Smocking FAQ's
Written by Beth-Katherine Kaiman, owner of Garden Fairies Trading Company

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If you have a question about smocking that is not answered below just write to us and we'll answer

What is smocking?

English Smocking is embroidery on pleats that have been pleated before smocking. It is an art form whose origin has been obscured in history but has been handed down from generation to generation much like the sagas, songs and myths, however it's roots are traceable to a point through looking at the art of the past specifically at the stitchery on the clothing.  If you look at paintings from the Italian and German Renaissance you will see lots of examples of smocking on mens shirts and ladies chemises. There was a fascination at that time for ways of taming pleated fabric.  (More in-depth info on this page What is Smocking if you wish to know more.)

How do I make the pleats for smocking?  Can I make them on my sewing machine?

Smocking requires evenly spaced rows with pleats 1/4" apart and rows 3/8" apart (this is the standard Pleater Compatible grid we use these days, there are others). No matter how hard you try you cannot make evenly spaced rows on a sewing machine.  Nor can you form them in a folded piece of fabric like you can with tucks (but you can smock tucks together to make pseudo smocking).  Pleats for smocking need to be upright as shown in the photograph above in order to make your smocking beautiful.

There are two ways to make pleats, either with a pleater which is a machine that forms pleats by sending fabric through notched roller bars or through iron-on dots which are evenly spaced in the aforementioned grid.

We sell three types of pleaters in sizes 16 rows, 24 rows (including the Super Pleater which has half spaces in between each row), and 32 rows, with the 16 row being the one most used for dolls and children.  One can send fabric through the pleater twice or as many times as you can but it is a tricky lining up the pleats.

 To view all the pleaters we sell please go to our Pleaters We Carry page for more information.

Read Pleaters 24 row, Maxi (47 half spaces) or 32row

Designed with precision brass rollers, each Read plater has been carefully engineered to work perfectly every time. You have your choice of 3 styles:

  • Read Regular 24 row pleater $269.00
  • Read Maxi 24 row includes 47 half space rows (24 regular and 23 half space rows) $299.00
  • Read 32row pleater $299.00
Each price includes shipping in the continental US.

Price $269.00-$299.00
Quantity requested        

Iron-On Smocking Dots - $6.00 per package of two 24" x 36" sheets.
Two styles and two colors:  (Regular spacing and Pleater Compatible)

Pleater Compatible spacing (to match the contemporary smocking patterns we sell).
Your choice of two colors Yellow  for dark fabrics or Blue  for light fabrics.

Pleater Compatible Spacing 

Blue Smocking Dots

Price 6.00
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Yellow Smocking Dots

Price 6.00
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Traditional Spacing

Blue Smocking Dots

Price 6.00
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Yellow Smocking Dots

Price 6.00
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What is a smocking plate?

A smocking plate is smocking design graph. Printers refer to color inserts within books as a plate so my guess is that the first smocking designer and her printer agreed to call her designs "smocking plates". We offer many, many different designs in geometric or picture smocking style.

Ellen McCarn Smocking Designs

        All Smocking Plate Designers      

EM#110 Bubbling Hearts & Baby fish

Price 3.50
Quantity requested    

What is Back Smocking?

Back smocking is a process wherein your smock the back of your pleated piece of fabric (or create the pleats as you go with iron on dot method).  Depending upon the stitch in the front you can either use the cable stitch (pleats held in pairs) or the outline/stem stitch (singular held pleats). The reason for back-smocking is simply to hold the pleats together that are not smocked on the front. Usually back-smocking is worked on picture smocking designs or for designs that have a lot of open space or behind bullions that are worked in the center of diamond stitches. Another use for back-smocking is to 'hold' the very top row of a bishop dress so that the pleats don't bend over while you are sewing on the bias binding. In Elizabeth Travis Johnson's great OUT OF PRINT book Sewing For Children, she recommended that you do this on the front (not the back) so your pleats will stay in place while you are stitching on your bias binding.

What is the difference between Picture Smocking and Geometric Smocking?

Geometric smocking is where you form patterns with the different stitches used in smocking.   Picture Smocking is where you form pictures with the stacked cable stitch.    Stacking cables is similiar to cross stitch patterns as you place cable stitches on top of each other to form pictures.   The image above is a good example of picture smocking with color changes and interesting shapes.   The image of the stacking graph paper below shows how the stitches are put on top of each other to form shapes.  Geometric paper is also available for Geometric Smocking Designs.

 Geometric smocking can be thick or sparse depending on your taste.   Contemporary designers such as Ellen McCarn, Creative Keepsakes, Little Stitches, & Lou Anne Lamar(to name a few)  are less dense in their designs but use a lot of embellishments such as ribbon weaving, bullions and silk ribbon embroidery.

Crosseyed Crickets

Lou Anne Lamar

Ellen McCarn Stacking Graph Paper

CEC #302 Daddy's Sweetheart

Price 4.50
Quantity requested    

LAL#145 Montrose

Price 3.00
Quantity requested    

Stacking Graph Paper
Price 4.00
Quantity requested    

For more smocking designs go to our Smocking Plate Designers Page

How do I insert a piece of pleated fabric into a garment?

This is done by measuring the piece you wish to cut out of a garment and insert a pleated and smocked piece of fabric. It is best to use piping to stabilize your pleats (we carry peitite piping in a rainbow of colors).   Depending on who you are going to be sewing for, look for a smooth or flat area (no darts or princess curves) on the pattern to insert into, such as the upper chest area (not bust line), or vertical lenthwise along side a button placket, or anywhere you think it would look nice. Make sure when you do cut out a section to insert into that you replace the same amount as was there originally and to include your seam allowances, i.e. an insert 5" tall will actually be 6" - including two 1/2" seams on the top and bottom of insert.   The segment cut out of the pattern piece will be 4" (reflecting a 5" insert with two 1/2" seams on the top and bottom, bent back out of the way).   See what I am talking about?   Of course the two pattern pieces won't be attached so you won't really see that measurement but when you are calculating the insert you have to do a little creative thinking.  Don't forget this important fact otherwise your garment will have added length to it.

Here is an email from one of our customers who asked a similar question:

<< I'm in the planning stage and that is why I had these questions about the pre-pleated insert. Yes, that was what I thought about untying the gathering threads from the insert and laying it out on the skirt. So, I could actually do it either way? This way or gathering the skirt later on in the construction of dress as you told me earlier. Which way is the best for the look of the dress? Which way would you do it? I sent along a picture of a recent dress I smocked. Right now I've done two for my girlfriend's grandchild. I"ll be a pro by the time my grandchildren come! I'm 53 and none of my three kids are married yet. Thanks--Christy >>

IF your pleating threads are long enough to allow your to spread the insert out flat without fear of having them disappear in the process then that is the way I would attach it to a skirt front and drop your bottom row as a trellis design down past the seam line. This is easily done by pinching the pleats taut and eye-balling where the next row would be. This makes for a design joining feature. This way you can smock treat the insert like it was part of the skirt instead of piping both sides flat. Of course it all depends upon what looks good with the fabric you have choosen to be the floral print and how much of a contrast the insert to the print is.

Recommended reading:
Ellen McCarn On English Smocking    -OR-    Adapting a Commercial Pattern for the Smocked Insert

"Ellen McCarn On English Smocking" $12.00

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

Adapting Commercial Patterns for the Smocked Insert by Diana Bruce of Creative Keepsakes

Price $4.50
Quantity requested    

What is the difference between a bishop and a basic yoke dress?


A bishop dress is a raglan sleeved (or angel wing sleeves) dress, blouse, or romper that is smocked all the way around the neckline. It evolved from the round smock worn by farm workers in England and Victorian Times Liberty Dress adapted for children and ladies.   In today's fashion world it is now mostly worn by little girls and I have noticed in department stores imported ragland sleeved  blouses with a little smocking.  I have also seen this style in major pattern companies, which makes a lot of sense as it is an easy style to fit to a wide range of body shapes.

The raglan sleeve came about through the centuries of women and men wearing clothing and discovering which style was most comfortable.  The raglan sleeve style was mostly worn as nightshifts as it was a comfortable style to sleep in.  In the smocking world a bishop dress is one of the staple styles of dresses/blouses available as it is a perfect canvas for showing off your beautiful embroidery. (I have always felt that hand embroidery should be worn not hung on walls.)

Here we offer:

Ellen McCarn Bishop

Grace Knott

Ellen McCarn's The Ultimate Bishop
Two sizes 3mos - 4 yrs or 5-12yrs

The instruction booklet included has over 140 illustrations and complete instructions for Pleating, 7 Sleeve Variations, Scalloped Hem, Heirloom Machine Sewing techniques and an adjustable geometric smocking design graph "Marie".  Also includes instructions for making an insert collar out of contrast fabric.  Ellen's instructions are the best, every step is detailed and illustrated in a clear and concise manner that is to be expected by a master smocking designer.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested      

GK#17 Peasant Bishop - Girls: 1-10

The Peasant Bishop pattern includes three bishop smocking designs.

Your choice of a center front button placket opening or back button placket opening.

All three views can be made with long or short sleeves.

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

For adults we carry The Hungarian Peasant Blouse by Folkwear, which is a contemporary version of the Liberty Dress, peasant style and also Sandy Hunter's Less Full Peasant Blouse (as seen in the movie Mona Lisa Smile - a great gift for a teenager!!!!).   Click here to see all the Bishop patterns we carry in one spot.

Folkwear Roumanian Blouse

Meco Modes Nightgown

Maggies Classics Sundress

Sandy Hunter's
Less Full Peasant Blouse

Misses: 10-16

Price $16.95
Quantity requested    

Price $17.00
Quantity requested    

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

... and for a new twist on the peasant look by Meco Modes

MM#11 Tanya - Misses 8-18 - Peasant Style Blouse and Short Top

View A - Smocking forms a narrow band around the entire neckline, including an extension that sites across the top of the arm, while rows of smocking, to replicate shirring, control the fullness under the bust.  Tiny frills trim the neckline and the upper and lower edges of the armband.  A deeper peaked frill is the feature of the hemline.

View B - This peasant style, short-sleeved top features the same neckline smocking as view A.  The lower edge of the top is cropped short to site beneath the bust.  The edges of this top are also finished with tiny frills.  A drawstring (narrow cord or ribbon) is use to gather in the lower edge of the sleeves.

Suggested fabrics: Soft materials that drape well, lightweight cotton, silk , polyester, rayon (or blends), voile, batiste, cheesecloth, lawn, chiffon, crepe de chine, georgette, challis.  Takes 2 1/4 yards for most sizes.

Price $17.00
Quantity requested    

More Bishop Smocking for Adults - see the following pages:

Basic Square Yoke

A basic yoke dress also evolved from the smock. It's roots are deep into the basic garment that was devised as the undershirt. It's unqiue feature is that the smocking falls from the yoke of a dress (or bodice). The yoke holds the pleats in place. There are many, many different variations of the basic yoke dress including a full bodice design.  

Ellen McCarn Basic Square Yoke

Price $12.00
Quantity requested    

Click here to see all the Basic Square Yoke Dress patterns we carry in one spot.

What do I need to smock a bishop dress?

Most ladies who smock will tell you that smocking a bishop dress, blouse or a nightgown in the round is tricky because of three things. First you have to partially construct the garment before pleating. Second you have to adjust the tension of your stitches in order to avoid a tube instead of a flat round shape and third it requires a blocking guide in order to get the neckline properly roundly shaped. Most bishop patterns these days contain a neckline guide but if you find yours doesn't neckline guides are found in many AS&E magazines, Jane MacPherson's Complete Bishop Dress book and Ellen McCarn's Block and Shape guide sized 18" dolls to Adult necklines which is printed on heavy duty pellon so you can pin your garment to it and steam block without worrying about the paper deteriorating.

Smock and Block Guide by Ellen McCarn 

This handy tool which you can mount into a hoop or a picture frame has all the necklines of 18" AG dolls up through preemie/newborns to Adult necklines and is printed on heavy pellon. It also a blocking guide for inserts AND has a scallop tracing guide for hems and collars. The size of the scallops measure from 1" to 4".

Price $7.50
Quantity requested    

What is the best thread and needle to baste with?

My tailoring teacher Ginny Winters always recommended basting with silk thread to be the best for a number of reasons. It glides through the fabric which is why it is used for tacking and basting in tailoring and the best part is the thread doesn't make any marks in the fabric after it's taken out.
A crewel #10 is the best needle to use as it's small and thin and makes smaller holes which have a better chance to close up after the thread is taken out.  If there is a hole in your fabric caused by your needle or pleating threads, don't fret as washing and drying will close up those unwanted needle holes. Be careful about putting this needle in your mouth to hold it as it's so tiny you might forget about having it there - advice comes from experience!

What is the best needle for Smocking?

When choosing your floss you are going to be smocking with make sure the needle you choose to work with allows enough room in the eye to accomodate your floss.  Now that may sound strange but seriously you can't put perle cotton in the eye of a crewel #10, you have to move up to either a crewel #6 or a Darner #5, even #3.  There are many choices in needles but the type that I (and all the teachers) recommend is  Darners#7 $1.50 per package of 15. This is a good sized needle long with a wide eye that you can actually see for threading.   It also makes a big hole in your pleat for several strands of floss to fit through.   This is especially helpful when you are doing picture smocking and using 4 strands of floss.  As a rule of thumb it depends on the type of fabric you are smocking on. If using a fine batiste I would go with a crewel #10 as the needle is a thin one less likely to damage the fabric. If using broadcloth and other heavier weights then I would go with the Darner #7.

Darner's #7
Price $1.25
Quantity requested    

Crewel #6
Price $1.25
Quantity requested    

How to get started in Smocking

First of all you really should learn the basic stitches and principles of smocking on a sampler piece before attempting your first project, otherwise you will be unhappy with the results and may be turned off smocking forever. Practice does make perfect in this case. (Many ladies I know have several sampler pieces going with different stitches worked in various patterns even though they have been smocking for years.)

Once you understand the simple principles of smocking (what is a pleat, how to get the fabric pleated, what are rows, what are half spaces, what's a quarter space or step, etc.) the next step is to decide what project you are going to work on. I always suggest to my students that they pick a project that is feasible to their skills. Often times ladies are inspired by the beauties they see in Sew Beautiful, Creative Needle and AS&E which are loaded with bullions or other embellishments. While these projects are easy for the advanced smocker (advanced meaning having a few projects under their belt), the beginner smocker (unless extremely motivated) will inevitably stop their project because of the amount of time that it takes to complete.

What you want to do is pick out a project that doesn't have a lot of rows of smocking or embellishments so you can finish it in a short amount of time and bask in that wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Then move onto another project that is a bit more challenging and will develop either your smocking skills or sewing skills. Please don't "bite off more than you can chew" because odds are you will put your project down and add it to that UFO drawer or closet (depending on how addicted you are to learning new things). Take the time to be patient with yourself and pace the learning of these new skills with your enthusiasm. There is nothing more satisfying to finish a project and then move onto another. As Oprah says, "You go girl."

What to make once you're familiar with the basics of Smocking?

If your sewing skills are at a minimum I would suggest making a Christmas ball ornament as there is very little sewind of my newsletter with suggestions for Christmas ornament patterns.)

Next I would suggest a rectangular or square pillow as only straight seams are required and the only tricky part is attaching the piping and mitering corners.

If sewing isn't much of a problem I would then suggest working one of the following in what we call straight smocking as your first project. (We call it straight smocking because the shape of the item is straight instead of shaped into the round.)

A smocked apron is simple and easy to sew, most all of us learned how to sew an apron in school and adding smocking to the mix isn't hard at all. I would suggest using a geometric pattern that you can stretch out somewhat as you don't really want your apron to be too full. (Oh and yes you can stretch out smocking somewhat to make some interesting effects with smocked diamonds.)

Adding in an insert to a garment or commercial patterns is not hard, you just have to learn how to do piping. (See "Adapting Commercial Patterns for the Smocked Insert" by Diana Bruce of Creative Keepsakes). Adding in an insert to a garment solves the problem of too many pleats (and therefore fullness) when working picture smocking, or when you wish to have an accent color added to your garment (insert white, garment fabric blue) or if you are working a button on shirt and pants/skirt outfit (Chery William's Button-on Suit pattern). Boy's tend to prefer garments that are form fitting rather than too full so the insert is the perfect solution. (Oh and boys do like smocking, they just don't like the frou frou fullness.)

A basic yoke dress, one of the classic designs for the past 80 years.  Suitable for young girls from the ages of 1 to 10 (if you're lucky age 12) and for dolls of all sizes, this style has a couple of variations from the high yoke to low yoke to full bodice smocking. The sewing of the basic yoke dress IS challenging to the beginner sewer but not impossible when you follow the basic rules of sewing.

Setting in sleeves is the one thing that I have heard from ladies across the country as their personal bugaboo but if you get the right sleeve into the right armhole and the left sleeve into the left armhole you shouldn't have too many problems. Also if you make your notches on both pattern pieces (bodice and sleeve) and match them up while pinning the sleeves will go in like butter.

Other variations of the basic yoke dress are smocking alongside a front placket and smocking at the waistline.

Once you have mastered the challenges of straight smocking then it's time to move onto smocking in the round. In dresses or blouses we call this Bishop Smocking. While the sewing of bishops is easier and less complicated than basic yoke dresses, the tricky part of smocking in the round is the shaping of the pleats into your round shape and learning how to adjust your tension of your stitches as you move on outward to the edge of the circle. The stitches closest to the center of the circle will be very tight while those at the edge of the circle are loosest. (Most smocking design plates for bishops have been designed especially to help with this loosening of tension with the very tight stitches of the outline or cable stitches at the top down to the loose trellises at the bottom.)

Do I have to change all of my needles when one goes bad, bends or breaks if I am only pleating chiffon and organza and charmeuse.

Not necessarily. To be certain take the needles out of your pleater and compare them to one another to see which ones are out of shape. They all should line up spoon shape in a row. If one is bent in either the tip or the bowl curve of the needle you will immediately see it and you should toss it out as it will mess up your pleating.

Chiffon and organza are both fun fabrics to pleat as they go fast. Charmeuse is more dense (depending upon the weight or mm (12mm is thinner than 18mm the standard). If you are using crepe back satin charmeuse (yum) then it is to be considered a denser fabric and handled with a bit more attention by clearing it off your needles every 4th turn of the pleater. To allow any dense fabric to build up on your needles is asking for trouble as it puts stress on your pleater.

What is an angel wing sleeve?

Angel wings is the terms for those ruffled sleeve caps you see on a sleeveless bishop or basic square yoke dress. It is made by adding a small piece of gathered fabric that is curved on the edge to form a ruffle at the sleeve cap. It's called an angel wing because it looks like a wing. Here is an example of an angel sleeve from one of my daughter's bishop dresses. As per the pattern directions I finished off the sleeve with entredeux attached to a small scalloped swiss edging.

What other types of needle arts are compatible with smocking?

The most compatible types of needlearts to add to your smocking are crewel embroidery stitches to form flowers and leaves (except the satin stitch which doesn't translate to pleated fabric all that well - we use the stacked cable for solid patches of color), Brazilian Embroidery for flowers and bugs and Silk Ribbon Embroidery for floral touches. Madeira applique, shadowwork embroidery, and heirloom sewing touches are favorites with the designers of patterns we carry. These techniques are like icing on the cake.

Madeira applique is often seen on hemlines, adding an alternate color to an otherwise white dress. Shadow work can also be used on hemlines or on bodices and collars. The all time favorite heirloom sewing category combined with smocking add the use of delicate cotton fabrics to add tucks, entredeux and lace edgings and insertions. Some of designers who use these techniques are Wendy Schoen, Old Fashioned Baby, Chery Williams, Kay Guiles, Ginger Snaps Designs and Pat Garretson

When do I take out my pleating threads?

Pleating threads are most important for holding the un-embroidered pleats to one another and shouldn't be taken out until the pleats are contained within seams. Always follow the directions of the pattern you are working with but usually when you have sewn the pleated front to your yoke you can safely take out the pleating threads. This sewing step is always completed after blocking.

What is blocking?

Blocking (or steaming into place) is the same thing you would do to a sweater after kniting as everyone’s tension in forming the stitches is different. With smocking you block before and after working the smocking.

How do I block?

Blocking is the process of measuring & pinning your pleated fabric onto a padded surface while matching the measurement of where it is to fit to and then steaming the pleats into place. (If you are making a basic square yoke dress this measurement will be the yoke the pleated piece is to fit onto.) Blocking is recommended at the before you smock as well as when you are finished smocking. I’ve found that blocking your piece into shape before smocking helps keep the shape after smocking as then I know how to gauge my tension of the stitches while I embroidered.

Pin your pleated piece onto an ironing board matching either the pattern piece or a tape measure. Mark this measurement in your notebook or notes onto your pattern as this the measurement you will be blocking onto your finished smocked piece. Usually our smocking pulls in the pleats but it can easily be slightly stretched and steamed into place without the smocking looking distorted. The process includes:

  • Pinning down one side and tying off the threads in pairs using square knots (easier to untie).
  • Tighten the pleated piece to the shape you want and then tie off the last side and pin so the piece doesn’t shift.
  • Comb the pleats into a uniform shape (with your fingernails) of the piece you are pleating so that they are even.
  • Steam it into place with a steam iron, a good 2 minutes of steam.
  • Allow to dry in place.
Steaming the pleats before smocking will help keep the size of the insert even while smocking. The steam sets the threads in the fabric to retain their shape. Some people like to starch their pleats but I find that it drags against my needle while smocking.

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