Smocking FAQ's Click on the Catalog of Products button above to see all that we carry
Written by Beth-Katherine Kaiman, owner of Garden Fairies
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
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.
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.
Iron-On Smocking Dots
- $6.00 per package of two 24" x 36" sheets.
Two styles and two colors: (Regular spacing and Pleater
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
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.
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.
For more smocking designs go to our Smocking
Plate Designers Page
How do I insert a piece of pleated fabric into
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
<< 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
Ellen McCarn On English Smocking -OR- Adapting a Commercial Pattern for the Smocked Insert
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:
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.
... 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.
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.
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.
What is the best thread and needle to baste
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.
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
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
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:
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.
- 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.
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