If you’re just getting into sewing and embroidery but are getting a bit lost in all the different techniques, styles, and stitches, you’re not alone. It can be a bit daunting trying to sort out what’s what. But that’s why we’re here!
So, what is smocking? Smocking is a technique that involves gathering a piece of fabric together into tight pleats, which makes a piece of fabric highly stretchy. Smocking has a long history dating back hundreds of years, and there are so many smocking techniques that can help you create different looks and designs.
Smocking is technically considered embroidery since it involves thread work, but it’s more complicated than that. Smocking allows you to create different fabric textures using just thread and elastics, and there are many smocking techniques that are still very popular today.
In this article, let’s learn more about smocking and how you can master this artful technique in your sewing.
The History Of Smocking
The technique of smocking itself is very long-standing, but the name “smocking” was first used during the 1700s in England. This technique involves gathering a piece of fabric to create pleats. Then, the thread is sewn in to create different designs and effects. The gathered area in the fabric (usually at the cuffs or bodice) is a smock.
When smocking was first developed, it was mainly for clothing to have more volume so that agricultural laborers and trade men could have the freedom to move around in their clothes. Later, it was adapted to various styles of clothing for many occasions, favored by artists, aristocrats, and even in baby clothing.
During the early 20th century, women’s magazines and sewing manuals often featured smocking techniques, which are often used on garments and textiles. The 1940s and 1930s saw the emergence of new patterns and innovative uses for the honeycomb stitch, and in the 1970s, smocking started becoming highly mainstream, often seen in everyday fashion pieces.
Smocking, as we know it now, is the result of its popularity in the 1970s, and now, you see it everywhere, from high-fashion to streetwear.
Smocking can add decorative touches to the bust, sleeves, and waist, while also adding more volume to the piece as well. Since there are so many smocking designs and applications, it has been a very popular technique for fashion designers for hundreds of years.
True smocking is done by hand, which is why it is often considered an embroidery technique. On the reverse fabric, the stitches are marked with regular dot patterns.
Stitches are then worked right across the piece on the front side to create a uniform, even row of gathers. Various decorative stitches can be employed here to create many different designs for the smock.
Smocking causes the fabric to have a three-dimensional effect, with the pattern often created by the fabric being held together in different places by the stitches.
Sometimes, the stitches are invisible, making the fabric seem like it naturally has that pattern, but in some smocking styles, the stitches are highly visible to create decorative touches to the entire piece, and the stitches can even create beautiful embroidery-like shapes and patterns.
The smocking that you see in fashion pieces nowadays is probably faux smocking (also called shirring). Since true smocking is so time-consuming, shirring is often employed to create a similar pleated effect.
This technique involves sewing rows of elastics across a piece of fabric to create the pleats and hold them in place at the same time. The result is a shirred fabric with random pleats, and the stitches are often not visible.
If we were to take stock of all the smocking techniques that are out there, it’s probably not possible since there are so many variations of the technique from country to country (or in different areas of the same country). However, we can categorize smocking generally into English smocking, American smocking, and Canadian smocking.
1. English Smocking
English smocking has two popular styles: geometric smocking and picture smocking.
Geometric smocking is seen with two popular types of stitches: cable stitches and trellis stitches. Hundreds of patterns and variations can be created with just these two stitches.
Picture smocking is called that way because decorations (pictures) can be created from embroidering stacked cable stitches on top of the tight pleats. This technique is often used on 100% cotton to create colorful patterns and sceneries.
2. American Smocking
American smocking is typically done with gingham, striped, or gridded fabric to create the look of a solid piece of fabric. Instead of pleats, squares are created from the fabric, then brought together using a vandyke or honeycomb stitch. There are several variations of American smocking, including counterchange smocking, mock smocking, and direct smocking.
Counterchange smocking mainly changes the pattern of gingham fabric rather than adding stretch or changing the texture of the fabric. This technique works by pleating the fabrics with stitches. It is very similar to smocking but without the added stretch.
Mock smocking is a type of smocking that involves creating fabric folds. It is commonly used for creating honeycomb patterns, and it also doesn’t add stretch to the fabric.
Direct smocking produces a similar result to English smocking, but it is different from English smocking, as it involves the use of gridded dot patterns on the top of the pleats. This method is easier to learn and use since it doesn’t require pleating the fabric beforehand.
3. Canadian Smocking
Canadian smocking is also a technique that doesn’t require pre-pleating. It involves drawing a grid on the back of the fabric and then creating a three-dimensional effect on the front side by adding stitches. Because the result is highly three-dimensional, ironing would destroy the smocked fabric.
Canadian smocking also has three variations: lattice smocking, fabric smocking, and reverse smocking.
Lattice smocking creates a beautiful crisscross pattern on one side of the fabric. This is achieved by marking out crisscrossing diagonal lines in the back of the fabric, then using stitches to hold the three-dimensional pattern together.
Flower smocking is a variation of lattice smocking, but stitches are worked in patterns to create 3D “flowers” on the front side of the fabric.
Fabric smocking is done with a grid pattern to create a three-dimensional effect on the front side of the fabric. This type of smocking will give the fabric a “crunched up” look, so you always need more fabric to create a small piece of smock.
Reverse smocking is a type of smocking that creates patterns on both the front and back side of the fabric while the threads remain invisible. You can say that it is “reversible.”
Which Fabric Is Best For Smocking?
Smocking is typically done with a light or medium-weight fabric that doesn’t have any stretch. Sewing with stretchy fabric is already difficult as-is, but with smocking, the stretchy fabric won’t be able to hold the textured pattern very well.
Any type of fabric that has a smooth surface and an even weave is ideal for smocking since these are easy to work with and easy to hold pleats. For beginners, you can try working with medium-weight fabrics first, like cotton, linen, cotton blends, or lightweight denim.
If you are a bit more advanced, you can test your skills with lightweight fabrics such as silk, satin, or poplin. For lightweight fabrics, sometimes interfacing is required to add some structure to the fabric, which makes it easier for the fabric to hold pleats and make the pattern look more pronounced.
Heavyweight fabrics are not ideal for smocking because they are quite difficult to sew, especially by hand, and the stitches have to be very thick to hold the pleats in place.
Keep in mind that when you smock, the fabric will be “scrunched up,” so as a general rule, you will need three times more fabric to start with. This rule is especially true for smocking styles designed to add stretch to the fabric.
For example, if you want a 10″ x 10″ smock, you will need a 30″ x 30″ piece of plain fabric to start with. If you are planning out a garment, make sure to add seam allowance to this so that you have enough fabric to work with.
Which Thread Is Best For Smocking?
Embroidery thread is probably the best option to use for smocking since it has the ideal weight to hold the pleats together but is not so heavy that it is difficult to work with.
One piece of advice for choosing a thread that works well with smocking is to match the material of the thread to the material of the fabric when possible. So, for example, use silk threads with silk fabrics, cotton threads with cotton fabrics, etc.
You can also play around with the colors of the thread to create a playful design for the smock, but keep in mind that you don’t want the design to be too busy since the pleats themselves are already considered a design element. Using only one or two colors with decorative stitches can look quite wonderful with the right smocking style.
How To Gather Fabric For Smocking?
Before you get started on your design, you will first need to make sure that your fabric is pre-shrunk. If it hasn’t been pre-shrunk, then running it through a wash cycle with warm water is strongly advised. Since some types of fabric, especially cotton, are prone to shrinking, you’ll want to get ahead of the shrinking before starting smocking.
Some styles of smocking can “shrink” your fabric even further, so if you don’t pre-shrink the fabric, the final result can become too small for your liking. This is especially true if you are making a smock for a decorative touch in a dress or a shirt – you will want the final garment to fit you instead of a child.
After pre-shrinking your fabric, the next daunting step is gathering the fabric for smocking. There are three main ways to do this: hand pleating, machine gathering, and using a pleater.
1. Hand Pleating
Hand pleating is the most old-fashioned way. It’s how the people in the 1700’s used to do smocking, and you can be sure that it will take meticulous planning of your pattern and a lot of time.
This process involves measuring and marking out your pattern on one side of the fabric so that you can use it as a guide for stitching afterward.
You can also use smocking patterns that are available on the market, which makes this process a lot less painful. These are transfer sheets that allow you to heat transfer the grids and dots of the pattern from the page to the back side of the fabric, which you can use as a guide for smocking.
Of course, when you buy patterns like these, you will need to choose ones that work well with your type of fabric. For a finely woven fabric, you should use a smocking pattern with smaller spacings, which will produce shallow pleats. On the other hand, if your fabric has a bigger weave, it may benefit from a pattern that will produce larger pleats.
2. Machine Gathering
You can also gather fabric with a sewing machine, but with this method, the resulting pleats won’t be “even.” Instead, you will get sort of random pleats, and you will have to adjust the pleats by hand to get even pleats for stitching.
To gather fabric with your sewing machine, you will need to use basting stitches with the largest stitch length available on your machine (usually, it’s 5 millimeters). Then, sew two parallel lines on your fabric; the distance between two lines is the length of your pleats. Each time, you should leave long tails of the thread, and we will use it to gather later.
After sewing, make sure one end of the stitch is secured for both the lines you just sewed. Then, pull the bobbin thread on the back side of the fabric, making sure to use a light hand so that you won’t break the thread.
You can pull a little bit at a time on both of the lines, adjusting the pleats as you go to get an even look. This process will take the longest, but by the end, you should have nice and even pleats ready to go.
If you have a sewing machine, then you can also do faux smocking, or shirring, using several pieces of elastics. Make sure that the elastic is the desired length of the final piece of smock, then use stretchy stitches (such as a zig-zag stitch) to sew parallel lines of elastics across the fabric.
After you’re done, you’ll get a shirred piece of fabric that resembles a smock but with random pleats created by the parallel elastics.
3. Using A Pleater
There are so many types of pleaters that can help you create perfectly even pleats for smocking.
You can get a ruffler presser foot (our absolute favorite is this one) for your sewing machine that turns it into a mechanical pleater of sorts to create even pleats without hand gathering and pleating. This is great for those who already have a sewing machine and want more out of their device.
Alternatively, you can also get a manual pleater. A pleater (this set includes 3 different sizes) is a simple plastic device that can help you create perfectly nice and even pleats. The size of the pleater will determine the final size of the pleat later on, so you can get the pleater size that matches the width of your desired pleats.
Since this is just a simple plastic device that helps you create even “folds” in your fabric, you will need to use pins along the way to help you keep the pleats in place. However, this is still a pretty simple solution that anyone can use to create nice and even pleats for smocking.