Tutorial-Bishop's Yoke Smocked Dress

I recently decided to delete my Smocking blog and decided to continue showing the work on this blog.  I had too many blogs I was contributing  to as well. 

My most visited and appreciated blog post was a 3-part series tutorials on how to create a Smocked Bishop's Yoke dress. I've copied and pasted it here so it will still be available to you.


Well, I thought it would be worthwhile to write a tutorial on how I smock a bishop dress since I am currently sewing one for my toddler and her 18 inch doll. The pattern entitled "Twice as Nice" is from the magazine Australian Smocking & Embroidery issue 95, 2011 pages 38-43. I will choose a different smocking plate for the actual hand embroidery--I always do that to personalize my "Princess Dress" (as my daughter calls them).

Any bishop dress pattern will work--both vintage and current publications--can be used to sew along with me. Sew Beautiful magazines' current issue has a useful article on how to draft your own bishop dress, and a complete printed bishop's dress guide in their previous issue.

That being said, I have not found an 18" doll pattern, so using a tape measure I have created a pattern which I will share with you in this article.

Cutting Directions for the 18" Doll Bishop Dress:
  • Fabric Requirements: 1/2 yard
  • Note: I used a rotary cutter to cut my pieces; however, traditionally they "ripped" the fabric squares and rectangles to ensure the fabric was cut on the straight of grain.
  • Front: Cut one 12 1/2" square, then cut out armholes from the PDF template
  • Back: Cut two rectangles measuring 12 1/2" by 7 1/2", then cut out armholes from the PDF template
  • Flutter Sleeve: Cut two rectangles measuring 3" by 8"
  • Note: Neck will be gathered using the smocking technique into a 10" circle.

Step One: Attach lace using the traditional roll-and-whip method by sewing machine to the flutter sleeve.
With right sides of fabric and lace facing each other, sew a straight stitch down the heading of the lace.

Press the lace down so the right side is up. Turn the sleeve piece over and press the seam up. Finish the lace-fabric seam by sewing a small (stitch width 1.5-2.0) zig-zag catching the edge of the fabric and the lace. Trim seam allowance to 1/8 inch.
Step Two: Sew the bishop dress shoulder seams using a very narrow over-cast seam or a very small french seam. I prefer a narrow over-cast seam as I use a commercial pleater to pleat my smocked dresses. The overcast seam has less layers of fabric in it so I break less pleater needles.

Pattern pieces are pinned together in the following order: right back with armhole cutout towards flutter sleeve; flutter sleeve; front, flutter sleeve; left back with armhole cutout towards flutter sleeve.

Sewn and pressed with right-sides facing.
Step Three: Pleat the Dress
There are many methods of pleating a bishop's dress. You can purchase iron-on transfer dots, put them on the back of your piece and hand gather your project by picking up the dots from the fabric itself. If your fabric is a small polka dot, you can simply gather those dots (it also works on gingham fabrics).

Alternately, you can pleat your dress using your home sewing machine. You will need to use a ruler (my rotary cutting ruler is viewed here) and draw water-soluble lines every 1/2 inch (for a full space) or every 1/4 inch (for a half space--which you choose depends on the smocking plate you choose to hand embroider). Draw a vertical start line, then set your sewing machine's stitch length very long--about a 4 and sew parallel lines along the drawn lines. Gather these threads into pleats by pulling the bobbin thread.

Marking the dress to pleat using the home sewing machine.
As you can see, both of these methods are very time consuming. The benefit to using a pleater is that there is no need to mark any lines and all the rows of fabric are gathered all together with one turn of the handle. Since I have one, I pleated the 18 inch doll dress in less than 5 minutes and the full size 4 dress in 20 minutes. If I had to pleat by hand...it would be days--if at all.

I taught myself how to smock from various magazines and books so if there are any mistakes or if you have a tip you would like to share, please leave a comment as I certainly am a novice.


Tilt the pleater back by placing it on top of an empty spool and removed the center brass bar. Lay in the amount of needles specified in the smocking plate you choose to hand embroider.

Lubricate the needles, and clean the brass rollers from any tarnish by rolling a pieced of waxed paper through the pleater. I learned this tip from an Ellen McCarn book and never forgot it--it is the best tip ever. Iron a crease down the front center of any and all smocking panels before they are pleated (regardless of the pattern), then take a running stitch of contrasting thread and sew it down to mark the center of the garment. This is beneficial in both marking the center of the garment for later blocking and sizing--and also is the exact hanging center to being your hand embroidery from. If done now, there is no need to count all the pleats, divide them by two to find your center for your embroidery designs. Genius!

Use a good needle threader to fill the needles with thread. Make sure the thread is at least as long as the garment you plan to pleat plus an extra foot--the extra thread is needed for blocking. The pleater manufacturers recommend using hand quilting thread for this. I've used all-purpose thread, hand quilting thread, and machine quilting thread all with excellent results. As you can see here, I am using machine quilting thread as I have a lot of it lying around.

Roll the dress onto a dowel--good thing I mopped the kitchen floor yesterday! :)

As you progress from the back to the open sleeve area, make every reasonable effort to keep all the pattern pieces parallel to the rod, ensuring that the neck line of the garment is even on the rod.

Insert the rolled up dress into the back of the pleater.

Turn the pleater handle and the dress will come out pleated. Always remember to pleat the fabric with the right-side down as most pleaters create deeper pleats going down and you want those on the surface to show off your hand embroidery.

As the fabric advances, turn the handles slowly and pull the fabric gently off the needles and onto the thread.

All bishop's dresses have four seams to pleat over, use your finger to smooth it down as it goes through the rollers. If it does not lie flat, the fabric will pucker and its thickness will break the pleater needle.

More views of "helping" the seam.

The dress had been pleated and removed from the needles.

Here I am rolling the 18 inch doll dress--it was a lot faster to pleat.
Step Four: Blocking the dresses.

To block the dress, you will need the neckline blocking guide from the pattern (or a neck measurement of the child wearing a dress), a steam iron, lots of pins and yes--my husband's hair comb! :)

Following the neckline blocking guide, un-pick the extra pleats to the place stated so that a button band can be sewn into the garment.

Pin the button band to the board, and the center pleat (dark blue running stitch thread sewn in prior to pleating). Pull the pleating threads into a circle and pin the pleats in place. Rake the fullness of the pleats into a fan to separate them. When satisfied, use a lot of pins to stabilize the neck line. Repeat with the other side of the neck.

My favorite tip ever was from my Aunt's old smocking patterns she lent me--and it was a "tip" on an old receipt. Use a comb to comb the pleats straight down and help even them out. This will help them lie flat. Seriously, one of the most useful hints ever! :) When it looks good, steam the whole thing with a hot iron and let the dress sit pinned to your ironing board over-night. This will make the cotton permanently press in those little pleats to show off that hand embroidery. Experienced smockers do not feel the need to re-tie the pleating threads to hold the pleats in place. I do--I'm not that good yet.

Here is the 18 inch doll dress blocked to a 10-inch pleated circle neckline, with an extra 1/2 inch opening on both sides to allow for finishing with velcro. I re-tie my pleating threads to the finished size of the neckline.

As this is my current work in progress...step 5 is to do the hand embroidery which I will begin tomorrow.
Step 6 is to sew the side seams
Step 7 is to finish the back with button band
Step 8 is to add bias tape to the neckline and raw-edge arm holes....almost there!



In this tutorial, I will share how I smocked our 18-inch doll Bishop's dress.  I admit that I have yet to complete the embroidery on the size 4 dress.

Since readers have asked, here are the cutting sizes to sew a girl's dress.  I do not want to infringe on anyone's copyright so I have measured these from actual dresses that I have sewn.  I also use a rotary cutter to cut out my squares and then cut the arm hole openings.

Size 6-12 months: Hem allowance is 1 inch and seam allowance is 1/2 inch (included).
  • FRONT RECTANGLE:  (Cut 1)  20 inches long by 32 inches wide
  • BACK RECTANGLES: (Cut 2) 20 inches long by 17 inches wide
  •  SLEEVES: (Cut 2) 19 inches long by 6 1/2 inches deep. (Puffed sleeve).
    • * This dress was purchased pre-sewn from SAGA (Smocking Arts Guild of America), I only did the embroidery through their tutorial.  More information can be viewed at http://www.smocking.org.

Size 2 Toddler:  Hem allowance in the original pattern was 3 inches deep (an antique "growth hem").  I chose to only  use a standard 1 inch hem with a 1/2 inch seam allowance.
  • FRONT RECTANGLE: (Cut 1) 24 inches long by 32 inches wide
  • BACK RECTANGLES: (Cut 2) 24 inches long by 17 inches wide.
  • SLEEVES: (Cut 2) 19 inches wide by 8 inches deep. (Puffed sleeve.)
    • *This dress was sewn from a pattern featured in Australian Smocking and Embroidery magazine which I then altered for my needs.  It also features an original smocking plate of my own design.

Size 4 Toddler: A full-sized pattern is given in the magazine Australian Smocking & Embroidery, Issue 95, 2011; pages 38-43 and the pattern pullout section.  Their directions call for an antique hem of 5-6 inch hem.  I am unsure why--if you know why this deep of hem in needed, let me know.  My aunt who smocks said it was to have enough weight to let the smocking lay flat.  However, my dresses with only a one-inch hem lie just fine.  My cutting directions include the 3 inch hem and 1/2 inch seam allowance.

  • FRONT RECTANGLE: (Cut 1) 30 inches long by 32 inches wide.
  • BACK RECTANGLE: (Cut 2) 30 inches long by 16 inches wide.
  • SLEEVES: (Cut 2) 17 inches long by 6 inches deep (Flutter sleeve).
    • *This is the dress I'm sewing along with the tutorial.

To start, find the center front pleat of the dress.  You can either count the total number of pleats and divide by two or simply find the thread we basted through the center prior to pleating.  I center the embroidery floss here and tie a figure-8 knot.  Then I embroider going to the right.  This centers the design on your dress.  For this tutorial we are doing a simple heart.  A 4-step trellis topped with a baby wave.  (What?  Follow along and you'll see.)

To secure the bottom of the wave, pierce the pleat about 1/3 of the way down.  Have the thread "tail" (the thread you will pull through the pleat) below your needle.  This will create the bottom of your trellis.

Catching the second pleat, as the thread is pulled through the bottom of your trellis (also known as a bottom cable) will form.

I thought it would be useful to show a photo of both my hands working together.  My right hand pulls the floss through while my left thumb-nail holds open the pleat.

The 4-step trellis fills the pleated rows.  I count (bottom) down-cable, 1-2-3 (spread these evenly through the space a half-space would align the #2 count), then do the up-cable.  Notice on the up-cable the thread now is above the needle.  I once read a Martha Pullen book on smocking and she gave this advice when working cables.  "Think of a cat walking up a staircase.  As the cat goes up, its tail points down.  As the cat goes down the staircase, the tail points up."  Your tail of your embroidery thread will do the same.

After the right side is worked, I turn the dress-upside down and work the left hand side in the same manner.  There is no need to start another thread, simply re-thread your needle with the long tail leftover.

Now that the bottom row of the design is smocked and centered, the remaining rows can be worked from left-to right.  The next row is the top of the heart-a baby wave or half-space wave.  Simply do a down-cable, bring the thread up and over one pleat to the top of the half-space plated row.  Then go down to the bottom of the half-space to make the middle point of the heart.  I mis-counted some of my 4-step trellis and got off...so....I fudged a couple of the baby-waves.  It's okay, it still looks good.  The only way anyone could tell if they were to count each individual pleat--which I seriously doubt anyone would take the time.

The next row up is a simple cable row to hold the pleats around the neckline.  A cable is a simple over-under.  The only trick is to remember when going "under" the thread tail is under while going "over" the thread tail is over. These rows are good practice for picture smocking as the technique is the exact same.

Once all of your rows are completed, cut the knots on your gathering threads and pull them out.  The embroidery now holds the neckline.

Coming up in part 3...the finishing construction! 


Yay! The dresses are complete....and here's how to finish them.

My daughter and her "baby" wearing their pink bishop's dresses.

This is a smocking plate--or a graph representing how the embroidery should be done. As you recall in tutorial 2, the 18 inch doll dress used a simple heart embroidery. This is a smocking plate of the hearts.

SEWING THE SIDE SEAMS--The side seams can be sewn as a domestic machine zig-zag stitch or an heirloom french seam. I will show you both. The doll's dress was done using the zig-zag method while my daughter's dress used the french seam. They both work equally well, most heirloom sewing patterns direct the seamstress to use the french seam. In all of my studies, as far as I have found they are interchangeable. This seam may also be done using a serger, but I don't have one.

Pin the front to the back at the underarm opening with right sides of fabric facing each other and the wrong side of fabric exposed to the seamstress. Sew a straight stitch 5/8 inch (needle plate #10) down the length of the seam.

Adjust your sewing machine settings to its standard zig-zag stitch and sew with the left hand side of the presser foot next to the straight seam. It is important for the zig-zag to not cross over the straight stitch to prevent puckering.

Grade (trim) away any excess fabric to create a straight seam and press with an iron. Repeat with the other side of the dress.

With wrong sides of fabric touching, and the right side of fabric facing the seamstress, pin the front to back at the armhole. Sew a narrow straight seam. Most books say for this seam to be 1/8 inch. I like it a little wider so it won't pull out so I use the width of my presser foot.

Iron the seam flat.

Turn the dress inside out and iron the seam open.

Feel with your fingers the width of the seam and pin. Sew the seam with a straight stitch just to the outside of the pins. This completes the french seam. I like how it fully encases the raw edges in the garment. I think it produces a better quality dress. Repeat with the other armhole.

BUTTON PLACKET INSTRUCTIONS: Sew the two back pieces together using the same manner listed above, leaving the top 6 inches of the 18 inch doll dress open and the top 9 inches of the toddler dress open.
Cut four bias strips two inches wide. For the doll dress, the neckline needs to measure 9 inches while the toddler dress needs to be 17 inches long while the placket lengths need to be 12 inches for the doll dress and 18 inches for the toddler dress. The remaining two plackets are for the armholes and can be trimmed down to size.

Fold the bias strip in half, then fold both raw edges to the center. Your strip will be pressed correctly for both the neckline, placket and armholes.

Open the button placket so it lies flat and pin the bias strip to the inside of the dress. Notice that the right side of the strip aligns with the wrong side of the dress. Sew a straight stitch down the outer bias strip fold--not down the center. The center of the bias strip will align with the dress' raw edge.

Using the pressed creases, fold the bias strip to the outside of the dress and pin in place.

With the dress opened, sew a straight top stitch down the outer edge of the bias strip. Note, a small pleat will be created at the back seam. This is normal.

Fold and iron the placket opening to the right side (for girl's clothing--note boys go to the left). Top-stitch the placket in place where the pin is in this picture.
FINISHING THE NECKLINE: Apply the bias strip to the smocked neckline in the same manner it was applied to the button placket. Tip--don't remove the uppermost holding row pleating thread. It will help the neckline stay in place and not stretch while the bias strip is being applied.
Folding the placket opening raw-edge of the bias strip in (see pin), pin bias strip with right sides facing the inside of the dress (look at my hand placement in the photo, the smocked neckline curled around in the picture making it look misleading that I pinned it to the front--it's not, it's pinned to the inside of the dress) along the smocked neckline. Sew down the bias strip's first ironed crease--not the center. The center crease will align and wrap around the smocking's raw edge.

Fold the bias strip to the front of the dress. It can either be hand blind-stitched in place (as heirloom sewing instructions state) or top stitched with a straight stitch into place. I top-stitched it in place.
BINDING THE ARMHOLES: Still, we're using the same bias tape technique!
With the dress inside-out, pin the right side of the bias strip to the armhole. Tuck in the raw edges. Sew in place along the ironed crease.

Flip the bias strip to the outside of the dress and pin in place.

Top stitch the arm hole closed.
FINISHING: Add button holes and buttons to the placket. Turn under the dress hem. The doll's dress is a one inch hem and stitch in place. I like to use my sewing machine's blind hem feature, but a straight top stitch will do as well.

Fold, press with a hot iron and pin the hem in place, then sew!

The finished doll dress.

My daughter's finished dress.