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