Watermelon Smock

comments: 99


PATTERN: Bishop dress from the amazing Nancy Malitz (but all wonkiness, lack of direction-following, and general laziness [sadly] mine)
FABRIC: Cotton polka dot from Mill End Store

Thank you for all of your great comments for Andy's quilt! He was so pleased (and flattered) to read them. I am going to see if I can get him to write a post about his experience. You can imagine that he had a few things to say. The things he says about sewing while sewing crack me up. I need to write them down but I am to busy re-threading needles and filling bobbins for him. I was out on Sunday, one of the days he was sewing, and he admitted that if the bobbin had run out he would've been done for the day. I love it.

Oh, sewing. I am thinking about sewing a lot. I am learning so much. All of these little dresses — to be honest, I had already made seven or eight before I'd even started showing them off — they are teaching me so much. It's been a long time since I've sewn a gathered sleeve cap into an arm's eye, for instance. My first few were a disaster. I've made four Bishops but I just learned over the weekend from one of my books about exactly how to use a "Bishop guide," which helps you determine how to spread out the pleats evenly around the circumference of the neck. I think this dress has too much fullness in the front, and not enough in the back, and I'm guessing that's why the sleeves seem a bit pitched forward: I don't have the pleats spread evenly around the circumference? (I don't know where to get one of those guides but I'm on the hunt today.) And I didn't know that my machine could do a blind hem stitch. GLORY DAY. How did I not know this? Because I never really read the manual. Because I couldn't find the manual. Then I found it in the "special place." Where I put it so I wouldn't lose it. And there it was: blind hem stitch. No more doing hems by hand. And looking at this picture I see now what Nancy meant in the directions when she talked about "straightening the hemline." Oh, that. Got it. So much to learn. It feels so good to learn new things, especially when I should've learned them a long time ago. Aparently, now that I'm wrapping up the book, where I boss people around constantly and tell them to do things like follow the instructions, or read the appendix, I've decided that none of these directives apply to me.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than when I try to smock something. I went from sheer terror to total carelessness in a matter of pleats. The more I started to understand that contemporary smocking is almost synonymous with "heirloom sewing" (which I still think is kind of ironic, given the smock's rustic origins as a laborer's garment), the more my right eye started twitching, and I started looking for a way around. I mean, of course it makes sense to do things right (yadda yadda), since you're going to put so much time into the smocking (and let me just say that preparing something to be smocked also takes a ton of work, even if you are cutting corners the way I do). But, gulp. I sheepishly admit that I don't think heirloom is my style, in anything. Actually, my style is sort of like this: If I like doing it, I'll do it. If I don't like doing it, I probably won't do it. My preferences are totally a la carte, and rarely converge in the same garment. So, smocking something by hand on teeny tiny pleats? I'LL DO IT! I love it. Don't try to stop me. Pulling threads to make sure pieces are cut on the grain, and making French seams, or even pinking seam allowances, or (goodness forbid) basting something? Oh, dear. Oh, no. Apparently, my tolerance for those things is almost zilch. Naturally, I reserve my energies for the parts of things that I enjoy and I try to get away with doing as little as humanly possible on the parts I don't.

So thus it is that I can't be bothered to, you know, cut things straight, or, read the actual directions, or transfer the markings, or go out and buy thread that actually matches the fabric. Phooey! No. I'm on vacation! (Apparently. Even though I never am.) (Apparently also my favorite part of "sewing" seems to be the picking out of the fabric and the pattern more than any of the actual sewing itself, since I have a stack of fabric-and-patterns two feet high.)

I'm exaggerating a little, of course. All of those things are actually important. You learn that the hard way over and over again, and I know better. When you're supposed to match notches, for instance, and you can't find either of them. That's a moment when you go, "Oh. I guess I should've taken the four-tenths of a milisecond to actually snip the notches. Since I'm now sitting here for fifteen minutes ripping this thing out because I guessed and it's totally uneven." Enough of those moments and you are never too lazy to snip the notches again. (I've also run fabric through the pleater on what I thought was only a "slight" angle off-grain, and came out with a dress that was totally shaped like a parallelogram.) Doing the Right Things must eventually just become automatic, since the frocks come out pretty well, often enough. When they don't, I just think of someone one day saying, "Oh, Mommy is so funny — look, she put the sleeves on backwards again!" (I am reminded of an afternoon at the pool, twenty years ago now, with my art professor and her little girl: She'd put her own bathing suit on backwards, but was so excited to get into the water that she [smiling from ear to ear] came racing out of the locker room and jumped right in, and the suit stayed that way until adult swim. I honestly don't think she even noticed.)


I realize that I might also just be making excuses for being a sewing hedonist. I know I still have so much to learn, and so much to practice. But I just keep trying to convince myself that not all smocking can be perfect or precious, or made to be kept through the ages. I'm going for quantity here. She'll need lots, because when I think "smock" the first thing that comes to mind is "painting smock," and I hope all of these dresses are worn (and worn out) with a paintbrush/strained carrots/mud pie in hand. I really do.


I really, really want to see pinafores to go with these sweet little dresses. Is that too much to ask?

(I had one when I was about seven or eight. My mom did the sewing on the pinafore, and had me embroider some little flowers on the front of the bodice. Love.)

I am almost 60 and I am constantly amazed that there is always so much more to learn. When people make mistakes knitting their baby sweaters I often say that the baby will be too busy moving or doing to ever notice that something might be a bit askew ! Your work always looks beautiful to me.

Adorable dress! I learned a little trick for gathering that you may already know, or find helpful. Dental Floss!

Set your machine to the widest possible zig zag stitch. Cut the floss at least a foot longer that the circumference of your project. Lay the floss on your fabric, about a 1/4 " inside of where your actual stitching line will be.

Zig Zag right over the top of the floss, taking care not to catch it in a stitch.

When you're done stitching, your fabric will slide beautifully along the floss, allowing you to adjust the gathers at will. I always stop the gathers at least 1+" either side of a side seam, so it doesn't get too poofy on the side.

Once you have everything pinned in position, you can do your normal seam allowance stitching line and remove the floss.

claudia horner says: March 10, 2010 at 10:57 AM

Just let go of perfection and you'll enjoy the whole creative process a whole lot more! I used to be haunted by a home-ec teacher who, to my utter terror, announced that our final projects should look "hand-made not home-made." What exactly did she think sewing by 7th graders would look like? I worried about it for years. So, how about just plain made with love, which is the best after all. :-)

WOW!! Every time I open my computer to read your blog, I am blown away by yet another beautiful little dress!!! I don't even know what else to say but, WOW!!

Hello Paulsons!

Just a quick, totally unrelated note here. It's a cold, wet miserable day in Georgia and the post man just dropped a package off on my front porch. In it was the complete Love Comes Softly series on DVD (I've never seen it, going on your recommendation alone). I am now going to curl up with a cup of tea, a small slightly wet wiener pup, and the sweetness of Love Comes Softly. Thank you for cheering up my dreary afternoon!

Ms. Chris

Hey! I wasn't sure / couldn't find your email address, so I apologize for posting in the comments section! But ... I recently started a little etsy business and if you enjoy the store,
then I would love to be featured on your blog. Here is the link to my
store stellabellaboutique.etsy.com. I know that you gets tons of comments, so I truly hope that this one finds its
way to you :) Thanks.

Rachel Ridd


Your sewing and smocking reminds me of when my oldest daughter and my son were little. I smocked for both of them. I didn't know how to sew. I would smock and do all of the handwork, and my mother would sew them together for me.

I, too, made these little outfits to wear;not stored in a closet to look pretty. It's just what they wore to preschool, playground, wherever. My daughter, though, always wore a big bow in her hair to match, and little Mary Jane shoes or barefoot. It just completes the look.

When my youngest daughter was born, my mom had already passed away. I bought a pleater and learned how to lay out a bishop style dress for smocking. Her little dress I made her turned out beautiful and she wore it home from the hospital.

By the way...Children's Corner patterns have all kinds of smocked patterns and bishop style dresses. They show you step by step how to do everything.

Your little dressed turned out perfect.

love it! my mom is a home ec teacher and expert seamstress and i could learn how to do everything perfectly from her but like you i just do what i enjoy, so i draw and paint and when it comes to sewing i have been making little dolls that i piece together and never make the same one twice, well aware there is probably a way i "should" be doing it but like my experiments better and thankfully my mom says they are adorable and doesn't point out that the arms are two different lengths etc... :) oh and i have the same approach about punctuation

Just might be my fave so far.

Aw your dresses are all so sweet! I wish I could sew like that.

Jennifer Carter says: March 10, 2010 at 07:54 PM

B YOU TI FULL! I love that dress. I love the smocking. You inspire me every time I look at your blog. Love it.

Can you adopt me so that I can wear all these pretty things?!

The book that really helped me get good results with all of the "heirloom" techniques is called Busy Mother's Guide to Sewing Children's Clothes by Nancy Coburn. She is great because she tells you three ways to do things--the really thorough way, the faster way, and the super quick way. I still go to it for quick placket instructions. The book has been out for a long time, so you might even find it in the library or in the library of your smocking guild. A newer resource is from Country Bumpkin Publications (the Australian Smocking & Embroidery people). They have the A-Z books. There is one for smocking and another for constructing smocked clothes. They also have all sorts of embroidery books. If you want a thorough resource with fabulous pictures, this is definitely the way to go.

As for why your sleeves pitch forward, blocking it before you put on your bias band will help. You have to be sure that you have the same amount of neck band dedicated to the front of the dress as the back so the sleeves will be up on the shoulders. Most bishop patterns have a blocking guide, but there is a good one sold separately by the Ellen McCarn company. Ask anyone who sells "heirloom" patterns and they should carry it.

And don't be put off by the term heirloom. They can all be interpreted in the batiste and lace as easily as they can be in modern or retro fabrics. But learning how to use "heirloom" techniques will ensure that you haven't wasted the 20 hours that you spent smocking the dress. You'll also want to be careful to smock on fabrics that will hold up to a lot of wear and washing because you will want your smocking to be worn many many many times. That is what makes it an heirloom--not the lace or lack thereof.

Last tip...the smocking design will make a big difference in the appearance of your bishops. You want tighter stitches up close to the neck and looser stitches further away so the dress will fan out. Try a few professionally designed smocking plates and you can get a feel for it and then can branch out on your own with good results.

You've gotten a good start--you just need to keep tweaking it and you'll get good results. Feel free to email me if you ever get stuck or need to ask questions. You probably have some IRL friends too, but I love to help people fall in love with smocking, so let me know if I can help.

I have stopped by to visit for quite some time, but have never left a post. I have just enjoyed your writing and pictures, patterns and ideas, ... . I have been away on a trip and just returned to find out that you are in the process of adoption and wanted to post and tell you how thrilled I am for both you and the child that you will adopt. You will be the best parents, what a lucky little girl. What a blessing for all of you.

I like this site so much, its so colorful and positive. I have started a blog of my own, and there is alot to learn to make it a nice one, it will take me some time.

she's going to be the best-dressed little thang this side of the Mississippi!!! very cute.

Did you find a smocking guide? I ordered mine from here (last item on the page - Smock and Block Guide):

Oh my--when one's computer is broken for 2 weeks, one misses the most wonderful news! Thousands of congratulations!!!!!

such a cute watermelon smock! love the polka dots!

I look back at all those garments that I DID do fairly precisely and am amazed that I took so much time on them. It makes me pretty proud of myself, actually. Also, things can go wrong even when you follow ALL the directions, don't you know. Here's a hint, make the hems about 4 inches big on a bishop. Since it doesn't really fit anywhere, she'll be able to wear it for YEARS!

i had many smocked little dresses like this one back in the day and i loved them! loved them then and love them now!!!

oh! you are going to be such a great mom...you already are, just waiting :)

you are a beautiful mother already, just awaiting your little one. Your sewing has touched me so much. What better way would you have to express your desire and love for this child? She will be so lucky to be yours (oh and Andy's)

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com




Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.