Training and equipment are provided through “sewing hubs” in the UK and Africa. These, in turn, train others, passing on the skills needed to earn an income.

At the heart of the operation is the Dorcas Dress, named after the seamstress mentioned in Acts, “who was always doing good and helping the poor” and whom St Peter restored to life.

“Our dress design has been developed so it can be used as an enterprise tool,” Mrs Skoyles says. “Proceeds from the sale of the dress are fed back into our charity pot to grow and support more people out of poverty.”

The Dorcas Dress is made in one size only, but is adjustable for all shapes, she explains. “If you’re in a market, or have a small business, and you’ve made or bought ten dresses, every single one of those dresses can be bought by any customer that comes to your store.

“You’re not encumbered by having to make a choice as to whether to buy small, medium, or large dresses, and then only have a small percentage of your stock that will fit that particular customer.”

The dress is also specially designed so that it can be made in remote parts of the world where access to electricity is limited and sourcing trimmings such as zips is difficult.


THE charity operates through ten hubs in the UK, Uganda, Nigeria, Burundi, Tanzania, and Kenya. Mrs Skoyles is currently raising funds for a new hub in Bangalore, in India.

“Every sewing hub is different,” she says. “Each will have a completely different feel. It’s really important to set them up in a way that honours what other people are doing, what the community looks like, and how we can be most helpful. I believe that God leads you when you listen to people about what the needs are.”

Dorcas Dress ProjectThe Dorcas Dress Project uses Zoom and WhatsApp to train and provide support for hubs around the world

The organisation works with existing groups or organisations that have church or Western connections, for ease of communication. “We send a form to fill in to find out who they are, and what skills they have already, how they would like the hub to function, and then we meet and chat and we work our way forward.

“We train three or four people to start with, then they become the trainers, and we have all the training materials on an online training platform.” These include videos of how to sew. All the trainees first make four bags that incorporate all the sewing techniques that they need to make a dress.

“When people are able to make the dresses, we then need to find people to sponsor the production of those dresses. Just under £400 will buy us ten dresses. So, we buy those ten dresses to resell, and then we reinvest that £400 back when we’ve sold them. When there’s a payment of six dresses, that’s usually enough for someone to buy their own sewing machine.”


IN UGANDA, the Dorcas Dress Project works with the Musizi Joy Foundation. When the women involved speak about their experiences, it becomes clear that this project is about much more than a dress. Vicki, who lives in Kampala with her husband, 17-year-old sister, and three children, told the Church Times of her pride in learning new skills.

“I could never make clothes, but, after joining, I can make so many. I can cut a dress and pockets, too. It’s made so much difference, and I have been able to make some money of my own. I’m able to have my own customers now to make clothes for, and some of my trainees are able to do that as well.

Dorcas Dress ProjectWomen from the TANU sewing hub in Uganda wear the Dorcas Dress

“It’s changed my life and the lives of my friends in the group. When we meet together we have so much to share, there’s so much in our brains. It’s definitely helped us to build friendships.”

Vicki now has her own sewing machine, and is earning enough not only to pay her sister’s school fees, but also to support her parents — her mother is deaf and non-speaking, and her father has mental-health issues.

This set-up is common to many homes in Uganda, Mary, one of the hub trainers, says. “When you’re doing a bit better financially, you usually get more responsibilities,” she says, “and you take care of many people from your home.”

Mary has a four-month-old son, a husband, and three people from her family who live with her. “We first learnt how to do the bags from the online ‘moodle’ [training module] that Maria provided, and then we went out into the community. Everyone in the team has someone that they are training.

“One of things is to give people another source of hope; we’ve given them skills and a community — they come to the office where they share their issues. We need new hope. All these women have their unique and different stories where they need a little bit of help and push, and this project has helped them move from one place to another.

“Most of the ladies that we deal have something dysfunctional happening in their family. Either the father of their child is not helping much, or they have issues affecting their children; so the hub is a place where they know that they are not the only ones struggling.”

Agnes talks about her pride in learning a new skill. “I was nervous before, but now I can say that I can sit and work at the sewing machine, and I can share this skill with others.”

This sharing is important, Mrs Skoyles says — and not just of skills, but of stories. “I’ve seen that when women gather, it is a goal to be efficient and to make money; but it’s not the priority — the priority is knowing each other, loving each other, and the sharing of life together is more important, because that’s when you get help and support.”


IN THE UK, too, the focus of the Dorcas Dress Project is always on community and connection. Just over a year ago, Maria started visiting a hotel in Witney, in Oxfordshire, which houses people seeking asylum.

“They’re from a multitude of places — Morocco and Eritrea, Iran, and Iraq. There was a family from Afghanistan at one point. This sewing hub has focused on people donating clothes which can be mended and altered and shared among the community,” Maria says.

“If someone doesn’t have a sewing skill, they’re sat alongside someone else who can help them, or sew for them. We noticed particularly early on, when the hotel was first opened, that we were able to provide a space where people from all these different countries and languages were able to sit together and talk.

“It meant friendships were built across cultures that probably wouldn’t have happened quite so easily. I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have happened, but it wouldn’t have been quite so easily without the focus of sewing that everyone was enjoying.”

Dorcas Dress ProjectVicki, one of the women at the Musizi Joy Foundation, receives her new sewing machine

Mrs Skoyles is now looking for funding to expand the project and take it to several other towns in the county: “The idea is, rather than being located in a hotel where it’s only accessible to people that are living in that location, we’ll go to a town centre and allow people from across the town to come and use the service.

“So, it’ll be people that have already been granted refuge, but also people on low income, and then the hope is that we’ll get volunteers with technical sewing skills. It will still be about dressmaking. We will still use the bags, and the dress is training.”

Mrs Skoyles described the Dorcas Dress Project as a “storytelling mechanism”. She continues: “It gives us an opportunity to talk to different people. It tells a story of hope to our customers.

“And it tells a different story to the fashion industry as well: that fashion doesn’t have to be the beast that exploits people. It’s been designed so that it can be made in a way that honours dressmakers, boutique owners, and those who will wear it, too.”

To support the Dorcas Dress Project by prayer, signing up for the newsletter, or buying a dress, visit: dorcasdressproject.org
To enable the project to increase the number of sewing hubs: justgiving.com/campaign/dorcasdressprojectcorecosts




THE emancipation of women in Iran is an ongoing campaign that prompts many to seek refuge. Two years ago, Neena (not her real name) arrived in the UK. Neena has now been granted refugee status in the UK, but she had previously been unable to work.

Dorcas Dress ProjectNeena (not her real name)

“It was not easy to start a new life in a new country, and initially in a hotel for a long time. This kind of life is much more difficult for those who are not used to unemployment and know a profession.

“A year ago, when I heard of the sewing workshop in the hotel, I was the happiest person. It was opened on Fridays, from 1.30 p.m. to 3 p.m., and a large number of women living in the hotel participated in this workshop. Maria managed the workshop with compassion and care. She was very kind and patient with everyone, and her goal was to get us to have a job in the future.

“When she found out that I had attended a tailoring training course in Iran before, and I know this job very well, she assigned me as the supervisor of this workshop. I really liked to fill my time with sewing and to do a humanitarian work. Therefore, I accepted this offer to work as a volunteer. Since six months ago, I have been working two days a week in the sewing workshop in her house.

“When Maria found out that I am persistent, and know sewing well, she promised me that she would hire me in her workshop after I obtained a work permit. Now I have a job, I earn a little money, and I’m improving my skills. This is what makes me happy.”

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