Gather, pleat, smock, and sew

I've been spending many happy hours engrossed in sewing lately.

I didn't grow up sewing and I don't know where the love of sewing comes from, or the determination to master it even though I am such a novice. 


I know that I had one moment of sheer bliss while I watched a thin, perfectly cut bias strip I'd made from the fabric for this dress smoothly gliding under the sewing machine needle. Perhaps the addiction is fed from the lovely feeling of hearing my girl gasp, "Oh! Mama!" as I unveil a new dress made just for her, or watching my little boy silently, immediately change into the shorts I've made him while he ever so politely ignores the scratchy, unfinished seams, just because he is so happy I made him something. Maybe it's this combination of love, embodied in handwork, and the tactile pleasure of working with fabric, colors, texture. Whatever – I know I just feel very happy and satisfied when I can sew and knit and ever so cranky and irritable when I can't get enough handwork in.


Anyway, from poring over Japanese craft books and discovering some amazing online resources I've learned four basic techniques which I think are really important if you want to create your own designs. Just as with cooking, I love basic formulas because I love the way they become a springboard for so much else and give you flexibility. There are now so many dresses and clothes and projects swimming around in my head that I've started a project journal to at least help me gather my thoughts together.


These four techniques are gathering (to make billowy skirts and ruffles), which I learned last summer here,


pleating, which I learned by reading this fabulous tutorial


smocking, or shirring (there are many tutorials on the web but the one that made it clearest for me was this one), and oh wow I just saw she has a post about hand-sewn smocking, too! 


and making my own bias tape, which is a basic requisite for just about every Japanese pattern I've seen. And sometimes, a combination of techniques, like gathering and then encasing in a strip of bias tape to make a sweet pocket, just like this:


It's been a bit obsessive; I'm making several projects a day, including for myself (bias cut skirts) and shorts for the boys, too. The kids fend for themselves, dinner gets burned or is late, laundry piles up and up and up, when I'm in this kind of mode. But it's kind of like a fever and I know I just have to let it work its way out of my system!

Have you taught yourself a hobby or technique? What did you find most helpful? Classes, books, or online tutorials?


24 thoughts on “Gather, pleat, smock, and sew

  1. Francesca

    Beautiful sewing, and thank you Christine for all the links (the link for shirring is not working for me, I’ll come back and try it later as I’m quite interested in it), they’re so useful. I love bias tape, but because I have yet to find a way to make it without wasting fabric, I try to avoid it!

  2. Christine - Origami Mommy

    I think that I fixed the link – please let me know if it doesn’t work. I know what you mean about cutting on the bias. I have that dilemma when I am trying to sew a skirt for myself, since it uses more fabric than tiny baby pieces. It feels so wasteful!
    Do you know how to make beautiful bias tape by sewing shorter pieces together at a 90 degree angle? That’s what I usually do, like this: (I love this tutorial for the first photo alone). And I just saw this which apparently reduces the need to sew.

  3. Tall Kate

    Oh, Christine, I just love reading about your passion for this! You’re making me think about sewing more again. (I learned as a teenager; my height makes it hard for me to buy clothes that fit well, and learning to sew really helped me. But I haven’t done much in years.)
    What resonated with me is your post a couple of days ago where you talked about having a project area set up ready to go anytime. For awhile now I’ve fantasized about setting up a space in my upstairs hall (now a repository for all kinds of junk, including old books, seldom-used toys, etc.) as a kind of crafting spot … I even have a table I could put up there … please keep sharing your enthusiasm!!

  4. Francesca

    Thank you, it works! It doesn’t sound too easy, though, I’ll have to see if my old and basic sewing machine allows me to loosen the upper tension. Thanks for all the links, they’ll be very helpful!

  5. Bex

    Thanks so much for popping by my blog. I’ve been a bit uninspired in the past year & haven’t really kept up with it.
    You swinging by & then leading me here has inspired me!
    Are you in Japan?
    If so you would be sweating it up right now I bet.
    We are back in Australia now & it was my intention to keep blogging for all our friends over there. I do miss Japan sooooo much.
    Well, I’m off to check out some more of your posts.
    Lovely blog & in your words…”I’ll be back” too! XXxx.

  6. Cricket

    Your dresses are lovely (and your younger daughter in that picture in the purple dress… so sweet!) I can hardly believe you are a new sewer. I am fairly new at following patterns and actual skills, but I have always felt like I know my way around a sewing machine enough to cobble simple things together.
    And ikat bag – don’t you love her? Have you seen she is going to show us how to make children’s slopers? I’m so excited.

  7. MyKidsEatSquid

    My mother is an amazing seamstress, but when she tried to teach me, well, I failed miserably. Seeing what you’ve done here makes me wish I would have kept trying at it. Just beautiful.

  8. Judy Stock

    Love your designs! Very special little dresses. Used to sew my two boys and my daughter’s clothing when they were young children. And I too enjoyed the process. I felt pretty good about managing zippers, button holes and the like. Haven’t sewn anything in too many years to even mention.

  9. sarah henry

    You are too clever. Can I borrow you to whip up a couple of curtains for my son’s room? Have had the fabric for, oh, about three years and they’re still not done!
    No pleating or pockets necessary, promise.

  10. Sally

    I wanted to say thanks for stopping by my blog! I love all of the little dresses you have made…they are adorable. I can sew things, but clothing is a much more difficult task…mainly because I am not very confident about altering anything that might need to be changed 😦

  11. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Yes – I love her ideas, her creativity, and her blog!
    I am not new at using a sewing machine, really – but I do consider myself a new sewer because there are so many basic techniques I have yet to learn. I did a lot of very basic sewing last summer – bags and pillowcase dresses. Now I feel like I’m ready for more challenges.

  12. Susan

    These are adorable! I used to sew my own Halloween costumes when I was younger, but I never really mastered machine sewing so I did it by hand. I’d love to make cute little dresses for my daughters someday, but I wondered if homemade clothes are as durable as needed for active kids?

  13. Meredith

    My thing is mosaics – I love doing them and find them very meditative.
    The outfits are darling. Honestly, between the outfits and the photos and your eye for design, you could not only have your own clothing line – or run the magazine that features it!

  14. Jennifer Margulis

    These are so beautiful. I always thought I wanted to learn to sew and knit but I never have. My daughters knit beautifully and my son has been learning to sew. I seem to be craft-challenged though.


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