Gathering Threads

Ruby’s Day Dress

Posted by on Nov 15 2011, in Sewing for Children

I often take my children to the Hamilton Children’s Museum.  We’ve been going since they were very little.  It’s a wonderful, hands-place where they can play and explore to their hearts content.  Earlier this year, one of the exhibits was about archeology.   They had a giant sandbox with dinosaur bones glued to the bottom.  And pottery shards that had to be reassembled.   Fun stuff when you’re a kid.

So what does a sandbox have to do with sewing?

Well, on display was a beautiful little silk day dress that was donated to the museum by a life long Hamilton resident.  I was immediately attracted to it and asked the museum curator if I might come back to have a look at it.

Meet Ruby, age two.

(Forgive the quality of this photo – it was mounted behind protective glass)

From what the currator knew, Ruby was born in 1919.   She was two in the photo, making this dress ninety years old.   Her godmother made it for her.   It’s made of silk, with fine cotton lace, silk ribbon and silk embroidery thread.   With the exception of the side seams, which are machine sewn, everything is done by hand.

The t-shape is very typical of the 1910s and 1920s.  The arrival of WW1 and changing views of childrearing made the really fussy white gowns of the Victorian era look old-fashioned.  Simplicity and comfort were in.   But that doesn’t negate the exquisite skill with which this dress was made, either.

The dress is made of one piece of fabric – there are no shoulder or armscye seams. Shaping is accomplished with a pair of deep 3/4″ tucks that run over each shoulder.

What is very unusual however is that feather stitch is used both decoratively and functionally – the tucks, the hem, the neckline and the sleeves are all embellished and secured using feather stitch.

The quadruple feather stitch is very finely worked.  The row of feather stitching on the sleeve band is less than 1/2″ wide – each stitch is less than an 1/8″.   I suspect the sewer basted the sleeves and tucks and then worked the embroidery, before removing the tacking stitches.

In order to accomodate the big toddler head, two tabs have been added at the shoulder.  The tabs were worked separately and then whip stitched to the shoulder.  Afterwards, the lace was whipped to the tab and the neckline in one piece.  Look at the lovely square button.

Here is the tab opened.

Here is a closeup of the tab.  The lace is cotton and very delicate.  It is not quite 3/8″ wide.  The buttonholes are handworked.  The tab is a little less than 2″ long and 1 5/8″ wide.

Here you can see how the opening is finished.  It’s very simple – a small row of running stitch is all that is done to finish the raw edge that is hidden by the tab.

The interior is as interesting as the exterior, IMHO.

Looking at the neckline, we would assume that they are finished with narrow bands of bias.  That’s certainly how a modern sewer would work them.  They’re not.  The front and back neckline allowances are  cut as part of the overall dress, folded to the wrong side and held in place with more feather stitching.  It is because they are narrow (3/8″) and worked by hand that it is possible to shape the straight-of-grain fabric to the curve.

And what’s your guess on the seam finish along the sides?  Teeny-weeny french seam, right?  ‘Cause that’s what heirloom sewing is all about, right?


The side seams were basted RS together (see the basting threads in the photo above) and then machine stitched.  Then, working from the wrong side, the raw edges were folded in, basted again and edge stitched.   It is not a particularly narrow seam (it varies from 1/4″ – 3/8″) and there is distortion through the tight underarm curve as the fabric stretches around it.  And the sewer left in the basting stitches!

Here you can see the interior of the sleeve and the order of work:  feather stitched cuff, under arm seam with basting threads still intact, then whipped lace.

The 3″ hem is, to modern eyes, quite messy.  Tucks were taken almost at random to permit the necessary shaping.  From the outside, the tucks are invisible.  You can see that the feather stitching is the only stitching holding the hem in place.

Finally, the dress was finished with 1/4″ peach silk ribbon.  The ribbon is tacked to the dress and has a small floral motif woven in to it.  There are 10 loops, each 1″ long, plus the tails.

I hope you enjoyed this close up look at this charming vintage dress.    There are a couple of patterns that are very similar that could be used as the starting point for recreating this gown.  Wendy Schoen’s Sweet Serentity or her Monogrammed Baby Dress would both work, although you would have to add deeper tucks over the shoulders and draft your own tab pattern.