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Nathalie is as cute as a button as she’s held by her mother Emily and Mikaela looks like a young lady in their matching smocked dresses created by their Grandmother Priscilla Miller.

My friend Priscilla Miller is such a great seamstress! She takes great care in the dresses she makes for her granddaughters with their smocked fronts and their frills. Her love of sewing goes way back as she recalls…

“One fine spring day, my maternal grandmother, Ida, presented my sister and me with matching lavender gingham dresses. She had worked a geometric pattern around the skirt with black embroidery floss. This type of needle work is called “chicken scratch” embroidery, and was popular in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. My sister and I were very pleased with our new Sunday dresses, and wore them until we outgrew them. The summer I turned ten, Grandma Ida made five school dresses for me. They were the typical late ‘50’s pattern of a fitted bodice, button-down back, and a gathered skirt. It was my job to sew on all those buttons (four per dress). My mother closely supervised the project, making sure I went around and through the holes at least five times, so the buttons were securely attached. I thought I would never get to the end of those buttons!

Now I have three little granddaughters of my own. What fun! My main source of inspiration is the “Sew Beautiful” magazine by Martha Pullen. Although she stopped publishing in 2014, many issues are still available online. These magazines are full of ideas for embellishments, creative pattern variations, and smocking graphs for children’s wear. I have found that the symmetrical patterns of small gingham checks or polka dot prints lend themselves well to Canadian smocking. Quilt quality cottons, such as those by Moda, drape nicely, and hold up well to the wear and tear of an active childhood. A lighter weight cotton batiste performs nicely if used to line the bodice or to interface the button placket. Just a few tucks, a bit of ribbon trim, or embroidery stitching make the garment extra special, but not so fancy that the girl is uncomfortable wearing it. Many fabric companies offer a variety of prints in complementary colors, so the dressmaker can easily mix and match fabric, constructing a garment similar to popular name brand children’s wear. 

Estimating the correct size for a growing girl can sometimes be tricky. Here are just a few helpful guidelines. Babies grow so fast: it is always best to make the next size up. For example, my grandbaby, Nathalie, was in size 9 month clothes in February, so I made her spring dresses in 12 month size. In cutting out the skirt, I always add an extra four inches for the hem. It is easier to trim some off than to be embarrassed that the dress is too short.

School-age children grow more in height than in girth, and often stay in the same size for six months. My granddaughter, Mikaela, had advanced to size 7 this winter. So, in February, I measured her from shoulders to knees, then added four inches. At the fitting just before Easter, the dress fit her perfectly, and there were 2 1/2 inches left to turn up the hem. One cannot predict how fast a child will grow, but the extra four inches are a good safety net. Of course, if the child goes into a sudden growth spurt, then all bets are off! If all else fails, one can always add a gently gathered frill at the bottom edge of the dress. No one will guess that it was not a part of the original garment design. After all, whimsy is a charming component of little girls’ fashion.

I hope many of you who sew will consider taking the extra time and effort to construct some little girl or special dresses. Sewing is a way of expressing love to a child, letting her know that she is a valued member of the family. There are few moments more rewarding than to see her delight as she twirls in her new dress and says, ‘My Grandma made this for me!’”

How true! Thank you for sharing Priscilla. If you start a project and have run into a challenge, call Born Again Quilts and I’ll let Priscilla know you are in need of her sewing wisdom!

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Lois Levihn

She is the author of the "Around the Frame" quilting column. She is a graduate of Wayne HS. Quilts have always been important to her, she loves the stories surrounding them, the techniques used in making them, & restoring them. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer