A Primer on English Smocking

Smocking is a decorative needlework used for holding gathers in place.  This beautiful handwork is one of the few peasant handicrafts of England that has carried on after hundreds of years.  In the thirteenth century, the smock was a loose garment of handwoven linen ornamented with the same smocking stitches used today.  It was lavishly embroidered on the collar, yoke and sides of the garment.

Smocks in the closet
Most of the designs on the smock were symbolic of the wearer’s occupation.  Gardeners had flowers and leaves stitched on their smock.   Waggoners and carters had cartwheels; gravedigger’s smocks had crosses and what do you suppose shepherds had?  Sheep, of course!  Professional pallbearers wore tall silk hats and fine white linen smocks.  Some day I would like to visit some English museums to see their collection of old smocks.

No doubt, in bygone days, a farmer’s wife not only grew the flax but also processed it into linen.  The garment was cut out and stitched by candelight for I’m certain there were far too many other chores that had to be done throughout the day to allow for sewing.  A great many of the buttons were of hand-cut pearl.  These garments were durable and endured the test of time for some have been handed down through generations.

The color of the smocks varied in different counties from white or natural to olive green, deep blue, black and gray.  But no matter where one lived, in every county one wore a white linen smock worked with white thread on Sundays.   The Industrial Revolution brought the end to the agricultural/worker smock because loose garments were far too dangerous to wear around machinery.  By the 1800’s the rural smock was replaced with smocking of a new sort.  Smocking began to appear on ladies clothes and the clothes of children.

In the United States smocking has drifted in and out of fashion but is still held with high regard in the deep South.  I feel like it is a skill that should not be lost and so I intend to revive an art that I have not done since my daughters were young.  Smocking was a passion of mine throughout their early childhood but, as girls do, they outgrew it when they began to develop their own sense of style.  I don’t know who this little dress will be gifted to as my oldest has let me know that it is not in style.

I found a little baby bishop dress all ready to smock in one of my storage boxes.  I don’t remember when I prepared this fabric or who it was even intended for.  I’m certain it is at least a decade old but I think this beautiful fabric is timeless, at least for an infant.  If a good quality fabric and embroidery thread is used the garment should last a lifetime.  The dresses I smocked long ago have been passed from family to friends and then around again.

While smocking may appear to the beginner as a difficult and complicated art, it is one of the simplest forms of needlework.  The preparation of the material is probably the most harrowing part of the whole project, or at least one that I feel needs to be done carefully.  Most of the hard work has already been done on this sweet little blue dress so I won’t be showing you that part.

All that I had to do was to pull up the neck threads to 10″ (sounds awfully small), fan out the threads and tie the holding threads in place.  I’ve misted the pleats lightly with water and will allow them to dry.  This will help them stay in place.  I will block the garment again once the smocking is finished.

Unfortunately, when I looked in my needle case for a size 7 millner’s needle, I discovered I had not a one.  This sweet little dress will have to wait for another day until I can find the proper needle.

6 Comments on “A Primer on English Smocking

  1. I’ve always been interested in smocking. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.
    I’ve also decided that you must move to the ridge so I can learn all these things from you 🙂

  2. Wow, wow, wow ! I just LOVE this post Rebecca ! I too love smocking, or rather, found myself empassioned in the tiny pleats in my early twenties as I fashioned a RenFaire garment. I used gold thread to hold the pleats in place. In fact, I’ve never seen anything ~ garment wize~ so beautiful as the museum pictures you have in this post . So fine ! OMG… and to think I could embroider mandolins on my personalized smock (am a mandolin player by profession, you could say, and not quite bend the truth) . Very informative, very delightful, and the coup de grace, the darling needlecase you no doubt made? Your grandchild is blessed to have you as it’s gramma. I’m so happy to see you smocking away, bringing old along with the new into it’s world. Thank you for this post.

  3. Oh, and also : I get to looking back at those photos of the museum smocked shirts and shifts and think “the *time* people use to put into their garments !!!” with all the fine detail needling both cloth, and yarn and embroidery. Its absolutely incredible. You know what dawned on me just now? That those fine folk of the earlier centuries also had 24 hours in a day, you know, but probably a lot less daylight hours, and fewer candle hours too, and so, well, what to do with that very valuable and cherished light? They did not have ipads, laptops to carry out into the garden, nor even gameboys, or televisions or even radios. They likely all were very adept at needles in all shapes and styles of crafting. Just think if thats all you had to do when you weren’t working… was to engage in lovely fabric work. I think you have definitely tickled a dormant love beneath my caloused veneer of the decades I”ve allowed myself to distract into the quick fixes for entertainment. Thank you again Rebecca, this is indeed an Awakening.

  4. ps. Oh, wait, correction: When I blunder’d to say ‘they had a lot fewer day-light hours’ I meant that my being of lower latitude than the Old England, Ireland & Scotland. Then I realized further, that perhaps fine needlework was so popular there because it is a thing that works well by candle light. Yay for candles and oil lamps. 😉

  5. Very interesting! Thank you for the history lesson. I’ll be looking forward to seeing the finished smock.

  6. Smocking is so pretty. There’s a knit method as well. That was very interesting! I had no idea that the designs were symbolic.

    Too bad about the needle. You know you’ll find that size once you’re bought some.

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