Timeless but Expendable Heirlooms

Vivian Rose at nursery school

Blue bishop, 2014–Last week at nursery school, Vivian Rose was cute and comfortable.  She is wearing a bishop dress made 32 years ago for her mother, Rebecca.  True to the adage that any bishop is good for 3 sizes, this size 3 dress fits our 16 month old just fine after the hem was taken up.  And it will fit for a long time.


Recently, I’ve changed my thoughts and opinions about the use of heirloom/smocked garments. From this post title, it’s likely you can tell  where I now stand on the issue of packing away my lovingly stitched heirlooms.

With their almost timeless appeal and classic style, they can be worn in any fashion era.  Until recently, my plan for their future was that they be carefully packed away in acid free tissue and then be passed  down to the next baby in the family–whenever that might be.  I felt certain that the style and stitchery would still be appropriate.   Often,  that is exactly what happened, i.e. the Imperial batiste bishop dress shown above and below.

But I hadn’t expected that they would be put in service for everyday use, like at Vivian Rose’s pre-school.  There, painting, bib-free eating, and rough and tumble playground time are daily events.  And no child tumbles more roughly this little dynamo.


Vivian Rose's mother, Rebecca, wearing the same dress 32 years ago

Blue bishop 1982–Rebecca, Vivian Rose’s mother,  wearing the same blue bishop dress.

Again and again, the smocked and heirloom things I have made have been passed down the line, always  to my great satisfaction and pleasure.   Further below are several examples.

Two events have clarified my way of thinking.  First was this dress, worn often by my daughter and then loaned out through the years to several friends.


beloved dress worn for the last time

The last hurrah for a well loved dress. 2013


A family friend wore it for a special visit with grandmother.  Alyia’s mother was cautioned that the tissue thin Swiss batiste dress and lace portrait collar might not come away undamaged, even with the perfectly ladylike behavior of her precious almost 5 year old.   As predicted and at the end of the evening visit the fancyband tore away from the skirt.   The soul of the dress went to that Great Walk-In-Closet in the sky.  But in the adoring eyes of her grandmother, Alyia was a princess for the entire time.

As I counted the number of little girls and occasions on which the dress was worn, I felt no loss.  There was only happiness in knowing that the long hours spent sewing the dress created a lot of smiles and happiness.

It reminded me of a freshly cut Douglas fir Christmas tree with its annual house perfume, lights, and decorations.   Certainly, like a child in a pretty dress, neither the dress nor the tree is as important as the child or the occasion.  But each brings such a sweet joy while they are around.  And yet, no later than mid-January, even the most pampered tree loses its fragrance and needles and is discarded.   Like a worn out heirloom dress, it has served its purpose.  Maybe this example is a stretch,  but I hope you can glean my meaning from it.


$1.44 Goodwill find

2014–$1.49 Goodwill find


The second incident that clarified my opinion was the watermelon dress above.  Just a few weeks ago at my local Goodwill store, I bought this size 2 bishop gem, nicely smocked, expertly constructed, and in absolutely perfect condition.  The fabric is Spechler-Vogel microcheck.  I know because it is a perfect match to some I have on hand.

After a cursory glance it was obvious that it is not commercially made.  The watermelon bishop is mama-, auntie- or granny-made.   Hand made button loops, pearl buttons, French lace edging, and the hand stitched hem were all evidence of a lovingly made dress.  Why was it for sale at Goodwill?  Was it outgrown after it was worn a time or two for special occasions and then discarded?

I paid $1.49 for it.  How sad.  Whatever the reason for it being surrendered to Goodwill, why was it not instead gifted it to some other little girl?

In fact, it has been gifted to my sweet dgd Vivian Rose.  I’ve told her mother to let her wear it anywhere, anytime–but not because it  cost me so little.  Like all of the things I have made for my grandchildren, this should be worn, not “saved” for some extraordinary occasion worthy of special costuming.  Such occasions often come long after the child has outgrown the special garment.

I’m not saying that coming home outfits, first birthday dresses, christening gowns or other emotion laden garments ought not to be packed away.  But for items of more common use,  let them be worn!  We almost always shower the precious children in our lives with a plentitude of smocked and heirloom sewn clothing.  If they get stained or torn or ruined, we can always make more.  And if that is not possible, isn’t it better that it be worn to death after generating attention and praise for a child–any child–  than for it to be unworn and folded  in a cedar chest?  Or end up at Goodwill, valued at $1.49?

You’ve probably all heard the story about the elderly woman who died, leaving at the back of  her bureau drawer a beautiful set of lingerie which had never been worn.   Gifted to her years before, it had never been out of the box.  She had been saving her prettiest things for a special occasion, but nothing quite special enough came along before she was gone.

I do not want that to happen to anything I have made.




Here are some well-loved, often worn garments stitched for my children and grandchildren . Each of these outfits has been around the block more than a few times.


"Brother Bishop," made in 1999 for a wedding.  It was passed down and worn by sevaral other children and still has plenty of life left.

“Brother Bishop,” made in 1999 for a wedding. It was passed down and worn first by a flower girl, then dgd Laurel, and subsequently several other children.  It still has plenty of life left.


"Rebecca's Bow Dress" worn first to a dinner with the Premier of China.  Then it was "traded in" for a another custom made heirloom dress.  My Rebecca wore it again and again,

“Rebecca’s Bow Dress” was made in 1982 for by a precious little  family friend to wear to a state dinner in Beijing with the Premier of China. After it was outgrown, it was “traded in” for credit toward another custom made heirloom dress.  My Rebecca wore it for two years.


After Karoline, the original owner, outgrew her blue bow dress, it was lengthened so my Rebecca could wear it.  After Rebecca, three other little girls pirouetted in blue Swiss batiste and bows.   Now, it waits for  Vivian Rose to grow.


This classic kimono has been worn by all four of my grandchildren.  It's about ready for retirement or a chilled baby whose mother is not fussy.

made in 1989–This classic kimono has been worn by all four of my grandchildren. It’s about ready for retirement or a chilly baby whose mother is not fussy.


Gap-toothed Rebecca in the Little Fawn pinafore, 1984.

1984–Laurel’s aunt, my gap-toothed Rebecca in the Little Fawn pinafore.



2010--Laurel wearing the Little Fawn pinafore .

2010-dgd Laurel wearing the Little Fawn pinafore

Dress and collar were made in 1984 for my daughter Rebecca.  It was machine monogrammed for dgd Laurel in 2010.  Vivian Rose is next in line to wear it.

Made in 1986, this lawn dress and the plain linen fagotted collar were made in 1984 for my  Rebecca. It was machine monogrammed for dgd Laurel in 2010. Vivian Rose is next in line to wear it.


This Madeira applique’d suit was a gift to my son, Ryan, in 1975.  As the first heirloom style garment I had ever seen, its impact on his Mid-Western mother has had lifelong impact.


This little Madeira applique'd suit was a gift to my son.  As  the first heirloom style garment I had ever seen, its impact on this Mid-Westerner had lifelong impact.

1975, Ryan, wearing a one-piece suit with Madeira aplique’d teddy bears. Each bear poses in a patch of flowers.


The suit was worn by Ryan’s son, Robert Charles, when he was a little younger and a little smaller.  Still, he was comfortable and adorable.


Robert Charles partying and his Aunt Rebecca's wedding in 2006.

2006, Robert Charles partying at his Aunt Rebecca’s wedding.


Next in line for the suit was Robert’s cousin and Ryan’s nephew, Alastair.


Alastair is  wearing the heirloom suit worn by his uncle and cousin, 2009

2010, Alastair is wearing the heirloom suit worn by his uncle and cousin.

These are just some of the worn and passed on garments in our family.  As others have been outgrown and not special enough to save, they have been sold in my Nursery Closet Sales or given away to family friends.  I’d like everything I make  to be worn out, not laid rest in a cedar chest in near perfect condition or sold at Goodwill for a pittance.  Like the pitiful watermelon dress.

Your thoughts?

14 responses to “Timeless but Expendable Heirlooms

  1. from Martha Pullen forum: When my girls were toddlers, more than 20 years ago, we made the trip to Disney World. I made each of them a bishops to wear for a special day in the park. They were so cool and comfortable in them that I washed them out in the sink each night and they wore those dresses everyday we were down there. Once I understood how comfortable the bishops were for them, I made them many over the years. They outgrew them in length and then we just added shorts or long pants to wear under the bishops. I let the daycare and then school know that they were no worries, that the dresses were wash and wear. I was sad once they outgrew that style. I have done a few things that I want to keep to pass down but for the most part, I want the child to wear and enjoy it. If it becomes damaged, so be it.
    My Mother used to tell us the story of the beautiful china set that her Mother had when they lived in Paris. They rarely used it-just for special occasions. When the Germans invaded during the war, they had to leave for England in the middle of the night and lost so many beautiful things, including the dinner service. Her belief became that if it was special it should be used so that memories could be made.

  2. Kathy, I agree wholeheartedly. IMHO, the bishop dress is the perfect garment for a little one. Your mother’s story about the dinner set reminded me of a disquieting incident many years ago. I had given one of Rebecca’s smocked dresses–Collars “Apron” pattern with a little smocked box at the neckline–to a little girl at church. I asked her mother to just pass it along when it was outgrown. A few years later I was in the drugstore about midnight, waiting for a prescription for Rebecca’s painful ear infection. I noticed a dirty little girl, about 2 yo and almost swallowed up in Rebecca’s smocked dress. She was wandering alone and barefoot up the aisle. The discrepancy between this precious little girl’s condition and my own pampered Rebecca just ate at me. I hoped that smocked dress got her some positive attention and that somebody was looking out for her. Either way, there was some satisfaction in knowing that the dress was still serving its purpose after several years of wear.

  3. Even my husband understands! When I showed him the watermelon dress and told him what you paid at Goodwill, he said, “Someone had no idea what a treasure they had.” I say let them wear them and enjoy them. I even had one grandniece who slept in her bishops at bedtime because she loved the feel of the fabric!

  4. Jimmie Burks

    I sure enjoy looking at your “pretties”. I cannot imagine anyone getting rid of something like these. I have learned in making them you have to be careful who you give them to. Most girls these days can’t wait to put jeans on babies. Very few appreciate all the work that goes into an heirloom. Love to sew them.

  5. Debra, your husband shows great appreciation for the effort that goes into these hand stitched garments. Your grandniece sounds like a sensitive little girl–few children notice the difference between denim and batiste! Sew for that girl!

  6. Jimmie, you are so right about giving your needlework to someone who appreciates it. When the do not, you know that not only do they not appreciate it but that the garment will be worn infrequently if ever. It will probably be pushed to the back of the closet. But gifting to someone who truly loves classic clothing is so rewarding.

  7. I agree with you, let them wear it, play in and enjoy the beautiful garments. I have decided though not to share anymore of these dresses, after making and never seeing the sweet baby in them, or not even knowing if they were worn. I’ll continue to make them and put them away for future grands.

  8. When my girls were small, I would let them play outside in their smocked clothes. Some of my neighbors just could not understand that! I do have tubs of their outfits that I saved in the hopes that their children one day would wear them. Unfortunately, my DGDs did not wear my girls dresses as the style was much shorter 37 years ago. My DD and DDIL wanted tea length for the DGDs. I did, however, use all my old patterns for the DGDs!

  9. I totally agree! Let them wear them. I sent my dd to school in her dresses, and imagine the looks I got and the whispers. I let it roll right off. She’s too old to wear them now, so I make them for others. I don’t make them to be seen; I make them to be used and cherished. That’s the ultimate compliment.

  10. Jennifer, it is very disappointing when there is little apparent appreciation for your efforts. I hope your grandmother’s hope chest is chock full by the time your grands arrive. Enjoy stitching for them.

  11. Judy, your granddaughters’ wardrobes had plenty of new gorgeous items made just for them. But isn’t it amazing how timeless the patterns are? And aren’t you glad you saved them?

  12. Angela, I’m so glad your daughter wore them to school. That says to the teacher and to the other students that school is a worthy, important occasion. I’m sure the teachers loved seeing her.

  13. My favorite consignment store find was a handmade smocked dress just perfect for Houston – no lining anywhere (all done on serger), and out of a cotton so thin and breezy it is practically cheesecloth. Wouldn’t win any prizes, but it’s great at the park when it’s 100 degrees! Not quite Goodwill – it’s a high end consignment place with a lot of boutique brand smocked dresses – but not many handmade ones, so I’m glad I could give it another life, especially as it’s really much better here than the Strasbourg style heavy dresses.

  14. What a great find, Marguerite! My daughter loves for Vivian Rose to wear smocked clothes to play because they allow so much movement. But they can be hot there in coastal Florida. That combination of breezy fabric and smocking sounds like a perfect park dress. I bet your little one looked lovely and felt great.

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