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.
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.
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.
Click to read part two about Smocking Techniques
To learn more about smocking and manipulating fabrics, take a look at these books: