Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress


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Here are some up-close photos of my niece’s hand-embroidered First Communion dress that I told you about earlier, when I showed you this finished embroidered book cover.

Embroidery on children’s clothing, especially for special occasions, is no new thing, really, so although you will see a beautiful dress here, it isn’t a “novel” idea! There are still plenty of people out there who make their own children’s clothes and embellish them, too… but I have to wonder if it’s kind of a dying art?

The Victorians were avid embellishers of children’s clothing – fine embroidered baby items were worked with loving hands (or by hired hands) to dress up the baby for grand occasions, and even for every day. With the advent of cotton mills and of mercerized cotton, fine items could be made for a lot less money, making fancy work more accessible to those other than the very rich.

Momentous occasions were celebrated with fine clothing – whether christening gowns, First Communion dresses, graduations, or marriages. Dresses and gowns were passed down from child to child, carefully packed away after the event, to resurface again for cleaning and pressing when the time came for the next in line to wear the piece.

Have we lost these traditions a bit, with the “ready-made” Instant Society we live in? Overall, I think we have. But not everywhere, with everyone. Certainly, companies like Wendy Schoen, Martha Pullen, and Country Bumpkin (with their smocking and christening gown angle) attest to a remaining thread of interest in hand-made, special occasion clothing.

If you’ll allow me to brag a bit about my sister, I’ll say I’m glad to see that these traditions continue in her family, just as they did in our family. We all (seven of us!) wore the same christening gown and the same First Communion dress, and my older sister has managed the same with her own girls.

She made this at the beginnings of her ventures into heirloom sewing, and it has withstood the test of time – worn this year for the sixth time, over 16 years of use, and looking just as perfect as when it was new!

So that’s the history, and here are the photos:

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

The dress is made of Swiss batiste, with inset lace on the bodice, the skirt, and the sleeves.

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

The embroidery design is made up of white roses in bullion stitch and a pale green vine and leaves, highlighted with tiny pearls.

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

The embroidery motif can be found on the back of the shoulders, too…

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

…and is even repeated on the covered buttons down the back of the dress.

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

This is the lower part of the front of the skirt, situated between scallops formed by inlaid lace.

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

Somehow, it loses a bit, looking at it like this on a hanger! The sash is not original – this is a substituted organdy and satin ribbon. Originally, it was a plain white satin ribbon, I think.

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

This is the front of the bodice. The batiste, you can see, is pretty sheer.

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

A close-up on the above – the vines are worked in stem stitch and the leaves in satin stitch. All the stitching is done with floche.

Hand Embroidered First Communion Dress

And that’s the center of the front of the bodice.

Ain’t it perty?

My sister’s my hero! Golly.

Do you have any clothing traditions in your family? Do you think hand-making special occasion clothing is a dying tradition? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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(26) Comments

  1. Wow! That’s a work of art. What a treasure for her daughters. Will she hand it down to them? With that many, it might be hard to decide which one!

    Your sister is very talented! Would love to see the christening gown.

  2. On reading the history and seeing the photographs, the combination of how strikingly beautiful the dress is and the wave of nostalgia that washed over me made me cry. Just altogether a lovely thing you’ve shared here. Thank you.

    When I was a very young girl I remember my mother telling me that all young ladies should know how to use a needle and thread. And sitting by her side I did learn a few sewing basics. She taught me how to stem stitch, backstitch, satin stitch, and how to create lazy daisies and French knots; how to mend a seam and how to sew a button on.

    Other than finishing the small crewel kit that my mother gave me at this time, which she had framed and kept over all the years, and mending a few seams, attaching a few buttons here and there along the road, I’ve never, until recently, done anything creative or useful with needle’n thread. Still, I’m so grateful for the rudimentary sewing skills I learned, and I cherish the memories that my mother created while she taught them to me.

    Maybe I’m just being cynical, and I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t imagine as many mothers nowadays tell their daughters that all young ladies should know how to use a needle and thread. Somehow I get the feeling people have decided that saying something like that wouldn’t be politically correct. And aside from that, people would probably say there isn’t enough time in the day for things like teaching or learning how to sew. More is the pity and I don’t think either of those things is true.

    If my mom, an attentive mother of five, fulltime working nurse, strongly independent and resourceful woman, had time to teach her girls a little bit about sewing, surely there’s still time in the day to pass this kind of knowledge on.

    Said in my best Tyra Banks: My mother was fierce! America’s Next Top Model, now there’s some politically incorrect shiznit, sending a bad message, if you ask me. But people don’t seem to mind. And I’d bet there is plenty of mother and daughter time shared watching it every week. What the heck?

    Ack! Sorry for the tangent, Mary! I’m going to go sit with my coffee and quilt blocks and wait to be beamed up! LOL! – Jeannine

  3. Hi Mary

    As the grandmother of 6 – 5 boys and 1 girl I too made their Christening outfits. I made a boys smocked romper and bonnet for the first boy and then a christening gown for his sister. His little brother wore the same romper when he came along.
    My daughter has 3 boys so a similar romper minus hat (she didn’t want a hat) was made and as each boy wore it I embroidered their initials and date on the back belt. The funny one was when her last son was born and ready for his christening he was so fat she couldn’t get his arms in the romper so down to Florida she mailed it and I had to open up the armband and put a gusset in each sleeve so he could use it. I brought it back to Chicago in time for the event.

    In her husband’s family they have a tradition and it is a baby scale that has been used by their parents and now by all the nieces and nephews. It gets mailed to whoever has a new baby. Little different but nice.

    Have a great day and love your blog.



  4. Mary, the dress is so sweet-looking with the tiny pearls and delicate colors. I love and appreciate the close-up photos that you post. They are tremendously helpful in understanding the stitch and “feeling” the piece. And yes, I agree that heirloom stitching is dying out. Many mothers of girls seem delighted at it but I think that most women feel it is so very beyond their abilities and probably price range to make or order a dress with hand details.

  5. Hello Mary!
    The story by the grandmother who’s one grandson was too big for the Christening outfit was familiar.
    When I first got married and was expecting my first child I decided I wanted to make the Christening gown. I happened to go into the needle shop that my aunt frequented and saw a pattern for a smocked ensemble. I was nineteen almost 20. The only sewing I had ever done was really in Home-Ec and doll clothes. But I LOVED the smocking. So I thought, “I can learn to do that.” And I taught myself on that first Christening gown.
    I knew nothing about fine fabrics and laces. I knew nothing about smocking. I chose whatever 100% cotton that Hancocks carried, and whatever lace that was the designated size that they carried.
    It was bleached muslin I chose! And polyester laces.
    Well, like I said, I taught myself to smock – rather tight stitching…but luckily the baby was early and tiny – a 5 pounder. And the next 3 after that were also in the 5-6 lb range. In the meantime, I learned so much about heirloom sewing and smocking and fabrics and drooled at the thought of making a proper Christening gown out of SWISS BATISTE, of all things and french laces, etc. Well, when #5 was born – the first boy – he was a whopping 71/2 pounder and I couldn’t get his fists in the sleeves! I just cut up the seem, for a temporary fix.
    Then a couple at our church had a very premature baby who didn’t live, and they didn’t really have the means for a nice gown and asked if I had anything at all they could use to bury their baby in. I gave them my gown with the intention of making the exact same set in the proper fabric and laces with the proper tensions and everything else. Which is good because the rest of the babies have all been in the 7 lb range and would not have fit in that first attempt at heirloom sewing!
    I love your site. I hope to get to spend a bit more time on handwork in the future – you are so inspiring!

  6. Thank you, Mary. I’ll be saving this post for future reference. The dress is magnificent. What a loving job your sister did on it.

  7. I’ve done some heirloom sewing mainly baptismal gowns and I understand just hoe much LOVE went into this gown. May it be passed down for generations to come. JUST GORGEOUS

  8. Heck I am glad you were all girls, I was starting to worry when you said all 7 of you wore the dress.
    It is a beautiful tradition and a beautiful dress. Working on fabric as fine as batiste doesn’t leave much room for errors in tension, and finishing off on the back. Isn’t it lovely to have big sisters, I have 3, I am so lucky.

  9. Haven’t made a first communion dress as we are Protestant, but I did make my niece a Christening gown for her little girl’s dedication. So, time for the photos and it was so hard to get a photo of the baby in the dress. Granted it wasn’t hand embroidered all over, but it did have a fancy band I had sewed using my machine. For some reason or another my niece had found some white baby shoes that she was enamored with and just about every pose, she was pulling up the dress her aunt had made to display the K-Mart shoes! I think I ended up with one photo of the dress neatly flowing over the baby’s feet. Needless to say, I was rather disappointed, and I was finding more family members to put on my list of who not to sew and make special gifts for!

    This dress is absolutely lovely. It would have fit right in with other garments in Sew Beautiful Magazine when it was still being published.

  10. Mary your book cover is lovely, I could not stand the stress of leaving it to the last minute. The First Communion dress is a work of art, just lovely, and so nice to know that heirloom items are still used in some families. Your sister is as talented as you are and thank you for sharing.

  11. This is truly beautiful. I admire your sister’s beautiful handiwork and applaud her for dong this! (And you for showcasing it!) A true heirloom.

  12. I can’t believe what can be done. Both the dress and the book cover is my ideal of Embroidery. I have never embroidered but would like to begin. Thankfully I have found your blog. I somewhat overwhelmed by your beautiful work. Just thankful that you share your wonderful talents and researched. Thank you so much.

  13. Unfortunately , in North America, hand made and embroidered clothes, even for special occasions, seems to be a dying art. Everyone is more interested in instant gratification and so few people are willing to take the time to learn the skills and create the beautiful garments. Sad. Your niece’s lovely dress, made by your sister, and the prayer book cover by you, are destined to be heirlooms. Inspiring indeed. I have sewn dresses for my grand daughter, but not been able to see her wear them. I think she preferred the clothes from Walmart. I do not sew for her anymore. Sad. Janice

  14. What a beautiful dress, and so special that each of your nieces has gotten to wear it. Thank you (and your sister too!) for sharing it with us.

    I wanted really special christening dresses for my twin boys. It was beyond my ability at the time to sew them, so I contacted a woman recommended by a local store that specialized in heirloom sewing supplies. She was so talented and came up with a design that satisfied my wish for a “traditional” long flowing gown and my husband’s wish that the boys look like boys 😀 The solution was a little romper with buttons on the waistband that the long skirt could button onto. So we had the long skirt for the church and the romper alone for the after party when the boys were getting passed around visiting with all their new relatives. Not to mention that it was great for the carseats on the way to church too, no rumpled skirt! She even made two different styles of hat so they could be both dressed alike and a little different too. 16 years later, they have been used by our two dear godchildren and I hope to pass them down to any grandchildren we might be blessed to have.

    I have made first communion veils for several nieces and did ribbon embroidery on both the dress and headband for one of them. I won a ribbon for that, which I’m very proud of. I’d still love to learn heirloom sewing though, I saw a lovely pattern some years ago for a button down shirt that was a “sampler” of all the different techniques. I’m going to dig that out and add it to my list for this summer and make it for myself!

  15. What a beautiful dress. Exquisite. You are blessed with such talent. Yes it takes work. The results are just stunnng

  16. Oh Mary. what wonderful work, I look forward to your letters every day and try and get inspiration from them. unfortunately I am 86 with arthritis and=as you can qguess- makes things a bit difficuly for me but I still carry on, not always satisfied but I love doing it. I just wish I could buy a kit from you it would be lovely. Thankyou for all your letteers and pictures., they make my day,
    Love. Marjoriexxx

  17. Dear Mary that is a beautiful dress, the textile arts really run in your family.
    It is a beautiful tradition, with the dress made special for each wearer by having their own sash.
    Cheers Judy
    Queensland, Australia

  18. O, Mary, this is lovely! I just finished sewing my daughter’s First Holy Communion dress, and it was a lot of hard work, though I sew things for my children quite often! Thank you for sharing this beautiful work. And may God bless her and all little children to receive this Holy Sacrament!

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