Dressing Charleston children: the fine art of English smocking and heirloom sewing
By Missy Schenck
Easter colors and heirloom lace. Image courtesy of Sandy Hunter Jones.
When I was a little girl and the spring season rolled around, my mother would plan a time for my sisters and me to pick out fabric for a new Easter dress. Except for the times that I wanted to wear play clothes and tennis shoes, having a new dress made by my mother was special. White or pastel colors were smocked and beautifully sewn with lace inserts, then adorned with wide satin sashes. Sometimes there was even a new crinoline! My mother’s creations were exquisite, and she was one talented seamstress.
Many of us associate wearing new clothes in spring with the Easter holiday, but the tradition actually dates back to ancient times when Ostera, the Germanic goddess of spring, believed wearing new clothes brought good luck. In the early days of Christianity, newly baptized Christians wore white linen robes at Easter to symbolize rebirth and new life. Eventually, the tradition came to mark the end of Lent, when after weeks of wearing the same clothes, old frocks were discarded for new ones. Easter and spring attire have changed over the years, but some of the formality of heirloom clothing has been around for centuries and continues to be a favorite today, particularly for holidays and special occasions.
Sandy Hunter Jones was born with a needle and thread in her hand. When Sandy was only three, her mother spotted her mending Elfie, her stuffed elephant. She was not sure how Sandy got a needle and thread, but somehow this small child knew what she was doing. Sandy’s father, an avid fly fisherman, would take her fishing with him because she could untangle his fishing lines in no time and fix any fly in the box. This young creative prodigy had remarkable dexterity, and she in time developed a lifelong passion for smocking and heirloom sewing. “Maybe a love of sewing was always in me, but I didn’t exactly know it at the time,” said Sandy.
Just some of the beautiful offerings from Material Luxury. Images courtesy of Sandy Hunter Jones.
Born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Sandy majored in education and spent her early career years teaching at the Cherokee Reservation, Charlotte and Hendersonville. She loved teaching, and those skills would serve her well as her sewing career developed. Her sister and brother-in-law lived in Asheville, N.C., and while visiting with them one summer she met the next chapter in her life and moved to his hometown of Flat Rock, N.C., where she has lived for several decades.
In the early 1970s while tending the white elephant table at St. John in the Wilderness, Sandy noticed an old McCall’s pattern for a smocked child’s dress. Some of the instructions were missing, but she knew she had to have it. Smocking fascinated her, and though she had two small boys, she decided to take the pattern home and try to figure it out. The pattern included iron-on dots as a means of gathering the fabric for smocking. She made many mistakes and took careful notes for future reference. Finally, she got the hang of it, and smocking became her passion. She was able to adapt the dress pattern for boys’ shirts and a romper. Her friends started noticing the outfits she was making for her boys and asked if she would make some for their children. It was the beginning of her entrepreneurial escapades in the world of fine sewing and handwork.
What are smocking and heirloom sewing?
Traditionally, smocking conjures up images of baby day gowns, bonnets, bishops, button-on suits and bubbles. The history of smocking actually dates back to the Middle Ages in England and Wales. A “smock-frock” was a traditional garment or work shirt worn by rural workers, especially shepherds and farmers. It was made of heavy linen or wool and varied in length. Before elastic, smocking was used in cuffs, bodices and necklines on garments. It was practical on these garments; hence the name “smock” was derived. Embroidery styles for smock-frocks varied by regions and occupations: sheep and crooks for shepherds, and gardening scenes for farmers.
Early smocking was done with transfer dots and hand gathering to make the necessary pleats to smock the garment. But it was time consuming, and eventually smocking began to die out. By the early 1950s, however, pleating machines became available, and smocking regained popularity. This small, hand-cranked pleater with 16 needles across the bars became a game changer in the world of smocking. It would pleat the fabric, taking the place of transfer dots and hand gathering. The tedious preparation of the fabric was eliminated, and smocking became easier for more people.
The gunne sax dress, inspired by a new trend in fashion for Victorian and Edwardian clothing based on the nostalgia for England’s past, turned out to be the rage in the late 1960s. Empire waistlines and historic costume elements such as corset-like laced bodices and puffed sleeves that tightened below the elbow became a look popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Timing was perfect for English smocking and heirloom sewing, a style of sewing that incorporates fine fabrics trimmed with lace, entredeux, insertions, tucks, narrow ribbon and hemstitching. This new fashion craze launched a Renaissance for delicate couture sewing.
Sandy Hunter Jones with one of her beautiful smocked creations.
Sandy the entrepreneur
As the demand for learning the art of smocking and heirloom sewing increased, Sandy Hunter Jones turned her focus to teaching again — this time at Blue Ridge Community College, where she taught both of these treasured artistic skills. Local talk show host Nancy Welch, and later, Peggy Denny, invited her on their shows, and doors opened. Needlework Magazine asked Sandy to contribute articles and projects for them. Friends introduced her to Grace Knotts, a well-known smocking and heirloom designer in Canada. Grace in turn introduced Sandy to Diane Durand from Knoxville, Tn. Diane had just opened a smocking business that included traveling to craft shows and marketing her instruction booklets.
Sandy felt it was time to put her stamp on the smocking world and gathered all of her notes and experience into her first book, English Smocking Step by Step. Diane offered to take the book with her to market it, and the rest is history. Before long, Diane and Sandy formed the Smocking Arts Guild of America (SAGA) with Diane as president and Sandy as vice president. The organization grew from 80-something people in 1980 to a worldwide organization that continues to flourish today.
Sandy went on to design many patterns and write several English smocking and heirloom sewing books. Teaching sewing remained a big part of her repertoire; as she put it: “Teaching is a privilege and a pleasure. In this fast-paced and turbulent world, hand needlework makes us stop, refocus and enter into a peaceful rhythm of making something beautiful.”
There was still a demand on Sandy to make heirloom clothing. In the early 1980s, a local children’s clothing factory in Hendersonville closed, so Sandy bought all of their sewing machines and hired some of their workers. Out of this, a small cottage industry was born, with ladies smocking at home and items completed in a workshop in East Flat Rock. Eventually, the cottage industry led to a storefront, Material Luxury, in downtown Hendersonville.
One day, Janice Waring, a lady from Charleston, came into Sandy’s shop. She was taken with the beautiful clothing and commented that they would be perfect for girls’ dresses, birthday parties, holidays and cotillion. She asked Sandy if she would consider doing a trunk show at her home in Charleston. Trunk shows were something new to Sandy, but she agreed and has been designing and making custom, heirloom clothes for Charleston children since then.
Shortly after this first trunk show endeavor, others fell into place, and Material Luxury became a leading establishment for heirloom clothing and sewing. When I talked with Sandy, she said that she has dressed some of her families for as many as 25 years. “Thinking about all of this, joy has been the one important part of it — joy of creativity and joy of all the families I have met along the way. I have been a part of the most important occasions in so many of their lives: weddings, christenings, holidays, birthdays, cotillion and portraits. I made clothing for multiple generations of some families. Time just flew by. I can’t believe it when I look back.”
Eventually, she said, “It was hard to keep up the pace, and I finally decided that it was time to stop the hard labor of running a cottage industry and just write, design and teach. I continued to operate Material Luxury and make special occasion clothing for some of my Charleston families as their children had children.”
During this time, Sandy’s business added antique linens and vintage clothing . In the process of cleaning and repairing them, she realized that people needed to know how to take care of these precious heirlooms, so she developed a new side to her business for archival cleaning and storage. The Laundry Room, a book on the care of fine heirlooms, soon followed. “I actually love washing and ironing — caring for heirloom clothing and fine linens. It is part of their beauty,” adds Sandy.
In 2006, Sandy was thinking about retiring from her business when an opportunity came out of the blue. Father Alex Viola of St. John in the Wilderness asked her to make some cupcakes for the annual Easter egg hunt. It was so much fun that she found herself helping Father Alex with many children’s projects at the church. They were looking for a director of Christian education and wanted to hire her, but she reminded them that she was not in the market for a job. Before she knew it, though, she was part of the church staff family and spent the next 11 and a half years working there and maintaining her sewing business.
With retirement from the church in 2017, Sandy moved Material Luxury into the cherry cottage of the Rainbow Row section of Flat Rock and operates today by appointment only. In addition to the exquisite items Sandy makes, the shop is full of museum-quality antique laces, fabric, buttons and clothing.
In the late 1970s, I embarked on a sewing journey myself. Little did I know it would lead to classes with a smocking enthusiast by the name of Sandy Hunter Jones. I had copies of her books and patterns, and her reputation was of national fame. When a local shop offered one of her classes, I jumped at the opportunity and continued to take every class available. I have admired Sandy as a fellow artist and sewing mentor for years. She is truly a master of her art and an elegant seamstress. In talking with me, she summed it up well: “Heirloom sewing and smocking have been my passion for most of my life. As an artist you never retire. The ideas and passion continually flow. It is important to preserve the art of hand sewing and keep it alive.”
Perhaps this year all of us should consider making or buying a new outfit for the spring season and discarding the old ones. My pandemic wardrobe is getting a bit tiresome. I for one am ready for an Easter parade around the neighborhood, bonnets and all.
To see Sandy’s many beautiful offerings, visit http://www.materialluxury.com/.
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina, with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.