Smocking: The Flexible Side of Embroidery

by Cherie Weed

Example of a smocked shirt

Smocking is an embroidery technique used to gather fabric so that it can stretch. Before elastic, smocking was commonly used in cuffs, bodices, and necklines in garments where buttons were undesirable.

Smocking is unusual among embroidery methods because of it’s use through all the social classes. Where embroidery is typically a decorative and used as a display of wealth, smocking was functional. Due to it’s ability to flex and fit well it became a useful garment addition for laborers.Smocking works best on lightweight fabrics with even, stable weaves.

          • Linen, cotton, and silk are the most common in weights of lawn, voile and batiste. It can also be used on lightweight wools such as cashmere.
          • You will normally use three times the width of your initial material to equal the finished piece.
          • ANY fabric can be smocked if it is supple enough to be gathered.

Fabric can be gathered into pleats in a variety of ways. Early smocking, or gauging, was done by hand. Some embroiderers also made their own guides using cardboard and an embroidery marking pencil. Today, there are even more ways to make smocking easier.

  • Iron-on transfers place evenly spaced dots onto the wrong side of the fabric. You can then pleat using a regular running stitch.

    Smocking Pleater

  • Smocking Pleater Boards are usually made from cork and can be used to pin fabric. You can then either mark your dots accordingly or sew your running stitch, working sections the size of the board and then moving to continue with another section.Cost is around $30-50.
  • Smocking Pleaters are machines that work the fabric for you. By inserting the fabric into the series of interlocking gears and turning the crank, needles spaced at even intervals work in and out of the fabric. This gives you an even running stitch multiplied by the number of needles the machine is threaded with. (Machines come in a variety of sizes ranging from 16-row, 24-row and 32-row needle widths. Manufacturers include Read and Amanda Jane.) Cost ranges from $130 and up depending on brand, quality and number of needles.Techniques:There are three major types of smocking that most subject material will refer to:
  • English smocking is a historic technique of sewing the embroidery over pleats already sewn into the fabric. North American smocking is technique in which the pleats are gathered and formed in the fabric by the smocking stitch-work itself.
  • Lattice smocking involves stitching from the back side of the fabric, creating unique effects in the pleats and appearance, and is particularly good for heavier fabrics like velvet.

Example of a smocked shirt

The one-third rule for smocking is a guideline only. I can not stress enough the importance of working a sampler of the fabric and stitch style you will be using on your garment. Each fabric and stitch will create a different effect. A sampler can save you time, money and stress and you will only need to work a small piece to determine the gauge your project will require. If you are using an expensive fabric or silk thread, this can save you a LOT of money. Thicker fabrics may also require less fabric than a 3:1 ratio.

Another thing to consider is that smocking is done on an unfinished or non-assembled garment. You will need to adjust your pattern accordingly if you are adding smocking elements. Also, due to the amount of shrinkage caused by smocking, it is discouraged to take an oversized garment and try to smock it down.(My advice: Unless you are willing to write the garment off as a loss otherwise, do not attempt it. You can quickly turn a XXL renaissance shirt into a childs dress. Trust me, I know from experience…)

Traditional hand smocking begins with marking smocking dots in a grid pattern on the wrong side of the fabric and gathering it with temporary running stitches. These stitches are anchored on each end in a manner that facilitates later removal and are similar to basting stitches. Finally, a row of cable stitching stabilizes the top and bottom of the working area.

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