FORT WORTH — Sunlight filtered through the atrium skylights of Cook Children’s Medical Center on a recent Saturday morning, illuminating 10 women who were working diligently on dainty sherbet-colored gowns destined to become family treasures.The Lone Star Smockers of Tarrant County are part of a nationwide crafting guild with a shared conviction that even the tiniest of newborns should have a fancy outfit just their size.The Smocking Arts Guild of America’s national WeeCare service project is to provide the gowns to families of premature and critically ill infants at no charge.The exquisite baby gowns of pink, blue and white, as well as nursery prints, are doll-size miniatures, decorated with rows of pleating topped with hand-stitched embroidery motifs.About half the gowns will be used as keepsake or burial clothes for babies who barely arrive in the world before they are gone. Their parents can have a memorial photograph made of the infant wearing the lovingly handcrafted gown.“That’s one of the toughest things to deal with. Some people won’t even talk about it,” said Lisa Reidland, president of the Lone Star Smockers and vice president of the national group.But Reidland, of Grapevine, doesn’t mind discussing it. “Their parents are here, and they’re hurting,” she said. Twice a year, the Lone Star Smockers meet in the atrium of Cook Children’s for a public workday so people can see what goes into making the gowns. “We just want to be visible, so parents can come by and see the people who make these gowns,” Reidland said. The gowns are donated to Cook Children’s and to the neonatal unit at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital H-E-B. Smocking refers to the embroidery technique used to decorate the outfits. Fabric is gathered so that it can stretch, and decorative stitching is often done over the gathers. The technique was developed in England during the Middle Ages to make garments’ cuffs, bodices and necklines stretchy, according to the national guild.Libby Ray of Keller worked at the first step in the assembly line: cutting out the garment pieces from the fabric, Next, the pieces were pressed and went to a group of women at their sewing machines, who assembled them.Then the outfits were sent for pleating at wooden hand-powered machines with an old-time appearance of bronze-colored serrated rods and squiggly needles.“There are electric machines that do this,” said Bobbie Ammann of Bedford as she gathered fabric on the needles by hand, “but they’re not as good.”The final step is the hand-smocking and finishing of the gown.“This is the part that everybody likes to do,” said Ann Deets of North Richland Hills. Her fingers effortlessly bound the gathers in intricate patterns with contrasting embroidery thread.The women agreed that patience is a necessary virtue among smockers. Most of them also quilt, hand embroider and do other types of sewing.What’s so appealing about the exacting craft?“There’s the heirloom quality of it,” said Linda Osburn of Keller. “These day gowns, they get handed down from generation to generation.”She should know. Osburn made a smocked dress for her own little girl, who is now 40. The dusty-rose-colored dress has now been handed down and worn by Osburn’s three granddaughters.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657 Twitter: @shirljinkins