What is Smocking?

Janis Adams
Janis Adams
Woman posing
Woman posing

Smocking is an embroidery technique with its first recorded use as a type of hand stitching used for the purpose of producing elasticity and stretch within garments before elastic was created. This technique is also implemented to control the fullness of a piece of fabric. Smocking is used when fashioning garments, as well as when making curtains, upholstery pieces, and clothing for dolls, among other things.

This type of stitching done on top of pleats has developed over the centuries into an art form. As a decorative type of embroidery, it is used to add dimension and texture as well as style and accent. Often a highly contrasting color of thread is used to create drama and detail to the fabric it is stitched into.

To aid in construction and to provide control to the pleats, a binding row or holding row of threads is placed above and below the actual stitches. These threads are used only on the first and the last rows. These threads help more securely hold the pleats in place during use, when the most stress and pressure would commonly be applied.

Another type of stitching commonly used is backsmocking. Backsmocking is simply one or more rows of a traditional smocking stitch done on the back or wrong side of the material. This type of stitching is most commonly executed in the same color thread as the material on which it is stitched.

Accent stitches, or free independent stitches, are often added to create additional pattern designs. These types of stitches are traditionally done in a thread the color of which contrasts with material on which it is stitched. Accent stitches are done in a variety of patterns.

Another way to add contrast is by employing the technique of applique smocking. Applique smocking is when the method of stitching is used for the purpose of attaching decorative lace or ribbon to the pleated fabric. Applique stitching is often done in either the cretan or herringbone type of stitch.

While most of this type of stitching follows a rigorous pattern or design, there are those that do not. For example, free-form smocking allows for the placement of stitches without regard to thread guidelines. Whether following a regimented pattern on a dress for a little girl or simply following the whim of a sewer on a piece of silk, smocking can be a thing of purpose and beauty.

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When I was a tweenie smocked dresses were all the fashion. In most designs the smocking was around the chest area, and usually it had no straps so was essential to keep the dress on your body!

I remember being quite envious of my older cousins, as they looked so grown up in theirs. (I hadn't started puberty at that time so mine fell flat, literally!)

Last week I saw some young women wearing very similar clothes, but in the form of strapless smocked tops. It seems like fashion really does come back around every couple of decades.It's just a pity that I feel too old to enjoy this trend over again.


@Iluviaporos - You don't have to use smocking for old fashioned clothes like petticoats (I mean the ones that would have been in Oliver... of course some petticoats aren't old fashioned!).

Quite a few summer dresses seem to use smocking as a way of crimping the dress into the body without making it too clingy.

I think it's a really good technique for that when you are using a light cloth, actually. It gives it a bit of weight without adding more fabrics to mess around with.

Of course, it's a bit involved for a quick summer dress, so unless you know what you're doing, or don't mind taking a bit of time, you should probably stick to other techniques.

But if you want to learn there are smocking patterns and tutorials online. I have a friend who made some gorgeous smocked dresses from internet patterns.


I was watching a production of "Oliver" last night. It was only a high school play, but the costumes they had were fantastic!

I went and asked about it afterwards and it turns out all the more complicated parts, like the smocking on the dress of the female lead, were done by the mother of one of the girls, who was a professional tailor. I guess she volunteered her time, which was really nice of her.

It made me really want to learn how to make that kind of pleating, so that I could sew some fancy petticoats or something.

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