Sunday, 15 May 2011


I've always been a sucker for smocking. Before I had a daughter, seeing smocked baby dresses would nearly reduce me to tears. To me, smocking is everything little girl clothes should be and I would spend far too much on a dress just because it had a little bit of smocking on the top. You get the idea - I LOVE smocking.

So last year, when I was first learning to sew, I googled smocking in hopes that I could master it and put it on EVERYTHING. But it looked impossibly hard, and I never tried it. Smocking went into the 'for skilled crafters only' file (along with applique, and look how wrong I was about that!). But today, I was given a fantastic book: Making Stuff: An Alternative Craft Book. Along with a fantastic way to cheat at felting, it had instructions for smocking a little sundress - and it looked dead easy. So during nap time, I ran out to the fabric shop to buy shirring elastic and spent £1.70 on 60cm of floral poly-cotton to make this adaptation. (Normally, I like 100% cotton but this was the practice number. I bought some gorgeous cotton for the next one!)

Now this would be easily done in a nap time - even a short one - but I kinda goofed in my measurements. Math is never my strong point. So follow the equation carefully, and you can have this dress done in 30-40 minutes, no problem.

What you need:

-fabric, about 60cm for a child's dress
-shirring elastic, in a colour that vaguely matches your fabric
-buttons (optional)
-sewing machine and iron

Step 1: draft your pattern

 Basically, you are going to make a shape something like a rectangle with the bottom half of a triangle. To do this, you first need to measure around the chest of the little one you're sewing for. On my model, I measured loosely and got 48cm.

Now you need to do the math. Take your chest measurement (48) and divide it by 4 (=12). Then add the original chest measurement (=60) and divide the total by 2 (=30). This is the right way to do it, not whatever way I originally did it which gave me 22.5 and subsequent problems.

So, the number you get is the top of your sundress. Now you need to decide how long you want the bodice (the smocked part) to be and draw down to give you the rectangle part. Now add 1/3 of your top width to either side and that will give you your bottom width. Draw diagonal lines down from each side to make up this number. You can actually make your bottom width as wide as you like; the wider it is, the fuller the skirt will be.
Pattern shape - cut two of these
It all sounds quite confusing written down, but if you've got a shape like the one in the photo then you're on the right track. Cut out two of these.

Step 2: Sew the dress up

Hem, zig-zagged and turned up once
Put your two piece of fabric right side together and sew up the side seams so that you have a tube-like shape. Open up the dress and press the seams flat. Now fold over the top about 1/4 inch and press. Fold over again and press again before sewing. Now do the same for the hem on the bottom of your dress (or, sew along the rough edge with a zig-zag stitch and then just fold up the once before sewing).

Step 3: smock!

Wind your elastic onto your bobbin. I had to do this by hand: I don't know if other sewing machines can manage it, but mine can't. It doesn't take long, though. Keep your normal thread in the top and put your elastic thread into the bottom.

Set your sewing machine to its longest stitch and position your presser foot just below your finished top. Make sure that your dress is right way out at this point, so that the elastic is on the inside and your normal thread is on the top. Now, start sewing!
The inside will look like this when you're done.

You are going to sew what will be horizontal lines all around the top of your dress, like hoops! Your first one won't look like much, but when you finish the first row, stop, cut the threads, and reposition your presser foot so that its edge is in line with the row you just finished (basically, your rows should be about 1/4 inch apart).

Keep going until you've smocked as far along as you want and then stop and admire how clever you are!

Step 4: Straps

Set your stitch length back to normal and take the elastic out. Cut two strips the length desired for straps. Make them a bit longer if you want them to cross in the back, and cut them about 2.5 times the width you want them to actually be.

Fold them in half length-wise, right sides together, and sew up the long edge so that you have two long tubes. Turn them right way out and press flat. Tuck in the rough edge of one end and sew. Add a button hole to the end of each strap if you want to use buttons. Sew buttons on to your dress (front or back, up to you!) where you want the straps to fasten. Sew the other end of the strap on to the inside of your dress on the opposite side.

Ta da! A gorgeous sun dress, which can be worn alone or over a shirt or onesie, made in an hour!
Modelled by my wee one, before the straps were added

Variations: make four straps, and have them tie over each shoulder, or simply sew your straps in place. If you want to go this route, for a young child I would suggest using elastic so that they're stretchy enough to make the dress easy to put on.

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