Sew a No-Pattern Sundress with Smocking

Fantasy Fish smocking design by Amelia Johanson

As much as we love to sew, we don’t necessarily want to be glued to the sewing machine 24/7 during the sunshiny summer months. Still, we love seeing our little ones twirling in the green grass or hiding their toes in the sand dressed in our handiwork. Smock this colorful fish smocking plate whenever and wherever you get a minute to sit this summer, and then whip up the tiered, no-pattern sundress in an afternoon. Both you and your little one will enjoy the cool, colorful comfort of this sundress with smocking. This article from Sew Beautiful editor Amelia Johanson first appeared in our July/August 2005 issue of Sew Beautiful magazine.

No-Pattern Sundress with Smocking

Pretty pastel fishes get along swimmingly on this easy-to-construct, tiered, no-pattern sundress from Amelia Johanson.


  • Pattern
    • No pattern is needed.
  • Fabric
    • *Moda Fabric is 100 percent cotton in “Marbles” design by Debra Mason* (for size 3 or 4)
      • 3/4 yd of blue #9880-69
      • 3/8 yd of yellow #9881-51
      • 1/2 yd of pink #9801
      • Plus 1/8 yd for straps any color
  • Notions
    • 2-1/2 yds Swiss eyelet edging 1/2 inch wide
    • Three buttons, 1/2 inch
  • Floss
    • DMC Six-Strand Cotton Embroidery Floss
      • #3766 blue (for border picots)
      • #3752 blue (for backsmocking, fins and cable borders)
      • #604 pink (for fin and little fish body)
      • #445 yellow (for fins and little fish head)
      • #3832 red (for lips)
      • #3853 orange (for big fish)
      • #3787 gray (for eyes)
      • #564 green (for fin and little fish tail)
      • #333 purple (for big fish)
  • Supplies
    • Thread to match blue fabric
    • Thread to match pink fabric
    • Contrast quilting thread for pleater


Keep in mind that the smocking goes all around the dress in front and in back with the exception of a 1-1/4 inch wide folded facing at center back along the blue section. The dress buttons down the top blue tier and stops at the top of the yellow tier. Since there is no pattern required, strips are cut to the proper measurement for the child’s circumference.

Cut the following strips the complete width of 45-inch fabric. For larger sizes requiring more pleats than 45 inches will allow (pleating ratio is 3.5 inches to 1 inch), try pleating only the front and cut rectangles for two flat back bodices and 45-inch strips for a gathered skirt.

To add length to the dress, simply add more to the width of each tier.

For Dress as Shown (size 3)

  • Cut two complete widths of blue x 11 inches wide
  • Cut two complete widths of yellow x 5-1/2 inches wide
  • Cut three-and-half widths of pink x 5-1/2 inches wide
  • Cut one strip 2-1/2- x 22 inches for straps (any color you like).

Fantasy Fish smocking graph (click to enlarge)

Smocking Preparation

1. Using a serger or a zigzag, attach Swiss trim to top edges of front and back blue fabric strips separately, right sides together and raw edges even. Press trim up and seam allowance toward blue fabric on wrong side. Stay-stitch close to Swiss/fabric join across blue fabric using thread to match fabric. Mark center of each piece with a wash-out marking pen.

2. Stitch one yellow strip to remaining raw edge of one blue strip with right sides together using a 1/2 inch seam, trim seam to 1/4-inch and finish. Press seam up toward blue strip (fig. 1). This is the front piece.


3. Pleat 15 rows across each blue piece of fabric separately by running fabric through pleater so that top holding row is just below Swiss/fabric join. Leave extra long guide threads in back strip. Set back section aside.

4. Block front section so that it will fit snuggly across child’s chest and allow for side seams (some excess fabric may be left at sides for small sizes). Tie off guide threads when pleats are stacked easily side by side (not too tightly or too loosely packed). Follow smocking instructions and graph to complete “Fantasy Fish” design.

5. After smocking is complete, remove guide threads and press any flat unsmocked fabric on either side. If necessary, trim sides off leaving 1/2 inch for side seams. Set aside.

6. Pull up guide threads from center of back piece about 5 inches (10 inches of thread total) and cut all guide threads in half (fig. 2). Cut back piece in half to form two back pieces.


7. Remove guide threads along one edge of each back pleated piece leaving 2-1/2 inches flat for folded facing. Press facing edge 1/4 inch, then 1-1/4 inches to wrong side and topstitch to finish facings (fig. 3). NOTE: You may add lightweight fusible interfacing to reinforce back button facings if you desire. Overlap (either way) and pin facings together. Baste stitch across bottom of facings.


8. Flatten out pleats as much as guide threads will allow. Stitch remaining yellow strip to remaining raw edge of back strip with right sides together using a 1/2-inch seam, trim seam to 1/4 inch and finish (fig. 4).


9. Draw up pleated section so that it will fit snuggly across child’s back and allow at least 1/2-inch for side seams. Tie off guide threads (for small sizes, you may have more than 1/2-inch remaining at sides, this can be cut to size after smocking is complete).

10. Backsmock both back pieces by cabling across Rows 1 through 13 in blue (#3766); remember top and bottom rows are holding rows and are not numbered or smocked.

11. After smocking is complete, remove guide threads and press flat unsmocked fabric edges and trim to 1/2 inch for seam allowance if necessary.

Fantasy Fish

NOTE: See DMC Floss Colors as listed under “Materials.”


  • Design covers 189 pleats.
  • Pleat 15 rows.
  • Top and bottom row are holding rows and are not smocked.
  • The large fishes have identical stitch counts but are stitched in different floss colors.
  • Stitch the large fishes carefully. It is easy to smock crooked when stacking such long rows.

1. Cable across Row 1 starting with an up cable and across Row 13 starting with a down cable in blue (#3752). Stitch picots as shown on graph above and below cable rows in blue (#3766).

2. Begin orange fish on Row 5 on 10th pleat from left side. Cable 53 across starting with an up cable. Follow graph carefully noting color changes.

3. There are 41 pleats between the two large fishes (start counting at unsmocked pleat to right of lips on orange fish to unsmocked pleat to left of tail on purple fish). Begin purple fish on Row 7-1/2. Follow the exact same smocking as for orange fish noting different color changes: pink fi n instead of green, yellow fin instead of blue, light blue fin instead of yellow.

4. Begin little fish on Row 11 on the 67th pleat from left side. Smock 12 in pink starting with a down cable and follow graph noting color changes.

5. Backsmock across Rows 2 through 12 in blue (#3766).

Dress Construction

1. With right sides of smocked front and back sections together, stitch up one side seam right next to pleating, making sure to align edging. Finish seam.

2. Join together short edges of pink fabric sections so that you have one long strip. Finish seams. Hem one side with a double 1/4-inch hem.

3. Gather pink strip to fit bottom of yellow section. Distribute gathers evenly and stitch a 1/2-inch seam. Trim seam and finish (fig. 5).


4. With right side of front and back dress together and the seamlines of all three tiers lined up, stitch remaining side seam.

5. To make straps, fold 22-inch strip in half lengthwise and stitch a 1/4 inch seam. Turn right side out and press with seam in center. Cut into two equal pieces to create shoulder straps.

6. Finish one short end of strap by stuffing 1/4 inch of raw edge up inside tube and stitching across bottom.

7. Try dress on child to determine placement and length of shoulder straps and pin in place. Mark unfinished end of straps and trim off excess leaving 1/4 inch for turning under. As before, fold 1/4 inch up inside tube and stitch across ends.

8. Stay-stitch each end of strap to dress just above top cable row.

Amelia Johanson worked as an editor for Sew Beautiful magazine for 25 years and contributed countless sewing articles to its pages. She also served as editor for many Martha Pullen publication as well as co-author for the Kent State Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum books. Prior to coming to Martha Pullen Company she was a fashion writer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Columbus Dispatch both in Ohio. She holds degrees in magazine journalism and home economics journalism from the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Want more unique smocking ideas? Click here for Paige Alexander’s flower smocking tutorial!

Check out the products below for more summer sewing inspiration:

The July/August 2012 issue of Sew Beautiful is filled with ideas for sewing sensational summer sundresses!

This Simple Sundress pattern contains two versions: a cute boutique version and a lovely heirloom version. Both are sure to become favorites!

Get all the issues of Sew Beautiful from 2005 in one digital download!

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