Smocking Stitches Guide: Stacked Cables or Picture Smocking

Stacked Cables

Often when one thinks of smocking, and especially smocking for children, what immediately comes to mind are the adorable designs created with picture smocking. It is so fun to dress your little one in fun designs featuring bunnies, birdies, flowers or even hippos! All of these smocking designs are created using stacked cables, so today's Smocking Stitches Guide is going to tackle the Staked Cable stitch. Now stacked cables have the reputation of being difficult, but they really aren't - I promise! They are just the basic cable stitch stacked one on top on another, and the Cable Stitch is simple! You can find a complete tutorial on the Cable Stitch here. A Stacked Cable is simply working the Cable stitch so like stitches but up against each other. Below you can see the green stitches "kissing" the white ones. Done in the same color, they create a solid swath of color.

Stacked Cables

So why is this often considered difficult? Well, the goal with picture smocking is to create a design composed of a solid thread filled area with no foundation fabric showing through. There just isn't as much leeway for different variables. It is similar to the difference between sewing a fitted dress and a loose tunic. The tunic is much more forgiving. Likewise a geometric smocking design is more forgiving than a picture smocked design. The key to accomplishing a great picture smocking design is to set yourself up for success by choosing the right materials in the first place.

The Fabric: In order to create that solid thread filled area, that base fabric needs to be composed of crisp, full, round, and closely spaced pleats. You can see the nicely packed pleats of Mama and Little Giraffe above. In a geometric design pleats can be closely spaced or further apart and the design will still look lovely. In Picture Smocking, pleats spaced further apart result in design distortion, or base fabric peeping through. To combat this, choose an Imperial Broadcloth, 100% Cotton Broadcloth or a Kona Cotton fabric for you base fabric. Often Picture Smocked designs are stitched on an inset so even if your garment fabric is something softer or finer, the base fabric for the Stacked Cable design can still have that needed fullness. Personally, I also like to pleat a 60 inch wide inset. If you are making a smaller garment, it is simple to cut off pleats that are not needed, but difficult to add. So start with that 60 inch wide fabric such as our White Imperial Broadcloth as the base fabric and you will be all set!

The Needle: I have always smocked with a #7 Darner and most smockers I know also use that needle. Its large eye handles 3 and 4 strands of floss beautifully. Its long shaft helps the stitcher to line up the next stitch horizontally. However, if more than 4 strands of floss are needed, the #7 Darner begins to bunch them together. Try a #18 Chenille and see if the larger eye and resulting larger hole in the fabric, keeps the threads from bunching.

The Floss: Traditional wisdom is to use 3 strands of floss for geometric smocking and 4 strands for Picture Smocking. But there is no reward for using just 4 strands! Remember the goal is a lovely filled area of stitches with no base fabric peeking through. If it takes 5 strands or even 6 to get that look, go for it! There are no smocking police who are going to show up at your door if you use more than 4 strands! One caution if using more strands, do make sure the added floss isn't making the design too tall, but that you are able to get the number of rows into the space that the design calls for.

Separated Floss

Smoothed Floss

To achieve a fuller stitch, remember to "Strip and Squeak" your floss. Cut a section of 6 stranded floss. Separate each strand from the others. Put the requisite number of strands back together, and run a damp piece of felt along the strands. My friend Kelli says you will hear a squeak as you run the felt along the floss. Hearing the squeak isn't necessary, but smoothing the floss this way gives greater stitch coverage and fullness.

Stitching the Design: In order to wrap the pleat with floss, the Stacked Cable stitch is often stitched deeper into the pleat. Stitch 2/3 of the way down the pleat toward the valley rather than stitching more on the surface of the pleat. Most Stacked Cable designs require back stitching to hold the pleats in place over the "white space" (areas that do not include a design motif). I prefer to backstitch after I have stitched the Stacked Cables. This enables me to push the pleats back and forth to get that greater depth as I stitch. It is difficult to do this if the back is already stitched. Also, the back stitches can knot the floss if you have to stitch in and out of them. This is my personal preference and others prefer to backstitch first. Try each way and see what works best for you.

Stitch a design from its widest part to the narrowest. This may mean starting in the middle of the design and working up and then down, turning the design upside down to stitch back on the next row. For example, Mama and Baby Giraffe instructs the stitcher to start on the tail row and stitch up to the head and down to the feet. By working from wide to narrow, you but up against stitches already placed. It is difficult to put a stitch in the correct place that is hanging out there in the air all by itself. Similarly, it is difficult to accurately place half stitches as you go along. Skip half stitches and go back and add them later. It will be simple then to see exactly where they are needed. (A half stitch comes up in the valley, over the pleat, and down in the next valley).

Look at the Big Picture: Stop periodically, step back and keep looking at the overall design. Since you are making one stitch at a time, it is easy to focus just on that stitch and not notice if you are maintaining a horizontal line as you stitch, keeping your stitches lined up, and having the necessary number of rows. Use the shaft of your needle to see if the stitches are lining up and to push the floss together to help maintain that line. Remember, the overall goal is a solid filled area of stitches, so if you do have some base fabric peeping through, don't distort a stitch or slant it to solve the problem. Instead, keep your stitches level and go back later to fill in any gaps. it is perfectly acceptable to thread up your needled with 2 strands of floss and go back and fill in any needed areas. Remember there are no smocking police! In Little Hippo below that my friend Kelli stitched as a teaching sample, you can see the base fabric peeping through. (She did this on purpose.)

Little Hippo

Guess what she is going to tell her students? That's right, to go back when they have finished the design and fill in those spaces. Finally, mark on the graph where you are in the design. It is so easy and frustrating to loose your place in the design, and so easy to do when you are stitching upside down, so place a mark next to the row that you are stitching. For a wonderful resource on Stacked Cables, I highly recommend Tess Ellenwood's Understanding Stacked Cables, which you will find under the file tab on the Smock-Along Facebook Group page of the Smocking Arts Guild of America. But most of all remember that your lovely design will be on a moving child who will be thrilled with that hippo or bunny or birdie that you created and never care if a little base fabric is peeking through, so don't be intimidated and give picture smocking a try!

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