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A Brief History of the Technique

This information was excerpted from: Needlework School; A comprehensive guide to decorative embroidery by The Embroiderers’ Guild Practical Study Group, New Burlington Books

Smocking evolved as gathering held in place by rows of stitches worked over pleats in a regular, even pattern. Stitches were traditionally worked on linen with linen thread of the same color. This technique was used on landworkers’ smocks to shape the sleeves and to control fullness on the body of the garment while allowing stretch across the back and chest.

Four simple stitches- stem or rope, cable or basket, vandyke, and chevron - were used in combinations to form a wealth of diamond, rope, and wave patterns. Honeycomb and featherstitches were added later.

Pleats are even folds, usually having rigid sharp edges. They can be set and secured in many different ways. Using a variety of stitches arranges the pleats into different groupings and directions. Spacing at varying intervals and varying the proportions create decorative bands and units of pattern. The fretwork of unstitched pleats is equally important to the elasticity, tonal effects, texture and pattern of the smocked piece.

The complexity of the embroidered designs peaked in the middle of the nineteenth century, and included boxes of complementary patterns worked in single, double, treble featherstitch and eyelet holes, stem and chain stitches. These were worked for decorative effect and to strengthen garment areas most subject to wear. Pleated and embroidered epaulets over the shoulder also gave extra protection from rain and the rub of yokes.

Versions of the landworker’s smock and smocking are found throughout the world. They vary in decorative detail and function.

Over the years, there have been several revivals of interest in the traditional smock – most notably by the followers of William Morris. More recently, fashion designers have made effective innovations in smocking by combining different fabrics, methods, and styles and by using colored fabrics and threads. Smocking is often seen in children’s fashions.

The sample made by June Hiatt is for a child’s garment. Ms. Hiatt combined the stem stitch and the surface honeycomb on a background of houndstooth checked cotton. It was then embellished with a decorative daisy stitch.


June Hiatt

Smocking is a decorative form of elaborate pleating. Like many types of needlework considered decorative today, its early use was practical rather than decorative.

  1. Any fabric which can easily be gathered is suitable. The width of the fabric required depends on the type of fabric, the distance between the pleats and the tension of the stitches. As a general rule allow three times the desired width of the finished piece.
  2. Any kind of thread is suitable for smocking if it pulls through the fabric easily and does not break. When choosing threads consider their various qualities. Matching fabric and thread color will enhance the texture of the piece. The play of light on shiny threads will give added contrast and interest. The effect of colored threads could be subtle or quite dramatic.
  3. In the first step, the fabric is tacked across in rows on the wrong side and drawn up into even pleats with the tacking threads, which are then tied securely. Make sure the thread is long enough to complete each row.
  4. Work along each row. At the end of the row, unthread the needle and leave the thread loose. Tack the required number of rows, then draw up the pleats by holding the loose thread ends in pairs, carefully easing each row along its gathering thread until the desired fabric width and pleat distribution is attained. Secure the thread ends around pins or knot them in pairs.
  5. Secure the embroidery thread on the wrong side of the fabric with a knot or a double stitch into the back of a pleat. On the right side, work the smocking stitches, regularly and with even tension, by picking up a small portion of the top edges of the pleats. Put the last stitch through to the wrong side and fasten off into the back of the last pleat. When the smocking is complete, remove the gathering threads.


A patterned or textured fabric can be transformed by smocking. A large pattern can be reduced or a life-like object made abstract. Striped or checked fabrics create interesting patterns and ensure perfect pleats without marking the rows.

Instead of making evenly spaced tacking stitches, work in random spacing, different sizes and directions.

Leave unpleated spaces parallel to the drawn up columns of pleats, perhaps in different widths and at varying intervals. These spaces could be left blank or filled with embroidery, insertions of lace, braid or ribbon. They could be stamped or painted.

The tacking threads could be left in as a design feature. They could be in different weights or colors.