Smocking: A History Part 1



As I have interacted with many of you I have realized that a series on the basics of smocking might be helpful, so this is the first of several posts to explain a little about the art of smocking, the terminology and how to get started! Lets start with where smocking comes from. Smocking is essentially embroidery on pleated fabric. The art form that we traditionally think of as Smocking is primarily from The United Kingdom, is specifically known as English Smocking, and has been practiced in its current form for over 300 years. However, some form of stitching on pleated fabric, or smocking, can be seen all over Europe in paintings as old as the 1400s. Garments during this time were simply cut, and pleating or gathering was used to shape the garment and control the fullness of the fabric. Various forms of embroidery were then used to hold the pleating and provide a form of decoration. The resulting pleating could be elastic or non-elastic depending on the construction method chosen.


This painting from the early 14oos in the Netherlands shows honeycomb smocking at the hips of the Virgin. The smocking controls the fabric and provides the extra fullness needed for over the hips.

The actual term "smocking" comes from the name of an English garment, the smock, worn by both women and men. Some histories trace the garment back to the Anglo Saxon tunic. The Luttrell Psalter (circa 1340) shows a man ploughing who is wearing a tunic smock, and Chaucer describes a woman wearing a smock in the Miller's Tale in 1386. Shakespeare also references the smock in several of his plays.


Language is always changing and up until the 18th century, the word "smock" referred to a women's undergament. Men wore "shirts" and a full skirted coat known as a "frock". By the end of the 1700's men were wearing a new form of garment with decoration, known as a smock-frock or smock.

Throughout the 1800s smocks were the standard dress for men and boys in rural Southern England and parts of Wales. The smock frock was an outer garment and was cut very full with the smocking used to control the fullness of the fabric.


Men would hopefully have 2, one for work and one for good. But the records of churches in the area show that they had smocks on hand to provide the men if needed. Cottage industries existed in several areas of England to supply these frocks. The technique of embroidering on the pleats was referred to as "biassing", "gauging" "plaiting" and by 1880, "smocking'. The smocks were made of a tough material, usually linen, and were often waxed. The Workwoman's Guide describes the smock as "made of strong linen...and the biassing (smocking) upon it is worked with the strongest glazed thread or cotton that can be procured...The shoulders and wrists as well as the back are biassed with strong, glazed thread in various patterns..." Numerous references in english literature, (including Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd) and paintings from the time refer to these garments,


In this painting called Snowballing by John Morgan from 1865, the two boys in the center of the picture are wearing smocks rolled up and tucked in their pants so they can more easily move during the fight! By the end of the 1800s the popularity of the smock as a practical garment for country men was declining, Gertrude Jekyll wrote in Old West Surrey (1904) that "The old carter's smock-frock or round frock, still lingering, but on its way to becoming extinct...no better thing has ever been devised for any kind of outdoor wear that admits of the use of an outer garment. It turns an astonishing amount of wet." Just as the smock was loosing favor as an outer garment for men, women's fashion was to come to the rescue! Check back next Tuesday for Smocking: A History Part 2!

References: The Book of Smocking by Diana Keay; Smocking Traditional & Modern approaches by OEnone Cae and Jean Hodges; The Chella Thornton Smocking Book by Chella Thornton; Weldon's Practical Needlework, Smocking; and How to Do English Smocking by Grace Knott.

#smocking #sewinghistory

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