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.

Scrap Patchwork Online Workshop

New creative workshop with Ruth Singer

Do you have a collection of tiny, precious fabric scraps just waiting to find the right project? I created this technique to use up some of the very tiniest pieces of hand-dyed or antique fabrics. It is inspired by Victorian crazy patchwork but it’s much less busy. I use this technique to create fabric from scraps and use in small projects or as backgrounds to other stitch work.

This online workshop is on Saturday 27th November – online video lessons are available from 10am GMT with the live Zoom session at 4pm GMT. It costs £75. You will have access to the workshop for 2 months.

Sample snippets from the workshop videos

Example workshop content

The workshop is the first of a new series of (almost) monthly series of textile and technique courses and workshops which will get going properly in January 2022.

This online workshop includes:

Four pre-recorded videos: Welcome. Techniques. Stitches. Examples I have made and from my antique collections.

Example workshop content

There are also some freebies including links to museum examples, a colouring sheet / template and some audio to listen to while stitching.

The live session will be recorded and shared so anyone who missed the live can catch up later. You will need access to Zoom to take part in the live session. All the videos and other resources will be accessible via Podia, the teaching platform I use. It is very easy to use, I promise! You will create a login when you book the course and you will get an email when the course opens and you can start. I’ll be around to answer any questions. You can join the course any time including on the day. Sign ups will close at 3pm to ensure everyone can join the live at 4pm. The live session is a chance to ask me any questions, meet other stitchers and share your work in progress. It will last about an hour depending on numbers attending.

Any questions please just drop me an email

This workshop last ran in February 2021.

Digital Print on Textile

My artist statement says that I prefer to use old cloth in my work, enjoying the history embedded within the textile, and I have tried throughout my 15 years of practice to use sustainable textile techniques. It isn’t the whole story as I do also use digital print on new fabrics for specific projects.  I wrote a book in 2007 about sustainable textiles and home sewing. It wasn’t that long ago, but things have moved on so fast that I didn’t even cover digital printing as an option for craft stitching, as it wasn’t commercially available on a small scale then. Since then I have used commercial digital print services for school projects, commissions and in Criminal Quilts. Commercial digital print is now available in small quantities on sustainable fabrics and for Criminal Quilts I used fine wool to make the shawl below and for the library commission I used organic cotton. It is a great way to use designs created by participants in workshops and projects, even if their work is on paper not textile. I also used digital print for the Harefield Hospital Centenary Quilt, working with groups to select and print their own images of the building as well as scans of archive documents and photos.

On a much smaller scale, I have also used home printed textiles for smaller pieces including in Criminal Quilts. These small pieces of fabric are printed on my ordinary inkjet printer which works just fine for small projects. I have used ready-prepared fabrics bought online for workshops but for my own work I prefer to use fabrics from my own stash including organic cotton, silk organza and vintage linen.  I used to teach workshops on printing textile on a home printer which was exciting but chaotic as one printer between 12 people is not ideal! I’ve now condensed the information into a PDF which is available in my online shop for £7. This also includes a section on creating scanner collages which you can print on textile or paper which is a really fun at home activity if you have a scanner / combined printer / copier.