The gowns as we know them today did not come about until the late 1700’s. Prior to that, babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes when baptized.
From archeological records it seems the practice of swaddling a baby goes back as early as 4000 B.C. Swaddling means to use strips of cloth to tightly wrap up an infant so that he or she can’t even move. Sometimes a baby was strapped into a cradle because the child’s parents led a nomadic life style such as many of the Native American Indians. Part of the reason for doing this was the belief that it made the body and limbs straight. The child was often bound up like this until they were 8 or 9 months old.
Late into the 16th century physicians began to question this practice, observing that children were sometimes made lame and weak due to swaddling. The professional outcry increased over the next 100 years until a British philosopher John Locke lobbied against the practice. English women were the first to consider this controversial stand as more physicians and philosophers wrote about their concerns. In time, many cultures stopped this tight binding.
Today, we wrap our children in receiving blankets. A newborn is still often confined in a tight wrap for limited periods of time. This modern version of swaddling has been found helpful in certain situations such as calming an infant and perhaps reducing the risk of SIDS when placed on their back to sleep. For the most part, today’s infants are not kept continually bound up. There are societies still using the old practice, such as in Turkey.
When a swaddled baby was presented for christening, it was a sacred ceremony so they were wrapped in a "bearing cloth". This cloth was a large silk square that was trimmed with fancy lace often containing threads made from precious metals. Here is an example of a bearing cloth that was sold by Christie’s for $1500.
This is an English bearing cloth of ivory silk from the 17th century. It is 51" x 56"and trimmed with a deep border of silver and gilt metal lace.
The christening gown evolved after the bearing cloth during the 18th century. The gown was traditionally white to signify innocence and purity and was made of the best fabric the family could afford. Most of the gowns were silk, satin, or linen. Cotton became a popular fabric in the late 1800’s when it became less expensive. As with many other items, christening gowns became elaborately adorned with stitching during the Victorian Era. The designs varied from a long "pillowcase" type of garment to replicas of the current fashion trends.
The christening gown was used for both boys and girls. Some gowns were handed down and used by multiple generations. Other gowns were used just once and became one of the three white dresses a young lady would own during the three important milestones in her lifetime – christening, communion or confirmation, and wedding. A fairly recent tradition is to use a part of the mother’s wedding train or veil as part of the child’s gown.
Today some religions still prefer to use the christening gown. The creation of the christening gown can be quite elaborate, time-consuming, and costly. Nordic Needle gets many requests for patterns and ideas. Perhaps you are ready to create a christening gown for a special child? Here are some ideas for gowns and suits.
There are also projects for adult clothing, baptismal towels and stoles.
These publications contain elements you may wish to add to your gown’s embellishment including symbols, tatting, or whitework.
We hope this gives you some ideas if you are interested in creating an heirloom gown!
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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