Smocking is a centuries-old form of needlework consisting of surface embroidery stitches worked over gathered fabric. The smocking stitches serve a dual purpose: first as a decorative element, executed in simple or complex combinations. Second, they perform a specific function, holding each pleat in place, yet allowing elasticity of the gathered area. This elasticity is the result of the unique formation sequence of smocking stitches. It is this characteristic which sets smocking apart from any other type of embroidery.
There are two main categories of smocking. English smocking consists of traditional smocking stitches executed over fabric which has been closely and evenly pre-pleated. The smocking designs are referred to as either Geometric, consisting of lines, waves and diamonds, or Stacked Cable, figural designs formed by closely packed cable stitches.
Other variations come under the very general term of direct smocking, so named because the fabric is drawn up and the stitches are applied simultaneously. Included in this category are American, Counterchange, Italian smocking, and various forms of fabric manipulation which have a different look from traditional English Smocking. Although these techniques do not have the same amount of elasticity, in fact some have none, they produce stunning textural effects.
True smocking stitches are done only by hand. Currently, the pleating is most often done by a machine designed specifically for the purpose. But before the pleater was invented in the 1940’s, all pleating was done by hand. Although most smocking is used on clothing, contemporary applications are also possible in the form of home decorator items, holiday decorations, accessories, soft sculpture and abstract fiber art. SAGA provides smocking classes at its annual convention. SAGA Stitches programs are available, as well as correspondence courses and chapter programs for those interested in learning to smock.
SAGA members may access the smocking bibliography here.