The Enduring Appeal of Smocking

10th December 2021

Recently we received an email from a reader asking whether we could write an article about the origins of smocking. As we have produced  numerous publications over the years featuring hundreds of smocking projects and designs, it’s a subject and a technique that we have quite a bit of history with.

So much so, we often received impassioned requests from smocking enthusiasts looking for new material.

Even though some may say smocking is no longer ‘fashionable’ or that people aren’t interested in it anymore, you might be surprised to discover just how relevant it still is.

The art of smocking is a timeless pursuit that continually finds relevance in every season and cycle of fashion one way or another, and even today young and old alike are still wanting to learn and to practice this beautiful and historic technique.

Smocked garments from the V&A in London (source)

Smocking can simply be described as embroidery on pleated fabric. The kind of smocking we’re familiar with originated in the UK some 300 years ago, however there is evidence from paintings and in written accounts that embroidery on some form of pleated fabric appeared in Europe many years before.

The technique was developed as it gave an elasticity to fabric in the days before the invention of the stretch fabrics we enjoy today. It is believed the name itself originated from the traditional ‘smock’ worn by farmers or agricultural workers. 

Liberty dress from the V&A in London (source)

These were often made using pleated embroidery to allow for movement. The decorative aspect was also important, and pleated embroidery became prevalent on cuffs, necklines, bodices and shirts.

Smocked 18th Century dress from the Met Museum (source)

When it was first practiced, most garments were made of strong linen, jute cloth or heavy cotton as they needed to be practical as well as attractive. As the technique became more popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, smocking was worked on fine cotton, silk or lawn and used for children’s clothes and as embellishments on women’s dresses. 

By the end of the 19th Century, farm workers were no longer wearing traditional smocks, so the technique was practiced mainly for fashion. Since then, smocked elements have never really gone out of style, appearing on all manner of items, even in bathing costumes.

Some of our readers who have practised smocking themselves will probably remember using ‘smocking dots’ to pick up your pleats by hand. These could be marked on the fabric manually, or later, iron on templates became available to ensure that the dots were placed evenly on the fabric.

Pleating machine (source)

Nowadays, most people make use of pleating machines that still require an element of manual labour but, once you start rolling your fabric through, the machine produces crisp, even pleats with far less fuss than the traditional dots.

Although it is often mistakenly called so, the pleating machine isn’t actually a ‘smocking machine’ as the smocking is the embroidery itself. While there are a limited number of stitches that can be used on pleats, the number of combinations and patterns that can be made with those stitches is endless.

By adding extras such as beads, bullion roses or metallic threads, there really is no limit to what can be created using the technique.

Smocking can also be done on checked or spotted fabric using a technique called ‘counterchange’. Rather than pleating the fabric before embroidering, counterchange smocking is done by forming the pleats as you embroider, using the pattern on the fabric as a guide.

Cherry Pie from AS&E 96

Another form of smocking that is popular today is ‘picture smocking’, where an image is formed using basic cable stitches and a variety of coloured thread.

Little Prince from AS&E 76

It is true that in the 21st Century, the majority of smocking that is still done is for babies or small children. We know that we probably have something to do with that, as we published 100 issues of our magazine Australian Smocking & Embroidery that was filled with patterns for the most gorgeous dresses, baby clothes and accessories imaginable.

The wonderful thing about smocking however, is that it can be added to any garment for children or adults. With the kinds of materials and threads on the market today, smocked creations can represent the height of modern fashion.

Kaleidoscope from AS&E 71

Smocking has come a long way since the days when farmers’ wives would embroider their husband’s work clothes by candlelight. The fact it is still popular is evidence that the technique is both beautiful and versatile and, above all, very enjoyable to do. While we may not see the return of the agricultural worker’s smocked shirt, we can look forward to seeing how this historic technique continues to evolve into the future.

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