Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cherry Dress and Tips on Smocking

I have a new found passion for smocking. It all started of course with the birth of Victoria. I was thinking of things to make for her, and somehow I remembered a very pretty grey dress that I used to wear when I was about eight. I loved that dress very much, and the top of it was smocked with a very simple flower pattern.
So I set out to look up smocking on the internet and liked what I saw... it was cute, it was old-timey, and sweet, all qualities that I enjoy in kid's clothes. 
Don't get me wrong, I love the bright colors that kid's clothes come in nowadays, the great ruffles, the funky silhouettes... but there is something to be said for the style and shape of vintage kid fashion. 

So, after a cursory search on the internet about stitches and how to gather my fabric I set out on my first smocking project. This was supposed to be simply a practice run, but I was so proud of how it turned out that I turned it into a dress.
However, seeing as I always throw myself into projects without finishing all my research and without patterns I did not realize a few things and my dress is less than perfect.
I'm going to share with you the problems I encountered and the solutions I found. If you are new at smocking or want to take it up, knowing these things ahead of time will make the first results a lot sweeter!

1. First and foremost, you want to have 3x the width of fabric that your pattern would usually need in the area that you are smocking. I think that on this dress I only gathered 2x the width of Victoria's chest and it definitely shows when it's on her. The stitches are pulled to the max, and it ends up leaving unsightly "bubbles" on the fabric. While smocking is used to gather fabric and give it stretch, you actually don't want the fabric with the smock to stretch much around the body, otherwise you lose the sharpness of the design you just spent a long time creating.

2. I might be really wrong here as I seems to read a lot of patterns that ask you to finish the clothes you've smocked after the embroidery is done, but I finished mine first, at least the neckline. Unless you are going to use bias tape to finish up your ends, you want to hem the cloth first so that you don't have to fight with your gathered fabric later on.
Now my designs so far have lain really close to the neckline, actually right against it, so it might be why I feel that this step is necessary. It might be that if the design was lower and not right against the neckline you can smock first and then sew your pattern together just like it should be if you hadn't added smocking to it.
Like I said, I do everything without patterns and on the go, so this is just what I discovered in my attempts.

3. It's ok to restart all over again! I think I started this dress three times. After pleating the fabric, I kept on messing up my stitches and being unhappy with how they were turning out. So I just cut everything and started again. I hate waste... and this was really hard for me, but I was so much happier with the result in the end run that I feel it's a tip worth sharing.

4. If you are just trying your hand at smocking, geometric smocking is much easier than picture smocking. I made this dress first, without a pattern, and figuring out the cherries was pretty hard for me and I'm still not very satisfied with them. Picture smocking which is exactly what it sounds like, making a picture with your thread (like cherries for instance, or a bear, or a whale) allows for more release of the pleats which can also be a disappointment in the end when you are expecting a nicely pleated dress. Unless you are a whiz and know exactly how far apart to space your images to keep pleats intact I would stick to geometric smocking on your first few projects.
I finished another dress (that I have to sew) in geometric smocking right after this one, and I was so much happier with the results!
Of course, every one of us is different and you might actually think that picture smocking is much easier and a lot more satisfying to boot, so give both a try by all means, but I would start with really small samples to see what you think and go from there.

5. If you hand pleat, which is what I did, go to the store and splurge for your first few tries on a fabric that has prints where you need it... let me explain: for smocking you need pleats that are 1/4" apart and the rows themselves need to be 3/8" apart. Grab a ruler and head to your favorite fabric store. Find a print that you like, and see if you can find a pattern in it that would help you stick to those measurements. Patterns with small dots, or gingham works the best.
Most people who smock add iron on dots to their fabric or run their fabric through a pleating machine, I did not have those options, however I was lucky enough to have this white fabric with a grid of elongated diamonds on it, that were spaced exactly to those measurements of 1/4" and 3/8". This was white on white, so not a fabric I would have initially grabbed, but when I saw the raised pattern I thought to check for distances. So take the time to explore, I am sure there are lots of different kinds of fabric that would give you the visual cues needed to space your pleats.

And that's about it... most importantly have fun! Smocking is not nearly as intimidating as it looks. After the initial boredom of hand pleating you fabric (find a good movie to watch/listen to while you are doing that part) the embroidery itself is a lot of fun and so satisfying!

Here are some more pictures of the project:

I never thought taking pictures of baby clothes could be this hard! She won't ever stay still and need her props to keep her distracted, hence the toys hiding her face.

Cute cherries

It's a bit easier in the carseat, if not really glamorous
The back is cute too if not really old fashioned, but I wanted something light for summer.

A better view of the back

Mom, are you done already?!
PS: I am very new to blogging and writing tips and tutorials, so if you have any questions or something is not clear please let me know! 


  1. That is an adorable dress, and I think smocking is a wonderful thing to do to baby clothes! My mother used to dress me in these gorgeous smocked baby dresses (we have pictures that's how I remember) and they are a zillion times prettier than some of the plain things out today. Smocking just makes it elegant!

  2. Thank you so much! And yes you captured exactly what I was trying to say, which is that smocking really gives an elegant feel to baby clothes :)
    Thank you again for taking the time to look at my blog after I signed up for your giveaway.