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How to Sew Smocking

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Do you know how to sew smocking so that the bunching turns out nicely? Smocking is a kind of embroidery that forms a decorative pattern on your garment with fullness and elasticity. 

Whether you are adding detail around the neckline or sleeves, smocking is a technique that helps the fabric to hug comfortably on your body. It provides both decoration and functional support to the garment.

How do you sew smocking on a sewing machine?  Prepare the fabric by pre-washing and use a pleater machine to gather the fabric. 

Select the decorative stitches on the sewing machine and sew ½” apart. End the knot on each stitches by hand and lightly press with an iron to finish.

A smocking technique is where the fabric is gathered and decorative embroidery patterns by a sewing machine are applied to create the stretch. This was used for providing elasticity in a garment before elastic came into being. 

It is primarily used for types of necklines, cuffs, sleeves and bodices where as there’s no need for a button closure.

With these sewing tips, you will be able to add smocking stitches on cotton or linen fabric to add to your warm weather friendly DIY clothing. 

In this article, you will understand the basic term of smocking stitch and what is the difference between shirring. In addition, what are the correct steps to sew smocking and what type of stitches works best for smocking on the garment. 

What is smocking stitch?

Smocking stitches always go from the left towards the right. For a smocking stitch, bring the needle from the backside up to the left side of the first pleat.

Now take the needle over to the next pleat and insert the needle through from right to left at an angle, the thread should be below the needle. Repeat this process until you reach the end or finish of the stitch.

Smocking stitches are made using a crewel embroidery needle. This needle uses silk or a cotton thread, which is thrice the initial material width. Smocking stitches differ in tightness and require a stronger thread. 

Begin the smocking stitch with a guide of marked dots or a grid pattern on the underside of the fabric. Thus, the markings are hidden from the outside. 

The fabric is gathered with temporary hand stitches using a running stitches forming cable stitches, similar to basting stitches. They are knotted at the end for later removal, and the smocking stitches are worked over these rows in different patterns.

8 types of smocking decorative stitches to add on:

  • Outline Stitch
  • Stem stitch
  • Wheat stitch
  • Cable stitch
  • Wave stitch
  • Honeycomb stitch
  • Surface honeycomb stitch
  • Vandyke stitch

However, 4 of the smocking stitches are most popular and widely used for smocking a garment. 

Let’s take a look at the basic smocking stitches:

  • Outline stitch: This stitch is like a rope and made like a stem stitch. This is the beginner stitch in smocking and holds the gathered fabric tightly. One fabric pleat is picked and joined to the subsequent one with a stem stitch.
  • Stem stitch:Bring the needle up through the initial pleat and then towards the left side of the pleat. With the subsequent pleat at an angle, come up to the center of the second pleats, this stitch is over 2 pleats.
  • Wheat stitch:This stitch combines stem and outline stitches. Initially outline stitch is in the up position and then stem stitch is made under it in the same spot.
  • Cable stitch: It is the same as the stem stitch with the difference being that the thread position to the needle is alternated. It is worked from the left to the right for right handed and right to the left if you are left-handed. 

There are variation of smocking stitches that hold the gathering in a decorative way. Depending on the style and look that you desire, select the types of sewing machine stitch to apply to the smocked garment.

It is recommended to use contrast color thread to give a unique and fun upgrade to the clothing.

Smocking vs Shirring

Smocking is an embroidery technique that gathers the fabric and then secures the pleats with a decorative stitch that provides a stretch. 

Shirring is a technique of gathering multiple stitched rows to shrink the fabric size and provide elasticity. 

Understand the difference between smocking or shirring by looking and studying them closely.

The primary differences between the two are as follows:

  • In smocking, pleats can be gathered in several ways with different decorative patterns. In shirring, you can gather pleats with elastic, however there is no decorative embroidery stitch involved.
  • Smocking can be created using grid patterns or smocking templates. You do not need a template because the pleat spacing is used as a guide to join them.
  • Smocking is done before the assembling of a garment. Shirring can be done before or after the garment assembly, depending on the garment area.
  • Smocking minimizes the fabric dimensions to ⅓ the initial width and lesser depending on the fabric. Shirring minimizes the fabric to ½ the initial width.
  • Smocking does not use elastic thread while shirring does.

The word shirring and smocking are used interchangeably in fashion industry. Smocking and shirring is visually identifiable by decorative, extra stitching or elastic thread. 

Choose the best method to execute for your garment, but understand the differences from a design and structural perspective. 

Can you do smocking on a sewing machine?

Yes, you can do smocking on a modern sewing machine. Modern sewing machines provide a range of decorative stitches to create a smocking effect.

When you prepare fabric, sew decorative stitches in rows and parallel to each other across the gathering surface. Gather fabric using gathering stitches to work in between them. 

Do not trap the overlapping decorative stitches as it becomes tough to remove them afterwards. With several different decorative stitches on the sewing machine, it is really fun to create the smocking effect.

How do you stitch smocking?

As a beginner, smocking detail may look overwhelming and difficult to achieve store-bought quality. However, with the right tool and technique, you can stitch smocking using any sewing machine.

Always follow the sewing instruction and gather tools to get it started. Thread the sewing machine and thread the bobbin the correct way to avoid any problems such as jamming the machine or breaking the needle as you sew. 

These are basic steps every sewer needs to be comfortable with prior to starting any sewing project.

Follow the below steps to stitch smocking:

  • Prepare fabric: Build up equally spaced stitch lines in parallel rows. Gather the fabric with stitching rows to make a bed of tucks for sewing on. Select contrasting colors since it is easier to remove them later.
  • Make use of a pleater machine: With a pleater machine, it becomes all the easier to make pleats with fabric feeding onto threaded needles with crimped barrels to prepare a bed of tucks all the more conveniently. Thread the row of needles, feed the fabric behind and rotate the barrels by turning the handle. The emerging fabric is pleated with a bed of tucks, then pull the threads to begin stitching.
  • Use decorative stitches: Select the decorative stitches to work on with a sewing machine to give a smocky effect. Test on a scrap of already pleated fabric to try different decorative stitches to find the best look for the garment.

Some of the smocky effect stitches using a sewing machine include:

  • Stretch stitch recreates cable stitch.
  • Zigzag with two threads will give a “v-shaped” stitch. Use together in rows to give a diamond stitch.

How do you calculate fabric for smocking?

The number of pleats for one inch should be multiplied by the finished fabric width. For instance, 10 pleats for one inch for finished smocking width of 20 inches is equal to 200 pleats.

Follow the steps to calculate the amount of fabric for smocking:

  • To calculate the fabric width for smocking. Get the item width that you want to smock like a blouse or dress. Say for a blouse, you have to measure the armpit width and add in seam allowance for either side. Or for a throw pillow, assess the finished pillow size and add in 20” across.
  • Figure pleat width for a total width of fabric required. For instance, ¼” pleat will need a ½” inch of fabric to have a ¼” on either side of the pleat fold. 
  • Calculate some pleats for getting compressed fabric width. 
  • Lighter fabrics will need more pleats per inch as compared to linens or heavy cotton.
  • The next step is to calculate the number of pleats, then multiply this number by one inch by finished fabric width.

Depending on the fabric type being used, you may need more or less based on the weight. When you read a sewing pattern, the cover page should indicate how much fabric you need for a specific pattern. 

However, if you are making smocking from scratch without a pattern, use this smocking calculation method for best results. 

Smocking Techniques

Understanding smocking techniques helps you to speed up the process, there are some contemporary smocking machines and tools to efficiently reduce sewing time.

Use a pleating machine for smocking with a square grid to create a pattern. When using this machine, work on the reverse side of the fabric to form fabric volume on the right side of the clothing. 

Consider pinning the garment on an ironing board and steaming to shape the fabric to the desired sizing.

How to sew smocking

Sewing Smocking: Final Thoughts

Smocking is a traditional embroidery technique that gathers fabric together into tight pleats so that it can naturally stretch and return to its shape. Often it is used as a form of decorative purposes on a garment, which is different than shirring. 

Select appropriate fabric and prepare by pre-washing so that the fabric is able to shrink. Cotton, silk or lightweight materials are ideal for smocking, however denim, leather or velvet heavy weight fabric are not recommended.

Set the sewing machine up to the right settings and have a suitable thread to handle the bunching or pleating. 

Mark the fabric or use a pleater to skip this process. 

Transfer the smocking on a sheet of paper with evenly spaced dots that shows pleat points. Check the hand-marked points so it is ready  to begin gathering. 

Make a running stitch across each line of dots by hand or with a machine. 

Simply pull the thread gently so that the running stitch gathers the fabric evenly. When the pleats are pulled tightly secure the thread ends by knotting each row.

Choose outline, zigzag, diamond, wave, or cable stitch on the sewing machine and slide your pleated fabric through the machine. Make sure that the lines are sewn straight.

After finishing the designs, remove the running stitches.

Smocking technique is not nearly as difficult as it looks. From dresses to peasant blouses, you can add smocking with various decorative designs and patterns to enhance your creativity.

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