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Smocking as Embellishment

The smocking we are familiar with today can often be seen on infant and childrenís clothing and at times on lingerie. There are many historical example of smocking embellishments evident in paintings, sculpture, and carvings from the Renaissance Era. Contemporary smocking can be done by careful hand as in times past or by machine with modern speed and accuracy.

In English or Geometric smocking the pleating of the fabric is created first and then linear and geometric embroidery stitches are done over the pleating.
American smocking (now somewhat out of style) used iron-on transfers of pairs of dots that would then be stitched dot-to-dot forming a pattern that produced a smocking design and pleats at the same time.

Counterchange smocking evolved from bringing together the checks of gingham, striped or dotted fabric to produce interesting pleated patterns from the fabricís dominant and secondary colors.

Lattice smocking is worked on the backside of fabric that creates interlocking folds or plaits on the front of the fabric. This technique is sometimes seen on velvet pillow fronts and produces an interesting textural embellishment.

Picture smocking produces designs or recognizable forms over tightly formed pleats.

Continental smocking is heavily embroidered covering much of the pleating.
Grid smocking or Italian shirring form symmetrical patterns with the pleating usually without embroidery over the pleating.

Fabric can be purchased pre-pleated to be ready for embroidery or by using any of several pleating methods. A pleater machine quickly makes pleats in the fabric however these machines can be costly; commercial patterns still do come with an iron-on dot transfers to pleat by hand; without a dot transfer, hand stitch even horizontal rows of running stitches placed about 1/2" apart, then pull of the threads to gather the fabric into neat vertical pleats; machine stitch several horizontal rows of a long length basting stitch and then pull the bobbin threads to produce the even gathers.

Of course, a sewing machine can be used create the look of hand smocking by first pleating the fabric in preparation to add the decorative embroidery-like overlay. One easy way is to stitch several parallel rows of long straight machine stitches on the fabric then pull up the bobbin threads on the underside to create the tiny gathers. Then, machine sew several parallel rows of any decorative stitches across the surface of the gathers. Most sewing machines today have a variety of decorative stitches to choose from.

Some sewing machines have an optional presser foot known as a gathering foot or the more robust ruffler foot. It might be a challenge to determine the right stitch using either of these specialty presser feet but may be worth the sewerís time to learn. A test on a fabric scrap of how long the initial gathering stitches should be to form the pleats and what decorative stitches would then applied is best to determine the right combination.

Stripes and checked gingham fabrics are by far the easiest of all fabrics to pleat by hand as the uniform vertical and or horizontal rows take any guess work out of making reliable uniform stitches. The pleats form evenly when gathered allowing for adding the desired embroidery details over the pleats to form a consistent, recognizable pattern. Allow for fabric that is about three times the width amount of the pattern section that will be used for pleating.

There are seventeen basic smocking stitches but most common are the outline and stem stitch, the trellis stitch, wave, double wave, diamond stitch, wheat and cable stitch. There are many, many other unique and interesting smocking stitches to choose from that will add interest and dimension to a sewing project.

Simple Smocking Techniques can be found on

Smocking Arts Guild of America (SAGA) has a PDF glossary of smocking terms.

Sew happy, sew inspired.

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Content copyright © 2018 by Cheryl Ellex. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Cheryl Ellex. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Cheryl Ellex for details.


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