Process of Smocking & Embroidering a Dress – Part 4

This is my fourth and final post on the process. After talking about the fabric, floss, gathering and pleating, and embroidering, it’s time to finish the Rabbit Makes a Friend dress.

Rabbit Makes a Friend (sewing the dress) The area to be hand-smocked and hand-embroidered on a girl’s dress doesn’t appear large, until you stop to think about filling that area with thread that’s less than 1/16 of an inch wide. If I’m smocking, each pleat has to have at least one stitch in it, and often more than one, depending on the design; that’s one stitch per pleat, every row. Often there are as many as twenty-five rows.

When I embroider, I embroider right over the pleats, so I’m able to cover many pleats at a time, but it’s much slower than if I were smocking. With embroidery, entire areas have to be covered with thin thread and no spaces can show through. Working fine detail such as the detail in faces, is difficult, and requires even more time. I compose the scene as I go, requiring trial and error, which can also be time consuming. And strangely, for the extreme amount of time that it takes to embroider a picture, if I make an error, it takes even more time to rip it out!

Rabbit Makes a Friend - Detail - Dress #393 Finally, I’ve designed the end of the scene–but I’m still not quite done. Almost always after I’ve finished a scene, I go back and add a few rows of smocking at the top and the bottom. Then I pull out the gathering threads that the pleater put in, and it’s ready to be sewn into a dress.

Once the dress is finished I hang it on the wall above my sewing table where I can see it while I work on my next dress. That way I can occasionally look at it from a different perspective, which allows me to make sure that the dress is done; that I don’t want to add more smocking or change something in the embroidery. Once the dress passes that week on the wall and I’ve made changes, if necessary, it gets put into the closet with the others that are finished and ready for a little girl to wear.

Rabbit Makes a Friend - Dress #393

Process of Smocking & Embroidering a Dress – Part 3

The front of the dress has been gathered and pleated so in this post I’ll begin to talk about the hand-embroidery.

Before I could begin embroidering the scene on the front of the Rabbit Makes a Friend dress, I had to Smocking Continued make sure that the pleats in the middle were secured. This I do either by smocking on the right side of the fabric as a part of the scene, as I did with the hills and a few rows above the hills, or by smocking on the wrong side of the fabric, which is called back-smocking. Back Smocking Example That way if the smocking doesn’t fit with the design or scene that I’m making, it won’t show. (I need to note that I’m now ready to begin embroidering the middle scene, but I still haven’t decided what that scene is going to be.) This happens often because every dress I make is an original. I make the scene up as I go, sometimes trying one thing and, not liking it, tear it out and try something else until I get something that I like.

Beginning to Embroider I always start the embroidery with the head of the main character. I start with the head because I feel the most important thing is to create a face that is attractive; either cute or pretty. I want the character to be appealing immediately. If I can’t make that happen, I abandon the idea and try another. This way I’ll know before I waste time working on the body and the rest of the scene. Fortunately it’s not often that I have to abandon an idea.

March 21 was the first day of spring! When I sat down that morning and picked up my dress front to continue working, I had almost completed the rabbit and had finished embroidering one flowering tree. It’s extremely rare that I get that far into a scene without fully knowing where I’m going, yet that’s exactly what happened with this dress.

I was putting some finishing touches on the rabbit while thinking about what I was going to have her do. As I followed the curve of her arm with my thread, it occurred to me that she should be holding something, and then, “thank-you first day of spring, ” without another thought, I knew where my picture was going. Continuing to Embroider If you look closely, you’ll notice a little bird in the rabbit’s hand. The rest of the scene will still require much time, but I am relieved that the main part, the most difficult, is basically finished and I finally know where I’m going with this picture! The remainder of the scene will be mostly background “fill-in” work. Even though I’m more than halfway through with the scene, it’s still going to require many more hours before it will be finished and ready to make into a dress.

There are basically two reasons the embroidery takes so many hours. The first is that it’s extremely important that all of the stitches lie smoothly, one right next to the other, if an area is to be filled in. They can’t be very long because then they will easily catch on something and pull, distorting the object they are depicting. This is especially important on clothing, because it is subjected to all kinds of things when it is worn. Because the fabric I work with is soft and pliable rather than stiff, it’s difficult to know how tight to pull the threads. If they are pulled too tight, the fabric pulls with them and alters the shape. If they are too loose, they lie in gaps, look sloppy, and get caught on things. They have to match exactly, the area being covered.

The second thing that makes it so time consuming is the embroidery thread itself. It comes in packets where six strands of thread are twisted together to make one thick strand. The floss can’t be used as it comes packaged because the thread is much too thick to make the nice, smooth-looking stitches that are necessary. When I smock, I split the floss in half and smock with three threads at a time. When I embroider, because I often sew such fine detail and because I want to have smooth stitches, I usually split the floss and use only two threads at a time. Because two strands of thread are extremely thin, I often have to go over and over the same spot to get the three-dimensional appearance that I like to have.

Enough for now, I’ll continue to talk about the embroidery in my next post and we’ll finish up the dress.

Process of Smocking & Embroidering a Dress – Part 2

I’d like to tell you about the process of gathering and pleating the front of the dress. In my last post, I started taking you through the process of sewing a Rabbit Whiskers dress. I’ve already selected the fabric and embroidery floss.

The first step is to gather the dress front. That does two things. It holds the pleats in place until they’ve been smocked, and it gives me guide lines, marking the rows to be smocked. I use a pleater Pleater to gather the portion that is to be smocked. This is the only part of dress-making that I dread. It’s hard to believe, but at least for me, this is the most difficult part. The portion I’ll smock must be cut at least three times wider than the desired finished width. Even on a small child’s dress, this amounts to a large piece of fabric, making it awkward and difficult to work with.

I prepare the pleater by threading the needles with extra-strong, long strands of quilting thread. After ironing and laying the fabric out flat, the dress front has to be rolled around a 3/4″ round, long wooden dowel. It is crucial that the fabric be rolled tightly and evenly around the dowel. If it’s rolled crookedly, when it passes through the pleater the rows to be pleated will sit on a slant, causing the finished design and picture to be slanted. The pleats won’t line up, one row directly on top of another, causing puckers and gaps in the fabric and making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to smock.

Once the fabric is rolled onto the dowel I slowly feed it through the pleater. To begin the process, the fabric has to be fed into two grooves, one on each side of the pleater and, at the same time, a knob at the side of the pleater has to be turned so the eight threaded needles will catch the fabric and pull it in. To do this really requires three hands, so I use my chin to push the knob until the fabric is in far enough for the needles to catch it. It’s crucial that the fabric be fed through the pleater evenly. I hold my breath until I’ve finished pleating and can check to see if it went through correctly; if it didn’t, I have to pull all of the threads out and start over again.

With the dress I’m working on here, Rabbit Makes a Friend, I was pleased to see that the rows were even, indicating the fabric had gone through correctly, but then I noticed that one of the rows was Pleating a Dress missing a thread. Apparently the thread had gotten caught in a crack in the table where I was working, and pulled out. That meant I had to start the whole process over again! Fortunately, my next trial was a success.

Finally it’s time to begin stitching. I always start with the smocking. If I’m planning on smocking the sides and saving the middle for a scene, as I planned to do on this dress, I will smock the sides first, as you can see from the photo. Smocking Begins at the Side In a dress of this design, I think of the smocking as a background; a sort of frame for the scene that will go in the middle.

The next post, I’ll write about how I begin hand-embroidering the scene.

Process of Smocking & Embroidering a Dress – Part 1

So, you’ve seen the photos of my completed dresses and I’ve told you a bit about my background and interest in smocking. I thought you might like to see the process of sewing dress #393 (Rabbit Makes a Friend). In the next four posts, I’ll try to show you what actually goes into composing one of these dresses.

I like to keep a wide variety of colors and prints of fabric on hand because unless I’m working on a special order, my choice of fabric for any particular dress is dictated by my mood at the time, although I do try to have a variety of colors and designs in all four sizes. Sometimes, if I don’t feel particularly drawn to any fabric or design, Trunk of Materials Closeup I’ll just open the trunk where I store my fabric, close my eyes, and take the first piece that I touch. I chose the fabric for the previous dress, To the Swimming Hole, because I felt a strong desire to do something with ducks on it. I settled on the lavender-blue fabric because it suggested water and because I thought that white ducks would contrast beautifully with the deep lavender-blue.

The Rabbit Makes a Friend dress is a bit more difficult to explain. I went through all of my fabrics three times trying to decide which to choose. I had no particular design in mind so I was hoping that as I looked at the fabric, a particular piece would suggest something (as often happens.) When still nothing suggested itself I chose this fabric simply because I thought it was pretty, but in making this choice, I also challenged myself. The rose-print fabric is beautiful–but it is also very busy, which makes it difficult to work with because it’s hard to make anything show up against it.

When I began smocking the sides, I decided that two white lambs would look good in the middle section. Floss Choosing the right colors of embroidery floss always takes me a long time, there being so many colors to choose from, but after many minutes of looking and matching, I made a decision. With the selected floss laid out on my workspace, I put the other floss away and sat down to begin my work.

As I picked up a needle to thread it, I got a strong sense that no, lambs would not work on this dress but a rabbit wearing a pretty dress; something frilly and feminine, would better suit the fabric’s “dainty” design. Back went the embroidery floss I had originally chosen, and after several more minutes, out came a new selection. Switching my design from lambs to a rabbit made my work more difficult. The lambs, being white, would easily stand out from the background fabric, while it was going to require some creative thinking to bring the rabbit out–I definitely set myself up for a challenge!

In the next post I’ll go through the gathering and pleating process.

Background of Dress-making Part 2

Last post, I wanted to talk about why I started making dresses, so in this one I thought I’d describe the process a little.

One dress takes a week to complete, of which five days are spent doing hand work; embroidery and smocking. Working exclusively for so many days, I develop a close relationship with the dress I’m working on. If, for example, I have stitched an animal, the dress has acquired a personality. I find myself curious to know what that animal is thinking; what she likes and dislikes. The rabbit on dress #390 is on a swing suspended from a tree in her garden. I wonder what she appears to be daydreaming about while engulfed in the colors and scents around her.

As I sew, these scenes play themselves out in my mind. There is no set amount of smocking, characters or objects that each dress must have. The dress is given what it needs to complete the thought in my mind, and is finished only when I am satisfied that that has been accomplished. That is why some dresses have more or less rows of smocking or characters than others. I don’t think about the next dress until I’m satisfied that the present one has everything I want it to have.

As a child looks at pictures in a book and lets them talk to her, my hope is that she can have as much fun imagining what might be happening in the scene on her dress as I have creating that scene, and imagining the little girl who will be wearing it. I will never make two identical dresses, that way ensuring for me continued challenge while staving off boredom, and giving you the knowledge that your child will have something that she will enjoy wearing; something uniquely hers!

Background of Dress-making

This is the first part of two posts explaining some of the background on how I started making dresses for little girls.

I began making smocked dresses thirty years ago when my daughter was born, teaching myself from a pattern that had six rows of simple smocking. When she could no longer wear the dresses I had smocked, I was sad to think that I would have to stop making them. Then a friend suggested I make them to sell. That way I could continue doing what I loved, while giving other children the opportunity to wear them. Twenty-five years later, I’m still smocking and eager more than ever to try the new ideas that continually present themselves.

My first dresses were experiments with different smocking designs, but after a while I got bored simply stitching designs. Gradually little flowers began to sprout amongst the rows of smocking. I enjoyed making flowers and found them to be a pretty addition to the ever-increasing rows of smocking, so they became a staple in the design. A short time later, the flowers were joined by a little bunny, and I liked it even better. I liked the way the addition of embroidery added a third dimension to the dress, making the scene come alive. It made me realize how many other things were just waiting to take their place in the spotlight of a child’s dress. These dresses were different from other smocked dresses. In addition to the beautiful intricate designs that distinguish smocking from anything else, they had life; they had personality!

Over the years they continue to grow; more and more animals, children, flowers- entire scenes framed by as many as twenty-five rows of smocking make their way onto dress fronts. I realized then that the dress backs were in need of embellishment, so hand-stitched trim and an embroidered flower or two were added to the button placket of each dress. The sleeve ruffles as well, are edged with hand stitching or lace, with the exception of a few dresses, where to do so would detract from the dress design. Often, on a whimsy, a flower may pop-up on a sleeve, collar, or near the hem of the dress as a little surprise.