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Shirring, Smocking, What's the Difference?

Shirring is a popular technique popping up in both sewing patterns and ready to wear the year. Is it the same as traditional smocking and can you substitute one for another in sewing patterns? Below is a video where I discuss the differences as well as the quick version if you prefer to read.

Shirring is a sewing machine gathering technique where rows of parallel lines are stitched about 1/2" apart with elastic thread in the bobbin.

An example of machine shirring.

Traditional English Smocking is hand embroidery stitched over pre-pleated fabric. The fabric is pleated either by hand or with a pleater by using parallel rows of stitches to form the pleats. Decorative embroidery is done over the top of the pleats to both hold the pleats and provide an attractive design. The holding threads that originally formed the pleats are then removed.

An example of traditional English Smocking.

The two techniques are often confused and the terminology used interchangeably although they are different. To further complicate things, in ready to wear garments are often referred to as smocked when they are shirred and a decorative embroidery machine stitch is added over the top to mimic traditional smocking.

Smocked Top from Talbots

The two techniques are similar in the both:

  1. are a gathering technique that shapes the fabric to the body.

  2. provide elasticity to the fabric.

  3. provide texture to the fabric.

  4. work best with lightweight fabrics.

The techniques differ in that shirring will gather the fabric in a 1.5 or 2 to 1 ratio while smocking uses a 3 to 1 ratio. This means that 2 inches of fabric results in 1 inch of fabric when shirred and 3 inches of fabric results in 1 inch of fabric when smocked. So while a pattern that is designed for one technique is a good place to start when wishing to substitute the other technique, the pattern will need to be altered to provide the correct width of fabric for the technique used.

If you would like more information about smocking, make sure to sign up for our Get Started Smocking Email Series!


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