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)
Just want to thank you for putting up your Guide to Smocking. I have been wanting to learn to smock for a long time and have not been able to get to classes. Your guide is perfect – very clear and very nice photos. I believe
I will now be able to start from the beginning with pleating my own fabric and trying out some stitches. I have an 18-month old granddaughter that I am anxious to smock some things for. So, once again, thank you so much.
Thanks so much for putting this guide up. Smocking is on my learning to-do list. The illustrations and instructions are very clear…I’ve no excuse for not jumping in and having a go now. :o)
Great site, I check back here often, there is always something to inspire me.
All the best,
This is a very helpful site. I too have a baby granddaughter; I knit for her but am keen to make her updated versions of the lovely smocked dresses that I and my cousin had when we were small in the `50s. I think these steps make it clear and am keen to have a go. I do find it difficult to find the kind of fine cotton or lawn that I would like these (summer) dresses to be made in, so any advice would be v welcome.
i find that gingham works nicely and pleating with the “plaid” gives a wonder effect, batiste is a wonderfully fine cotton, i usually use 2 layers thoug because it is a tissue weight almost. good luck
Liberty Tana Lawn cotton is a very nice fine cotton
Liberty tana lawn is beautiful for this, creates heirloom type gifts and good value!
Thanks for the great tut and pictures. I’ve been aiming to get back to smocking and this is more than a great refresher, thanks.
I am a little confused on smocking.I have never done it before but always love the little baby dresses that have it. Don’t you have to have more material where the smocks will be to allow for the pleats? Say if you were wanting a finished size 2 would you have to make a size 3 to allow for the pleats? Thanks Maggie
If you want to do an existing dress, you may be disappointed, but the fact is, once you take out pleating threads, it is only a little smaller than it was unpleated. For example, a 10 inc square pleats down to about 2 inches, but will open to about 9.
Thank you…I was looking for this very explanation as I was confused with the size of fabric after pleating
I am new to smocking, but this is the first picture tutorial I have no questions on. It is clear and thurough. I would like to add, I have found that earl cotton makes for prettier stitches. You may have to use a bigger needle, but the glistening white against a dark fabric looks and lays beautifully.Keep up the great info! Nat
I meant Thorough and pearl cotton, lol
Very much illustrated description of Smocking.Thank You,
Your guide to smocking is the best. I smocked for my daughters when they were little. It is time to smock for grandchildren. Your guide is like the instructions I used before so this is a review for me.
One question though, where can the dotted transfer paper be purchased?
Thank you so much for such iformative and concise tut. The only thing I do not like about smocking is the basting of the material, If I want 9″ pleated, I was told I have to baste 44″?
Thank you very much.This is really help ful for beginners like me
Thank you for a great tutorial. I am new to smocking. Our daughter loves all things smocked for her 4 month old daughter. I decided I needed to learn how to do this to save her some money!
smocking instructions are simple and easy to do. Thanks
Trying to make a smoking wreath but I’m unable to reduce the stitches at the smaller end of it. Very grateful for your help.
Thanks so much. I smocked a 4-H Dress on small lavender gingham in 1965 for Broadwater county MT. It was lovely and I wore it all through High School. But always found it hard to find information to make more items. I’d especially love to make smocked cuff’s. This gives me the how to start and think it out. Starting with the 3 times the length in fabric. Google for where to find the smocking iron on pattern lines. Thanx again!
Thanks for all the smocking tips. One question – Do you have to back smock on all pieces? I have read that in some directions but did not know if it is needed in all construction.
How do you keep the stitches running straight as you smock horizontally across the piece? Do you place water soluble marking lines across the piece?
I have always used cottons to smock but have seen a lovely seersucker – can seersucker be used for smocking a little girls dress?
I am a good smocker but I absolutely cannot get my garment finished with the same standard as my smocking. The pleats always go ‘haywire’. Any tips?
Thank you.. 🙂
thanks a lot. I was searching for the basic instructions.
I haven’t smocked since my 28 year old daughter was a little girl – what a relief to find this ‘refresher course’ on the internet!
Philda (South Africa)
I am teaching my daughter smocking today. We are making baby bonnets for two of my co-workers. One of them is expecting twin daughters! Thank you for publishing this information. We might make dresses too!
Your tutorial is great. Just one question as I can’t find the information anywhere, how far apart are the rows meant to be? I am doing a bishop dress for my granddaughter as a first time snicker.
I have never smocked before, but want to do a summer dress for my granddaughter. I can’t find a pattern anywhere, can anyone help please.
Like all the other replies I’m very grateful for finding this clearly presented information: this is the only site that has explained the ratio of smocked panel to garment size (roughly two inches) and that has now given me the confidence to proceed with a panel to attach to the yoke of a babies dress. I dare say that I shall be saving this site to favourites and will return to it for the tutorial on individual stitches. Well done.
Hi there, although I am a doctor by profession I am pursuing my hobby of stitching and embroidery cause of my lovely daughters. Thanks a lot for the detailed and well illustrated steps on your site. Hopefully I ll be able to finish my first attempt of smocking that I’ll be using to make a frock . thanks again.
Thank you for these clear instructions.
My mother smocked dresses for my children and now it is my turn to do the same.
A wonderful and to the point lesson…thank you! This will look very pretty on the costumes for my wee Pocket Dolls. ? I am so happy when I find that such lovely needle arts have not completely disappeared. God bless you and many others who share such treasured traditional needle arts of days gone by…sharing the many resources that are now public domain, rather than charging large fees for them. We should all have free access to these. Thanks so much again for taking the time to write the code, type the lesson in such an easy-to-read style, for including these very clear and very helpful graphics, and for making this lesson available on the Web!
Thank you so much. I have wanted to learn to pleet and smock for a long time. This will make it easier to get started.
Can you continue to publish how to start your projects ? What materials are needed to continue the process? Maybe where to get materials? I been want to learn to smock for years the places here in Alabama it cost 200$ for a class
Where can I purchase a smocking book that is simple for a beginner.
Or a person who lives near Warrensburg Missouri.