A growing army of grannies is crafting a better world by making dresses for children in Africa

Every day 99-year-old Lillian Weber sews a dress for a child in Africa – she's made 850 so far
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The Independent Online

At the age of 99, it's not surprising that Lillian Weber is somewhat frail. She walks with a stick, her hearing and eyesight are poor and she rarely ventures from the farm where she lives. But every single day, Lillian sits down at her sewing machine – a primitive affair that she's had for decades – and makes a dress to send to a child in Africa.

The mother of five, grandmother of 12 and great-grandmother of 20 starts in the morning, takes a break for lunch and finishes in the afternoon, taking care to add individual little flourishes, including lace, buttons and appliqué, to each one.

In the past two years, she's made around 850, and her impressive ambition is to celebrate her 100th birthday on 6 May next year by reaching the 1,000 mark the same day. Not that she has any intention of stopping then. "If I'm still able to make them, I won't quit," she says. "I enjoy it and I need to be busy."

Lillian, who lives in Scott County, Iowa, began her altruistic mission after spotting an advert in a local newspaper asking for volunteers with sewing skills to help the Christian charity Little Dresses for Africa, which has distributed 2.5 million of the handmade dresses in 47 African countries. It is one of an increasing number of organisations over here, as well as abroad, which work to turn grannies' passions for crafts, including sewing, knitting and crocheting, into practical ways of helping those in need.

Lillian, who was taught by her mother to sew at the age of eight and was a stay-at-home mother before her retirement, saw an opportunity to put her talents to good use.

Her daughter Linda Purcell, 64, says: "When she saw the advert, she told my sister: 'I could do that.' She's always been very good at sewing; when we were young, she made all our school uniforms for us.

''Our father passed away eight years ago, just before their 70th wedding anniversary, and she likes to keep herself busy, so this has been perfect. She's always saying that she could make more than one dress a day, but we try to tell her not to tire herself out too much."

Linda, who lives next door to her mother on the farm the close-knit family have owned for 62 years, adds: "She's an absolutely awesome woman, very kind and generous. She loves doing the dresses and adding her own little touches on the front to personalise them, even though she doesn't have to. She loves to think she's helping people. I'm amazed by her every day, and the whole family are so proud of her."

It's heart-warming to learn that there are also plenty of equally generous-spirited older people using their creative powers for good in Britain. The organisation Loving Hands has 8,000 members, mostly retirees, creating everything from warm clothing for children, blankets for the elderly and burial clothes for stillborn babies for charities including Sands, the RSPCA and the Salvation Army.

Innocent Drinks runs an annual fundraising campaign called the Big Knit in which the public are asked to knit tiny hats to adorn bottles of its products, from which 25 pence of the price goes to Age UK. One of the most prolific Big Knitters is Marjorie Needham, an inspiring 81-year-old from Bromley who knits hundreds of the hats every year.

Maureen Hawkins, 75, is another big-hearted craft enthusiast. Known as "Granny Mo", she spends five hours a day crocheting, and has produced more than 900 blankets since 2000 for the Born Too Soon charity, which supports premature babies at Kingston Hospital's neonatal unit.

For Lillian Weber, all her hard work will pay off this autumn, when the founder of Little Dresses for Africa, Rachel O'Neill, will personally take some of Lillian's dresses to Africa and return with photographs of young girls wearing her creations.