A baptism gown for a baby is a lovely way to honor the tradition of infant baptism or christening in some churches. This is my story of making a smocked bishop gown with heirloom sewing techniques for my grandson.
Long ago when I was pregnant with Margo I told my mama the good news by giving her a Vogue baptism gown pattern. She spent many hours making a gown, slip, and bonnet with lace, embroidery, tiny buttonholes, and satin ribbon. Ten babies wore the gown for their baptism ceremony.
We barely got the last few babies into the gown (sized for 10 -12 pound babies) and when Chip’s baptism got scheduled for after he would be 6 months old, we knew we would have to have a new baptism gown.
I had so many emotions while beginning to work. I hung Mama’s dress up in my office and I really studied all the work she had put into it, in a way I didn’t have time to do when my children were babies. I could really feel the love.
I decided to make a smocked bishop gown. Bishops hang from the neckline and have no yoke, so they are very forgiving on size. I also decided to not close the sleeves, just finish them off and add satin ribbon ties, to allow for chubby arms.
Margo’s family had inherited a sewing machine table from her husband’s grandmother. They found lace and buttons stored inside and I was able to incorporate them into the gown. The tiny mother-of-pearl buttons were actually hand carved! I made bands for the sleeves slightly wider than the small lace. I used the wide lace near the bottom hem and on the bonnet visor.
This baptism gown took me about a month to make. I think we were all very happy with it, Chip looked fantastic on his big day, and now I hope that bigger babies in our family can use this smocked bishop baptism gown.
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To make a baptism gown for baby I used imperial batiste cotton fabric, embroidery thread, and lace.
- Bishop pattern – choose one that matches the fabric you want to use
- tracing paper roll, 18 inches wide
- 3 yards or more of Imperial batiste or a polyester/cotton blend, depending how long you want the gown (mine was 31 inches from underarm to hem). Allow at least 4 inches for a 2 inch double hem. If you want 1 inch tucks in the bottom as in Mama’s gown, you will need to add an additional 6 inches to the length.
- Size 11 sewing machine needle
- I used a zig zag foot, but a straight stitch foot will work for this
- matching thread
- sewing marking pen (or chalk)
- embroidery thread, white
- Crewel embroidery needles size 6, 7, or 8
- ¼ inch white satin ribbon, 3 1/2 yards
- nylon snaps, 5/16 inch
Instructions for baptism gown
- Wash and dry all the fabrics and press.
- Mark the pattern onto the fabric. It is recommended that you tear across the grain for the neck and hem edges.
- If you decide to smock the sleeves, you will need to pleat them before assembling the dress.
- Sew the sleeves into the gown. Use a scant ¼ inch seam and zig zag to finish. This tiny seam needs to fit into the pleater machine.
- Pleat the neck edge of the gown. Our local heirloom sewing store has a pleater machine and inexpensive pleating service. You will need to mark the exact center front of the gown and tell them the number of gathering rows you need plus 2. I asked for 8 rows because I was going to smock 6.
- Make a heavy paper yoke that has the correct size of neck and is longer than the pleating. I used another pattern that had a round yoke and cut mine out of a paper grocery bag. Mark the center front, the sleeve seams, and the center back. My neck edge was 11 inches long and the yoke piece was 3 ½ inches wide (based on a 20 pound baby).
- Remove pleater threads from ½ inch on either side of the center back. Lay the gown on a flat surface and round it out to fit the paper yoke, adjusting the pleats. I used my steam iron and spray starch to firm up the curve. Allow to completely dry. I pinned my paper yoke to the back of the gown to try to keep the fan of the pleats in place. Tie the ends of the pleater threads to keep the shape in place.
- It is usually recommended to use 3 strands of embroidery floss. I used two for this gown. After cutting and separating the strands, run your fingers along the strands you are going to use. You should be able to feel which direction is smooth. Thread the needle so the thread is going into your fabric in the smooth direction. Knot the end of the thread and enter the fabric from the wrong side.
- Plan your rows of smocking. Be sure to use a bishop design: it will have cable, trellis, and wave stitches. Tighter stitches will be closer to the neck while more elastic stitches will be further down.
- You will not smock the top and bottom pleater rows. For your first smocked row, bring the needle up from the back side at the exact center (you may want to count the pleats to find the exact center). Smock towards the right with your needle entering each pleat from right to left. After reaching the right edge, bring the thread to the back and knot, catching the pleat on the back.
- Knot the thread, reenter from the back, and smock the other side of the same row (you will be holding the gown upside down).
- When you are done smocking, pull out the bottom pleating thread. Pin the gown in place on the ironing board, steam and starch. Allow it to dry.
- Construct the gown. Measure the back placket length, mark, and sew the back seam with a French seam. Attach the placket. Attach the neck band using a bias strip. Mine was 12 inches long and 2 inches wide. Use the top pleater gathering thread as a guide.
- Attach tiny nylon snaps to the back placket. Sew on the male piece, draw with a sewing marker on the snap and carefully close the dress to make a mark for lining up the center of the female part of the snap. I sewed little pearl buttons on the outside of the snaps.
- If you did not smock the sleeves, gather the bottom edge of the sleeve. I sewed tucks into the bottom edge to cut down on the puffiness of the sleeve. I made the cuff piece 9 inches long. The width was 1 inch for the seams, and slightly more than twice the lace width. After attaching the cuffs, I topstitched lace onto the cuffs.
- Use French seams to sew the side seams. I left the underarm seams open, folding the seam allowance in ¼ inch, then another ¼ inch, then topstitching. I added two sets of 12 inch ribbon ties.
- Sew a double hem 2 to 6 inches deep. I topstitched on wide lace about a 1/3 from the bottom of the baptism gown.
- Baby sunbonnet from Purl Soho. I folded the visor back onto the cap. (Be sure to visit Purl Soho if you are in New York City. Fantastic shop!)
- Martha Pullen Company is a great heirloom sewing resource
- Bishop dress from start to finish from Maggie B Smocks
- Quilter’s knot directions from Constança Cabral