Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Great British Sewing Bee smocked toddler dress tutorial

I’m sure I’m not the only amateur sewing enthusiast who watched ‘The Great British Sewing Bee’ with a mixture of interest and frustration.  It was fascinating to see sewing on prime time TV, to watch garments take shape, to be introduced to (or reminded of) various techniques for seams, embellishment, fitting and finishing.  Conversely it felt like there was too much detail for the very amateur and not quite enough for those of us who were accomplished amateurs wanting to expand our skill base.
I was particularly interested in the toddler dress they made in episode three.  I have a toddler myself and, OK, he’s a boy, but he looks cute in skirts… No, not really, he looks like a boy in drag, but it looked like a fun sewing project, I’ve always wanted to have a go at smocking and he has a little friend the same age, Miss J, who I occasionally utilise as a substitute daughter when I want to make pretty girlie things.
I had a look online, but couldn’t find a tutorial on the dress, so I had to figure it out for myself. I used a few other blogs, which I’ll link to, in order to learn various techniques, but the overall tutorial is my own work and I figured out the pattern and made the dress in just three hours with no specialist equipment other than the shirring elastic.

So here’s the idiot’s guide.  Apologies if I get a little too down to basics, but you can always skip the bits you already know.  Please ask me via comments if you need clarification on anything or a I missed a bit!

- lightweight dress fabric, cotton or polycotton
- sewing thread to match
- white shirring elastic
- pins
- sewing machine
- scissors – embroidery scissors and shears
- ironing board and iron
- measuring tape


- Measure the child’s chest and the length from their armpit to the desired length of the dress (roughly mid calf). These are the measurements you need to figure out how much fabric to buy.
You need 2 x chest measurement + 10cm in width and 1 x length measurement + 10cm in length.

So.  My toddler measured 55cm round the chest. I multiplied by two to give me 110cm, then added 10cm. I bought half a metre of fabric which was about the right length, especially since I wanted it to last a couple of years for a fast growing toddler, so I made it slightly too long and with a deep hem that can be let out.

I bought a 150 x 50 cm section of fabric which cost £4.90 with free delivery from The Little Button Craft Shop on Amazon
I could probably have found a cheaper one – there was a rather nice liquorice allsorts print for £2.99, but you had to pay for delivery and I wasn’t sure if Miss J’s mum would like it as much, so I played it safe.

Be aware that if you want to make Rouleau straps in the same fabric then you might need to purchase slightly more as they are cut on the bias.
- Wash and dry the fabric.  This is essential as it washes any chemical additives out of the fabric which may cause stiffness (this affects the shirring to some degree) but more importantly makes sure that any shrinkage takes place before you create the garment!

- Press the fabric. This makes your life so much easier than having to deal with a wrinkled up rag!

Now we’re ready to get going

Making the dress

- Cut out the fabric to the correct size. Mine was already 50cm long which was the perfect length, but I had to trim 30cm off the width to give me the 120cm I needed giving me a piece 120x50cm.  If making from two separate pieces I would need two pieces measuring 60x50cm.

(You could make the dress in two pieces as they did on the show: a front and a back. This is ideal if you have a narrower width of fabric or are making a dress for an older child, however I didn’t see any point cutting and re-sewing my fabric as it was already the correct width, so I made a fake French seam for the look of it by folding the fabric right-sides together, sewing along it, then opening it out and pressing the seam to one side.)

As mentioned on THGBSB you want to use a French seam on this project for two reasons. Firstly because a child has delicate skin, so you want a smooth, neat seam for comfort. Secondly a French seam completely encloses the raw edge and doubles up the stitching which makes it harder-wearing for the rough use and repeated washing it’s likely to receive (again - toddler-related!).

If you are using two separate pieces of fabric then you need to lay them wrong sides together, pin along the edge, then sew about 3 to 5 mm from the edge. A smaller seam looks neater, but obviously your sewing skills will dictate how close to the edge you dare to sew!

Press the seam to one side with a steamy iron, pulling the two pieces of fabric apart so you get a nice smooth finish with no creases. Ironing at every stage may seem a bore, but as with every sewing project is the key to a neat and professional finish.
Now turn the fabric so the right sides are together and pin along that same seam. Stitch a seam just outside the raw edges of the previous seam so it is completely enclosed.  If any raw edges are visible when you’ve finished you can go back and sew along that bit again a bit further out, a toddler won’t notice that there are two stitch lines, but obviously try and keep a smooth, straight line.
Press the seam over to one side again, then turn and press on the right side to make sure the two sides are completely opened out.
Trim along the top and bottom edges if needed - da-dah! French seam!

 Now you need to hem the top edge ready for the shirring. You want to make this as small as possible, so roll it over and finger press it before pressing it with an iron, then turn it again and press again.

Pin along it to stop it flipping back as you sew – you could tack it too if you don’t feel confident about sewing over pins. Try and sew as close to the edge of the rolled over fabric as possible without coming off it. I know it’s tempting to do the bottom hem too whilst you’re at it, but resist – you’ll see why later!

It’s shirring time – are you ready? I used this tutorial
to give me a bit more information about shirring before I got started. I also did the smart thing and used a scrap of fabric to test it on before starting.

I used the longest possible stitch on my machine (a Janome), which was a 4. This worked perfectly: gave me a good gather and didn’t seem too loose but here’s a word to the wise – it moved damn fast! Seriously. I wasn’t expecting how fast it would eat up the distance across the fabric which made it nice and speedy to do, but means you have to be a bit more careful controlling the fabric through the foot.
Decide how deep you want the smocked section to be and how many rows to do.  I ended up doing ten rows of shirring over 7cm, but then I was doing it by eye. I’d say 6 – 8 cm of shirring would be about right and for structural reasons as well as visual would recommend at least 6 rows of shirring. Leaving about 1 – 1.5cm between shirring rows seems like a good guide. Find a visual reference on your sewing machine you can use to make nice parallel lines. Mine were a bit wobbly, but it looked OK, so don’t get too hung up on it, whatever May Martin might say ;-)

Make sure to get as close to the end as possible as you want to have gathers going all the way to the seam and don't want a massive seam-allowance because the gathers don't go far enough along.  I learned this from bitter experience!
Tie off the beginning and end of every shirring line as you finish them.You have to pull the gathers out as you sew the next line and you don’t want to accidentally pull out the previous row of stitches when doing this.  Just give the elastic a gentle tug at the back and the thread on the front should pop right through to the back. Thread a pin or needle under it and pull it all the way through and tie it into a knot with the elastic. Simples!

TIP: I know this might sound obvious, but remember to keep the right side of the fabric towards you when you do the shirring – otherwise the elastic will end up on the front. I may have made this mistake myself, so please learn from me!

 So you’ve sewn your 6 cm block of shirring, the gathers have formed beautifully and you’re ready to move onto the next stage. 

TIP: Don’t forget to change your stitch length back to 1 or 2 – whatever you use for your normal stitching

Fold the dress in half lengthwise, wrong sides together so the two raw edges line up. Pin along these and tack if you need to, then sew along it making sure you sew over the ends of all the lines of shirring (I have to admit, I didn’t manage to do this first time, but I’ve learnt from my error and I will next time as it will not just look neater, but secure the shirring still further).

Clip the raw edges down a bit if you need to, turn inside out and, (have you guessed what I’m going to say next?) that’s right, give it a jolly good press with the seam to one side. Now pin along that seam making sure the raw edge is enclosed and stitch along it.  Time to press it again – the end is in sight now!

Bingo! It looks like a dress, right? Excellent. Time to try it on your model.

I know he looks pretty unimpressed, but that’s because I stopped him running around swooshing his skirts so I could take the photo. What can I say? The boy likes dressing up!
Stick a quick pin in the skirt to mark what length you want it to be and, if you’re feeling brave, use pins to mark where you want the straps to go, too. (Safety pins can be used if you’re worried about creating a child kebab).
Get the iron out again and turn the hem over all the way around to hide the raw edge, finger pressing then ironing. Now turn it again so the folded edge is level with the pin marker you made. There’s more than one way to do a hem, so you have some choices here. Some people use a machine for the hem, which is fine and can create a more shop-bought look, but I like to slip-stitch a hem if I have the time. It creates an invisible hem and means the hem can be more easily let down to accommodate a rapidly growing small person!
Only one thing left to do now and that’s make and attach the straps.  If you have an older child then you could leave it strapless, but if your toddler is anything like mine it’ll take them only moments to realise they’re wearing something that can be speedily wriggled out of!
If you want rouleau straps in a matching fabric then you’ll need to cut two strips on the bias out of your fabric which means you need quite a lot more of it. This is why I went with a plain fabric in a co-ordinating colour… I think they used to be a pair of pyjamas that I had in my scrap box! If you want to save yourself the work you could also use a ribbon or even make a broader strap from some fabric just folded over a couple of times and stitched. Why not experiment if you have time? If you want to make the rouleau straps then here’s the tutorial I used:

Don’t bother buying a stitch turner or whatever that little tool is called. Just drop a needle threaded with the loose threads through the tube then pull. It’s a tricky manoeuvre but once you’ve done that first part the rest follows easily.
I hand sewed mine on because I actually find that quicker than getting the machine set up and trying to sew through thick chunks of fabric like this, but it’s entirely up to you. I finished the ends of my straps with a little knot to stop them fraying like Ann on TGBSB, then tied them in a bow just as they did on the programme. Done!

I’ll see if Miss J’s mummy will mind me putting a picture of her in the dress up - she seemed to like it as much as I do. If only I had a girl to dress in pretty things…

Since I made this one I ran up a couple more for other friends with small girls. If I can find the photos of the Cub modelling them, I'll add those too - it's such a fun and pretty pattern, and so quick to do.

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