Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Girls in White Dresses - Picking Violets

The other day my friend Betsy gave me a call and excitedly told me that she was sending me a package.  She told me that she'd found a beautiful antique white christening gown that she was hoping I could cut down into a dress for one of her dolls.  She and I both love the story Anne of Green Gables, and both have Wendy Lawton's 14" wood body version, and she wished a dress for her Anne.  She loves "girls in white dresses", and surely they are one of the bright signs of spring.

I was in the midst of creating the recent Polichinelle costumes for Louise and Lawrence, and delighting in their bold colors, and gilding of gold trims.  Keeping an open mind, I asked her to go ahead and send it on and I'd "have a look".  I'd recently gifted another friend of mine, a $50 hunk of antique fabric that I'd purchased at convention last summer, and wasn't looking forward to handling another piece of antique fabric.  All those little stains and moth holes give me the jitters, and cutting into something when there is no more takes a bold pair of hands and a sharp pair of scissors.

However, I've come to realize over my baby steps, and stumbles into sewing for dolls, that if you don't take a deep breath and plunge in, you don't know what you might be capable of.  Cutting into my first piece of silk was equally daunting, but once I got the hang of it, I wouldn't sew with anything else for awhile.  One of the reasons I sometimes, like with the last project, make the outfits, then miniatures, then accessories, is just to prove to myself that I still can - or at least refresh skills I used to own.  I am never, ever confident with any new project I start.  Ever.  Its only when I allow the materials to talk to me that I begin to understand them and start curiously discovering what can be done.  So it was with this christening gown, stains and holes a-plenty.

First of all you have a fully made gown that obviously some young mother lovingly created for her unborn child (in my mind at least).  Getting over the "how dare you cut it up" has to come first.  Then there is the beauty of the design that appealed first and foremost to the person who acquired it.  Envisioning it as something that would make a lovely doll dress is one thing.  Actually doing it is another.  You can't just cut up a dress with all that embroidered Swiss lace trim, entredeux, and pintucking thinking it will all sew together like a dream.  And, you cannot rip out those teeny stitches with a seam ripper either.  The fabric itself, is so delicate that one wrong tug and you've ripped right through the dress.  Ironing this stuff can be a pickle too, since a too high setting (try the silk setting), will brown the fabric.

Oh, I thought of and tried all this.  And let's not forget to cut only the "good" parts that haven't any holes or stains.  In the end, I cut up the whole dress for the best pieces and learned that you have to cut at least an 1/8" above the lace so that you can sew it to the other pieces (sigh!).  I also studied how the gown was made, and since it was not lined, I noticed that the seams were finished with a zig-zag stitch.  That helped so much.  My thoughts were on how to shrink the gown into doll size exactly.

In short, I followed the look of the original gown and used the ends of the sleeves for the long sleeves of the doll's dress.  There are these beautiful, tight little gathers in the centers as they attach to the insertion lace.  This insertion lace was also used to make a high collar.  Lengths of the fabric, what was left of it, were used to make the ties that end in pintucks.  The ties on the original christening gown were done this way.  Tiny mother of pearl buttons and hooks close it in the back. 

It wasn't until I was completely finished with the dress that I properly breathed.  In fact, all the while I was making it, I considered what I would do out of new fabric and laces to make such a dress if I failed in this attempt.  Lastly, I soaked the dress in Oxyclean (a Robert Tonner trick for restoring vintage doll dresses), to brighten and refresh the fabric.  I have a travel steamer I use for removing wrinkles, but the lace did need a bit of iron pressing. 

When it came time to take photos, I included one of Louise's antique picnic baskets and sprig of violets.  I love violets.  Their color and scent is a favorite of mine, next to lilacs.  Laura (my model) was happy to play "mannequin", and hopes that Anne, with an E, will enjoy wearing it for years to come.  I wish now that I had photographed the christening gown before cutting it up, but again, a lack of confidence was to blame.

There was no inspiration for this dress aside from the christening gown itself, but attached are a few antique white dress pictures that might inspire for the future.  Yesterday was the first day of spring, and I hope the white of your snow, should it linger still, turn to crocus and narcissus to brighten your path.

Miss E. Mouse 


  1. First and most important, it is magnificent. Your friend will surely be pleased. I am sorry that you worried so over it because I know that you have the ability to make whatever you wish. That said, I completely understand the nerves about cutting into an antique Christening gown. The fabric is wonderful and for silk, does not look "silky". It looks like a silk batiste. Were all the tucks in the original? The original must have been exquisite. I am glad you were able to get the fabric out of it to complete this masterpiece. You have also set me a challenge - that exquisite white dress with deep purple bows, under the picture of the violets. You know how I love white dresses and I now have to deal with stink eye from 8 Bleus who want white dresses other than First Communion dresses. Absolute masterpiece. Now I want a similar Lawton doll, in that height, but am sure she would not be in the budget.

  2. P.S. I am absolutely in love with the Bru in the included photos. Please do not doubt yourself, my friend. There is magic in your fingers!

  3. I absolutely love this dress! It's amazing how an all white dress could be so breathtaking, it's all of the texture from eyelet border, and embroidery, flared at the wrists that make it truly beautiful.