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Stitches in time: Old craft gets new life


Robin Bryce keeps a centuries-old craft alive in the living room of her Bay Hills home.

Sitting on her couch beneath the lamp lighting, Ms. Bryce, 45, meticulously stitches colorful patterns on top of pleated cloth, an art known in the craft world as smocking.

"It's a lot of fun to have a finished product and be able to put it on somebody," she said. "A lot of people look at the smocking and say, 'I wish I had a girl for this.' "

She has been smocking for 14 years, designing girls' dresses and christening gowns, Easter eggs, Christmas ornaments and hair accessories. Recently, she taught 20 women in Howard County as part of a one-day seminar sponsored by the fTC Embroiderers Guild of America.

Sixteenth-century Europeans used smocking to give peasants' extra-wide work shirts -- or smocks -- a better fit. In England, the peasants gathered the cloth across the chest and cuffs into small pleats, then embroidered patterns on top, making those parts of the shirt like elastic.

In other countries, peasants used embroidery to gather the cloth. But the style did not produce the elastic quality of the English style Ms. Bryce copies.

Today, pleating is made with a machine that folds the fabric as it feeds it through a row of 16 needles and thread. A pleating machine can fold a 45-inch piece of cloth to 12 inches in a matter of minutes, work that would take hours by hand.

The rows of thread, about a half-inch apart, run the width of the folded area of fabric to keep it pleated during embroidery.

Once the pleating is done, Ms. Bryce said, she spends six to 10 hours embroidering puppies, bunnies or geometric shapes across the chest and sleeves of the dresses.

An additional four to six hours is needed to assemble the small yoke-style dresses. Christening gowns, which have more intricate embroidery and sewing, take up to 20 hours to complete.

Ms. Bryce said she became interested in smocking after her daughter, Heather, now 13, was born. Once Ms. Bryce learned the craft, she made dresses for her daughter. Heather wore them until she was in the second grade, when she decided she had worn enough of them.

That didn't stop Ms. Bryce. She kept on making handmade dresses, holiday ornaments and novelty items.

Elizabeth Doughty's daughter, Cara, has outgrown two of Ms. Bryce's dresses, but Ms. Doughty won't give the dresses away.

"I keep them because they're so special," she said. "They're the kind of thing you would keep for your grandchildren."

Ms. Doughty said the material is sturdy.

"You can use them every day, but they're too nice," she said.

Ms. Bryce said many parents today aren't interested in "the fancy lace and needlework" in the clothing she makes.

"People are getting away from the heirloom kind of sewing that's done," she said.

She said she has participated in craft fairs for three years but that her most intricate christening gown, priced at $115, has not sold.

"I think people are more practical now, and [the dresses] are not a practical item," she said. "They're something to be passed on."

Christening gowns are her most expensive item, running from $90 to $115. The simpler dresses range from $37 to $45. Novelty items, such as Christmas ornaments and Easter eggs, cost $4 to $6.

The quality of work, not the money she makes, keeps her smocking, she said.

"I put the time and effort into it," she said, "and I'm completely satisfied in the end."

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