About smocking (call me a pedant, but….)

I recently started a facebook page for my smocked dresses and have faced the dilemma of pricing my work fairly.  I don’t want to overprice my dresses but do want a fair price for the hours of work and detail involved.  It occurred to me that my prices might seem high to those who are not aware of the extra work that goes in to a smocked dress.  I thought I would explain how smocking works and the difference between smocking and shirring.

I often use the term hand-smocking but this is a tautology.  All true smocking is stitched by hand.  However clothes are sometimes described as “smocked” or “machine-smocked” when they are in fact shirred.  Shirring is a handy technique used (like smocking) to control fullness and add stretch to a garment.  Parallel rows of gathers are stitched – usually by machine, often with elastic thread.  Machine embroidery can then be added on top.  The gathering threads are left in place in the finished garment.  Shirring can be a very pretty technique – I have seen some lovely examples –  but it is not smocking.  I could be accused of pedantry here, but I think it is important before you buy a dress to be clear what you are paying for.

Smocking comes in two flavours – English, or Traditional and Counterchange.  In counterchange smocking pleats are added to the fabric as it is stitched – the folds themselves forming the design, often a repeating geometric pattern.  The effect is very eye-catching and I am definitely going to give it a try one of these days!

For the moment I am sticking to English Smocking.  In this type of smocking the pleats are put in first with even rows of tiny running stitches.  Pleating can be done by hand (very painstaking!) or with a pleater– a hand-turned machine with a row of needles that can put in several rows at once.

The pleats are then blocked: drawn up to the required length, tied off and steamed or starched, ready for smocking.

Smocking is a form of hand-embroidery worked on the pleated fabric.  The stitches pick up only the top third of each pleat – this is enough to hold the pleats in place after the gathering threads are removed and to give elasticity to the smocked piece.  This is why smocking cannot be done on a machine – the pretty pleats would be flattened and the elasticity lost.  There are many smocking stitches – here are a few examples:

red, orange, yellow and green rows – cable stitch; light blue – double feather stitch; dark blue – half space cable-wave; purple – half space cable-wave and trellis stitch

the top rows are cable stitch and the bottom rows are double Van- Dyke stitch

After smocking, all but the top and bottom pleating threads are removed (the top and bottom are the holding rows, these are removed later) and the piece is blocked again.  Now surface embroidery (often floral motifs) can be added.  These stitches have no elasticity and so are added once the piece is blocked to its final size and shape.

this piece has bullion stitch roses and buds, French knot buds and leaves in detatched chain stitch

the surface embroidery here is bullion stitch daisies

Phew!  The piece is ready to be made into a dress.  You can appreciate the hours it takes to produce a quality smocked item.

Here is my latest creation: a little baby bishop dress smocked in Van-Dyke stitch hearts – and matching bloomers to boot!


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