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English smocking

Traditional English smocking, as seen in farming smocks, is created with a series of fine gathers over which embroidery stitches are worked, before the preparatory gathering stitches are removed.

Material and Design Notes

  • There are many different stitches that can be used for English Smocking such as cable, herringbone and trellis, but the basic preparatory technique is the same.
  • An evenly woven fabric such as linen or cotton is easiest to use. It will hold the gathers nicely, and it should be worked on the straight grain only.
  • The embroidery thread used should be a high-twist cotton or linen, such as perle; stranded cotton (floss) may get too fluffy and snap.

Prepare the fabric

Unless you are working on a squared fabric, such as gingham, you will need to make the markings for the gathering stitches on the reverse of the fabric, with each dot 5 mm (¼ in) apart and each row 5 mm (¼ in) apart. This can be done in several ways.

  • Method 1 : Use a ruler and marking pen or pencil to mark rows of dots,
  • Method 2 : Use smocking dot iron-on transfers if available.
  • Method 3 : Use a template made in fine plastic or light card with holes punched in.
  • Method 4 : Use squared paper, punched through to make pencil marks onto the fabric.

Basic method

For the sample Spot Honeycomb has been used. This is one of the most contemporary-looking and relatively simple variations and it creates a nice stretchy fabric. The size and depth of the folds will depend on the size of the gathering you create to start with and this sample is worked with 5 mm (¼ in) spacing. The gathering and smocking takes up about two-thirds of the fabric.

1). Use a new thread for each row of stitching and knot firmly at the start. Go in at the first dot and out at the next, creating even running stitch across the fabric. Repeat on all the rows.

 English smocking A

2). Pull up the threads gently and slide the gathers along the fabric, gathering up quite tightly, but not so much that you can’t get the needle in to make the stitches.

English smocking B

3). When all the threads are pulled up evenly, wrap loose thread around holding pins or sew in the gathering threads and trim the excess. These hold the gathers firm until you have completed the smocking stitches (they will be removed later). Steam the piece to help set the gathers.

English smocking C

4). Spot honeycomb smocking is worked from the top left, and two rows are worked at the same time. Work two small backstitches over the first pair of tubes, catching them together just near the surface and pulling them firmly.

English smocking D

5). Push the needle diagonally down the second tube to come out on the line of the gathering stitches. Make another pair of backstitches to hold those tubes together. Then push the needle back up the right-hand tube to the next pair of tubes and continue to the end of the row.

English smocking E

6). For the second row, you may find it easier to turn the work upside down and work left to right again, rather than right to left.

7). Continue until the whole piece is smocked, then carefully unpick the gathering threads to allow the smocking to expand.

English smocking F

Note : A hand-crank machine called a Princess Pleater can also be used to pre-gather and stitch fabric – it contains many needles which automatically make the stitching for you, but takes a long time to set up and only works with fine fabrics. This type of machine is hard to acquire and it is expensive.

English smocking G

English smocking H

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Ruth Singer