The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Smocking

 

The use of embroidery stitches to control the fullness of a pleated fabric and give elasticity to non-elastic fabric (see also embroidery).

 

Status Endangered
Craft category Textiles
Historic area of significance Suffolk, Somerset and Dorset.
Area currently practised UK
Origin in the UK 13th/14th century
Current no. of professionals (main income)
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
11-20
Current no. of trainees 1-6
Current total no. serious amateur makers
51-100
Current total no. of leisure makers
500+
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

Originally, smocking developed to give elasticity to fabric that was non-elastic and became widespread for both decorative and practical purposes. The best known examples are of agricultural workers overgarments, made from linen or jute cloth, often oiled or waxed to repel rain. The stitching on these garments became decorative as well as practical. Smocks were made for specific functions as well as labouring work.

Hiring day smocks, stating the wearers’ skill or trade (for men and women), wedding smocks and church smocks were not uncommon, and were often beautifully smocked with a range of decorative stitches and embellished with embroidery. The embroidery was usually done in feather stitch, chain stitch, blanket stitch and stem stitch, often in the same colour as the base fabric. Traditional smocks were all cut to the same design, using geometric shapes, to facilitate the full use of the fabric, altering proportions to suit the wearer. Decorative work was used for shirts, dresses, bodices, cuffs and necklines, where fullness had to be reduced and shaped.

These days, smocking is in reality a means of decorating garments with attractive embroidery. Some designs still use the ability of smocking to give elasticity, but for purely decorative purposes, work smocks having long age disappeared from industrial use.

 

Techniques

Smocking involves gathering the fabric by hand, following applied ‘dots’ placed on the back of the fabric. These dots are in lines, both vertical and horizontal so the pleats created are regular in size and depth. These can be iron on dots, available in blue, yellow and silver. Several different sizes of dots are available to suit different fabrics and designs, or use powdered tailors chalk and a thin metal template and ‘pounce’ the dots onto the fabric. These days it is also possible to gather principally by machine, adjusting the spacing of the rows to suit the fabric or design.

Following the gathering and drawing up of the fabric to the desired width, the decorative stitches can be worked on the surface or the reverse of the fabric to achieve the desired effect before the garment or work object is completed.

 

Local forms

 

 

Sub-crafts

  • Beading
  • Embroidery
  • Dressmaking
  • Heirloom sewing
  • Silk ribbon work

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Smocking is currently practiced by older people and few young people learning the craft.
  • Smocking is a labour intensive craft. There is a huge demand for smocking but not enough young people willing to work for so little money. Most makers turn to smocking once they become a grandparent.
  • The need for smocked dresses by Travelling families helps to keep this tradition alive.
  • There is a throwaway culture regarding clothes.
  • Needlework/embroidery skills are no longer taught in schools.
  • Smocking is not taught by the Royal School of Needlework.
  • Therapeutic value of creative needlework much undervalued, despite the evidence of many years.

 

Support organisations

  • The Smockers (set up by members of the former Smocking group of the Embroiderers’ Guild in 2018) – run a successful summer school each year attended by 15 to 20 members.
  • The Embroiderers’ Guild
  • The Women’s’ Institute
  • The National Needlework Archive

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Ros Atkins
  • Kathy Eagle
  • Sally Figgins
  • Heather Flint
  • Daisy Chain
  • Isobel Luke
  • Sue O’Neil
  • Emily Rabbit
  • Patricia Ruffell
  • Heather Washington
  • Molly Goddard
  • Jean Hodges
  • Masha Popova
  • Rosemary Brown
  • Christine Clark
  • Christine Franklin
  • Gill Duncan
  • Hilary Wilson
  • Heather King
  • Sheena Reid
  • Jacqui Holmes
  • Maureen Briggs

 

Other information

Smocking is very versatile and can be used on anything and everything where there is gathered fabric.

 

References

  • A-Z of Smocking
  • Armes, Alice, (1980) English Smocks (Dryad Press)
  • The Smocking Arts Guild of America
  • The House of Smocking
  • Australian Smocking and Embroidery Magazine