There has been one technique that has fascinated me (Debi) forever…smocking. I used to cut smocked pieces off of old kids clothes in hopes to use them again in future projects. The designs were amazing and intriguing. While packing things to move, I came across a couple of smocking kits: a Christmas ornament and a napkin ring. The directions promised the process would be relatively painless. So, I kept them and they are now buried somewhere in my stack of boxes.
It seems that sometimes a technique practically begs me to write about it. That has been the case for smocking. In addition to those two “now missing” kits, I found a book on English Smocking while on vacation. Plus, the A-Z of Smocking (1659C) has been on back order forever, and they are now back in stock! Seeing all these things as a sign, today I am going to explore this scary-looking stitch technique. By the time this newsletter shows up on your computer, I will know whether or not this truly is as easy as the books say it is!
Smocking has an interesting history, one which dispelled several misconceptions on my part. The original stitching was done on men’s smock, thus the name smocking. I had assumed it was done for the very wealthy since it took a lot more fabric. However, that was not the case. The pleating provided some very important attributes to a garment: elasticity and protection. When the shoulder areas were pleated it provided extra padding for the wearer who carried the tools of their trade on their shoulders. These smocks could be soaked in various substances, like linseed oil, to make them waterproof so the threads were often waxed to waterproof them as well.
The smocking that I love, the little designs and fancy stitches, did not evolve until the mid 1800’s. Prior to that, the pleating was mainly functional. I am speculating that when pleating was used for children’s and women’s clothing, the desire to be more decorative occurred. Around the 1830’s stitchers began to expand the embroidery on the pleats. Also around this time, the first commercial smock was introduced. This smock was very expensive, costing up to two weeks wages. At this point, it was no longer a garment for the common laborer. The technique continues to evolve and by the end of the 19th century, the smocked garment was fashionable for leisure activities.
The early smocker didn’t use a template, but rather did their pleating by eye. Patterns and dot templates became available in the late 19th century. For example Weldons included smocking instructions in their needlework books. Another surge of patterns were available in the 1940s in magazines like Stitchcraft. Another interesting fact is that although pleating machines were invented around 1900, they did not become popular with the home stitchers until the 1980s.
Today many stitchers still do the pleating by hand. This is done by creating a grid of dots on fabrics that don’t have a pattern, or by using a portion of a design on a patterned fabric, such as gingham. At this point I now realize where my fascination came from for this technique. My great grandmother made incredible pillows like these. I had no idea this was considered smocking!
If I understand all the references, this is North American Smocking. It is a one step process that uses a grid system to pull up parts of the fabric to create the design. Another technique is called Counterchange Smocking and is often done on gingham fabric. The type of smocking I am fascinated with is English Smocking, which is a two-step process where the fabric is pleated first and then the embroidery is worked on the pleated fabric. Picture Smocking is done on pleated fabric also. Through stacked rows of cable stitches, pictures come alive like these pumpkins. There are many other variations of smocking as well.
The materials needed are pretty basic and probably already in your stash.
The fabric needs to be able to pleat without being bulky, so 100% cotton is a great fabric to start with. You will also need thread, and cotton floss works great. The resources were not consistent on what type of needle to use. Here are the suggestions, so I leave it up to you to pick the needle you are most comfortable with: Darners, Crewel (7033), or Milliners (7119).
CREATING THE GRIDS
You can buy a pleating machine, which many people recommend if you really get into English Smocking.
You can mark your fabric with dots. There are smocking dot sheets you can buy and they iron on to your fabric. Clover also makes smocking stickers that creates specific designs when stitched.
Another option is to create your own dot paper. I am always amazed what you can find online. I searched for dot templates and found a website called Printable Paper that offered free downloads of dot templates. Print off the dots per inch you need. Now put that under a sheet of Transfer paper (6638). Using an iron-on transfer pencil (6633) recreate the dots on the transfer paper. Now you have your own iron-on dot paper in any size you need them!
Familiar stitches are used in smocking: Cable, Chain, Feather, Herringbone, Stem stitch and more. Bullion knots are often used for flowers and create a lovely three dimensional look.
HOW TO GET STARTED
I recommend you start with a great reference like A-Z of Smocking (1659C). There are over 1000 step-by-step photographs to take you through the stitches. Not only is English smocking covered, but there are sections on Counterchange, Honeycomb, Picture, and Template smocking.
To do the English smocking you need to have pleated fabric. However, if you want to get a quick feel for the general technique, I invite you to try out Craftsy This is a website dedicated to teaching us how to be crafty. It is free to join and then you have access to lots of free tutorials and patterns. Of course there are classes you can purchase, but you don’t have to. Once you are signed into Craftsy, type in “counterchange” in the search box. Today there are four projects that come up. I chose the one with the purple gingham fabric called Counterchange Smock. This steps you through the smocking process on gingham fabric and covers several design elements.
After researching this technique, I have decided that English smocking is not for me. I will continue to be amazed by the projects other stitchers create. The counterchange and North American Smocking do have an appeal. Perhaps it is because the more you learn about the process, the more you can manipulate the fabric to create different designs with the colors of the fabric. I have added the Counterchange Smock to my Craftsy library and plan to do the tutorial this winter. It will bring me closer to my great-grandmother. She was very talented and did many types of handwork. However, she passed away when I was only 7, so all I have are memories and a couple of dolls she made me using fabric yo-yos.
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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1 thought on “Smocking”
I’m the author of the Counterchange tutorials on Craftsy, thanks for the shout-out! :-) I love English smocking too, but the pleating can be tedious, even with a pleater (and oh, the frustration of a broken needle during pleating!)
I’m glad you enjoyed my Counterchange how-to. If you are still interested in learning more counterchange, I’m open to suggestions for more tutorials.