While it is hard to imagine the world of fabrics and clothing without elastic materials, the truth is that they are a fairly recent development. Stretch fabrics only became common in the 1990s, functionally 30 years ago. On the other hand, clothes have existed for almost as long as we have. So the role of elastics in our history is almost a footnote.
However, just because stretch fabrics themselves are new, it doesn’t mean that there haven’t been countless attempts to make fabric stretchable to a degree. And one of the most important inventions in that sense is smocking. This traditional embroidery technique changed the way people looked at clothing back in the day, and still has a lot of lessons to teach us even now. So today we’ll take a comprehensive look at the world of smocking. From its conception to its modern uses and its recurring influence across the time.
Smocking is an embroidery technique developed in England during the Middle Ages. While there isn’t a commonly agreed date for the proper invention of smocking, the technique has at least a thousand years of history and became progressively more popular until the 19th century; where the changing work environment resulted in the garments which relied on smocking to lose popularity.
At its core, the smocking process is incredibly straightforward. A large portion of the fabric is gathered before being assembled, usually gathered to one-third of its original length. This gathered fabric is then stitched and eventually cut and sewn onto its proper place in a dress or shirt. The gathered fabric is known for it’s “cuff” look, a result of its reduced length.
What’s The Point Of Smocking Fabric?
The main purpose of smocking fabric is to provide the material a way to stretch. As we mentioned above elastic fabrics are ultimately a modern invention, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a need for stretchy materials before. Without elastic fabrics seamstress and the general population found themselves dumbfounded on how they could make loose clothes without being unwieldy or too large.
Smocking was the solution to this issue. Since the material was gathered into itself this meant that it had “give”, allowing it to stretch even if it wasn’t a natural trait of the fabric. The stitches on the other hand were usually designed to give enough room to the fabric to stretch, or to be easily removed if it was needed. This meant that clothing that used smocking was able to stretch way before the advent of elastics, and this is the reason why the technique became so common back in the day.
What Was Smocking Used For?
While most embroidery techniques were known for their visual appeal and were often developed purely for fashion and as a status symbol, smocking stood out for its completely practical role from it’s conception. Smocking solved a simple issue, the lack of give in clothing. And this issue was mostly relevant for the working class.
The combination of loose parts and the resulting stretch in clothes that relied on smocking meant that they made great work clothes. Smock became synonymous with workers and their looks. The loose clothes could be worn on top of their regular attire and provided a way for workers to protect their normal clothes while avoiding restrictive clothes that would hinder their range of motion. Farmers, manual workers, and even officers of the law came to adopt smocking as one of their greatest allies. In a sense, smocking predated the modern notion of work aprons and managed to be such an enduring technique due to its practical value on all levels of society.
Smocking was also used in largely the same way modern cuffs are. When a design needed to avoid buttons for either design or comfort, smocking was used instead. The smocked fabric could be used in cuffs, necklines, or even bodices to provide an easy way to wear clothes without needing lace, buttons, or any other fastening method.
Where Does The Name Smocking Come From?
The name smocking comes from the worker clothes of the time, the smock-frock. Since the technique that eventually came to be known as smocking was more commonly used for working clothes it became associated with them. As such the technique was eventually dubbed smocking since it was used to turn fabrics into smock frocks.
However, it’s important to note that smock-frock is also a derived term itself. Smock was the old name given to a chemise, an undergarment in the shape of a modern shirt. While frock was the name given to coats that were worn on the outside. Since the traditional smock-frock was ultimately an outer layer of clothing it got the frock moniker, but its loose look made it similar to undergarments like smocks, hence the combined name.
Is Smocking Still In Use?
Smocking largely fell out of favor in the 19th century when it stopped being practical. Workers began to move from the countryside to cities, to work in factories and other mechanical industries. Sadly smock jocks simply became impractical in these conditions. Overly loose fabrics represented a risk in early factories as they ran the risk of getting stuck in certain machinery. And all the layers of clothing could become too hot to bear in a factory.
The advent of elastics ultimately cemented the departure of smocking. Since elastics stretch naturally there’s no real need to use smocking to provide stretch, and the technique has mostly been dropped outside of hobby circles. Smocking remains alive through the efforts of Embroidery Guilds, while modern fashion uses what we call faux-smocking: A cuff that resembles the traditional look of a smock, but uses elastics instead of stitches.
How To Smock A Fabric?
The first thing to keep in mind when it comes to smocking is that every fabric must be worked on before assembly. The first thing that needs to be done is to gather the fabric, as this is what will allow it to “stretch”. Usually, the fabric is gathered until it’s been reduced to one-third of its original length, but for thick fabrics, it might be a good idea not to gather it as much; if anything so that it’s easy to handle and stitch.
Once the fabric has been properly gathered and folded in the desired way it becomes time to mark the smocking dots. These dots will become the guideline to stitch the fabric and as such should be marked on the wrong side of the fabric. Once the marks are done a running stitch will be used to cover the bulk of the marks, and then the top and bottom of the fabric are stabilized with cable stitches.
The purpose of the running stitch is to work like basting stitches. They can be easily removed as needed and might even give in on their own hence the “stretch” that smock is known for. Ultimately the stretch smocking offers are going to feel very different from modern elastics, and it might be a shock at first. First-time smocking aficionados should also understand that the chosen pattern for the smocking dots will define the overall tightness of the final result.
There are over 10 traditional smocking dot patterns, and nothing is stopping you from trying out your own ideas. Those looking for a loose fit with maximum give should look into the Cable Flowerette stitch. This pattern relies on diagonal stitches which gives the fabric more room to move and results in a more “elastic” build.
Different Smocking Techniques?
On top of traditional hand smocking, a few derived techniques have come up throughout history. Nowadays the most common of them is faux-smocking which allows factories to replicate the look of traditional smocking while relying on elastic fabrics instead of complex stitching patterns.
American Smocking is a more ornate craft that focuses on form over function. While it also gathers fabric it’s mostly used for the elaboration of complex patterns, instead of providing any stretch. This technique is mostly used for pillow casings and furniture.
Certain people refer to the modern style of decorative smocking as English Smocking. While smocking has always been English to begin with, this term usually refers to smocking used purely for visual appeal. The focus lies in combining fabrics with the stitch design itself to create elaborate patterns. Unlike traditional smocking, this technique isn’t commonly used for clothing, instead of being used for accessories and other decorative items.
What Fabrics Are Commonly Used For Smocking?
Since smocking relies on gathering fabric it demands the use of lightweight fibers that can be used in larger quantities without becoming too heavy and unwieldy. Cotton and Silk are the most common fibers used in its elaboration. When it comes to fabric picks Lawn, Voile, Crepe, Cashmere, and Piqué are the most common picks, though any fabric that is light enough has the potential to be used in smocking.
On top of the weight, another important consideration is the way the fabric folds. Since the fabric has to be folded into pleats a fabric that has trouble folding will become almost impossible to stitch. Similarly, a fabric that is so thin that it loses shape will likely result in an uneven look for the cuffs, which takes away from the visual appeal of the technique.
I’m a stay at home mom with our two kids. I really enjoy doing crafts with my kids however, that is typically a challenge with how limited their attention span can be and how messy it gets. So, I’m always looking for ways to make crafting an enjoyable experience and creating fond memory for all of us.