* decoration smocking

Decorations: Smocking

Figure 1.--The use of smocking is most associated natuarally enough with smocks. It is also employed on blouses, dresses, nightshirts, as well as a variety of other garments. This included both girls and boys garments. This looks to be a young English boys' smock. Click on the image for more details.

Smocking today is generally associated with the English in the 19th century, although clothing historians believe it has much more ancient origins and was worn in many European countries. Smocking is basically embroidery on pleats. The material has to be pleated before smocking. It is a handicraft, some would say an art form that has been passed down through generations. Smocking is associated today with smocks, both adults and children in the 19th century wore smocked with decorative smocking. Smocking despite the clear reference to the smock garment can be done on all kinds of fabric for a wide variety of uses, such as curtains, upholstery, and much more. Of course our interest in HBC is with smocking on clothing. The primary garment here of course has been the smock, but modern smocking can be used for dresses and a variety of outfits for younger boys as well. It is especially popular for shortalls in America.


Soocking is adecirative element on a garment created by gathering a section of the material into tight pleats and holding them together with parallel stitches in an ornamental pattern. It was widely bused before elastic was developed as a way bo vexpanding the fit of a garment. Thus there was both a practical and decorative factor involved here.


Smocking can be seen in many historical periods in different forms. Smocking can be traced back several centuries. Smocking was clearly popular in during the Renaissance in Europe. Many paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries show men and women wearing smocked garments. It appears to have been particularly popular in Italy and Germany. Smocking was used on men's' shirts and women's chemises. This was an adult style and at any rate specialized children's clothes did not exist at the time. The term smocking, or related words in continental languages, did not exist at the time. One smocking expert, Beth-Katherine Kaiman, believes that, "Italian Shirring, which has it's roots in the basic running stitch, in my opinion is a form of smocking all dressed up." The modern term is obviously derived from the smock as. The smock is a large shirt or over garment with the fullness controlled by pleats. Embroidery was used to decorate these pleats and this decorative embroidery this became known as smocking. Ilm not sure when the term was first used, perhaps the late 18th century, but it was widely used by the early 19th century, especially in England. We notice the term 'smocking' was not widely used until the turn-of the 20th cenury. We stress this is when the term was used, actually smocking dates back far before that.


Smocking came to be primarily decorative, but evolved out of a practical sewing technique. The principal purpose of smocking is the practical one of holding pleats together, but in a decorative way. Smocking can vary greatly. Some early smocking was a subtle play of light and dark on fabric. Modern smocking is more likely to be brightly colored decorations. The use of smocking as a decorative embroidery can be easily traced to the 15th century. Albrecht Durer's Self Portrait (German) shows a smocked shirt, and the Mona Lisa (Italian) has a smocked chemise. The use of needlework to control fullness is a very old technique.


Smocking is most associated today with little girls. Even when it was more common for boys to wear smocks in the late 19th and early 20 century, they were often not decorated with smocking. This was because the smock was seen as a utilitarian garment and thus was not commonly decorated with expensive and time consuming smocking. Some adoring mother, however, did use smocking to decorate their sons' smocks. Other garments like rompers also had smocking. And this has not disappeared today. Kaiman advises, "The main thing to remember is that if you catch them soon enough little boys like pretty things as much as little girls, and to be certain not to dissuade them from expressing their likes and dislikes. I know that at a certain age at school all the other boys will get on your son about his clothing if he's wearing something different than T-shirts and jeans, peer pressure is more strong on boys than girls at age 6 or 7, but you can safely dress him with smocking until then. After that it's pjs."


The use of smocking is most associated naturally enough with smocks. This is probably because it was at first widly employed on smocks. But smocls were not the only garment. Somocking is also commonly also employed on blouses, dresses, nightshirts, shortalls, as well as a variety of other garments. This included both girls and boys garments.


Smocking was most extensively employed in the 19th and early 20th century. One reason is that smocking is a complicated process. It can not be easily used in mass produced clothing. The cost and complication has thus made smocking a relatively rare decorative device in modern clothing. Even so, smocking has not entirely disappeared in our modern world. And usage of the term is still quite common, although it has varied in the 20th and early-21st century.

Children's Literature

Smocking and smocks can be seen in many illustrations for children's literature. This is especially true of late 19th and early 20th century books. There are many such illustrators who were noted for their illustrations of children in smocks, although because of the size of the illustrations, the smocking does not always show in detail in the illustrations. The most famous illustration is of course Kate Green away. There were many others. Some of the illustrators included Cicely Mary Barker, Henriette Willebeek Le Mair, and Blanche Fisher Wright. These illustrators loved to depict children romping innocently in smocks. They projected an innocent, nostalgic image of "old fashioned" country of late 18th early 19th century English country life. The idealized scenes projected perhaps never actually were, but it is what the public wanted to imagine--simpler, innocent times. that people wanted to pretend existed. And what could be more innocent than little boy and girls in smocks and other gaily colored garment dancing around the may pole or romping in the country.


We notice some portraits of children wearing smocking with blouses, rompers, smocks, and dresses. Often the children were wearing their best or fanciest garments. Thus we have an idea as to what these garments look like. We have less of an idea how smocking was used in ordinary garments. Children did not often have their portraits taken in these ordinary garments.

Sewing techniques

Smocking looks harder than it is to do. Nowadays we work on smocking with pre-pleated fabric, rather than making the pleats with your stitches. The first step is to look at your pleated piece and know that the gathering threads (pleating threads) are now called the rows. These are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.. Usually pleats are made in even number of rows for ease in tying off. The threads are usually tied off in pairs. The rows can be made with hand gathering). The pleats are actually tied off tighter and blocked to the size recommended by your pattern.

Once the blocking process is finished you are ready to smock but before you do, one expert suggests making a mental adjustment and start thinking of the pleating threads as row makers (sort of like home base with your pattern smocking). There are a couple of things to remember to do before beginning the smocking to keep your smocking stitches even and smooth.
First : The needle is most always kept parallel to the pleating thread (your row marker).
Second : Place your needle into the pleat just above the row thread and when pull your floss through keep it parallel against the pleats tugging flat down or up according to the placement of the thread. Some of the stitches are smocked just along the row and by using the row thread as your guide it keeps your smocking straight and even, while other stitches are worked between the rows on the half and quarter spaces. I will explain dividing the space between rows when we get to the wave stitch.

Country Trends

The popularity of smocking has varied considerably from country to country. England and and France are countries of special importance.


We have noted smocking described in American fashion and sewing magazines as early as the 1920s. We have no information before this period,


Smocking has a long history, but as modern sewing technique may have originated in England along with the popularity of the smock as a working garment for farm laborers and workman. The etymology of the word and its use on the continent suggests an English origin. So many clothing terms are French, in this case, words with 'smock' as an origin have appeared in Old English and Old Norse (smoc, smuĆ¼gan, and smjuga). Norse words entered Engkisg as a resukt of the Viking invasions and resulting Norse (Dane) settlement. We have no actual evidence of smocking before the 9tth century, but suspect it was common. Eith invention of photography we do have evidence beginning with the mid 19th century. A good example is the smocking on the dresses worn by two unidentified Chester boys, we think in the 1880s.


Rompers are on of the garments on which both smocking and are embroidery are used for trim or decoration. The other garments are blouses, smocks, and dresses. Embroidery and or smocking can be used on both one piece rompers and the blouses worn with romper bottom bottoms, such as suspender rompers and button-on rompers. Smocking and embroidery can be used in combination or separately. The smocking is generally used on the upper front of the garment. Embroidery can be used in many different places.


Smocks were not as common in Germany as they were in France. Younger boys did wearthem. We have not noted some decorative emboidery, but we have not noted smocking being used to any extent in German boys' clothes.


We know that smocking has been extensively used in Italian clothing. Many images exist of smocking exist in Renaissance painting. Italian shirring is a form of smocking. We do not yet have detailed information on smocking in Italian boys clothing. We believe that smocking has been used, but our information is so limited that we can not yet be sure.


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Created: November 3, 2001
Spell checked: August 18, 2002
Last updated: 5:29 PM 8/20/2020