Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mary Ann Nickerson's Christening Dress

Saving treasured baby clothes and other beautifully embellished garments is a special tradition for many of today's heirloom sewists, just as it was for our ancestors centuries ago. Our DAR Museum book, which is part of the "Martha Pullen's Favorite Places" series, explores heirlooms the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution have entrusted to the DAR Museum in Washington D.C. By saving and recording the history of these garments and the families that wore them, these women have preserved pieces of early American history and provided for the education of future generations.

DAR Museum includes the stories of heirlooms ranging from baby dresses to wedding gowns, everyday and fancy wear. Below, read more about one of the garments featured in the book, Mary Ann Nickerson's Christening Dress (1831, gift of Irmah W. Kerrigan):

Mary Ann Nickerson's Christening Dress

This lovely little Ayrshire dress is said to be Mary Ann Nickerson's christening dress worn in Chatham on Cape Cod in Massachusetts in 1831. The Ayrshire infant gowns were introduced in the 1820s, and the 1830s would have been the height of their popularity. The slightly raised waist would fit this date. Even though babies' bodies lack a defined waist, clothes for infants echoed women's styles in the placement of the waistlines. 

The bodice and bottom of the skirt are embroidered with matching stylized flowers, some with two rows of "petals" surrounding the needle-lace-filled openwork, and other flowers slightly simpler with openwork petals. Two rows of leafy sprigs march along the edges of the bodice center panel. At the hem, the flowers are surrounded with additional floral and foliate sprays, and a single row of leaves and eyelets wends its way up toward the waist. Overall, the hem's main area of decoration is only 5 inches high. This would have allowed Mary Ann's mother to convert the baby dress into a toddler's by only using the embroidered lower part of the skirt, had she desired to do so. A skirt with more elaborate embroidery in the upper area would be too much of a shame to cut down! The skirt is made in two pieces, seamed at the sides, and is gauged into a waistband, which features an abstract leaf design embroidered in satin stitch.

Christening dress bodice

Machine embroidery reproduction available on DAR Museum disk 1

The edges of the bodice, the skirt flanges and the skirt hem have pointed scalloped edging finished in buttonhole stitch. The neckline trim has an eyelet in each scallop. These pointed scallops were common in whitework embroidery done for women's accessories of the 1820s and 1830s such as the elaborate pelerine collars; they were called "Vandyke" edgings, or simply "vandyking," after the pointed lace edgings seen in Anthony Van Dyck's 17th century portraits of English royalty and nobility. The neckline has a similar vandyked scallop with single eyelets in each scallop. 

The raglan sleeves have three rows of self-fabric trim with eyelets above scalloped-edged (rounded, not vandyked) trim, applied on the top side of the sleeve only, beneath embroidery at the shoulder. The lowest of the three rows of trim has satin-stitch, teardrop-shaped motifs above the eyelets. The sleeves end with an eyelet and scalloped edge with satin-stitched leafy sprigs. The dress has no visible method of fastening at center back, but the two-layer waistband may have served as a casing for a ribbon. The back of the neckline has a drawstring casing, but no surviving tape or cord.

For more inspiration from the "Martha Pullen's Favorite Places" series, check out our new Kent State Museum Vol. 1 and Kent State Museum Vol. 2 bundles! Each bundle comes with a book and two machine embroidery CDs featuring numerous designs.

Sew On, Sew Well, Sew Beautiful,
Cyndi and Amelia


  1. Mary Ann Nickerson may be my Great Great Grand Aunt. We have a sampler created by Mary Ann Nickerson in Chatham MA in 1837 when she was ten years old. It has the names of her parents, their birth dates, and the names and birth dates of all her siblings. Mary Ann would have been 4 in 1831. I cannot tell by the photo of the dress if it was to fit a baby or a four year old girl. If for a baby, rather than a toddler, it may be another Mary Ann Nickerson. Chatham Massachusetts has many Nickerson families. The first settlers of Chatham were Nickersons. The Nickerson Family Association Inc., formed in 1897, is headquartered in Chatham. My GG Grand Aunt Mary's parents were Josiah and Abigail (Gould) Nickerson, my GGG Grandparents. Mary Ann married a Simmons and is buried in the Chatham Seaside Cemetery.
    Brian Nickerson
    Falmouth Massachusetts

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