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.