UMN class makes clothes for girls in Uganda

The Technical Design Studio class creates clothes for girls at Blue House orphanage in Kazo, Uganda.

Blue House, a girls' orphanage in rural Uganda, partnered with an apparel design course at the University to create clothing items for the girls in need.

Courtesy of Lucy Dunne

Blue House, a girls' orphanage in rural Uganda, partnered with an apparel design course at the University to create clothing items for the girls in need.

Lew Blank

In a University of Minnesota apparel design class, curriculum is combined with charity as students create hundreds of clothing items from scratch for Ugandan girls in need.

Technical Design Studio, an apparel design course offered at the University, requires students to take clothing designs through every step in the textile production process. When the semester is over, students will gain experience in apparel design and more than 200 impoverished girls at the Blue House – a girls’ orphanage in rural Uganda – will receive new clothes.

The course, which is offered every fall, kicks off when students receive rough clothing sketches drawn by the girls in the Ugandan orphanage. Although the sketches are typically too vague to be followed exactly, the students use them as inspiration in designing the garments, which are drafted both on paper and on a computer.

This year is the first time that students are working off of sketches from the girls. Previously, the students would create the clothes without the aid of sketches.

Students attempt to meet the specific clothing needs of the Ugandan girls, which in the past has included sleepwear, fleece jackets and nice clothing for church.

After the design process is complete, the class becomes a textile factory where students cut, sew and fit clothes for shape and size. With an approximate budget of $5,000 for equipment, supplies and shipping, the students produce approximately 240 articles of clothing for the Ugandan girls.

“Most of the clothing market in Uganda is second-hand clothing from the U.S., so to have something that’s brand new and was made just for them is pretty special,” said Lucy Dunne, who teaches the class.

When they receive the clothes, the girls typically get very ecstatic and send appreciative letters back to the class, something that warms the hearts of the student designers, Dunne said.

“I’m super excited to see all the girls wear the things that we’ve designed,” said Ian Harris, a University junior in the class. “It’s kind of a win-win for everybody. … We get to learn more, and then they get to … enjoy the products of our hard work.”

In Uganda, nearly eight percent of the workforce is employed in the textile industry, mostly consisting of women and youth, according to a 2017 study published by ScienceDirect.

As a result, the opportunity for the Ugandan girls to dip their toes in the world of clothing design can be essential to their future employment, said Karen Lilley, a volunteer at the Blue House.

“In Uganda, if you know how to sew, you can open up a shop,” she said. “We kind of wanted [the girls] to feel like these University students were role models.”

To build the girls’ future experience in clothing production, the class sends the garment patterns they used to the Blue House at the end of the semester so that the orphans can one day make the clothing themselves.

“It’s just unparalleled to actually be sending your stuff to somewhere real,” Dunne said. “It’s not just a classroom exercise. They’re actually doing something that is valued by other human beings.”