A gift of skill and love: Home-sewn holiday dresses so little girls won't go without

SANSOM PARK -- For the last several months, Ollie Jones has spent her days at the sewing machine, stitching 35 new dresses in girls sizes 3 to 16. They were generally done in holiday colors of red or green, some plaids, with lace here and frills there. None were the same.

Then, on Thursday morning, as she has for the last eight years, the 74-year-old great-grandmother loaded up her inventory of new dresses and took them to Joy James Elementary School in Sansom Park. There, she transformed the office of guidance counselor Liz Brown into a bustling, slightly chaotic and very, very happy fitting room.

In groups of three or four, Brown led girls into the room and let them have their pick. They ranged from preschoolers to fifth-graders, children who otherwise would not have the luxury of shopping for a new dress.

As Jones, her daughter, her daughter-in-law and school Principal Deonna Courtney helped with sizing, the eyes of the little girls twinkled.

Some were shy. Others were not.

"This one," said 4-year-old Gresia Garcia, pointing to a pink dress.

"Oh Gresia. That's beautiful," a teacher said when the girl tried it on.

Ten-year-old Katlin Boatright picked a blue dress.

"I love your dresses," she said to Jones.

"I love you," Jones said, hugging the girl.

The hugs, it seemed, and the twinkling eyes, were her payment.

"This is a wonderful gift," Brown said as she shepherded another group of girls into the room. "She'll do this again at Easter."

Jones has been sewing seriously for 50 years, but for most of that time the beneficiaries have been her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and husband. For her relatives, buying clothing in a store was an oddity. Several years ago, she had accumulated a bit of surplus fabric, and she thought of the girls who went without during the holidays.

"I just thought of the little girls who might need a new dress at Easter," Jones remembered. "I know I always had one."

Her children had attended Joy James Elementary decades before, so she approached the school with her plan.

"They said sure," Jones said. "I've made a lot of little kids happy down there. One little girl, her mother had died when she was born, and her daddy raised her, and he always put her in pants. The dress I gave her was the first she ever had. That was two Christmases ago."

Then there was the thank-you note from the little girl who "said she was ugly, but when she put that dress on she felt beautiful."

"That was kind of sad," Jones said. "It just makes you sit down and cry sometimes, to hear the little messages they put in there."

For Jones, dressmaking is a year-round operation. There are five machines in her sewing room. She doesn't have to worry about washing dishes or cleaning the house; her retired husband, Bill, has vowed to take care of the housework. Each dress generally takes a day or two, depending on extra flourishes. She has also branched out into making quilts for Fort Worth homeless shelters.

At Joy James, Brown, the counselor, works with teachers to determine which girls should receive dresses. They tend to come from families that are struggling financially.

And Thursday, Jones' dresses had found new owners in just over an hour. (The dressmaker realizes that the boys at the school might be jealous, but she doesn't really enjoy making pants.) One girl could not find a dress that fit, so Jones vowed to sew another one to her specifications and get it back before school let out for the holidays Friday.

Not all of her customers were satisfied, at least not immediately. Victoria Mata, 5, insisted that she didn't see a dress she liked.

"I want to buy one at the store," she said.

Jones laughed.

"You can't please them all," she said. "Even at 4 or 5."

Victoria eventually left happy with a lacy white top and dark skirt.

"Thank you," she said, hugging Jones as she left the room.

By lunchtime, the seamstress was back home, working on one more dress for the little schoolgirl who was hard to fit.

She will also provide gifts and a Christmas meal for a needy family from the school.

Come January, Jones will start on her Easter dresses. For that holiday, she has also been known to include a home-sewn Easter bonnet or two.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544