Smocking on knits is easy and beautiful but it is different than smocking on a woven fabric. Here are 9 tips to help you achieve a beautiful result when smocking on a knit fabric. I have also made a video on this so if you prefer to listen, you will find that at the bottom of this post.
1. Choose the Right Fabric.
Smock on a medium weight cotton jersey that is 95-97% cotton and 3-5% spandex or else choose a 100% cotton interlock. Both of these fabrics will pleat easily and will hold the shape of the pleats. Knit fabrics made with rayon or bamboo have too much drape and do not hold the shape of the pleats. Other double knits are too thick. (I tested pleating rayon knit and you can find that discussion and video here.)
Don't Pre-wash the Fabric before Pleating it.
The sizing in the unwashed fabric helps reduce the curl and assists with pleating. Cotton knit that has been pre-washed has more curl and is softer, making it more difficult to pleat. Knits do shrink, but mostly in length. Cut the skirt piece with some extra length if shrinkage is a concern, but pleat before washing. For more help on pleating knits, check out this post and video.
Never Interface the Pleats.
Knits are bulky, heavy and have stretch. Interfacing the pleats adds to the bulk which is the last thing that you want to do! As an example, quilting cotton typically weighs 115 gsm. A medium weight cotton jersey is 210 gsm, and a cotton interlock is 225 gsm. Here is a photo of 1 yard of quilting cotton compared to 1 yard of a medium weight cotton jersey.
Knits are significantly heavier than a cotton woven and that results in bulkier pleats. Here is a photo of Khaki Puppies stitched on a quilting cotton and also stitched on a knit. The difference in size is because of the larger pleats of the knit.
Have the Right Mindset for Smocking on Knits.
As smockers, we are used to striving for a full, plump stitch with good coverage. Achieving that same coverage on the knit with the same precision that can be achieved in heirloom sewing is next to impossible. When smocking on knits, you are not creating the heirloom garment that will be passed down for generations. You are creating the knit play outfit that the child will beg to wear because it is soft and comfortable. Accept that the precision isn't needed and embrace the ease and difference of the knit.
Use 4 Strands of Floss for a Geometric Design and 5 for a Picture Smocked Design.
Since knits are bulky, more floss is needed to get good stitch coverage. Use 4 strands or even 5 for a geometric design and 5 strands or even 6 for a picture smocking design. This is especially the case if stitching on a cotton interlock rather than a cotton jersey. A #5 or #3 Darner rather than a #7 Darner will provide a larger hole to allow the floss to fan out and lie flat.
Strip and Squeak the Floss.
Floss should be prepared by stripping and squeaking. Each strand should be separated and then put back together before being threaded through the needle. Once the needle is threaded, take a damp piece of felt and run it along the length of the floss. This will smooth the floss and help provide good coverage. If the piece of felt is run quickly and firmly over the floss, it will "squeak."
For a First attempt at smocking on knits, begin with a Geometric Design.
Although it is possible to picture smock on knits, getting that good coverage with no gaps is difficult. Start with a geometric design where lack of coverage is not as noticeable.
Ease up on the Tension when Smocking on Knits.
Smocking on knits can be a little like playing the arcade game Wack A Mole. If you pull firmly on the smocking stitch the elasticity of the knit will enable to pop up between stitches. Instead ease up on the tension so that the floss lies firmly on the knit but doesn't pull or bind. This will provide better coverage.
Use a Pattern Specifically Designed for Knits.
Knits require a pattern that will allow for the stretch while supporting the edges. A pattern specifically designed for knits that will minimize the bulk of the knit and provide for that support is necessary. In addition, when smocking knits, the pleating ratio should be reduced. Pink Hollybush Patterns that are designed for knits (some are for wovens) provide that reduced pleating ratio and design details to support the knit.
I hope you will give smocking on knits a try, the child in your life will love the garment you create! Here is the video if you prefer to listen.