Smocking is an embroidery technique used to gather fabric so that it can stretch. Before elastic, smocking was commonly used in cuffs, bodices, and necklines in garments where buttons were undesirable. Smocking developed in England and has been practiced since the Middle Ages and is unusual among embroidery methods in that laborers often wore it. Other major embroidery styles are purely decorative and represented status symbols. Smocking was practical for garments to be both form fitting and flexible, hence its name derives from smock — a farmer’s work shirt. Smocking was used most extensively in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Smocking requires lightweight fabric with a stable weave that gathers well. Knitted fabric is unsuitable. Cotton and silk are typical fiber choices, often in lawn or voile. Smocking is worked on a crewel embroidery needle in cotton or silk thread and normally requires three times the width of initial material, as the finished item will have. Historically, smocking was also worked in pique, crepe de Chine, and cashmere. According to Good Housekeeping: The Illustrated Book of Needlecrafts, “Any type of fabric can be smocked if it is supple enough to be gathered.”
Marking equipment is also necessary unless the fabric is pre-printed in a polka dot pattern. One option is a smocking-dot transfer, which is an iron on transfer that places evenly spaced dots onto fabric. Some embroiderers make their own guides using cardboard and an embroidery marking pencil.
Typically, variations are done as an art form on clothing or on fabric, which is mounted in picture, frames for hanging on the wall.
- English smocking is an historic technique of sewing the embroidery over pleats already sewn into the fabric.
- North American smocking is an alternate technique in which the pleats are gathered and formed in the fabric by the smocking stitch work itself.
- Lattice smocking involves stitching from the backside of the fabric, creating unique effects in the pleats and appearance, and is particularly good for heavier fabrics like velvet.