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!


a bunch of bishops – how a bishop dress works

Spring is well under way which means I have been neglecting this blog in favour of frantic digging, sowing, weeding, shed building, rain-dodging and general catching up on our allotment.  Time now for a tiny breather, phew!  The sewing room has also been a hive of activity as I have been making sample bishop dresses to take along to a vintage pram fair.  I thought I’d take five minutes to explain how bishop dresses are constructed.

bishop dress front

Bishops are very simple – consisting of five pieces: 1 front, 2 sleeves and 2 back.  These are stitched together at the sleeves before pleating.

bishop dress sleeves

bishop back

bishop dress ready for pleating



















Pleating can be done by hand, but a pleating machine is much quicker and gives a more even result.  This machine gathers the fabric with rows of tiny running stitches.

running the dress through my pleater

the pleated fabric













Before and after smocking the dress must be blocked.  For a bishop this means fanning out the pleats in a circle to match the neckline of the garment using a guide, then setting the pleats by starching and steaming them.  The image is of a baby dress being blocked after smocking:

Once hand-smocking is completed and the dress has been blocked again it is completed by finishing the neckline, side-seams, button bands and hem.

I made two baby bishops in matching pink and blue butterfly fabric:







However the dress of which I am most proud is a christening or naming gown, smocked in ivory silk on silk dupion fabric with bullion stitch roses and pin tucks at the hem:

Chasing Rainbows

It has been a busy week in the Smockerybee hive.  A little friend turned two this week and the party was on Saturday.  I decided weeks ago to make a dress for a present, and was perfectly on schedule to finish it in time until illness put me in bed for a week.  Since I recovered I have been racing to catch up, and managed to finish the dress on Thursday with a day to spare – phew!

Both Littlebees were very excited about the party, and determined to wear their new dresses (pictured in my last post).  The party was lovely and I am pleased to say that the dresses withstood a bouncy castle, a disco, lots of twirling and birthday cake!

For the birthday girl, inspired by the pretty multi-coloured polka-dots on the fabric, I decided to go for a bold, geometric pattern in rainbow colours.

I picked up the dark blue in the piping:

The finished dress has a generous hem to allow for growth and a button-belt that can be adjusted as needed (I prefer a short belt to a long sash or bow which can get in the way of play).

I hope the birthday girl likes it!


Oh, dear…It is a fearfully long time since my last post.  Apart from for the last couple of weeks when I have been ill (much better now), I have no excuse for this.  All my good intentions for a new year’s blogging seem to have melted with the snow.  So let’s start again:  A very Happy New Year to you all!

In contrast to my on-line inactivity I have been very busy stitching.  Since my last post I have completed three dresses: A little baby bishop dress for a friend, and a dress each for my Littlebees.

The bishop dress is for a friend who collects and restores vintage prams.  It is for a doll to wear when she displays the prams at shows.  It is newborn size, smocked with variations on feather stitch – a new one for me.


I promised the littlebees a new dress this year and let them each choose from my fabric stash.  Big Littlebee picked a bold colourful print and Small Littlebee a delicate vintage-style print on pink.  I decided to thread the smocking with ribbon again, and used surface embroidery – bullion stitch daisies on the bolder print and roses on the pink.

With two eager girls cracking the whip it didn’t take me too long to make up the dresses and the girls are thrilled: “You’re the best mummy in the world!”.  All the endorsement I’ll ever need.

Ooh, Sparkly!

Hello!  It’s been a while since my last post.  I have been occupied drafting dress patterns and making master copies of them- a job I have been putting off for months so it feels good to put it behind me.  Now I can get on with making stuff!

October was a busy month – both littlebees came down with chicken pox so we were housebound for some of it.  Fortunately for me, though, my lovely worker bee had some time off and took over at home, allowing me to spend a few days with my mum doing grown-up stuff.  We had a spa day (wonderful!) and a trip to the ballet, and I had time to get on with a smocking project I have had on the back burner.

A while ago at a craft fair I fell in love with this slightly sparkly tartan, perfect for a little winter party dress:If you are a smocker you will know that tartans can be a pain to pleat – you have to be extra careful to get it straight or the whole thing looks crooked.  I think I did o.k. for a first attempt:Once pleated, however, the pattern is a useful guide for keeping the rows of smocking straight.  I wanted the smocking to look festive without being too obviously Christmassy (no stockings or Santas!).  This is my first attempt at ribbon weaving – I couldn’t resist the sparkly green ribbon!When the panel is fully blocked to size and the dress made up I will re-tie the bow more neatly, but you can get the idea from the picture (click on it to enlarge).

Watch this space for the finished dress!