Vintage Inspiration: Swirls of Embroidery Dress


Swirls of Embroidery Dress, English, circa 1900

Do you remember our “Heirloom Party Dress” pattern from the 1980s? It was Martha Pullen’s first pattern, and it was inspired by this lovely “Swirls of Embroidery Dress” from around the year 1900. In this excerpt from the book Vintage Baby, Martha shares a detailed look at this dress and tells the story of its discovery:

Martha Pullen: Little short baby dresses were as sweet a century ago as they are today. This antique dress was the basis for the “Heirloom Party Dress,” which was my first and probably best-selling pattern dating back to the start of my business in the early ‘80s. There’s simply nothing more charming than a little girl dressed in a white batiste dress. On this version, the high yoke is created with French sewing techniques that join Swiss insertion entredeux and a crochet like cluny lace insertion. The high back yoke is created in exactly the same manner. Entredeux outlines the armscyes. Swiss beading with entredeux on each side attaches the high yoke to the gathered skirt. The sleeves are finished at the bottom in cluny French edging.

I found the dress in an antique mall in Franklin, Tenn., and I was mostly intrigued by the embroidered skirt, which is a Swiss eyelet fabric. The flowers are very art deco. I loved the swirls, and thought that re-creating the work in hand embroidery would be exquisite. Today, most of us would tackle the overall, repetitive pattern by embroidery machine. The double rows of eyelets worked in graduating sizes follow the scalloped hemline. The only seam on the dress is in back. The back closes with three buttons and button loops. The dress is 18 inches and has a skirt circumference of 54 inches.

So many of the Victorian pieces I have purchased are long baby dresses, yet the very first French dress I constructed for Joanna was a white one in this traditional high-yoke style. Have you ever wondered at what point a baby was taken out of long dresses and put in short ones? The following article, “Short Clothes,” addresses this very subject. It originally appeared in the July 1886 issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. The article also explains the use of a “short walking coat,” which would have been made to accompany this type of short dress. Some of these “walking coats” are featured in this book.

“The first short dresses are yoke slips just long enough to reach to the ankles when the child stands. The choice for such dresses is nainsook, with hemstitched tucks and feather stitching in the yoke and skirt in the ways described above for long dresses. Hamburg edging and insertion with tucks trim other dresses, and there is usually a best dress made with Valencienne lace and insertion. When the child is eighteen months old, belts may be inserted in these little dresses, and the fancy now is to have the yoke very deep, making a short full puff between the yoke and belt. White remains the favorite dress for these little people, being used throughout the whole costume, with a short walking coat of piqué or of cordurette, made with short waist, long skirt, and a deep collar that is almost a cape. The trimming is embroidery of conspicuous design scantily gathered to the collar and sleeves, while the skirt is quite plain.”


Vintage Baby, written by Martha Pullen, Sue Hausmann and Elizabeth Rhodes, is a gorgeous book that gives heirloom sewing and vintage fashion devotees an up-close and personal look at many beautiful garments from the Victorian era. Descriptive text, in the voice of each item’s owner, combines with full-color photographs to transport the reader back in time to the discovery and acquisition of each piece.