What is English Smocking?    Copyright © 2010-2011 Beth-Katherine Kaiman

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Image is copyrighted - 1997-2013 © Beth-Katherine Kaiman

English Smocking is embroidery on pleats that have been pleated before smocking. North American Smocking (for lack of a better name) forms the pleats while you embroider.  There is a slight difference in look between them but the English Smocking is more versatile as you can readily form the pleats into round shapes whereas with the North American style you are conformed to a rigid grid as there are no pleating threads to shape your piece.

It is an art form whose origin has been obscured in history but has been handed down from generation to generation much like the sagas, songs and myths, however it’s roots are traceable to a point through looking at the art of the past and specifically at the stitchery on the clothing.  If you look at paintings from the Italian and German Renaissance you will see lots of examples of a type of smocking on mens’ shirts and ladies’ chemises which I see as influenced by Blackwork.  Italian Shirring, which has it’s roots in the basic running stitch, in my opinion is a form of smocking all dressed up, is created by leaving the pleating threads in making them an integral part of the design. We see this today in the experiments some contemporary English Smocking designers have done with back-smocking.

Here is an example of an OUT OF PRINT plate by a company called American Hand
  

The smocking behind the flower is worked on the back creating the shadowy effect on the front.


How it all started?  There are clues but nothing has been written down until the late 19th century as with all fold traditions smocking was handed down from generation to generation.  We find examples of smocking or embroidery on pleated fabric all around the world tucked away in museums from indigenous cultures to examples of smocking in paintings and wooden carvings as early as the 12th century, with also mentions of an embroidered smoc in Elizabeth the 1st’s household accounting.  Sarah Douglas, author of the Pleater Manual, has also stated that she saw a piece of embroidery in the Embroiderer’s Collection from a Danish Bog which to her eye looking like early smocking, dating back to 1175BC!  Whenever smocking really started we don’t know but according to tradition in England ’smocking has been around forever’. For some information on smocking in the Renaissance please see the bottom of this article for links to other sites with historical smocking infomation.

Today, besides English Smocking there are also a couple of other styles of contemporary smocking.  The first is North American Smocking which appears to have been adapted from an old style of smocking probably invented by a member of a smocking guild that was promoted by Butterick & Co. late 19th Century and was very popular from the 30’s through the 60’s (and occasionally today). This style consisted of iron-on transfers of pairs of dots formed in a pattern that while stitching made up a  smocking design and pleats at the same time.  Today you will find this early North American style not so popular among the major pattern companies, much to the dismay of women who learnt in the 50’s and 60’s and who are coming back to smocking, however the stitches are the same once you learn to adapt to pre-pleated fabric. The pattern companies have now shifted to the English style of smocking due to it’s popularity in the magazines Creative Needle, Sew Beautiful and Australian Smocking and Embroidery and are now including in their smocking patterns a sheet of iron-on transfer dots for you to make up the pleats first and then do the stitching.  (I have also seen recently that the major pattern companies are also going back through their archives and are now printing up the old dot to dot method of smocking.) 

Gingham Smocking

PG Gingham Birthday Cake

Price $4.50
Quantity requested    

PG Gingham Ducks

Price $4.50
Quantity requested    

PG Gingham Bunnies

Price $4.50
Quantity requested    

The history of Counterchange in America has an interesting place in pre and post civil war southern life and has advanced greatly in the past 10 years into a unique form of picture smocking without cables.
The second style evolved from smocking on gingham, is called counterchange smocking where you use striped fabric, gingham or dotted fabric, and mark where you place your stitches. The contemporary Smocking Plate designer, Pat Garretson has been experimenting with gingham smocking and has come up with some unique designs. She is very clever in manipulating the white squares into shapes that resemble objects and animals. Here is a taste of her new passion


Here is an image of a counterchange design plate by Ann Halley, a smocking designer responsible for bringing counterchange to all of our attention, called "Ring around the Rosey".  As you can see the designer utilized and manipulated the uniformity of striped fabric to create teddy bears, waves and hearts.  Very clever.

Ann Hallay - Ring Around the Rosie

Price $3.50
Quantity requested    


A third style is known as Lattice Smocking and is familiar to those who had smocked pillows.  This technique is worked on the backside of the fabric creating the unique and consistent folds on the front.  While not as popular a style as English Smocking Lattice Smocking is gaining acceptance as a way to embellish fabric on sleeves and bodice fronts, especially in the heavier fabrics such as velvet and velveteen.  The contemporary smocking designer, Laura Jenkins Thompson has just written a booklet on the technique.   

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

Lattice Smocking by Laura Jenkins Thompson  $12.00

If you have ever wondered how to make those pillows from the 50’s and 60’s this is the book for you.  Two different lattice smocking patterns are included adapted for the following projects  Laura’s Lattice Dress, Royal Weskit Smocked Sleeve Jacket, Princess Insert Dress, Channel Jacket - Canadian Style, Lattice Envelope Evening Bag, Lattice Cummerbund Belt.  I’m dying to try some of this on velvet as well as doing it in miniature.

Laura Jenkins Thompson’s Smocking Plates

What ever the technique, anytime you take a needle to fabric and gather it in it’s smocking.


More ’Ancient’ History

From the late 17th century to the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century the were a very popular piece of clothing for the rural peoples of the British Isles to wear.  These garments were made out of Linen (either flax or common linen - nettles or hemp, which ever was around) and were made water proof by wiping them down with linseed oil.  The big collars added protection from the changeable British weather and kept the wearer warm.  These smocks were often embroidered with symbols of what trade the wearer did (bakers, farmers, blacksmiths etc.) and were worn to protect the underclothing as garments took a long time to hand sew as well as making the fabric.  (Of course since writing this as fact it has been disputed as gospel truth, sometimes the patterns embroidered along side the smocking have no bearing whatsoever on the wearer’s occupation but it is kinda fun to speculate that there were people who did this as "cultural symbols".)

Price $16.95
Quantity requested    

Folkwear "English Smock"
courtesy of Folkwear Patterns


It was the Industrial Revolution that brought about the demise of the smock frock as a utility garment.  The big voluminous smocks were a hazard to the new reaping machines and they quickly became obsolete for everyday wear.  They were still worn on Fair Day or to church but the style soon evolved to be a ’fashionable’ garment for the female gentry.  The new Aesthetic Dress movement took hold and the two styles of the smock evolved into fashionable garments such as bishop blouses & dresses while the smock frock became basic square yoke dresses for young girls.  (See Chery Williams Patterns Illustrations.)  These garments were readily available through mail order catalogs as well as major department stores throughout America, as well as pattern companies and magazines.

The smocking that most people remember from the 50’s and the 60’s (this century) where you ironed on transfers and picked up the pattern is called North American Smocking which was created by the Butterick pattern company in the early 20th century to make smocking more accessible to the general public = more profits.

GK#4 The Flower Basket

Price $2.50
Quantity requested    

Grace Knott, smocking pioneer

In the 1950’s there was a woman from Canada called Grace Knott who pioneered the smocking movement as we know it today. She along with an author named Chela Thorton inspired thousands of women with the technique known as English Smocking, which differs from N.American style in that you make up the pleats first and then do the embroidery stitches. The effect is basically the same but the look is much different. Around the same time the smocking pleater, (invented in South Africa in the 1950’s by Read Company, was readily made available to the American and Canadian public through Grace’s Company "Grace Knott Smocking’.

GK#3 The Butterfly

Price $2.50
Quantity requested    

Smocking has become much more sophisticated since then, the 1980’s brought about Smocking Guilds all across America and the world and many talented women took up the challenge to bring smocking into the patterns and smocking plate designs that you see today.

EM Beginner’s Sampler

Price $3.50
Quantity requested    

Smocking has come a long way since the bold, heavy geometric designs of Grace Knott. Nowadays geometric designs are delicate and complex, often covered with bullion roses and leaves and other embroidered embellishments like beads and buttons.


Little Memories - The Promise

Price $5.00
Quantity requested    

Picture smocking has also become extremely gorgeous and clever.  Embellishments are another love of smockers - especially bullions in the form of roses, leaves and other flowers. The Brazilian Embroidery craze of the ’80’s has worked its way onto our pleats and I have noticed that in the past issues of Australian Smocking that other stitches of this type of embroidery are being experimented with.  The latest trend is mixing Silk Ribbon Embroidery with your smocking as in this design plate by Lou Anne Lamar.

Lou Anne Lamar - Anne Franklin’s Garden

Price $4.00
Quantity requested    

Smocking has travelled from England & Spain to America and Australia, each country developing their own style and patterns.  Today you can find magazines in America which cater to the smocking and heirloom sewing enthusiasts, Creative Needle and Sew Beautiful, in Spain there are publications called Mani di Fata and Frunces Smok, and in Australia you will find Australian Smocking and other publications all of which have smocking designs and ideas in each issue.


My first smocking project
26 years ago.   Daughter’s dress.

I ignored the advice of my smocking instructor and dived into making the bishop dress as my first project. I made a lot of mistakes, like messing up the top row but I covered that up with baby lace, somehow the placket ended up lumpy and the design didn’t meet at the back - but HEY! it was my first project so all that didn’t matter. However, what did matter was when my little girl, wearing her newly smocked dress, sat down in a plate of spaghetti and pesto and when I couldn’t get out the olive oil stain I was taught a big lesson: a child’s feelings and sense of self worth is much more important than some silly, stubborn stain on a piece of clothing.

Here are some close-up photos of the smocking. If you look carefully under the lace you can see my mistake! (hahahaha) which I covered up by handstitching lace edging under the bias.  The stitches I used are the cable, outline (under lace), two step & four step wave combination done in mirror image, finishing off with three trellis stitches. All of these stitches can be found in the many instruction manuals I carry.  With A to Z Smocking about the best in all the stitches show in step by step photographs.   See books for descriptions.

For more information about smocking for books to take home see our book section and/or go to our often copied Smocking Newsletter page where since 1996 we have been writing to our customers our thoughts and techniques about smocking, embroidery & the needlearts.  We also invite you to read and subscribe to our smocking newsletters where people from all around the world exchange thoughts and ideas, questions and answers about smocking.  

Here is a stitch section with graphics and instructions for working the stitches and history of smocking along with other things that interest stitchers.  This page is by no means complete, just a taste to give you a sense of how smocking is done.  For further information please refer to one of the books we offer on our Smocking Books page.

 ---->Beginner’s Corner<-----

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If you wish to get started with smocking and don’t know where to begin, please, please write to me and I’ll help you get started on the best project for your particular needs. Give us a try, we’re user friendly.

Sincerely,

Beth-Katherine Kaiman, Main Fairie

Garden Fairies Trading Company


Write to us: thefaeries@smockingstore.com

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Links to historical smocking websites:

For more fascinating history on smocking here is a link to a SCA scholarly website http://www.pleatwork.com/early.php.
They have a wonderful bibiography of links to images from Art Galleries on the web on this page http://www.pleatwork.com/biblio.php