Heirloom children's clothing

By Terry Quillen


When you find one of those pretty little vintage handmade baby dresses at GasLamp or GasLamp Too, Elizabeth Travis Johnson may well have had something to do with it.


Johnson taught hundreds of young Nashville mothers – and more than a few grandmothers – the fine art of children's heirloom sewing over the years. You know it when you see it – it is a Swiss batiste day gown for baby or a smocked "bubble" romper, a sweet and simple "bishop" dress or a little boy's button-on suit. Those velveteen box pleated dresses so popular in children's Christmas portraits? Another one of Johnson's designs.


A hallmark of the style is the tiny round-thread, or Valenciennes, lace that trims a Peter Pan collar or a little puffed sleeves. Johnson always told students to keep it minimal. Sewing blogger Janice Ferguson quoted her as saying: "There are more ways to kill a cat than to drown it in buttermilk."


(The photo, above right, shows the array of girls’ heirloom dresses available at Booth T-283 at GasLamp Too. The inset features a petite puffed sleeve with Valenciennes lace attached to entredeux.)


The cardinal rule for children's heirlooms: Only all-cotton lace will do, preferably French. And an heirloom does not have to come from Mama's or Nana's loving hands.


(Photo, left: A pair of vintage nursery pieces are trimmed in antique French lace. The dotted Swiss dresser scarf and the French bib in the inset are from Showcase T-618 at GasLamp Too.)


Several commercially-manufactured lines of classic children's wear date back to the first half of the last century. You will often find the Feltman Brother's or C.I. Castro label in the precious styles available at GasLamp and GasLamp Too. Booth T-283 has a terrific collection that includes both handmade and commercial styles. Sweet selections also can be found at Booth T-366.


(Photo, right: The bodice of a christening gown, left, is a fine example of French handsewing, from Trouvaille; located in Booth T-108 at GasLamp Too. The sleeve shown in the upper right inset features a wide piece of antique Valenciennes lace on a gown that is available at Booth T-366, GasLamp Too. The shell pink dress, lower right inset, is at Booth T-283 at GasLamp Too.)


Some of these GasLamp dresses may have been made by Johnson’s protégées; others may have come from a bygone Nashville department store, such as Cain-Sloan or the ever-popular Helen’s (still a staple for Belle Meade's young matrons). Even Rich-Schwartz, one of Nashville's elite women's shops of the last century, had a baby department that carried little frocks with tiny pleats, hand embroidery and, of course, round-thread lace.


But the epitome of heirloom children's sewing is the christening gown. While there are acceptable machine techniques being taught today, the prettiest – and the oldest – gowns employ what is known as French handsewing.


Look for rows and rows of insertion lace handsewn together to form wide, decorative bands on the skirt of the gown. Gently-gathered lace edging is carefully sewn into Swiss-made "entredeux" – a tiny piece of hemstitching where each little space holds a delicate stitch. Petite rosebuds and "briar stitch" (or feather stitch) embroidery are worked in the same timeless ivory as the gown – never in color. 

(Photo, left: This doll, a reproduction of a 19th century French Twirp, models a French handsewn dress. At right, the detail displays the Art Deco design of the lace, connected by pale blue entredeux. The doll is available at Showcase T-618 at GasLamp Too.)

If you are making a once-in-a-lifetime family heirloom or a Civil War re-enactment piece – or even if you are costuming an antique doll – you will want to start with true antique lace. Showcase T-618 has a tremendous collection of laces and trims from France, much of it bought in the famed flea markets of Paris.


(Photo, right: These three pieces of antique French lace, from a Paris flea market, were recently added to the collection at Showcase T-618 at GasLamp Too. The lower inset is an example of insertion lace, while the other two are lace edging.)


It is fitting that such treasures have found their way to the American South – where children's finery is held in such regard, thanks in large part to Johnson. Though she passed away in 2003, her creative vision continues.


Johnson's timeless styles were the basis of a line of patterns that, to this day, are the gold standard. Three young Nashville moms, Lezette Thomasson, Mary Frank King, and Ginger Caldwell, had the exceptional vision in the '80s to start Children's Corner. The company is known worldwide for its patterns, many of them based on Johnson's designs.


Whether you are looking for just the right touch of antique lace to recreate one of Johnson's styles or a precious smocked frock from the 1950s, GasLamp and GasLamp Too are helping keep the tradition alive.



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