Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Mary Lennox's Garden Frock - From a Non-Smocking Home

Where I live, in the Sierra foothills of California, its springtime.  Well, not really, but you'd have a hard time convincing the grass, narcissus and daffodils differently.  What we really have is a lot of sunshine and boggy yards.  The perfect conditions for little green shoots to spring up.  Maybe that's the reason why I finally dug in and tackled this paper doll costume for my Mary Lennox.  I knew it would be a steep learning curve, but this was just what I needed.

January has been a roller coaster of a month for me.  I know I've never mentioned this, but my sweet dog, Dover, is finally losing his battle with lymphoma cancer after two years of chemotherapy.  Anyone who's lost a loved one to cancer knows what I'm going through.  Especially a dog lover.  So what I needed was a focus.  You see, he doesn't know he's sick, so I must always keep an upbeat attitude around him.  Trust me, it helps.  Both of us.  Reading and creating are my two escapes, and I'm doing a lot of both right now. 

As I was contemplating my next move after December, I started cleaning up my studio and noticed that I'd not shelved the book on smocking that I picked up a couple of years ago.  If you've been following this journal, you might recall that I've been putting this off for a long time.  Everyone I'd talked with about smocking, either had a smocking machine, or took a class with a piece already smocked, and ready to embroider.  There's two parts of this process, and neither is "a breeze".  But, the garden frock has been one of my favorites from Mary's paper doll book, so I sat myself down and went to work. 

I really can't say enough about this marvelous book.  Whether you're a beginner, novice or seasoned smocker, this book is so well illustrated and so well written, that even I could manage something out of it.  And, that's saying something for someone who doesn't read or follow directions well. 
One of things about smocking is that if you don't get the pleats done to perfection, the embroidery work is not going to "work".  My first attempt was a sloppy one.  Between each stitch is a tiny space, and this all has to be consistent to get the pleats you need to embroider on.  And, this is doll clothing, so it would not do to get a people sized iron on transfer.  You could measure out a thousand dots on a piece of paper and lay your fabric over it, then mark over the dots, but I found a better way.  Polka dot fabric.  Next time, if there is a next time, I'll buy a piece of polka dot fabric with dark dots.  But, the light red worked in a pinch.  I was pretty proud of myself after two days of stitching in these rows, but that was just the beginning of what I needed to do.  And, this was only supposed to be a trial piece.  After doing it though, after spending all that time, I wanted to see if I could make the piece work for the pinafore, which seems to be what this entire outfit was all about. 
I had to then teach myself the Diamond Trellis stitch, which is about three-quarters of the way through the book.  "Let's do something difficult, the first time around!"  First you have to learn the cable stitch, then the trellis, then repeat the trellis upside down to make the diamond.  Good grief.  What a lot of work for a 2 3/8" x 3" panel for a doll pinafore!  I had a Boneka smocked dress in front of me to guide me, and it was mighty humbling.  I do know one thing, learned one thing, you have to do this often, maybe all the time, to get really good at it.  And, fast.  Those Indonesian girls at Boneka really know what they're doing!

But, I succeeded in getting a reasonable facsimile of a properly smocked panel with which I could fashion a pinafore around.  I think.  No, not really.  I should have left a larger empty space on one side, but that's besides the point since I was determined to make this piece work after all the time I put into it.
The next part of this pinafore, which took even longer, was making embroidered trim for it.  As you know, I try my best to follow an illustration to the T.  When an artist paints a seam or a pleat, this is generally done in shades of gray and purple.  There was definitely navy lines matching the stitching on the trim.  So I had to come up with a way to make those navy lines.  I had some beautifully woven navy cotton left over from a Lettie Lane dress that I was saving, and used that for this purpose.  I measured out thin lengths of the batiste and the navy cotton and stitched them together on the machine, then ironed the two navy strips under the white - then did the navy stitching on top on the edges.  This tape would go over the tiny, narrow straps of the pinafore, tiny waist band, and two strips down the apron.  It would also have to be hand-stitched on, after the embroidered stitching was done. 

The other tape work was done for the top edging of the lace that goes along the bottom of the hem of the apron.  This required only a top band of navy, then that navy band was hemmed beneath.  24" of it, before I attached the lace by hand.  There was no pattern made for the apron, save for the strap ruffles.  I sort of just cut and pieced this thing together as I went along. 

I  suppose you might call this an heirloom pinafore, or at least it was done in heirloom stitching fashion, but it me it was like constructing the Eiffel Tower.  The very last thing I did was the pretty embroidery work that made up the "jacquard ribbon" we would be attracted to on this pinafore.  The white bands I made for it were sewn the same way as the tape, and needed to be hand sewn to the smocking as I "built" the pinafore.  So what transpired while trying to piece this thing together, was that the ladder stitching I did to sew the straps to the panel didn't seem to want to allow me the latitude to angle the straps.  With each stitch I put into those smocking pleats, the straps and pleats wouldn't coordinate.  I did this three times and called it quits.  It seems that all the smocking I did got covered up, too.  Which probably isn't a bad thing.  But, that's why the panel isn't narrower at the waist.  I was very happy to be embroidering in any other color than navy by that time, too.  Basically, the artist painted dots, and I had to make up a pleasing pattern that might resemble something other than colored dots.  I hope this isn't the one time where the illustration is nicer than the costume, but I'm my own worst critic.  Heaven  help me when I attempt to make the pink ruched dress next to it!

Oh yes.  I did make the navy floral dress somewhere in there.  I think it was after I'd completed the Diamond Trellis smocking.  In order to make the apron fit nice and be proportionate, I had to build it over the dress.  I've actually had this lovely cotton print since I first began my Mary Lennox collection.  Purely a lucky find.  Basic dress.  Long puffed sleeves and high neck.  Always fully lined.

Having sewn a small snap to close the narrow waistband ties, I worked on her gardening tools.  This little set was the inexpensive Darice gardening set of spade shovel, pitch fork and digging shovel.  I simply snipped off the long handles, shortening them for 16" doll gardening tools.  I used the Krylon Short Cuts red paint to spray the tines of forked garden tool.  For the handles, there's this neat stuff called Plasti Dip, which is a liquid plastic that most people use for exactly the purpose I did - the handles of tools.  It does come in yellow and clear, as well as black.  Its a little tricky on minis, but I'd loved the results.

Next came the basket.  I knew when I started out that I wanted to needle felt the basket.  I wasn't quite sure of the approach I was going to take, but since there was no way to find this exact basket in the size, shape and woven colors of the illustration, I'd have to make it.  Needle felting it seemed the best way to go.  I looked up basket weaving on many sites and Youtubes, and the best one I could come up with was a "round paper woven basket".  I tried a couple of different things first.  The square paper basket approach, thinking I could needle felt the roundness.  Nope.  I tried cutting wool felt sheets for this same purpose, and that wasn't going to work.  So I made it the standard round basket way of layering crosses into a star shape.  Then you weave the bands through.  Now this isn't paper, cardboard, construction paper or straw.  Its made from felted wool strips.  So it was floppy to work with. 

In order to felt this together, I shaped a styrofoam ball by pressing into it, to make the interior basket shape.  That way I had something poke into besides my finger.  I would have loved to make this out of construction paper, but finding the exact colors, etc...well, I just didn't want to take another two weeks to do this.  Is it perfect? No.  But, then you're looking at learning basket weaving as well as doing it from floppy wool strips that need to be poked, so I'm not going to complain.  I finished it yesterday and made a couple of seed packets from vintage seed packet images found on the Internet. 

I'm pleased with the overall outcome of the complete costume, but I spent three weeks making that pinafore, and I don't wish to repeat that again.  Smocking?  Only on a very "need to" basis will I do it again.  But, I learned a lot.  It was a good experience and I feel more knowledgeable about heirloom sewing as well.

My grandmother made me a smocked gingham dress when I was ten years old.  That woman could do it all!  I remember wearing it and studying the funny, chunky stitches on the front of the dress.  That dress was washed and dried and ironed many times, and the smocking looked fresh and beautiful through each wear.  How I wish she were here today to teach me all she knew. 



  1. Stunning! Fantastic! Love it.
    I'm so very sorry to hear about your dear little doggie. I lost mine last March and still miss her dreadfully.

  2. Thank you, Loretta. And thank you for thinking of Dover. We had to put him down on February 17th. Big hole left in our lives. I'm so sorry for your loss.