Smocking is one of those heirloom sewing techniques that has always fascinated me. Not only it is a beautiful and unique way to embellish fabric, but it also allows the creator to manipulate and control the shape of the fabric through pleating. While there are several variations on the technique, essentially, fabric is pleated and embroidery stitches are used to hold the pleats in place, typically creating a decorative design in the process. It is frequently used on garment sleeves, yokes and bodices to draw in excess fabric in those areas while still allowing the fabric to stretch.
|This Bottega Veneta dress is from the Spring 2007 collection and is a beautiful illustration of how smocking can transform fabric.|
While the exact origin of the smocking tradition is unknown, it is hypothesized that it may have been used as far back as the Middle Ages. The creation of smocked garments during the European Renaissance (14th - 17th centuries) however, is definitively confirmed by their frequent depiction in artwork of the time. It appears to have been especially popular in Germany and Italy, for that is where I have seen it represented most frequently.
According to Dictionary.com, the term "smocking" as we call it today, did not originate until sometime between 1885 and 1890 even though the technique was obviously widely used much earlier. I was not able to ascertain what smocking was actually called during the earlier time periods in Europe, so that is a bit of a mystery.
|This early 16th century painting by German Renaissance artist Hans Holbein depicts wealthy merchant Jakob Meyer in 1516. If you look at his chemise, you can see the smocking used around the neckline to shape it. A larger resolution image can be viewed at Wikimedia Commons.|
|Also by Holbein is a portrait of Jakob's wife, Dorothea Kannengießer painted at the same time. This image shows more elaborate smocking used to decorate the top of her chemise. Again, a larger resolution image can be viewed at Wikimedia Commons. Be sure to enlarge the painting to really see the detail. It is quite extraordinary.|
Smocking continued to be widely used through the centuries, becoming especially popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. I would imagine that this is because not only can it be beautifully decorative, but because of its inherent elastic nature. The way the pleats are sewn together allow them to stretch apart and draw back in to retain their shape, making it very useful in garment construction in the early days before the invention of modern elastic.
|This portrait of a young girl dated to 1840 shows how smocking was used to shape the bodice of her gown.|
To learn more about smocking and manipulating fabrics, take a look at these books: