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

In the various issues of this newsletter I have begun to explore the origins of smocking. I have discussed the evolution of smocking from a way to hold pleats in place decoratively to the functional way of adding 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.

The process:

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 and embroidery.

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 project.

Click on image to see back of pattern

Ellen McCarn's Basic Yoke Dress - Two sizes: 3mo - 4 yrs; 5 yrs - 14 yrs - $12.00 each

This pattern has variations for smocked short sleeves, long sleeves, a jumper variation, Angel sleeves, angel sleeve with overlay and collar overlay.  Two separate sizes, 3mo to 4 years and 5 years to 14 years.

Instruction booklet included has over 150 step-by-step illustrations and instructions for Pleating, 10 Sleeve Variations, 8 Collar Variations, Scalloped hem, Skirt Variations and heirloom Machine Sewing techniques.  The adjustable smocking design graph "Christy", pictured on the front cover, is included.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

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.

Ellen McCarn's Smocked Pillow

Ellen McCarn's Button Back Smocked Pillow

This pattern is an excellent choice for beginner smockers.  The finished size is 20" x 16" but can be made smaller or larger depending upon the depth of your smocking addiction or design you wish to smock.  Fabric requirements for the pillow is 2/3 yard with 1/2 yard of stuffed foam or use a ready made pillow form.  Can be gussied up as much as you like.

Price $2.50
Quantity requested    

The next question I have heard often is "Can I adapt a commercial pattern that I already have for smocking?" The answer is yes, hesitantly as it is tricky at first (see section of smocking gauge) and I wouldn't recommend it for your beginning project. Later on after you've become adapt at smocking then it's not hard at all to figure out. I have great confidence in the feminine brain in understanding and working through a problem and coming up with a solution. After all we ladies invented smocking!

Instruction Books

We offer many excellent publications on how to do smocking, here are some great ones for total beginners amongst our excellent collection of books

"Ellen McCarn On English Smocking" $12.00

This book is wonderful and in my opinion this is the book to get. One of the most definitive manuals on smocking with clear and concise directions and drawings. Includes seven design plates and 150 step-by-step illustrations and photographs. Covers beginning thru advanced geometric smocking.  An excellent guide for teaching yourself smocking as it is like Ellen is right there looking over your shoulder.   Ellen has been smocking and designing plates for more than 20 years.  This book contains the sum of her experiences.  Excellent publication.

To see Ellen's smocking designs please go to this page Ellen McCarn Smocking Design Plates.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

"Picture Smocking with Ellen McCarn" $12.00

A perfect companion book to the previous edition. This book tells you all you ever need to know about picture smocking. Comes with a stash of picture smocked motifs and geometric patterns for creating your own designs.  For more than 20 years Ellen McCarn has been delighting smockers all around the world with her picture smocking.  She shares her tips as well as some creative processes in this volume.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

English Smocking by Children's Corner

This book is unique amongst all of our beginning smocking books in that it contains actual sewing patterns for a Basic Square Yoke Dress (sizes 1-6) and Armhole guides for a Sundress (sizes 1-8), a smocked baby's bonnet, and smocked collar.  Also included are seven original smocking designs with variations each for either a square yoke dress or bishop.  The smocking stitches are clearly presented in illustrations as well as written instructions.  Excellent value for your money.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

The Busy Mother's Guide To Sewing Children's Clothes - Nancy Coburn

This book has been around since 1985 but is still the best.  It is perfect for beginners as everything you need to know about sewing garments (smocked and heirloom sewn) is here.  Includes more than 25 basic yoke variations, 18 collar variations and 19 sleeve variations.  Also has instructions for the construction of the basic yoke dress and the smocked Bishop dress.  Includes methods to prevent a "turtle-neck" and 3 easy bishop plackets.  It has some of the best clearly written detailed instructions with 215 illustrations and 103 photographs.

Price $20.00
Quantity requested    

A must have for every sewing smockers library.

Nancy Coburn is the designer for Ginger Snaps Designs Smocking and Heirloom Sewing Patterns as well as a wonderful series of beginning heirloom sewing books.  You can see all of her patterns and books on this page:

Ginger Snaps Designs

To find smocking designs go here Smocking Plates We Carry

To find a place to learn smocking may we suggest you go to the Smocking Arts Guild of America (SAGA) to find a guild in your area.

If you can't find anyone near you we offer a plethora of instruction books at Books We Carry About Smocking

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