English Smocking

It’s been fascinating recently seeing smocking pop up in my Instagram feed. It feels like there’s been a flurry of new interest in this old technique recently.

Traditional English smocking has a very fine history from farming smocks of the mid-19th century to to Aesthetic Liberty gowns of the late 19th century as well as a revival in the 1970s.

I first experimented with traditional English smocking for my book Fabric Manipulation, and of course, being me, did quite a bit of research too. With most of my textile history research, my focus is on learning the technique, seeing historical examples and then experimenting to understand it myself. I love to then break the rules, try new approaches and see where the technique takes me. A few years ago I was involved in an academic research project to explore how smocking might be revived in contemporary practice, could it be mechanised, how could it be adapted to make it easier. It was fascinating.

I used smocked fabric to create these two experimental pieces in concrete during my collaboration with Bethany Walker which remain some of my favourite works we created. We went on to use the ideas from this to create Urban Growth with a group of young people.

—————————————————–

A short history of smocking

Smocking, like so many textile techniques, has a rather secretive history. From what I can find out, the technique of smocking is often confused with the garment called a smock. For centuries, women’s main undergarment was a nightdress-like linen smock, which could be decorated, were she wealthy enough, but often was not, and there’s not much evidence of this garment being decorated with actual smocking. There are a number of Tudor portraits which appear to show smocking on smocks necks and cuffs but it is impossible to say for sure if they really are made by smocking – which is a decorative stitching on top of previously pleated or gathered fabric.

This Spanish child’s smock, dating somewhere between 1700-1800 has what looks like proto-smocking; gathers overstitched with black thread for decorative effect. The garment most commonly called a smock nowadays used to be called a smock frock, which sort-of helps distinguish it. This practical, although decorated, garment developed during the 18th century as a protective, enveloping apron-like shirt worn by manual and agricultural workers to keep their clothes clean. It may well have developed from the voluminous, washable, linen undergarments that men and women continued to wear to keep their outer clothes clean from body odour and sweat.

Smock-frocks as we know them now, are made from rectangular pieces of cloth (no curves so no fabric waste) with gathering to create shape. Gathering pulls in the fabric which is then released below, to create an easy-to-wear and practical smock. Smocking itself allows the fabric to stretch a little which would also increase wearing comfort. In addition, smocking creates a thick, dense fabric full of small air pockets which act as insulation – a welcome benefit in outdoor work, as well as the protection of thicker layers.

As with many other practical garments, they could be embellished and embroidered. When smocks first began to have decorative stitching is unknown, but those that survive from the early 19th century can be stunning. Of course, the finest ones that were looked after are the ones that survive, and the every day ones, worn out and threadbare, would have been recycled rather than preserved, so we tend to see only the best examples.

By the end of the 19th century, the smock was out of favour – many agricultural workers having had to move to cities and work in factories, for which a flowing garment was impractical. Just as the farmers’ smock goes out of style, the technique of decorative smocking starts to come intostyle in fashionable circles.

The women of the aesthetic movement (closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites) took to wearing loose-fitting, ‘healthy’ garments which didn’t require the wearing of a corset. The style of flowing and comfortable garments were heavily-influenced by smocks, along with other styles of dress, and it was unsurprising that smocking was also used to create shaping and decorative effects. This velvet example at FIT is stunning.

Smocks were also popular for aesthetic children’s wear, judging by this Liberty of London child’s smock, a fancy silk version of the traditional rural garment. Patterns using the techniques appear in women’s magazines too, such as this smocked bag from a 19th century magazine.

Part-worked smocking on light wool fabric, mid-Twentieth century

In the early 20th century, smocking appears in women’s magazines and sewing manuals on garments, domestic textiles and children’s wear, such as this example from the Women’s Home Companion, 1916. The 1930s and 1940s were the heyday of patterns and innovative stitch development along with some stunning uses of the simplest honeycomb stitch pattern such as this velvet dress by Maggie Rouff. As with many crafts, smocking was revived in the 1970s when such delights as the smocked plunge-neckline swimming costume was created….alongside Victorian-esque party dresses for women and girls, made popular by Laura Ashley. It is also sometimes seen on folk or traditional costume from Europe. This 19th century Russian blouse makes beautiful use of shaped smocking on the cuff.

True smocking is hand stitched, and incredibly time-consuming to prepare. The reverse fabric is marked with regular dots (for which embroidery transfers were produced) or marked with a grid, then regular stitches are made right across the piece to create completely even rows of gathers. The decorative stitches are worked from the front side and can be as simple as honeycomb stitch (my personal favourite) or covered with complex and varied designs.

Faux smocking using shirring elastic came in during the smocking craze in the 1970s, and it is this much-faster technique that became most commonly used for women’s and girl’s dresses, including many of the Laura Ashley classics.

American or Canadian smocking is a different technique altogether. This type of smocking is all worked from the back, with the gathering and decorative pattern-making all rolled up into one. The earliest example of this technique that I have ever seen is on an 18th century French dress, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ruth Singer smocking

Sewing manuals of the 19th and 20th century don’t seem to include reverse / American smocking, so it may be that it was fairly unknown to the amateur sewer, and only occasionally used by the professional. It became very fashionable in the 1930s and 40s and had a renaissance in the 70s.  The most popular use of this technique was on cushions square, bolster and round cushions in synthetic velvet from the 60s and 70s.  There’s no shortage of brilliant patterns for products using American smocking, some of which I have gathered on my Smocking Pinterest board, along with other historic and contemporary forms of smocking.

As English smocking is such a time-consuming technique, it doesn’t seem to be used that much in clothing, but it does sometimes still appear in couture, like this Versace piece, which is glorious at odds with agricultural smocks! If you are intrigued by these gorgeous techniques, please have a look at my book Fabric Manipulation which explains the basic technique. Do join my mailing list to hear about any workshops or online classes in this technique, and also have a look at my Textile Study Space where I share textile technique snippets.

Introducing Textile Study Space

One of the things I have missed during the pandemic is getting together with others in the same room and sharing textile techniques, ideas, seeing samples and threads, textile treasures and books. In 2022 I’m starting to run a lot more online textile workshops but I wanted to also do something more modest and accessible alongside. I wanted a space where I could share my love of textile techniques in a smaller way. From late January I will host a Textile Study Space on Patreon, a subscription site where I will gather and share fragments of textile. There will be mini tutorials, technique ideas, historical examples, pieces from my work, sketchbooks, samples and also from my historical museum of old and usually damaged textiles collection .

I want this space to be low-key and unpressured, somewhere you can explore textiles at your own pace, pick the things that interest you and explore. There’s no fixed outcome, you don’t have to make anything, it’s just there to inspire. There will be very low minimum price per month of subscription but if you find it valuable and can afford a bit more, the amount you pay will be flexible. I hope that will be nice and democratic, allowing textile enthusiasts who love what I do to be part of my creative world without the cost and commitment of other online programmes.

To find out when Textile Study Space opens, sign up to my mailing list here and I’ll let you know. I hope you will join me, I can’t wait to share some of the textile treasures in my studio.

Precious Objects Sampler Workshop

Online creative workshop with Ruth Singer 29th-31st January 2021. £75

Do you have boxes of precious fabric scraps and tiny treasures like buttons and keys? Would you like an excuse to get these out and make something really special from them? This workshop gives you the ideas and inspiration to create your own beautiful and meaningful sampler using your own personal treasures to keep or to gift. You might want to include family heirlooms and antique textiles or broken china and scraps of dishcloths. The idea of this workshop is to create something out of all those tiny bits you cherish but don’t really know what to do with.

Precious objects samplers are as unique as you are – everyone’s choices will be different. You will learn how to create textile backgrounds with scraps and hand embroidery, how to wrap and stitched into tiny objects and how to attach them. We will also look at how to finish your piece ready for display.

This workshop is all about working slowly and thoughtfully so it is timed to run over a whole weekend but you can dip in and out at your own pace

When you join this workshop you can: 
Come along to a live Zoom introduction and meet other participants. Friday 29th January 5pm GMT (one hour) 
Join a Facebook group to share your work and thoughts with others around the world (optional) 
Watch 5 pre-recorded instructional videos from my studio covering:

Exploring meanings and stories in your work 
Planning, choosing and editing your objects and fabrics 
Preparing the backing with scraps and stitches 
Working with tiny objects 
Finishing and attaching

Come back together with the group to show and share your work Sunday 31st January 5pm GMT (one hour)

You can work at your own pace over the weekend and continue for a week or two if you need to. The videos remain accessible for two weeks, as will the Facebook group.

This workshop does NOT include materials. Packs of treasures and vintage fabric scraps are available separately here.

You will need fabrics and tiny treasures as well as threads and sewing kit. More information will be given when you book. Online booking and payment available here. Please contact me if you need to book and pay a different way.

Antique textile repair

Alongside my own original creative work I occasionally get the pleasure of a repair job on an antique textile. I love being able to explore the insides, the seams, the reverse and the construction of the stitches. This is an ecclesiastical stole, still in active church use despite being about 100 years old.

The silk was shredded in the most vulnerable areas which I have covered in fine nylon tulle. Working from the back I repaired the damaged embroidery by tacking it down using matching threads. The back of the embroidery is joyfully colourful and messy and a glorious art work in its own right.

There’s so much to learn and to enjoy in close observation of skilled (and sometimes not-so-skilled) making. I started my working life aiming towards working with antique textiles in museum and had the pleasure of working with some really special textile and fashion collections before I diverted into other directions. Later, when I was no longer paid to work with textiles I spent my days off researching medieval textiles and still often yearn for those days of quiet study in museum store rooms. I make sure that in my own contemporary work I do get to work with museum collections and have my own small, growing museum of interesting textiles which inspire.

I’ve repaired some pieces of my own extensive antique textiles collection and plenty of vintage clothing and am happy to take commissions for interesting repairs. 

Surface Pattern exhibition at Unit Twelve

Criminal Quilts: Patchwork

This piece will be exhibited in Unit Twelve’s new exhibition (Surface) Pattern 27th April- 26th August 2017.

 

I’m also running a natural dye workshop at the gallery on Saturday 29th July where you can create lovely patterns on cloth using foraged plant materials.

Art Textiles course at West Dean College

This summer I am running a three day course at the lovely West Dean College, 30 May 2016 to 2 June 2016. Find out more here.

The Beauty of Stains. Ruth Singer

Ruth Singer. The Beauty of Stains

Art Textiles: Creating Cloth with Meaning

Explore a range of slow, thoughtful textile practices to create cloth with meaning. Experiment with local plants and simple rust dyeing to create eco prints on natural and vintage cloth. Introduce hand stitch with fabric manipulation and trapunto quilting to add texture and structure.

On Patience

People often tell me how patient I am to hand stitch my work. I often counter that I am only patient with sewing, not with anything else (although that’s not really true*). We can all be patient doing something we love. It doesn’t require patience to get to the end of a good book as you are enjoying the act of reading. In the same way, I enjoy the act of sewing:

  • the feel of the needle pulling a thread through cloth
  • the patterns it makes
  • the textures thread makes in the cloth
  • the quietness
  • the slowness
  • the connection with the cloth, the thread, the needle
  • the feeling of putting a bit of myself into my sewing

It isn’t about patience, it is about enjoying the process.

I was asked last week about why I sew by hand rather than by machine. I find this an odd question as my work wouldn’t be my work if I made it by machine. I couldn’t make it by machine. It would be completely different work. It wouldn’t be me.

Today, out walking, I figured out the perfect way to explain this:

It is like choosing to walk on a footpath rather than to drive on a road through the countryside. 

IMG_20151008_140513

Just because there are sewing machines, and faster techniques, doesn’t mean I have to use them. Life isn’t about doing the most in the time available, it is about enjoying the process. I am not a machine. I refuse to confine my creativity within bounds of commercial productivity and speed.  I like slow.

*mostly my lack of patience occurs when people make statements about my personality or lifestyle based on the needle in my hand. I am actually a pretty patient person. Maybe that’s because I love slow sewing.

Narrative Threads Masterclass January 2016

Alongside my Narrative Threads exhibition  at the National Centre for Craft & Design, I am running a weekend masterclass on 9th & 10th January 2016 (rescheduled from December). Spend the weekend immersed in creative, slow, experimental techniques inspired by my work. The workshops include simple, experimental natural dye techniques, embroidery and using found objects. You can create a series of samples, pieces to incorporate into other work or art textile pieces to frame.

 

Day 1

Our first task of the weekend will be to manipulate and colour cloth using natural dyes, plants, food, rust and inks. We will experiment with shibori dye, hand painting colour and creating patterns from rusty metal to create original and exciting patterns and marks on cloth. We will also dye threads and other materials to use on day 2.

Day 2

Using the cloth we have created in day one (or purchased on the day if you have not attended day 1) we will look at using simple embroidery stitches to create marks and patterns on the dyed cloth. We will experiment with layering and cutting away the fabrics to create new textures. We will also explore ways of incorporating found objects into our work to add depth and narrative to the pieces.

£50 per day or £95 for the weekend, including basic materials, with additional materials available to purchase at the workshop. Book with NCCD on 01529 308710 info@nationalcraftanddesign.org.uk.

 

 

Darning and Mending

This October, Leicester Footpaths group are running a Green Festival Of Making and Mending and I am helping with the sewing aspects.

During the Festival on 31st October 2015 I will be running a stall sharing ideas on how to do more complicated mends and revitalise your clothes and household textiles including replacing elastic and invisible zips, reinforcing weak fabric, added faced hems, fixing knits, mending delicate fabrics underwear and vintage clothes. I’ll also be able to help out with mending bags, rucksacks and other practical items. I will also be selling tools and materials for repair including lingerie elastic and darning wool as well as zips and buttons.

Mending volunteers required! Can you already darn / mend or would you like to learn and pass on the skills?

I’m looking for volunteers to be part of my mending circle at the festival. Please get in touch if you can help out for an hour or two on the day.

Community sustainable textiles project

I recently completed a short project for Sustainable Harborough using natural dyes and local plants to create a textile wall hanging for the local library. They asked me to propose a workshop for a town centre activity day which local people could join in with and result in something attractive and informative for display at the end.

 

I devised a simple natural dye workshop using easy, non-toxic natural dyes and local plants to create eco-prints on reclaimed silk from an old wedding dress. Each person taking part chose their own flowers and leaves to create bundles with and then added their tied bundle to either turmeric or beetroot / tea dye pot. Participants came back an hour or more later to unwrap and reveal their bundles. We got some really stunning patterns and details in the prints, which amazed and fascinated everyone who took part – including my assistant Erica!

 

Above all, this simple project showed how easy it can be to engage all ages in sustainability issues through simple, creative activities. All ages took part in the workshop and all were equally fascinated to discover that you can create such wonderful colours using (mainly) what grows in your garden. A drop-in activity like this is an easy way to talk to people about the environmental issues around textiles and dyes and to encourage a closer appreciation and exploration of what is growing in our local parks, wastelands or gardens.

sustainble harborough sign

 

Find out more about commissioning a project or activity here. I love the challenge of creating events and activities tailored to specific venues, themes or projects.