Nowadays much of the smocking we see on garments is done by machines but it’s really not that difficult to learn how to do it yourself by hand.
Once you understand the basics, this stitchery technique can be used on a variety of clothing and household items.
It’s especially great for pieces that need a bit of “stretch”, that’s why you’d often see it on things like small appliance covers (where it’s desired to have a tidy fit yet pull on & off easily).
Here’s a general guide to help you get started, I think you’ll find it quite useful. It’s from an old booklet I found in my personal collection.
I’ve cleaned up the images as best I could & formatted/tweaked things a bit for easier online reading.
If you’ve ever been curious about its history in textiles, here’s the Intro from the book:
Of peasant origin, smocking is a decorative means of gathering a wide piece of material into a required measurement.
The word “smock” comes from the Anglo Saxon–smoce–meaning a shift or shirt, and from early Saxon days men working in the fields wore these loose fitting tunic-like garments.
Later on the gathered portions were decorated or “smocked” with embroidered patterns and the designs had various motifs introduced into them which indicated the occupation of the wearer.
Woodmen had trees and leaves; wheelwrights, wheels; and shepherds crooks and hearts. The garments were in blue, green or grey material.
Smocking 101: A General How To Guide
Because of its beautiful appearance, simplicity and usefulness, smocking has become very popular for use on lingerie, children’s wear and many other articles.
Most kinds of textiles are suitable for this technique, but silks, linens and cottons are perhaps the best. Nowadays lovely effects are obtained on striped material and checked ginghams.
Clark’s Anchor Stranded Cotton is one of the best threads to use, working with three or four strands in the needle according to the fineness of the material.
Milwards “Gold Seal” Crewel Needles should be used and for the preliminary gathering threads use No. 40’s sewing cotton. The stitches can be carried out in one color on a cream ground or several colors can be used with a very good effect.
Evenness of the gathering threads is most important and to ensure that they are so, transfers of rows of dots can be obtained.
When checked or striped materials are used the dots are not necessary as the pattern can be used as a guide for the gathering threads. In the case of stripes, lines will have to be ruled on the back of the material in order to keep the rows straight.
Note: All dots should be transferred to the wrong side of the material.
How Much Fabric Is Needed
The amount of fabric required varies somewhat; thin silks taking up more material than thick ones, also no two people will work at exactly the same tension, some will pull the stitches more tightly than others.
A good average is to allow at least three times the amount of material.
The stitches used make a difference too, as some are more elastic than others; Honeycombing takes least of all and Wave stitch takes more than Diamond stitch.
Best Practice: Pattern pieces should be cut out and the smocking worked before making up garments.
Arranging The Dots
Notice how many pleats make up a repeating section of the pattern then multiply this number in dots over the width to be smocked, thus, if pattern takes eight pleats, a multiple of eight should be used, if six a multiple of six and so on.
One more dot should be transferred than the number of pleats required for the pattern. The reason for this is that as the transfer is ironed on to the wrong side of the material the extra stitch is required for the last pleat.
Mark any pattern shapes, armholes, etc., on the material, then mark the position of the smocking allowing enough at the top for a seam.
It is often advisable to transfer an extra row of dots at the top than is required for the pattern, as this gathering thread helps to keep the pleats even for the making up.
- Cut transfer to length and depth required, pin in position on wrong side, and iron off.
- Run a gathering thread along each row of dots on the wrong side picking up a small amount of material at each one.
- Commence with a knot and a double stitch and use a separate long thread for each row: leave the thread hanging at the end.
When the required number of rows have been worked, draw up the material into gathers by holding the loose ends of thread in one hand and gently easing the gathers along until the required width for the smocking is obtained.
It is usual to draw the gathers up to about two inches less than required for finished width, as the work will pull out later.
- Tie the ends of the threads two and two together.
- Work the smocking stitches as shown on following examples.
- Steam press the work before making up the garment. To do this, pin the smocking face down on the ironing blanket stretching it to the required measurement. Place a damp cloth over it and pass a hot iron gently over; the weight of the iron must not rest on the material or the pleats will be flattened. Continue passing the iron gently over the cloth until it is dry.
- Remove the tacking threads except the extra one at the top.
Basic Smocking Stitches
This stitch is used at the commencement of most patterns.
- Bring needle up on left side of a pleat, then pick up next pleat to the right allowing needle to slant as shown in diagram.
- The thread here is kept above the needle, it can however be kept below with needle slanting upwards.
This is similar to outline stitch except that the needle is inserted horizontally and the thread is held alternately above and below the needle.
The center stitches of each row of zig-zags meet and form the trellis.
The trellis formed may be of different sizes, 3, 4 or 5 stitches are the usual numbers for the side of each trellis.
- Bring up needle in the 1st pleat on a gathering thread, take a small stitch through 2nd pleat at a slightly lower level slanting the needle slightly and keeping the thread above it.
- Take a stitch in 3rd and 4th pleats in the same way, then one in 5th pleat at the same level as last but with the thread below needle.
- This stitch should be halfway between two gathering threads.
- Work 3 stitches upwards in next 3 pleats, always keeping the thread below needle, the last stitch being on level of 1st gathering thread.
- Take a stitch in next pleat at same level but with thread above needle and work downwards again to former level.
- Work alternately up and down until end of row is reached.
The 2nd row is begun on level of 2nd gathering thread and the stitches are worked upwards until 4th pleat is reached and then downwards.
- Work from left to right.
- Begin halfway between two gathering threads bringing up needle at 1st pleat.
- Take one stitch on this with thread held above needle, then one stitch in the 2nd pleat beside 1st stitch with thread held below the needle.
- Next pass upwards to 1st gathering thread and take one stitch in 3rd pleat with thread held below needle and another in 4th pleat beside 3rd with thread above; pass down again to same level as 1st stitch and take stitch in 5th pleat with thread above and a stitch beside it in 6th pleat with thread below.
- Continue in this way to end of row always remembering to take only one stitch in each pleat (see diag. A above).
The other half of diamond is formed by starting immediately below 1st stitches and arranging them as shown in diag. B.
- Bring needle up in 1st pleat on right side of material on 1st gathering thread.
- Take 1st and 2nd pleats together, keeping thread below needle, then come down to quarter way between 1st and 2nd gathering thread, and take 2nd and 3rd pleats together, holding thread as before.
- Come down to halfway between 1st and 2nd gathering threads, and take 3rd and 4th pleats together, holding thread as before.
- Then up to quarterway again, and take 4th and 5th pleats together, and then up to 1st gathering thread, and take 5th and 6th pleats together, and so on to end of the line.
Honeycomb is used mainly to finish off a pattern.
- Start in 1st pleat.
- Take a stitch through top of 2nd and 1st pleats together, catch them together with a 2nd stitch but this time taking needle down back of the 2nd pleat until 2nd gathering thread is reached, then bring it out.
- Catch 3rd and 2nd pleats together with a stitch, make a 2nd stitch over this and take needle up back of 3rd pleat and out at 1st gathering thread.
- Continue up and down in this way until row is complete.
- Work a 2nd row on 3rd and 4th gathering threads and consecutive rows if required.
This stitch is more elastic than any other of the smocking stitches, and is equally suitable for fine or coarse work.
- Bring up needle on left side of 2nd pleat from right; make a stitch over these 2 pleats and take needle down on right side of 2nd pleat and pass it through 2nd and 3rd pleats halfway between 1st and 2nd gathering threads.
- Continue up and down, advancing one pleat with every stitch.
- Work a 2nd row of stitches from halfway between 1st and 2nd gathering threads to 2nd gathering thread.
- Arrange stitches as shown in diagram.
This is worked exactly in same way as Trellis stitch but after working one row a 2nd row or even a 3rd row is made to fit into the zig-zags, either close together or spaced as shown in the illustration.
Source: Smocking by Penelope; A Needlecraft Publication (vintage booklet)