CharacteristicsSection of garment is finely pleated. Embroidery worked across the pleats in a honeycomb pattern. Stitches - cable, outline, stem stitch and Van dyke, often with added bullion roses.
The first mention of fabric pleated was a Danish archaeological dig in 1175 BC. Smocks originated in the Iron Age from the rural tunic, a knee length garment, made of coarse wool probably homespun, cotton or linen, natural coloured, blue or sometimes a mauve red. In 1412 the ‘smock frock’ first appeared as opposed to the tunic, worn by peasants and workmen.
Pleating became evident by the mid 17th century, when the frock came to below the knees: the long shoulder seams and low set sleeves were gathered into a wide armhole and had cuffs. The loose shoulder piece became important, added as protection from the shepherd’s crook and the Waggoner’s whip which rested on the shoulders.
The smock was very economical: made of square or rectangular pieces of cloth, there was no fabric wasted. Flax was harvested make the threads and coarse fabric appropriate for hard work in the field. Pleats were gathered by eye then smocked using a variety of stitches – feather stitch, chain, satin and stem stitch. Threads were usually linen, waxed for strength and waterproofing. Farmers and rural workers were known to soak their smocks in boiled linseed oil to make them waterproof.
In 1826 the first commercial smock was manufactured in Newark on Trent. Cottagers or outworkers, worked the smocking and embroidery with the garments being constructed in the factory. Patterns were printed onto the fabric with metal blocks. These were very expensive costing up to a fortnight’s wages.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th C, loose flowing smocks were too dangerous to wear whilst working machinery. As well, so as not appear too rustic, folk moving from country to town discarded their smocks for cheaply manufactured clothes.
By the late 19th C, the fashionable trend setters adopted the smock – the perfect garment for playing lawn tennis. William Morris and Oscar Wilde were known for wearing smocks and others took to wearing smocks as a protest against the manufacturers of the machine age.
Templates and transfer dots were introduced in the 19th C. and by the turn of the 20th C pleaters or gathering machines were invented but did not become into general use until the 1980s.
In the 1930s and 1940s new magazines such as The Embroiderer, Stitchcraft and Golden Hands printed new stitches and made smocking popular once more. Weldons published instructions in the art of smocking and printed patterns for children’s clothing and some adult patterns.
Edited from a History of Smocking, by Kathryn Smith, Guild tutor, 2004.
Cave, O. and Hodges, J. Smocking Traditional and Modern Approaches, BT Batsford, London, 1984
Cave, O. Traditional Smocks And Smocking,Mills and Boon, 1979
Oakes, A. and Hamilton-Hill, M. Rural Costume Tunic, Frock And Smock-Frock, 1970 B T Batsford London
Keay, Diana, The History Of Smocking: The Book Of Smocking, 1985 W M Collins and son London
Buck, Anne,The Countryman's Smock, Folk Life 1963 No1 pages 16 to 34 p49 UWA: 301.05
Thornton, Nicholas, Hearts and Tears, The World Of Embroidery , November 1996, Volume 47 number 5
Gostelow, Mary, The Complete Guide To Needlework Techniques And Materials, 1982 Chartwell Books Inc
Marshall, Beverley, Smocks and Smocking, 1980 Alphabooks, Sherborne Dorset England
Armes, Alice, English Smocks, 1977 Reeves Dryad Books, Leicester England.
Smith, Kathryn, (Guild tutor 2004) A History of Smocking
© Valerie Cavill 2008