Gathering Threads

‘Midnight Stars’ winter dress

Posted by on Dec 05 2010, in Pattern review, Smocking

I’m generally opposed to holiday clothing for a couple reasons – not because I don’t like holidays but because I get so little time to sew and it seems a little problematic to make something that can only be worn for a short period of time. But having already broken my usual prescription with this year’s Christmas bishop, I wanted to make my niece a fancy smocked dress that she could wear all winter long. But it had to be fast, not too fussy and Ottawa-winter friendly (ie. warm fabric and OK to be stuffed into a snowsuit when the temperature dips to -25 degrees Celcius)

When I saw this wonderful, free plate available in the Freebies section of the Sew Beautiful website, I knew just what I was going to make her.  It’s a classic, beaded geometric design, strongly graphic and rich, perfect not just for the holidays but all through the winter months.  It’s a Sue Johnson design from issue #103 and I always liked her designs – they tend to be very traditional and not too fussy.  This is the magazine’s version; as you can see, I made a few changes with my interpretation.

Ellie should get a whole winter’s wear from it – maybe even two, given how forgiving the smocking is and how deep the skirt hangs. The fabric I chose isn’t as blue as the magazine version, but it isn’t black, either, despite the inability of my digital camera to convey it accurately. It’s just a very dark, very deep midnight blue.

I used the rest of my $0.75 cent string of pearl beads (from making Corrine Elise) and scored with two metres of beautiful mightnight blue velveteen from my favourite shop, The Textile Centre. End of the bolt – $15 all in! Very, very good price for this quality of fabric. Then I found a bag of tiny pearl buttons, used for bridal wear, at the notion shop across the street. $1.99 + tax and I’ve got at least a dozen more buttons left for another project. So another project under $20. I’m such a cheapskate…but a creative, tasteful cheapskate LOL.

The smocking took almost no time at all. Seriously, it’s just a series of five-step trellis diamonds, worked over and over, catching a bead at the top point. Finding the centre took the most time of anything 🙂

Although I was a little apprehensive about pleating the velveteen, never having tackled something so thick, it went off fine, although it took a fair degree of muscle to turn the bar, even clearing the needles every rotation. I decided to make the dress as a fully smocked style across the front, rather than using a yoke. A two year old is so tiny that the impact of the beads would be lost because it would only be a few inches deep and I think it was the right choice. The pattern I used was designed for silk, and asked for a width of 42 1/4″ inches. Knowing the pleats would be thicker, I cut my front 39″. Even that was unnecessarily generous, because when I tied off, I unpicked a further five inches down the left side and cut it off, giving me a width of 34″, which was plenty, even allowing for the deep seam allowances I used to compensate for the fabric’s tendency to fray. The pleating ratio worked out to just over 2.3: 1, which is significantly more than cotton or something thin like silk, where the ratios can easily be as high as 4:1.

The pattern was Luminescence, from AS&E #87. I think that’s the fourth or fifth pattern I’ve used from that issue – I’m certainly getting my money’s worth. Same problems as always with AS&E patterns. Too big. Took out 1 1/4 inches circumference and it’s still generously sized. Sigh. But at least I’m getting good at sizing the suckers down and they’re consistent in their rampant oversizing.

I didn’t make a bow on this dress – the velveteen was too heavy for that. Seriously, when you pick this dress up, you feel its weight. But I wanted to avoid making ‘coffin clothes’ (ie all the details on the front, none on the back), so the row of pearl buttons top to bottom is one of my favourite elements of this dress. Thirteen buttons in all. Lots and lots and lots of buttonholes. Buttonholes are never my favourite thing to do but after making so many of them, I’ve gotten very, very good at them!

For all its simplicity, this dress had a lot of handwork. There were only seven pieces total (front, two back, two skirts, two sleeves) but almost everything had handwork involved, from the bias bindings on the neck and sleeves, to the hem and the button bands, which I catch stitched to avoid an unsightly line of stitching down the fabric. Then of course, there were all the buttons. How do you mark on something like this fabric, with its dark, dense nap? Chalk was too inexact and I didn’t want to mark water soluble stabilizer and then sew over it.

So I used pins, marking from the bottom to the top. I sewed the buttonholes before I worked the neckband and it made the process a lot easier, especially at the top – everything was even and I didn’t have to struggle to keep my buttonhole foot level to get good tension and regular, flat stitches. I didn’t cut them until after the dress was complete, but I will definitely add that simple re-ordering to my repetoire of easy tricks that get good results.

I really like this dress. It’s so simple and understated but so dramatic at the same time. I’d toyed with adding a cream lace ruffle to each sleeve but in the end, decided I liked the simplicity of the dress, without additional adornment. I hope Ellie will get lots of wear out of it!


  • This dress is just beautiful! Thank you for detailing how you went about the width of fabric to pleat and the buttonholes. I haven’t smocked a velveteen dress yet but would like to someday. The buttons look lovely marching down the dress!

  • Thank you for stopping by my blog! I am glad that you enjoyed the doll dress. You will be added to my blog roll, too. I will be posting some things I’ve been working on this week. I have been so neglectful of that blog that I will have to have a refresher from my daughter on how to get a post up again! Shame on me! Thanks again!