sewing

My Fascination With Edwardian Smocking

Smocking has always fascinated me. I’ve done a fair share of needlework over the course of time, but I’ve never tried smocking. The detailed work of it all intimidates me, and I think it probably takes a special kind of patience to do it. I look at Edwardian smocking and think “how in the world did they do that?”, but people back then had needle skills that we don’t usually have ingrained in us anymore. Pity.

I came across this article in a 1915 Home Needlework Magazine and thought I’d share it. It’s all about the details of the different stitches, and how to do them. At this point, printed smocking patterns were just becoming available, so it talks about how to place the dots that serve as a guide. Originally they used cardboard and penciled every dot individually, always on the wrong side of the fabric. Can you imagine the time it took? They also had to have absolute accuracy as they moved the cardboard across to repeat the pattern the width of a garment. The preprinted smocking transfers made this much easier.

The next step was to do the gathering. One had to be sure to anchor the first stitch with a double stitch so that it didn’t all come apart as the thread was pulled to create the gathers. Nothing would be worse than to do the pulling and watch it all come apart as the knot pulled through, and you had to start all over. A thread would be run through each dot, pulling up a tiny bit of fabric with each stitch. The thread would be drawn up and knotted, creating all the gathers. The general rule was to use fabric four times the length of the smocked area, so if you needed to smock an area of 12 inches, you would use 48 inches of fabric. Who says sewing doesn’t teach math?

Stitches used are as follows:

Outline stitching. This one is used to begin the smocking pattern, and is the basis from which most smocking begins. You would work the stitch from left to right, using the gathering thread that you’ve already done as a guide to keep the work straight. Start the thread on the second plait on the wrong side, and bring the needle up on the first plait on the right side. One stitch is taken every other plait. You can keep the thread either above or below the needle, however you wish. Every stitch needs to be exactly on top of the gathering thread all along the line, or it will look crooke.

Cable stitch

Cable stitch. Start the same as with outline stitch, taking one stitch in each plait, keeping the thread above the needle in the first stitch and below the needle in the next. Work it this way all the way across, again being sure to stay right on top of the gathering thread.

Double cable stitch

Double cable stitch is two rows of single cable, just worked very closely together.

Can you imagine doing this in the lighting available in 1915, and without benefit of the quality eye care that we have now? My eyes would hurt!

Vandyke stitch

Vandyke stitch is one of the most important stitches. It is used in making points. The number of dots required for making points always needs to be divisible by four (again, math). Vandyke stitch is worked from right to left. The thread is started in outline, then take two plaits together and one stitch over, then come down to the second gathering thread, taking the second and third plaits together, one stitch over then up again, taking the third and fourth plaits together, another stitch over, and repeat to the end of the line.

Wave stitch is started on the first plait on the second gathering thread. Work four stitches gradually up, one in each plait with thread below the needle, making the fourth stitch on the first gathering thread, then work four stitches down with the thread above the needle, the fourth stitch up and the first stitch down, in order to make the stitches level. The following rows are worked in the same way, just beneath the first. Stitches with wave stitch may extend between two or mother gatherings.

Double wave stitch is made in the same way, working in the opposite direction.

Cross stitch

Featherstitching and cross stitching are “simple” fancy stitches used a lot. The author of the article surmises that you can figure them out by looking at the diagrams. You see a lot of the cross stitch patterns in chicken scratch patterns, so popular for aprons and home decor today.

All in all, I think I could probably figure out how to do it, but can you imagine the time involved here? Think of 1915, when there were no automatic washers or dryers, microwaves or conveniences like we have today. When did women get time to do this? This was my grandmother’s time period, but she was rather wealthy so her parents probably went to a dressmaker for her things. I think that it’s likely that for most women these would be considered special garments and not for every day use, or would be children’s Sunday best. I’m glad that so many have survived though, because they are just lovely, and by what I can tell, the art continues, because smocking patterns generally fly out of my shop as soon as I list them.

Do you do smocking? I’d love to see your work if you do.

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