Smocking is a type of embroidery. A delightful way of adding decorative stitches to a garment and at the same time creating some elasticity and fullness. There are some preparations to be done to get to the smocking stage, but the attention to detail both in the preparation and the stitching leads to a really beautiful finished embroidered garment.
History of Smocking
Smocking has been part of fashions since the Middle Ages and was a way to bring elasticity into a garment before elastic was invented. It was used to gather the fabric in cuffs, collars, necklines and bodices. These can be decorated with beads placed between the pleats or elaborately embroidered.
Smocking was named after the workman’s shirt called a smock. The smocking gave added fullness to the smock and often was embroidered with a symbol pointing out the workman’s job. A shepherd would have a crook on his smock while a carter would have a wheel on his smock.
Smocks, as clothing items, became impractical when the Industrial Revolution started. Loose clothing got in the way of machinery so instead, smocking was seen to be decorative for special occasions like christenings and parties.
Smocking is a very traditional form of decoration but is still used in contemporary fashion and soft furnishings. There are a wide variety of stitches and gathering techniques in today’s smocking designs.
Smocking has long been used to decorate beautiful christening gowns and even the delicate little satin slippers worn by the baby to be christened. Baby clothing still heavily features smocking. This little baby dress has a yoke decorated by smocking and heart embroidery.
Materials Used for Smocking
FABRICS – Ideally, smocking is best suited to soft fabrics such as cotton, voile, soft linens and silk. Gingham fabrics are ideal because the checks make the marking part of the process very easy. Thin fabrics are best as thicker fabrics are hard to pleat and may add too much volume to the garment.
NEEDLES – Crewel needles size 5 – 8 are used for smocking stitches.
THREAD – Embroidery floss is the best thread as it is strong and can be separated into one to six strands. Cotton thread is used for cotton and silk thread is used for silk. Choose colors that suit the design and the fabric. Extra strands of cotton give a thicker stitched effect and Perle cotton has an interesting shimmer and luster.
How to Do Smocking
Smocking is a three-part process. Starting with the preparation of the fabric, then the gathering and finally the embroidery.
Following the process is very important. It is the accuracy through the preparation steps that ensures the best outcome.
Step 1 – Preparation
Pre-wash the fabric and press the wrinkles. For very thin fabrics, add light fusible interfacing.
How Long Should I Cut the Fabric for Smocking?
Cut the fabric three times wider than the finished width to allow for the pleating and the smocking. Really fine fabric may need five times wider.
Smocking can be done before or after the item is cut out of the fabric. Sometimes it is easier to smock a rectangular piece and then cut out armholes etc.
Marking the Pleats with Dots
Mark the position of the pleats in a grid of dots. The marks for the pleats must be very accurate and sit in rows spaced at exactly the same distance.
The width of the dots marked will determine the width of the little pleat before starting the smocking. In this first example, I did dots in a 1 inch (2.5cm) grid. This resulted in very large pleats which are great for practicing before you move to smaller pleats.
Commercial Products for Marking
If marking endless dots doesn’t appeal to you, the marking can be neatly done with a smocking transfer ironed onto the back of the fabric.
Older vintage patterns often came with some transfer paper included so you could get the scale correct.
A smocking gatherer machine will gather accurately without having to draw dots. This machine pleats for gathering after feeding the fabric through. These machines are more for commercial use than home use.
Ginghams and fabrics with checks, spots and stripes are a great way to start smocking because the checks are evenly spaced and can eliminate you having to mark.
Step 2 – Gathering the Fabric
When you have marked the area to be smocked you are ready to gather up the dots.
Stitching the Dots
- Knot the thread at the beginning of the row and weave it along the marked dots.
- Make sure your knots are large and won’t pull through.
- Only pick up a small portion under the dot and then skip to the next dot.
- Your gathering will look like a short stitch at the dot and a long stitch between the dots. It is important to keep this pattern regular to ensure even gathering up of the measured dots.
- Do not pull the threads until all the running stitch rows are complete. Each row of running stitch is a separate row starting and stopping individually.
- Leave a tail of 3 inches (7.5cm) at each end. This will not be knotted.
Pulling the Threads
- Pull up the running stitch at the end, two threads at a time.
- Gently ease the pleats into the gathered space. You will have knots on one side and loose threads on the other.
Tie off the Threads
- Evenly space the pleats and when you are satisfied with the spacing, tie the threads off in twos at the loose end.
- Don’t pull it too tight as some embroidery is easier if the pleats have a little room to breathe.
You now have a series of pleats and valleys and are ready to start embroidering. You will be surprised how much this gathers up the fabric.
Extra Small Pleating
If you are smocking really fine pleats then there may be an easier way then marking thousands of dots.
Mark in a grid instead of dots. The only downside of this method is that the underside of the fabric will not look as clean. Make sure you are using chalk or removable pen that will definitely come off.
These lines were 1/2 inch (12mm) between rows and 1/4 inch (6mm) between columns. This may seem really small but heirloom smocking was done even smaller than this. You may go down to 1/8 inch grid lines (3mm).
You can then stitch up and down along the grid lines. Don’t forget to leave tails to pull into pleats.
Step 3 – Embroidery
Once you have gathered and pulled up your gathers you are ready to start embroidery on the pleats created. Counting is important and an even number of pleats is generally easier.
GENERAL STITCHING TIPS
- DEPTH – You will be stitching through the top of each pleat or cluster of pleats depending on the pattern or design. If you have deep pleats, you only need to stitch through a short way down.
- FIRST RUNNING STITCH ROW – Skip the first row of gathering stitches because this will give you a guide for the top row and keep the pleats firmly in place.
- POSITION – Either skip the first 3 pleats for a seam allowance or allocate a seam allowance before you start the gathering.
- MARK CENTER – A small marker stitch in the center is useful for symmetrical designs.
Embroidery for Smocking – Overview
Here is an overview of the technique to embroider smocking. The next section will show you some individual stitches.
Step 1 – Direction
Work from left to right as a right-handed smocker. Left-handers will work in the opposite direction. At first, this may feel a little strange but you will soon get used to it. A
Step 2 – Starter Stitch
Bring the needle up from the back through a valley before you start your first stitch. The needle is generally held horizontally or at a slight slant to create the stitches.
Step 3 – Outline Stitch
Make a row of outline stitches to start the pattern work. Outline stitch is the most basic stitch and is described in the beginner stitches. The reason you should start with an outline stitch is that it will hold the top of the pleats in place.
Step 4 – Varied Stitches
After you have done an outline stitch it is time to get creative. There is a large variety of stitches to use to create beautiful smocked patterns. They range from a beginner phase to more complex designs.
Practice makes perfect! It is always a good idea to start with some practice stitches. Gingham fabric or regularly spaced polka dots make a good practice model for starting out.
Some patterns require several pleats for each repeat of the pattern. Count the number of pleats required and make sure there are enough multiples of pleats in the pattern to complete the design.
Many designs are created between two rows of running stitch or what is known as the stitch line. This is important as a guide to how and where stitches are placed.
Step 5 – Finishing
After the smocking stitches are completed the running stitches or stitching lines are removed. In my samples, I used a high contrast thread color so you could see the stitching. The running stitches should just pull through easily. By removing the stitches you will release the pleats and enhance your design.
Basic Smocking Stitches
These four easy stitches are a good starting point for your new smocking hobby.
- Outline stitch
- Cable stitch
- Trellis stitch
- Diamond stitch
As mentioned previously, the outline stitch should be at the top of your design. It will hold the pleats in place and stop the top from separating.
Outline Stitch Instructions
- Bring your needle up from the back on the left side of the first or third pleat. Remember you work smocking stitches from left to right!
- Move the needle to the next pleat and put the needle through it from right to left at a slight angle up.
- Keep the thread below the needle.
Cable stitch looks like the links in a chain. It is an attractive stitch that is thicker than the outline stitch.
Cable Stitch Instructions
- Bring your needle up from the back on the left side of the first or third pleat. Remember you work smocking stitches from left to right!
- The needle is kept horizontal and the thread held alternately above and below the needle. This is important. Alternating the thread direction is what gives this stitch in interlocked up and down look.
- One pleat is taken at a time.
- A double cable is stitched when two rows are stitched next to each other.
Trellis stitch forms the diamond shapes that are often found in smocking, The trellis may be different sizes depending on how many stitches are made for each side of the trellis. Three, four, five or more stitches are possible.
Trellis Stitch Instructions
- Use the gathering threads as a guide to stitch between.
- Bring up the needle to begin on the first pleat on a gathering thread row.
- Take up a small stitch in the second pleat at a slightly lower level, slanting slightly, and keep the thread above the needle.
- Take a stitch in the third and fourth pleats in the same way.
- Next, take a stitch in the fifth pleat on the same level, but with the thread below the needle. This stitch should be halfway between the row of gathering threads.
- Now work three stitches up in the next 3 pleats. Keep the thread below the needle.
- The last stitch in this row should reach the top line of gathering stitches.
- Take a stitch in the next pleat at the same level but with the thread above the needle and work down to the previous level.
- Work up and down alternately until you reach the end of the row.
- A second row is started on the second row of gathering stitches and worked up until the fourth pleat is reattached then down again.
- The center where two stitches meet forms the trellis.
Once you have done trellis stitch, you can easily do wave stitch. Make parallel rows with a small space in between.
More Smocking Stitches
Diamond stitch is a nice wider stitch that has a geometric look.
Diamond Stitch Instructions
- Diamond stitch is worked from left to right.
- Start the row halfway between two stitching lines and bring the needle from the back up to the first pleat.
- Then make one stitch on this pleat with the thread above the needle. Follow this with one stitch on the second pleat beside the first pleat. Have the thread below the needle.
- Continue to the third pleat with the thread held below the needle. Continue in this way to the fourth pleat with the thread below the needle.
Honeycomb stitch is more elastic than the other stitches. It is suitable for both fine and courser fabrics.
Honeycomb Stitch Instructions
- Honeycomb stitch starts in the first pleat.
- Take a stitch through the top of the second stitch and the first stitch. Stitch them together and catch the stitch with an extra stitch.
- When the second stitch is complete slide the needle down the back of the second pleat until the second pleat.
- Stitch through the two pleats.
- You will quickly see an alternating pattern appear.
- The beauty of the stitch will be revealed when you remove the running stitches.
More Challenging Stitches
The following stitches are a little more complicated, but very rewarding when you master them.
- Chevron stitch – This is a variation of wave stitch. It takes clusters of pleats two at a time and the stitches are worked above and below each other along the stitching line. The tail of the stitch as it moves up and down the row creates the chevron effect.
- Surface honeycomb – The stitch is worked on the surface of the pleats creating a corded effect.
- Vandyke – Another variation of the honeycomb stitch.
- Bullion – A knotted stitch that gathers several pleats together.
More Smocking Resources
If you are looking for more smocking stitches and designs like hearts and flowers, there are a few great books to learn this traditional sewing technique. Once you know how to gather and form the pleats, you can slowly build your knowledge and library of different stitches.
Here are some best sellers from Amazon.
The American smocking style is very different from traditional English smocking. American and Canadian smocking is worked with different techniques and the designs are worked on the back of the fabric.
Elaborate patterns are drawn up the dotted grid resulting in 3-dimensional pleated effects on the front of the garment.
This style of smocking has been used extensively on home furnishings. It became very popular in the 1970s.
It is possible to create a faux version of the traditional smocked technique using machine shirring or gathering. While it doesn’t quite have the same charm or stretch properties of traditional smocking, it is time-saving and can still look beautiful.
Using shirring elastic through the bobbin of your machine will create the elasticity and feel of smocking.
Shirring elastic is wound onto the bobbin and the elastic stretches and gathers up the fabric. A normal sewing thread is placed on the top of the machine and rows 3/8 – 1/2” (1-1.2cm) apart are recommended. Use a loose gathering stitch and stitch on the right side of the fabric. Mark guidelines with a removable marking pen. Fashion designer Laura Ashley made this a popular addition to little girl’s dresses.
Once the fabric is shirred surface embroidery can be used over the stitching lines.
Using your sewing machine can create a faux style of smocking. This style of smocking is purely decorative. It does give any elasticity to the area smocked in this way.
It is important to cut your pattern 5 times wider than the pattern piece to allow for the gathering.
Prepare the fabric with lines drawn about 1/2” (12mm) apart. Machine baste along these lines and pull the threads up and secure at the sides. Pull the gathers up to match the pattern size for the completed garment.
Further Reading: How to Gather
When you are prepared with your gathered area you are ready to machine stitch your faux smocking stitches. Use a decorative stitch on your machine and thread the machine needle with several threads of a contrasting color.
Smocking – In Conclusion
There is no limit to the number of ways smocking can add decorative details to your fabric creations.
Bags and ball gowns are within the range of this creative form of fabric art. The type of stitch needs to suit the fabric and the use of the article. Big and bold furnishings suit the pleated smocking look that is more contemporary.
Soft and delicate with the feminine touch lends itself to the traditional style of smocking.
Smocking has evolved over several centuries and across different countries. It is a traditional form of needlecraft that is worth investigating.