Today I thought I’d do a post with some tips specifically for the bishop dress. This is a repeat post as the original post was inadvertently deleted. 🤪 The bishop dress is the easiest to construct, so it is a popular style to make for baby gifts, for all the special holidays, etc. In a busy season, the smocking can be enjoyed and the dress made up relatively quickly.
Around holidays, I always enjoy seeing beautiful bishop dresses that are being made for the little ones. However, as I look at the creations posted on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, I have noticed a plethora of the dreaded “turtleneck” bishop dresses. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it is used for a bishop dress that has been smocked so tightly that the smocked area sticks up, like a turtleneck.
There are 2 basic methods of smocking a bishop. One method is to smock the bishop with the threads tied off straight, which I will call straight smocking. The other method is to smock the bishop with the bishop blocked, or fanned out, the way that it will be worn. I would put ready to smock bishop dresses as a sub category of this. There are pros and cons to both methods and both methods have avid followers that fiercely defend their method of choice. 🙃 Both methods will be discussed.
First, lets cover basic anatomy. I’m sure that everyone already knows this, but a picture review doesn’t hurt. Any child, doll, preemie, etc. has the same basic shape. Notice the angle of the neck and shoulders. A properly smocked bishop dress should sit at the neckline and fall over the shoulders.
Just as a brief reminder, the smocking should stop at the shoulder line – the same place that a set in sleeve seam would be. If the smocking falls further past the shoulder line, the dress will tend to look frumpy (my opinion).
Unfortunately, when a bishop is smocked too tightly, thus creating the turtleneck, it doesn’t sit that way. The bias band will be higher on the neck and will stand away from the neck. Not wanting to steal anyone’s picture and embarrass anyone, I have done a quick sketch/mock-up. I left the turtleneck style sketch so that the neck/shoulders underneath would be visible.
There’s a couple of problems with the turtleneck bishop. First of all, it will always remain that shape and will not sit properly on the child. Some will attempt to correct the shape by stretching and blocking it after smocking and before construction, which will make it look better for the short-term. Unfortunately as soon as the garment is laundered, it will return to its original shape.
I know many ladies that use the smocking straight method and have been able to create beautiful garments that lay perfectly once the pleating threads are removed. However, for many, this isn’t the case. Many that favor the straight smocking method will state that without a doubt, if a bishop plate is chosen for the smocking design, when the pleating threads come out, the dress will automatically fan out as it should. I disagree with that. All of the smocked “turtleneck” bishops that I’ve seen have been smocked with a smocking design designated as a bishop design. The problem lies with the tension – it is too tight.
The straight method is definitely easier to smock. However, just like with the blocked method, the tension on the stitches needs to be looser as you stitch the lower rows. If they are smocked equally as tight as the upper rows, the turtleneck is bound to happen. There’s no way that smocking a dense bishop design will end up well if the tension doesn’t relax as the lower rows are smocked. This takes practice. If you struggle with the turtleneck effect, it may be helpful to tie the straight bishop off at a longer length and smock the lower rows first and then tighten up the pleating threads as the top of the bishop is smocked. Regardless of how you choose to approach this, the tension has to be looser on the bottom rows to avoid the turtleneck situation.
The second method is to block the bishop, which just means that it is fanned out (sometimes over a blocking guide or smocking pillow) in the shape that it will be worn. Some will also starch it at this point. Blocking guides and starching seem to be quite time-consuming to me and I have never felt that this is necessary, but it certainly won’t hurt .
I find that the easiest way to block is to use a piece of paper as a guide and fan the bishop out around the paper. This is the method that I always use. It’s convenient, no special tools are needed, etc. and I can do this wherever I happen to be – I can always find a piece of paper. LOL!
If you prefer to use a guide or one of the smocking pillows that are available, that is certainly an option. However, based on the hundreds of bishops that I’ve made over the years, I don’t really feel that it is necessary. By the time that the band is attached to the top of the bishop dress, the pleats are so tightly packed at the neckline that it really doesn’t make a difference (again, my opinion).
Smocking while using the block method (or smocking a ready to smock garment) is a little more difficult. The pleats at the neckline are very tight and there is more space between pleats at the lower edge, which requires thoughtful tension as you smock. I always make my bishops as ready to smock because it gives the advantage of getting the first row of smocking to sit perfectly next to the neckband. That said, it can be challenging smocking all of the really tight pleats. But notice how close and even that first row of smocking can be!
It is important that if you are smocking using the blocking method that you don’t habitually squish the pleats together as you smock. It’s easy to do this without even realizing it, but it defeats the process of learning to loosen tension as you smock the lower rows.
My preferred method is to make up the bishop dress or romper as a ready-to-smock garment ( method 2). I also like to have 2 buttons on the back. I have found that buttons stay fastened while snaps do not. I also don’t like the buttons extending all the way down the back. In my mind, they may not be comfortable and the lower buttonholes can easily get torn with wear and tear.
It is easy to adapt any pattern to make the 2 buttons. I do sell instructions on this method in my Etsy shop (kathysheirloomshop) along with many other patterns.
Whatever method you choose to use, be mindful of tension – it matters.
I thought I’d offer a free smocking plate to encourage you to do some relaxing smocking over the upcoming holiday season. Click on the link below to download the Funky Flower smocking design.
This is a PDF download. I’ve used this to make a sweet bishop dress in the past.
The graph doesn’t show the detail of the smocking design, but after the smocking was complete, the flower and flower center were outlined with the outline stitch and 2 strands of floss and a French knot was stitched with 4 strands in each flower petal.
I hope that this has been helpful and will allow for everyone to be successful with their bishop smocking designs! I welcome any comments. Perhaps others will chime in with comments that help them achieve successful bishops!