The Name Game

What's in a name? A rose by any other name.... Hanging out on Pinterest does let you see lots of what's going on out in the sewing world, some of it incredible, some pretty inexcusable. That's OK. It's a free press where anyone can post pretty much anything that's decent and that's a good thing. Just remember that because something is on Pinterest does not mean it will work, be correct, be properly attributed, or even be real. Heard of Photo Shop?

So this hanging out I've been doing has led me to do a post on smocking in its many forms. There are all kinds, you know! And there are things called smocking that aren't even close but the name does make the sewist feel good, it seems. So without further ado:

First some definitions, definitely meant to confuse the issue:

From Collins English Dictionary: 
(Clothing, Personal Arts & Crafts / Knitting & Sewing) ornamental needlework used to gather and stitch material in a honeycomb pattern so that the part below the gathers hangs in even folds
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

---Well, not really. I have never done anything with the honeycomb stitch, as lovely as it is, but I have done some serious smocking. 

From wikipedia: 
 Decoration on a garment created by gathering a section of the material into tight pleats and holding them together with parallel stitches in an ornamental pattern

This one is pretty close. I like it. 

From Webster's: 
a decorative embroidery or shirring made by gathering cloth in regularly spaced round tucks 

Tucks? Well, I guess you could call them that. Sometimes they are round. Sometimes they are sharp and flat. There's also that "shirring" word. More on that later. 

embroidery stitches used to hold gathered cloth in even folds. I think I like this simple explanation the best.
So not all clear. What most of the smockers I know call smocking is the gathering of fabric into pleats Which are then secured with embroidery  on top. If you feel differently let me know. There are many types  of smocking and here are examples found.  

English Smocking:
Tiny pleats are gathered with a pleating machine or by hand with dots. The pleated surface is then decoratively embroidered. ( By the way, please feel free to disagree and correct me in any of this. I am always open to learning.) This is a garment I did a couple of years back using variegated threads.

North American Smocking:
 Photo courtesy of Chip and Jack

This is also known as Canadian Smocking or American Smocking. The pleats are formed by picking up stitches in a pattern of dots on the back side of the fabric. Wish I could wear that on my hips!

Italian Smocking:
 Photo from the Smocking Index, original work by Patricia Timmons, published in Sew Beautiful #95

Italian smocking also has the pleats formed by picking up dots on the back of the fabric. The pleats are very close and quite sharp. Often there is beading as well. Designs are usually all over.  Wish I could get you a better pic.

ETA: See Dawn's comments below for a more knowledgeable explanation of Italian Smocking. Thanks, Dawn. 

Now we get to the fun stuff:

Yo Yo Smocking: 

Leave it to Nancy Zieman. I think this is quite clever and if smocking is picking up stitches of fabric on the back side to make pleats I guess this will loosely fit the definition. Either way, it's pretty dang clever.
I think I might try it. As always, Nancy makes it all very clear. 

Machine Smocking: 
   Photo courtesy of R.E.A.L.  @
The smocked area is gathered, either by a pleater or by machine or hand running stitch. A machine embroidery disc provides the design which is then done on top of the pleats or gathering. I  have seen these be quite wonderful, at least the ones done over pleater pleated fabric. But if you are going to the labor of pleating by hand, why not smock it by hand as well? Doesn't take that much more time IMO. That machine embroidery is quite nice, isn't it?

And here's the one that sticks in my craw for some reason. When I was fifteen, this was called Shirring. Today it's still called shirring. But over and over I hear it called smocking. Really?

Shirring is made by stitching with elastic thread, usually in the bobbin or zigzagging over elastic thread to create gathered rows of stitching. The gathers are irregular. No hand stitching is involved.   It's pretty but not the precision of a pleated, smocked piece. 

If anyone cares to share more info or correct me, please assert your civil rights. It's always good to share and learn. 

 ETA:  Forgot a couple of other important smocking types. There's also ...........

Picture Smocking: 
photo and garment by Bunny  Pepin 
 This is done over the pleats but the embroidery utilizes stacked cables which line up to make pictures. Here you can see the Easter baskets I made for this dress. I think the plate might have been in a Creative Needle mag. You can learn this one of two ways. Many, without any books or lessons, just go to it and do great. They are the "never overthink it" school. Then there are those of us who have to read the directions, do the research, and pretty much overthink. We have a much harder time learning to do this type of smocking. I admire anyone who can do this well. It IS NOT easy. There are many idiosyncrasies to getting those cables to stack nicely. 

Counterchange Smocking: 

The first smocked garments I did were done with counterchange. Once again, this type of smocking is done by picking up stitches in a graph pattern created by either a gingham check or some other evenly spaced motif. This delightfully vintage design works up to make hearts in a row. Many counterchange patterns manipulate the fabric to make sailboats, fruit, and all sorts of motifs. Props go to Pat Garretson Designs for this sweet retro dress. She has many types of smocking patterns and gives great service. Nayy. 

ETA again!  Origami (?) or Japanese Smocking

I found one more very new form of "smocking" which I have seen referred to as "Japanese" smocking. It has a distinct origami look and technique and I think is quite special. Kudos to the artist, Hiroko, who designed the pattern for HM Textiles. I think it is quite brilliant. The pattern is new to market and should be in quilt shops soon. For more please check out this link:
 photo courtesy of Di Mill, Fabric Rep (wouldn't you love her job?)


Totally forgot Template Smocking which is what I did on the Tablecloth Dress which you can see more of on this post. On the post is a more thorough explanation of the technique. Templates are made. The fabric is pleated. The shapes are outlined with a removeable line right over the pleating. They are then stitched around with outline or stem stitches and then filled with stacked cables. It is a great way to get a realistic subject converted to the geometry of pleats and cables. If you are a good tracer you can do this one. 

(Who knows what I will remember next for other types of smocking? If I have neglected anything here, please shoot me an email and let me know. I think I will post this up on the sidebar as a reference. Sound good? )

So when all is said and done, smocking pretty much breaks down to two types. There is that which is worked over pleats and that which is made by picking up threads of fabric with small stitches to form a design. Either way, it is a comforting enjoyable art form,conducive for sure to children's clothing but now being utilized on the couture runways as well.  I love the challenge of using it in more adult garments or accessories.  Sorry for all the crazy font sizes. Blogger is not cooperating with me today.

 I have been wearing my smocked jewelry lately and the response has been quite surprising and encouraging. I think I may be on to something. Here you see silk and linen strips ready to pleat and dye. I am doing a lot so I will have a new handwork project going. I am also in the throws of sewing for a couple of clients but as soon as that is done it will be on  to the window treatments. I have also been eying some white denim for a chair slipcover for the newly painted living room. One thing at a time, though!....Bunny


  1. smocked jewelry?! Bunny, you have piqued my interest. I look forward to seeing more on this topic.

  2. I've done the North American, or Canadian, smocking, and that's it. So many different kinds!

  3. Bunny, there is a gal in my SAGA group who does exclusively Italian smocking. In fact she's written dozens of her own smocking plates because of the complete dearth of them available elsewhere. Anyway, I'm commenting to say that she pleats her fabric the same way we do, with a pleater. She doesn't pick up dots on the back of the fabric. And I'm with you; I hate it when people call shirring smocking.

    1. Jenny Jo, it is such a relief to know I was not the only one that this drove nuts. And thinks for the info on Italian smocking. I did not know at all that it could be done over pleats. I will have to look into that. Thanks, again.

  4. Very informative post, and I definitely agree with you about the shirring. That blouse is NOT smocked. But anyway, I have done one project with Italian smocking, in which I pleated the fabric on a pleater. As it was silk dupioni, I steamed the pleats before taking them off the needles which makes the pleats nice and sharp. Here's my post on it, My photo isn't very good, I find it difficult to properly photograph black. I've just finished pleating three Wee Care gowns, breaking three needles in the process.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that link, Cynthia. Exquisite bag, Cynthia. Your work is always so beautifully executed.

  5. Great blog post! I wish we would come up with a different name for Machine Smocking. It is such a gross misrepresentation of the Fine Art of Smocking. Maybe "Pleat work machine embroidery" would be a better description.

    1. How about "Mock Smocking"?

    2. LOL! We could then shorten it and just call it just "Mocking"!

  6. Thanks for explaining this Bunny, you've inspired me once again! :)

  7. My mother made beautiful smocked dresses for me and my sisters. She used an iron-on transfer to apply the dots to the fabric. I only remember dresses with fully smocked bodices , Peter pan collars, puffed sleeves and piped waist seams. They buttoned in the back with hand worked buttonholes. My cousin had a dress in this style with a farmyard scene on the bodice which I coveted.

  8. Thanks Bunny, for a complete explanation. I am with you on using language correctly in order to maintain the purity of an art.

  9. I love smocking I love that you can buy the cheapest fabric and smock it up and it is an instant heirloom. I have done almost all the forms that you have mentioned, I think the trick to picture smocking is overlapping the cables, so that the second course of cables overlap the top of the first. I hope that makes sense. Thanks for putting this together. I am with you shirring is not smocking and should never be called such. I think those who do it want to seem fancy and so they call it smocking so that they can feel fancy. We call them the white trash sewers (smockers) if you want.

  10. I have a few RTW knit tops that have decorative smocking but it stretches. It is around the neckline usually, so the focus is on your face. Do you think it would be possible to do the Nancy Zieman thing with elastic thread on a knit? The stretch makes the tops so comfortable. BTW, your jewelry is great. I have seen a lot of fabric pins lately on jackets. Yours is much nicer.

    1. I think your elastic idea is a great one for around a neckline or sleeves.Isn't the comfort of no closures what knits are all about? Great idea!

      Glad you liked the jewelry. I have been working on them all weekend. More to come.

  11. Bravo on the simple explanations of the so many forms of smocking... but I too would rename the one done on machine! I like you "mock smocking"! Save the machine stuff for the construction and keep the smocking by hand! I would do it all day if there was nothing else on my "to do" list!

  12. Great post! So interesting to learn a little about the different styles of smacking. Your smoking projects are always so beautiful. I especially liked the white linen jacket where you smocked the sleeves. It was a subtle, perfect touch.

  13. Would love to see a picture of the dress with the flower pot picture smocking. Love your blog.

  14. Thanks for the interesting info on the different types of smocking. I've long admired the beautiful work you've shared with us. The "origami" smocking rang a bell, so I googled it, and was linked to an entry on The reviewer used the same type of smocking shown in your photo to produce an exquisite maternity top, using a multi-colored polka dot fabric, so that each junction brought together 4 different colors of dots. It was perfectly done, using the reverse side of the smocking shown in your photo. A reader figured out how to do it and posted a tutorial online, in case you haven't seen it:

    And the review showing the beautiful polka dots:

  15. I always admire your work and time prevents me from looking into smocking because it would be an opportunity cost of doing something else - however I didn't realise there were so many different types

    thanks for sharing.

  16. Fascinating! you are so right about the difference between smocking and shirring! Thought of this yesterday when we got out some photos of daughter's second birthday in 1982. Daughter and three friends at tea, all in party dresses with yokes and English smocked bodices. Fashions change! In my 1936 edition of "Mary Thomas's Embroidery Book" I find (pp. 254-255) "Smoking is a work of peasant origin, being a decorative method of gathering together in regular folds a wide width of material...As the years progressed these [smocks] were gradually decorated ...The practical purpose of smocking, that of controlling the fullness on the upper part of a garment leaving the lower part free and loose fitting, is now appreciated for babies' and children's garments, where elasticity, freedom for expansion and growth are of primary importance." But your encyclopaedia of the different types is very comprehensive and interesting

  17. Definitely shirring! I never realized that there were so many varieties of smocking. I love the American smocking. A few years ago Claudine copied a designer shirt dress that used smocking to control the waist and it was stunning.

  18. Isn't it funny? Here in England we don't call it "English Smocking", just plain "Smocking". But we say Canadian Smocking for the second photo - which is mostly used for cushion covers here.

    Great article Bunny! Thanks for sharing.

  19. Great explanations ! Italian smocking is done on pre-pleated fabric, the stitches are on the front of the piece and usually stitched with matching pearl cotton, the threads trail on the front just like geometric smocking but it is the texture not the stitches that should be seen hence the matching thread. You should give it a try, it takes a few rows before you actually see the fabric manipulation make the design.

    1. Thanks for your wonderful, far more knoweledgable explanation of Italian smocking. Greatly appreciated.

  20. I used to make smocked dresses for my daughters back in the 80's, there was a bit of a resurgence in popularity of romantic styles for little girls - tea length dresses with smocking and ribbons, details like scalloped hems and shaped lace. The styles were so simple to sew and it was the fine fabrics and hand details that made them really special.

  21. You have written a beautiful article on smocking! Very interesting! I especially like the North American smocking and the Japanese Origami. Just beautiful!

  22. I'm new to world of smocking and am interested in English smocking. I will be hand pleating. I'm wondering which transfer dots to purchase: the "original" dot spacing or the "pleating machine compatible" spacing which gives considerably more space between the rows. I plan to purchase smocking plates as opposed to designing plates myself

  23. I wasn't aware of these two different types of transfer dots. I am only familiar with "Knott's Dots" from the GLK company which was started by Grace L. Knott. A google search will find it easily.


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