"Beginning Smocking Information - Garden Fairies by Beth-katherine Kaiman"

In the various issues of this newsletter we have begun to explore the origins of smocking. In the times before sewing machines were invented fashion was determined by the creative ways people had to working with fabric straight off the loom. Average loom size was 17" = 24". Cutting into cloth tends to weaken the strength of the whole, plus the fact that someone had to sew the cut pieces together and protect the edges from fraying - a very time consuming process by hand. Working with selvedge's entact is a much better process BUT it creates a boxed in type of looking unless the seamstress/tailor is creative. The 1930's nightgowns with honeycomb smocking creatively worked with the rectangle issue by cinching in the waist with it's stitches rather than cutting the cloth into shapes. We have discussed the evolution of smocking from a way to hold pleats in place decoratively to the functional way of adding volume/material to the basic shaped rectangular garments that most people wore (we are referring to the historical time periods from the 16th to mid 19th centuries). How smocking evolved is an intriguing journey thru mostly undocumented history (except through paintings and thoughtful, logical thinking) but not really essential to understand if you want to smock.

One question that I am always asked is how to start smocking so I thought I would take a few paragraphs explaining how to go about getting started (as if I could begin to explain the addiction . . .). The tools you will need are the following:

  • Some way to pleat your fabric, whether by hand or pleating machine
  • A project
  • A smocking design, whether geometric or picture smocking
  • An instruction manual
  • A book that shows you how to sew smocked garments

Some introduction to smocking:

To begin with smocking is basically embroidery on pleats, or rather an embroidered method of holding tiny pleats in material in place in a decorative manner.

How to make those little tiny pleats is either done by hand following a grid of iron on dots (or made by pencil) or a little machine called the pleater. The appeal of gathered fabric goes back to when the first clothing designers realized that in order to make a form fitting garment from a rectangular piece of fabric took some imagination.

Pleats CANNOT by formed by your sewing machine as the rows are never even. However, this method is actually in a category of gathering fabric called ruching or shirring but it's not smocking. You can 'ruch or shirr' with elastic thread to create a grid of stretchy lines often seen in little girls dresses or at the waistline.

The process:

Smocking can be done in two different ways:

Two types of spacing for Iron-on Dots

1) By embroidering on existing pleats which have been formed by either ironing on a grid of dots and gathering up the pleats,

or by a special machine called a pleater that forms pleated fabric by feeding flat fabric through the rollers of the pleater and come onto pleating threads.

This method is called English Smocking and is more versatile than the method below as you can shape your pleats into different forms due to the pleating thread forming the rows. Most 'shapes' are either a tube, rectangle or formed into a semi circle for necklines of bishops or round pillows or inner sleeve in a basket or on top of a basket. I have seen in the past square smocked pillows formed by mitering the pleats (Sarah Douglas) while you smock but neglected to keep the instructions.



2) By creating pleats while embroidering with the dot-to-dot method. This method comes from the past (the 40's-70's) when the commercial pattern companies furnished smocked dress patterns with iron-on transfers in patterns in the Dot-to-Dot style. Nowadays all the major pattern companies have shifted their smocked pattern offerings to the English Smocking style since the end of the 1980's when Oliver/Goodwin Company and Kitty Benton (and others) were publishing patterns.

If you attempt this process on your own without a pattern stop and think about the guage of the finished piece before you will run into trouble and ruin a lovely piece of fabric. Always smock a test piece to see how much fabric is needed. Geometric smocking is the primary design of embelllishment but some simple picture smocking can be worked.

The old patterns still can be found on eBay but they are getting scarce. The major pattern companies have cut back considerably on producing iron on transfer patterns for Dot-to-Dot smocking as they now go with the grid method. This style of smocking does not have to moving capability of the 'Pleating-Threads-In-The-Row' method of English Smocking so you pretty much need to go into calcuations mode and figure out how many motifs are needed to cover the area you want the smocking, stuff like that. It's easier if you have an instruction sheet where this information has already been worked out.

Most of today's sewing population are familiar with the 2nd way from over the past 60 years by the major pattern companies.  I know I remember as a young child in the 1950's going through the pattern books wishing my mom was more like her mother in needlework so she could smock me a dress but alas ... she was more into her books and knitting than sewing and embroidery.

I was fortunate that my grandmother was a skilled needlewoman generous in her teaching my sister and I how to embroider. Those skills are still with me today developing and growing as my grandmother always said 'you never stop learning'. It is important it is to share your needle skills with the younger generation, especially now with all these handheld devices grabbing all the attention and developing motor skills for a different generation. Catch the youngins' early while you can before they have lost interest.

Today, however, the first way called English Smocking is the style that most of us do, in fact 95% of the available smocking patterns, books and design plates are designed for this technique.  (You can still find old commercial smocking patterns from the 1950's and earlier on eBay - check out the vintage clothing sellers.)

How each method of smocking came about is a fascinating journey of discovery through history (and is partially covered in our history section of our newsletter) but simply spoken the creation of pleats while embroidering evolved from counted thread work  while smocking such as counterchange on gingham evolved into the iron-on dots method that worked on any fabric by the late 19th century through the mid 20th century promoted by the ever expanding media of those times.

The man responsible for this promotion was Mr. Butterick, a tailor, who created one of the first major pattern companies and Delineator magazine which showed the design look of the patterns.  It was in this magazine that smocking was made more accessable to the sewing population appealing than counting threads looking for a way to make smocking more appealing to the common American woman so he invented smocking transfer dots and translated the technique of the different stitches on top of pleats into a way of creating the pleats while embroidering. Most commonly this technique has been done on gingham or on striped material known as counterchange smocking.

To create the pleats:

We are going to focus on English Smocking right now. The standard ratio of how many pleats (using the pleater machine) per inch is 3:1, or 3" of material = 1" of pleated material. This ratio of course changes much like knitting gauge depending on the fabrics you use, thinner fabric means more pleats to the inch and thicker fabrics less pleats per inch.  Always try a sample guage piece if you are creating a pattern on your own or altering a commercial non smocking pattern for smocking.

There are two ways to create the pleats IRON ON SMOCKING DOTS or having the fabric pleated by a nifty little invention called a SMOCKING PLEATER. The first was is to get a hold of smocking transfer dots (Knott's dots two styles available regular spacing or pleater compatible [designed for all of the patterns available]), do a test sample on your fabric of about 3" and pick up the dots to make the pleats to find your gauge. Once you have established your gauge (this is also true for having your fabric pleated by a pleater though mostly the pattern designers have thought this step out for you), then you can go ahead and prepare your fabric for smocking but ironing on the dots and picking them up and making the pleats. I must let you know that if you have never made pleated fabric this way it is a bit of a challenge to keep focused to the end as that is when the fun begins.

The alternative is to have your fabric pleated by your local smocking shop (usually the charge is anywhere from $3.50 to $5.00), a friend who owns a pleater, or purchasing a pleater of your own.


The next step is to find a project. If you have a little girl or doll to smock for I would recommend a basic square yoke dress as your first project.

CE#13 Yoke Dresses I - Girls 1-8

Six sweet styles to choose from with three collar variations and a slip pattern.  Includes smocking and embroidery designs for collars and hemline.  
  • View One is a simple yoke dress with a fancy embroidered collar, bias sleeve edge.  
  • View Two is an heirloom sewn version with a simple neckline with entredeux and lace and embroidered yoke and hemline.  
  • View Three has an attched smocked collar, puffed sleeves with lace ruffle.  
  • Version four is your basic smocked yoke dress with smocked sleeve edge and self ruffle.  
  • Version Five is a non smocked version with a simple peter pan collar (perfect for underneath a smocked pinafore).  
  • Version Six is another non smocked version with a Peter Pan Collar with swiss embroidered ruffle and tab front.  Sleeves are puffed and edge with swiss embroidered edging and bias band.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

If you have no child to smock for and just want to learn then a sampler pillow or a baby bonnet is a good choice. Ideally your first project should be what we refer a flat piece, as opposed to a bishop style which is smocked in the round. The difference between the two is that with a bishop you have to worry about your tension as well as placement of your stitches. (A bishop dress evolved from the basic chemise or peasant blouse of times gone past.) There are plenty of patterns designed specifically for these, please click on this link for Patterns We Carry.

Ellen McCarn's Smocked Pillow

Ellen McCarn's Button Back Smocked Pillow

This pattern is an excellent choice for beginner smockers.  The finished size is 20" x 16" but can be made smaller or larger depending upon the depth of your smocking addiction or design you wish to smock.  Fabric requirements for the pillow is 2/3 yard with 1/2 yard of stuffed foam or use a ready made pillow form.  Can be gussied up as much as you like.

Price $2.50
Quantity requested    

The next question I have heard often is "Can I adapt a commercial pattern that I already have for smocking?" The answer is yes, hesitantly as it is tricky at first (see section of smocking gauge) and I wouldn't recommend it for your beginning project. Later on after you've become adapt at smocking then it's not hard at all to figure out. I have great confidence in the feminine brain in understanding and working through a problem and coming up with a solution. After all we ladies invented smocking!

Instruction Books

We offer many excellent publications on how to do smocking, here are some great ones for total beginners amongst our excellent collection of books

"Ellen McCarn On English Smocking" $12.00

This book is wonderful and in my opinion this is the book to get. One of the most definitive manuals on smocking with clear and concise directions and drawings. Includes seven design plates and 150 step-by-step illustrations and photographs. Covers beginning thru advanced geometric smocking.  An excellent guide for teaching yourself smocking as it is like Ellen is right there looking over your shoulder.   Ellen has been smocking and designing plates for more than 20 years.  This book contains the sum of her experiences.  Excellent publication.

To see Ellen's smocking designs please go to this page Ellen McCarn Smocking Design Plates.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

"Picture Smocking with Ellen McCarn" $12.00

A perfect companion book to the previous edition. This book tells you all you ever need to know about picture smocking. Comes with a stash of picture smocked motifs and geometric patterns for creating your own designs.  For more than 20 years Ellen McCarn has been delighting smockers all around the world with her picture smocking.  She shares her tips as well as some creative processes in this volume.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

English Smocking by Children's Corner

This book is unique amongst all of our beginning smocking books in that it contains actual sewing patterns for a Basic Square Yoke Dress (sizes 1-6) and Armhole guides for a Sundress (sizes 1-8), a smocked baby's bonnet, and smocked collar.  Also included are seven original smocking designs with variations each for either a square yoke dress or bishop.  The smocking stitches are clearly presented in illustrations as well as written instructions.  Excellent value for your money.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

A to Z of Smocking by the publishers of AS&E
In reprint. Order to be placed on wait list for when it's available again.

From the publishers of Australian Smocking & Embroidery, 'A to Z Smocking Stitches" $35.00 - Order to be put on the wait list as it is in reprint

Taken from the pages of AS&E this book fulfills the promise of the other books in the A to Z series with every smocking stitch imaginable in full color and diagrams. Each stitch is carefully explained and detailed so there is no confusion as to how to work it. Also included are sections on beginning smocking, smocking terms, starting and stopping, pleaters and preparation of fabric for smocking, backsmocking instructions, blocking and shaping bishops and basic yoke dresses, gosh everything imaginable on the subject of smocking is covered in this great book.  Also includes counterchange and lattice smocking instructions.

This is THE book to get to learn how to do bullions on pleats.  You will find over 1,000 fabulous color step-by-step color photographs on every subject on smocking imaginable.

Price $35.00
Quantity requested    


Starting & Finishing a Thread
Smocking Terms
Accent Stitches
Back Stitch
Background Smocking
Bargello Smocking
Beads in Smocking
Bishop Garments
Blocking and Shaping
Bullion Knot
Buttonholes in Pleats
Cable Stitch
Centering Designs
Chain Stitch
Colonial Knot
Colour Combinations
Counterchange Smocking
Crossover Smocking
Design Graphs
Detached Chain
Diagonal Smocking
Dolls, Smocking for
Embroidery on Smocking
English Smocking
Fabric Manipulation
Feather Stitch
Fly Stitch
Freeform Smocking
French Knot
Herringbone Stitch
Honeycomb Stitch
Horizontal Smocking
Jigsaw Smocking
Knits, Smocking on
Laundering Smocking
Left Handers
Mirror Image Rows
Outline Stitch
Picture Smocking
Pistil Stitch
Plaid Smocking
Preparation and pleating    
Prints, smocking on
Raised Lattice Stitch
Ribbon Smocking with ribbon weaving
Round Yoke Garments
Satin Stitch
Seed Stitch
Sheaf Stitch
Square Yoke Garments
Star Stitch
Stem Stitch
Straight Stitch
Stripes, Smocking on
Tartans, Smocking on
Template Smocking
Traditional Smocking
Trailing Vine
Trellis Stitch
Van Dyke Stitch
Vertical Ladder Stitch
Vertical Smocking
Wave Stitch
Wheat Stitch
Zigzag Stitch

Click on book for table of contents.

A to Z Sewing for Smockers - $35.00 - In stock!

From the pages of Australian Smocking & Embroidery magazine comes this 7th book in the A to Z series and wonderful it is.  Every question a sewer of smocking & heirloom sewn clothing could ask is answered in this book with step by step photographs and excellent instructions.  An essential companion to A to Z Smocking.  Over 580 superb step-by-step color photographs, hints and tips from the experts, fabulous finishing touches for sleeves, collars & hems.  So if you missed out on the Mildred Turner Series or Elizabeth Travis Johnson's collective wisdom you will find their voices echoed in this publication. A must have for your sewing library.

From the introduction: "Have you ever been frustrated by sleeves that won't sit properly or a hemline that droops?  What is the difference between a sleeve cuff and a sleeve band?  Does the stitching show on your piping no matter how hard you try to avoid it?  How do you trim a collar so that it has a perfectly curved edge?  The answers to all of these questions, plus many more, are contained within the pages of this book, the perfect companion to the A-Z of Smocking."

Price $33.00
Quantity requested    

The Busy Mother's Guide To Sewing Children's Clothes - Nancy Coburn

This book has been around since 1985 but is still the best.  It is perfect for beginners as everything you need to know about sewing garments (smocked and heirloom sewn) is here.  Includes more than 25 basic yoke variations, 18 collar variations and 19 sleeve variations.  Also has instructions for the construction of the basic yoke dress and the smocked Bishop dress.  Includes methods to prevent a "turtle-neck" and 3 easy bishop plackets.  It has some of the best clearly written detailed instructions with 215 illustrations and 103 photographs.

Price $20.00
Quantity requested    

A must have for every sewing smockers library.

Nancy Coburn is the designer for Ginger Snaps Designs Smocking and Heirloom Sewing Patterns as well as a wonderful series of beginning heirloom sewing books.  You can see all of her patterns and books on this page:

Ginger Snaps Designs

Smock-a-Stitch Starter Kit has a 10 row insert, needle, floss and complete instructions to begin to learn to smock. The instructions are a bit sparse but very concise. I do recommend that you get one of the beginning books on smocking for more comprehensive instructions.

Price $5.00
Quantity requested    

To find smocking designs go here Smocking Plates We Carry

To find a place to learn smocking may we suggest you go to the Smocking Arts Guild of America (SAGA) to find a guild in your area.

If you can't find anyone near you we offer a plethora of instruction books at Books We Carry About Smocking

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