Hand Smocking Makes a Comeback!

I predicted a resurgence of hand smocking about a year ago—mostly to other members of the Stitch team. I said, " You know smocking isn't just for little girls' dresses any more!"

Smocked pillows
by Tanya Mauler

A twist on smocking
by Tanya Mauler

  Figure 1

    Figures 2 and 3


And I was serious–so serious that we ran an article last summer on smocking. We had some trouble finding modern images, but I went online and found a young woman from Brooklyn, Tanya Mauler,  who was hip and really into hand smocking and had posted pictures on flickr.

She had taken the art of hand smocking and incorporated it into everyday items like pillows and aprons. I was so excited!  To add to my excitement, Stitch contributor Charise Randell submitted TWO hand smocking projects, a scarf and a purse, for the Renaissance Woman section of Stitch Fall 2013. Now I call that a trend!

I was introduced to hand smocking in a couture embellishments course that I took at Fashion Institute of Technology, and I just fell in love with the technique, which is every bit as enjoyable as embroidery or beading. I hope you'll join me in its revival. I recommend you read "Smocking Tips + Techniques" in Stitch Summer 2012, but here is the quick scoop on how to hand smock:

Hand smocking requires a just few basic tools–fabric, needle, and thread. Lightweight woven fabrics such as linen and cotton are the easiest to gather and smock. The gathering or pleating step required before smocking can be done either by hand or machine. When gathering fabric by hand, the easiest method is the use of iron-on transfer dots, which place evenly spaced marks on the wrong side of the fabric that can then be gathered using a running stitch. Dots can also be done by hand. (figure 1)

Once the band of fabric is pleated, check it against the size of the pattern. Tighten or loosen the gathering threads as necessary. Tie the ends of the gathering threads in pairs using a sturdy square knot to secure your work. Rows of smocking stitches will be added at the top and bottom of the pleated band to further stabilize it, creating a canvas for more decorative stitches across the middle of the band.

Paying attention to where the thread lies in relation to the needle will result in stitches that lie neatly across the pleats. The outline stitch and the cable stitch are the two common stabilizing stitches used to begin most patterns. (figures 2 and 3) Think of the smocking stitch as a backstitch. Always work from left to right. Thread position is important. If you are working across rows, the thread follows the needle. If working from top to bottom, the thread is above the needle and if stitching from bottom to top, the thread is below the needle. When stitching, the needle is always kept parallel to the gathering threads. The "bite" or depth of the stitch taken across the pleat should also be kept at a uniform depth. Usually a third to one half of the pleat depth is picked up when stitching.

I hope you give hand smocking a try. And for a  resource that practically wrote the book on smocking, check out Sew Beautiful magazine.

Have you ever tried hand smocking? I would love to know that I'm not the only one!

Happy stitching!


Other sewing topics you may enjoy:


Embellishment, Hand Embroidery

About Amber

Amber Eden is the editor of Stitch and SewDaily.com. She LOVES sewing and editing Stitch and SewDaily.com. She also loves dance, yoga, iced decaf triple espressos, and her two golden retrievers. She divides her time between Boston and New York.

48 thoughts on “Hand Smocking Makes a Comeback!

  1. I have been Hand Smocking since I had my first daughter in 1969 and have continued over the years with another daughter and all 8 grandchildren (4 boys, 4 girls) and now a great grandaughter. In Australia we have had a great Magazine called Australian Smocking and Embroidery. There were 100 issues of which I have over 90. Unfortunately, it is no longer published. Wish it was still in production. I would subscribe again. Regards, Jean Paternoster

  2. I once made a hand smocked Christmas wreath from a kit. I’ve wanted to do more smocking since then, but I think I’d really rather use a pleater than do the pleating by hand. Finding one of those things is not easy. I know of exactly one source, but I haven’t had the money to spend and other crafts to take up my time.

  3. Smocking by hand is alive and well. I’ve been a member of The Smocking Arts Guild of America for 30 years! Check it out. We do more than just smock little girl’s dresses! I teach and design patterns for ladies, children and dolls and have found this art form so rewarding over the years. There are many thousands of women around the world who smock but do not belong to guilds.
    On a sad note, the Grace L. Knott Smocking Supplies Company is about to close as Grace’s grandson is planning to retire. The business has been around for over 75 years and an era is about to end. Check them out!
    Sew Beautiful and A Needle Pulling Thread are the only current publications I am aware of which publish articles on smocking. Judith Marquis

  4. I am a self taught smocker. I made my first dress for my daughter 37 years ago. I also made and sold hand smocked dresses and gave lessons on smocking and French hand sewing. The finished projects gave me a natural high. Glad it is coming back in vogue

  5. I am a self taught smocker. I made my first dress for my daughter 37 years ago. I also made and sold hand smocked dresses and gave lessons on smocking and French hand sewing. The finished projects gave me a natural high. Glad it is coming back in vogue. The FlowerLady

  6. I love smocking! My aunt made my sister and I matching smocked dresses for years growing up. I have made quite a few smocked baby outfits, but I recently used the technique on a handbag, and I get tons of compliments on it! I would love to make myself a garment one day.

  7. What wonderful news that smocking is making a comeback! I love smocking and have belonged to SAGA (Smocking Arts Guild of America) for many years. It is another great resource for information on smocking. By the way, your outline stitch above should show the needle horizontal to the pleating threads and not at an angle. Unless you are using a more modern interpretation of embroidery on pleats. Thanks for letting folks know that smocking is still around and can be modern, hip and fun.

  8. I taught myself to smock 13 years ago when my daughter was born, I love smocking. I have now moved from little girls dresses they look a bit silly on a 13 year old LOL. I have made some beautiful smocked bags, pillow cases and Christmas ball decorations.

  9. Taught smocking for many years. Add smocked pockets on tote bags to your list of fun things to do. Also inserts purses and an insert on a blouse sleeve (done the length of the sleeve so it does not add bulk. I have some pictures, but not sure how to send them.

    Gretchen Dent Rochester NY

  10. I bought a pleater to help me smock. I found I got more even pleats. The best teacher I ever had was Martha Pullen president of Sew Beautiful. I am glad it is making a come back. It is wonderful these sewing crafts are not being lost.

  11. Yes, I did learn English smocking many years ago, and now want to refresh my skills to smock for a baby granddaughter coming soon. How can I get access to the article you referred to in the Summer 2012 Stitch issue? Thanks!
    Bev Weis

  12. How exciting it is to see your article regarding smocking by hand – it is indeed alive & well. I have been a member of the Smocking Arts Guild of America for the past 28 years! There are local chapters across the country for anyone interested in finding out more about hand smocking including mine in Tucson, AZ. We all still love to smock for little girls, little boys & babies but we have a very strong interest in smocking for adults & home decor & many other things you might not even think of! I know a gal who smocked the fabric for reupholstering the inside back of an antique chair – it is beyond incredible!! We are not hiding behind closed doors, we smockers are everywhere! Linda R.

  13. Smocking is indeed alive and well! I am also a member and the Regional Representative for the Northeast of the Smocking Arts Guild of America (SAGA). SAGA has chapters throughout the country as well as members at large if your readers are interested in learning more about smocking. We hold a national convention in the fall each year that offers extensive classes and will be having a Needlearts Retreat in State College PA this April – there are still spots available. We have correspondence classes and teach yourself to smock pre-pleated kits if people are interested. Local chapters also usually have a pleater members can borrow if you don’t want to use iron on dots. Check out our website at http://www.smocking.org as well as our pinterest page at http://www.pinterest.com/smockingarts for more information and to find a chapter near you.

    Lisa Hawkes

  14. I have been hand smocking for almost 20 years and am also a member of SAGA (Smocking Arts of America).

    Instead of hand pleating (drawing up the dots), most Heirloom stores (as well as SAGA guilds) offer pleating services if you don’t own your own pleater.

    So happy that F&W has the copyrights to the Australian Smocking and Embroidery magazines. However, I do not want my new issues of Sew Beautiful to be repeats of my old AS&E!

  15. Great timing! A group of us are having a smocking get-together this Wednesday to learn how to use a smocking machine. I used to pretend-smock on gathered material back in the 60’s on dresses for me in middle school. But having only boys for my own children I didn’t keep it up.

    Now I have a darling little niece AND the time to make pretty dresses for her.

  16. i made a hand smock dress both of my daughters wore 40+ years ago and for 3 of my 7grandchildern. My now almost 20 year old grandson got two rompers , cream color ponies on brown checked gingham and a tug boat pulling ships on blue micro checked gingham. Tow girls got smockked dresses and I’ve got to more dress cutout and ready to smocke – two rows done on one dress. Ther twins they were intened for are alomost 14. I am determined to finish them soon and put them back for future great grand daughters. I really enjoy doing it, just have many more pressing projects in the line now! Kathy

  17. It is wonderful to see smocking turning up in additional publications…especially since we have lost our beloved Australian Smocking & Arts and Creative Needle magazines. I have been smocking for almost 29 years…still as passionate about it as when I began. It is fun to see it popping up in RTW on adult and teen clothing….although I still love to make baby clothes the most. 🙂
    Check out SAGA (Smocking Arts Guild of America http://www.smocking.org) …. great way to meet additonal smockers, find out about classes & shopping for supplies. At the annual design show of SAGA we have seen some fun unusual pieces… smocked shoes, a rooster, hen, hat… creative non tradional items. Also SAGA puts out a great guild magazine with projects and wonderful information too.

  18. Yes! Several years ago I hand smocked a couple of dresses for my baby girl. I really loved how it looked and enjoyed embroidery type stitching without having to use a hoop. I had planned to continue the craft, but somewhere along the path of life, I lost my momentum. Thank you for writing about it as a reminder. Perhaps I can start it up again.

  19. I hand-smocked several dresses for my daughter in the mid 1970s, no pleater. I think the dots were from an iron-on transfer, but the pleats were created by hand. I enjoy all forms of handwork, and while I know I will love creating dresses for her, I don’t see smocked dresses as being part of my infant granddaughter’s wardrobe. They were back in the time of ironing and starching … today’s children have more comfortable garments, and less Mum-maintenance required.

  20. I have been smocking for many years – since my grown children were babies – and I am glad to see that it continues in popularity, maybe not always in the way I have known, but in other, modern adaptations.

  21. Dear GumLeafDesigns – today’s smocked children’s clothing are as easy to care for as most other children’s garments parents buy! Unless the item is an heirloom sewn garment with vey delicate fabrics & laces, everything is machine washable & tumble dry! The smocking is incredibly durable! You can make everything from play clothes to party dresses that are wash & wear! Give your new grandchild a real treasure & smock something for her!

    Linda R

  22. I smocked dresses for my two girls and a couple of infant outfits for my boys. I broke down and bought a pleater and was extremely happy that I did. My adult girls love their baby smocked dresses and are already planning that I make them for their someday children. I loved smocking; it was so relaxing. I can’t wait to dust off the pleater.

  23. I have done a little hand smocking years ago when my daughter was little. I still have a precious little dress that a friend smocked for her when she was born which was 1963. I should have passed it on to my daughter when her daughters were born but with the “throw away generation” that seems to abound, I figured I would never see it again. It is tucked into my cedar chest and I hope she will be pleased someday to find it. She always thought it was pretty neat when she would see it.

    I didn’t know they had Iron on transfer dots. I need to check that out.

    Thanks for bringing this art to the fore front.
    Marge P

  24. When I was 16 yrs old we had a new addition to our family… I got a sister. I was so excited as I loved to sew. I made her many smocked dresses! I loved smocking! I even made one for myself.

  25. Mrs. Mondani taught the campfire girls to smock in sixth grade. We made aprons for our mothers. Then fifteen years later I made a pillow, now I can’t remember how to smock, the kind that makes designs, not the kind that you embroider on top of the pleats.

  26. I’ve been smocking for 28 years, since the birth of my first daughter. After both of my girls grew out of smocking, I started a business teaching smocking and selling fabrics and notions for smocking. I’m still in business and my smocking classes stay full. I now have a new granddaughter to smock for yippee!!!!!!! I’m loving that people, young and old, are getting back into sewing and smocking. It is a true art and I have found that sewing is cheaper than therapy haha. BTW I’m also a member of Piedmont Smocker’s Guild in Greensboro, NC.

  27. I’ve been smocking for 28 years, since the birth of my first daughter. After both of my girls grew out of smocking, I started a business teaching smocking and selling fabrics and notions for smocking. I’m still in business and my smocking classes stay full. I now have a new granddaughter to smock for yippee!!!!!!! I’m loving that people, young and old, are getting back into sewing and smocking. It is a true art and I have found that sewing is cheaper than therapy haha. BTW I’m also a member of Piedmont Smocker’s Guild in Greensboro, NC.

  28. I learned to smock 41 years ago using 1/4″ gingham. Using the cornes of the squares instead of dots allows you to concentrate on the embroidery until you learn the basics.

  29. My Mother taught me hand smocking back in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

    I made pillows and aprons out of gingham using the squares instead of making dots. Then I had my daughter in ’64 and made smocked Bishop dresses for her!

    I learned recently from the Piecework Magazine that using gingham squares to make a smocking pattern is called “Depression Lace” It was a very interesting article.

    i now have a pleater to make the pleating job easier.

  30. I grew up in England, where we were taught to sew and knit in school. I remember learning to smock when I was about 10 years old. We did our smocking on gingham fabric, which is a great way to learn, because it has built-in markings. Now that I think of it, you could also use dotted swiss fabric in a similar way.

  31. The Smocking Arts Guild of America has been helping members learn to smock for 34 years! We have 105 local chapters across the United States that offer instruction, collaboration and friends who share a love for Smocking and Embroidery. For those not located near a chapter we offer Websmockers and regional and national classes.
    Our website, http://www.smocking.org offers a selection of kits with instructions for all levels of smocking, and correspondence coursed taught by the same outstanding teachers present at our schools. Your membership in the Smocking Arts Guild of America offers you access to the best teachers, and a complimentary magazine filled with projects, free smocking plates and great tips. ~Shirley Ganske

  32. I have been smocking for over 30 years. I have used smocking to provide details on pillows, purses, Christmas stockings, etc. I have long promoted smocking as an art form to be used in many disciplines. I teach smocking and share with my students that they need to be creative and use the art in new and fun ways. It may be an old art form, but everything old is new again. Additional resources for those interested in learning more about smocking can go to the SAGA website.

  33. My mother-ini-law made a couple of beautifully smocked dresses for my two daughters when they were young. They are in their 40s now but I still have those dresses. She also made a sleeveless tunic-like pinafore for each of them. She used striped fabric and then embroidered a wide variety of embroidery stitches down every other stripe of the fabric and up over the shoulder but only part way down the back. Then she lined the tunic. I was astounded that someone would take so much time to make something like that for a child to wear. Well, I did let them wear them a couple of times but I was so afraid they would spill something on them. I recently found an usual quilt with a lovely woman appilqued on each block. She is tall and willowy. the skirt on her outfit and the sleeves are embellished with embroidery. I have never seen another one like it. You can see the quilt here on my blog. I’d love to know what ethnic group the outfit represents. Ii have a lot of theories. http://karenquilt.blogspot.com/2013/02/dutch-or-hungarian-young-woman.html

  34. I learned to hand smock in 1987 when I was expecting my first little girl. Smocked so much I had to purchase my own pleater. I find smocking so soothing and relaxing, now pleating the material is a different story. lol

  35. I agree that smocking is a fabulous embellishment technique not just for children’s clothing. I have used smocking on everything from bridal bodices and headpieces to home-dec pillows, doll clothes, purses, tote bags and smocked crazy patch! And altho I started as a hand smocker, I took the technique to the sewing machine and created smocking stitches by machine! No end to how smocking can be used.
    Deb Yedziniak

  36. HELP. I do not smock, but I frequently buy little dresses for my two granddaughters. I always pre-launder them so the dresses are ready to wear when I give them to the girls. I bought a smocked dress made of small green and white gingham fabric. After laundering on the gentle cycle, and hanging to dry, the smocked area has the appearance of faded streaks now, especially noticeable in the back. I am not sure if this can be corrected or if the dress is ruined. It must have to do with the green and white threads and the folds of the smocking. I am just heartsick. Any suggestions?