Okay... so we're gonna hand pleat some fabric in preparation to smock. At least, we're gonna discuss it. Where ever it may go from there nobody really knows.
First, let me start at the beginning with some background and terminology.
It still amazes me that so many of the hand-stitching genres we see as beautiful today actually started out as very utilitarian practices. Read up on the history of knitting and you'll find that long before it was called a "hobby" or a "craft" it was a way for cold people to keep warm. A wool sweater was meant to keep a fisherman warm and dry and knitting was at one time a way for women who had been left to fend for themselves and their children during wartime a way to support themselves.
The same can be said for smocking. Long before pretty stitches danced across the fronts of bright sundresses, peasants were using gathering stitches as a way to make large, plain pieces of fabric better fit the body of the person who needed to be covered up. Gathering stitches were used to control bulk around areas that would benefit from a more tailored fit like the bodice and sleeves. Colorful stitches in the gathering areas were a way for people who had very little to add some color and creativity to otherwise utilitarian frocks and in fact much of the reading I've done about very old smocking has been about the frocks worn by poor farmers.
Today we can take something that was once so much a matter of fact and use it to make something special. Something bright and cheerful and treasured. Its the romantic, overly-dramatic tiny piece of my heart that keeps me coming back to these things. When I find myself stressed with deadlines or frustrated with a techniques I often dig out what few books I have on the history of such things and look at the photos of people long gone. People who will never know that I'm dressing my daughter in dresses adorned with the stitches they created and passed down through generations either because of necessity or interest or curiosity. I wonder how they would feel about our point of view on such things.
Anyway, to easier follow along you'll need to get a bit of terminology straight.
This is an example of a smocked garment...
The colored stitching is the smocking, the little flowers are embroidery.
The smocking controls the fullness of the fabric that is the front of the dress. There is just as much fabric across the bodice as there is across the skirt. The only difference is that the bodice area has been smocked to keep the fabric tightly reined in while the skirt portion is allowed to release into its fullness.
In order to smock a piece of fabric you first need to gather or pleat the fabric. The colored stitching you see above is indeed what is holding the finished garment in this gathered way... but it didn't begin with this. Temporary pleating threads are used to first gather and stabilize the fabric, then the decorative stitching can be done. Once the stitching and construction of the garment/project are complete (or nearly so) the temporary pleating threads are removed.
Lets look a little closer at some fabric and the job of the pleating threads.
In the above picture we can clearly see that we have essentially a flat piece of fabric with the beginning of some pleating going on. On the right side of the photo you can see the flat fabric and on the left you can see the neat little pleats stacked side by side. The threads running across and through the fabric are the pleating threads. They are temporary and are simply being used to pleat and hold the fabric so smocking can be done. The pleating threads are a consistent distance apart in both vertical and horizontal space. Its this consistency that makes the pleats so "perfect" and tidy.
The pleater threads are also used as guides for the smocking stitches that will come later. Think of the threads/rows as lines on paper. When you write on paper you use the lines to help you space your words. Generally speaking letters are either full space height (capitals) or half space height (lower case letters). When the decorative pleating is done stitches are said to be either full space, half space, or even quarter space referring the their distance between these pleater threads.
The space between each stitch horizontally is also important so that each stitch is the same width and therefore builds a very consistent pattern.
That particular piece of pleated fabric above was pleated on this pleater...
Mac Daddy bought me that pleater when I was preggo with Tater. That was when I became all consumed with learning to smock. I taught myself by reading everything I could get my hands on and by ruining several yards of fabric and by crying the sorts of tears only a pregnant woman can cry when he feels sure the wee baby girl she is carrying will never have a tiny smocked dress to wear.
Essentially, fabric is fed through the brass rollers and onto the threaded pleater needles and comes back out with all those little threads neatly woven through the fabric so to produce consistent pleats for you like this...
Everything I read said that I needed to pleat my fabric on a smocking pleater and that smocking is very difficult and only for christening gowns and Easter dresses and that the fabric needed for said dresses can only be fabric that costs at least $17.99 a yard and has a name I can't pronounce.
See why I kept crying?
So anyway, I kept at it and eventually produced this...
I know its wrinkled... I had to go dig it out of a box where it and a bunch of other hand-made stuff the kids have outgrown is kept. This was supposed to be Tater's coming home dress when she was born but it (as tiny as it is) was way too big. It was like a pink Tater sack. That didn't stop my attending nurses from swiping it and running out to the nurses station to pass it around. They all swore they hadn't seen anything smocked since they we little girls themselves.
He's a closer look...
Not bad for the first project of a self-taught pregnant chick, huh?
If you look at the area immediately below the neckline you can see that all the pleats are tightly packed together, but down at the bottom of the stitching the fullness is released. This forms a sort of triangle... small at the top and wide at the bottom. This round yoke shape is called a bishop dress. Bishops are still my very favorite smocked dresses. Right after I made this (my first smocked project) I read that bishops are the most difficult of all smocked garments to make and are not a good project for beginners.
Go ahead... laugh with me.
But I'm getting off topic.
In order to smock we must pleat. I spent my first few years of smocking using that pleater... and learning to hate it.
Now... lets back up just a little. Pleaters are fine. Pleaters are great. Lots of smockers love their pleaters. I have used mine and done fine for years but pleaters have some drawbacks.
1. Pleaters are expensive (go ahead... Google it).
2. Pleaters are a learning curve all their own. Entire books and classes have been dedicated to the mastery of the smocking pleater.
3. Pleaters are hungry... and they eat fabric. Many times I have fed my pleater a pretty (fragile, expensive) fabric only to receive ruined fabric in return.
4. Some fabrics are just too thick to pleat with a pleater, such as corduroy.
5. There's no turning back. Literally. You can only go forward which means that if you realize your fabric isn't as straight as it should be you'll still need to feed the entire project through there and then you'll have to start all over again.
6. Small issues become very big issues quickly. A snapped thread or needle means you have to start all over agin and if you happen to be using a fragile fabric... you may have ruined it. Some fabrics won't tolerate being fed through more than once. The original holes made by the first pass cannot be gotten rid of and you are left with a double punched fabric.
As long as I've been using the pleater I will tell you that its still really difficult for me to get it perfect. I stay away from fabric with obvious stripes or other geometric designs because I know there's very little chance of me getting that through the pleater perfectly straight. Nothing puts a big neon sign above crooked pleating like a pleater does.
Smockers are a rare breed as it is and the only thing that frustrates me more than somebody saying "I could never learn to do that" is somebody saying "I would love to learn to smock but I can't afford a pleater".
I am here to tell you...
You do NOT need a pleater to learn to smock!
Also... smocking is not expensive. Regular quilters cottons and garment fabrics are just fine. Pleating thread is nothing more than hand-quilting thread. Smocking threads are nothing more than DMC floss which you can get in a million colors at you local craft store on sale for 4 for $1.
There. Now that the whole thing has been de-mystified, lets continue.
I get a little lazy sometimes. I get a little creative sometimes. Sometimes the 2 come together and I learn something new.
I had a project a long while back that I wanted to smock. It was relatively small and had no real purpose so the thought of fighting with and swearing at using my pleater just wasn't all that appealing. I kept putting off the pleating part even though I really wanted to do the smocking part. I tried to find articles on hand pleating or directions or even something that said "hand pleating is fine and not weird or difficult" but I really couldn't find anything. Even people who belong to online smocking discussion forums say things like "Oh... someday I'll have a pleater... then I'll be able to smock".
I felt like it would be no big deal to go ahead and just mark the fabric by hand but it seemed like maybe there was something I didn't know. Some reason that made hand marking wrong.
I did find those Knotts Dots which are iron on dots that are put on the wrong side of fabric. Then you can hand pleat by picking up each dot with a threaded needle and so hand pleat fabric. I figured I'd end up ironing the darn things on crooked and be right back where I started.
Well, okay. But if I can hand pleat with iron on dots... why can't I just mark it myself?
I found people who said its okay to use gingham and pick up the corners of the little squares but I don't really care for the look of it when its done.
I kept the thought in the back of my mind but pretty much left it go.
Sometime during that period I pulled a book off my shelf that is all about Japanese Sashiko stitching. Its one of the many hand-stitching techniques that fascinate me. The sample here in this link is on pre-printed fabric but if you investigate the traditional way of marking fabric for Sashiko, like the book I have, you'll find this...
They use a ruler and a fabric marking pen.
So... so can I.
I dang near smacked myself in the head with the Sashiko book.
Why had I been so reluctant to just mark the fabric by hand? Why do other smockers not mark by hand?
What makes us believe we are helpless to smock without an expensive, prickly pleater or iron on dots or whatever when we have perfectly good rulers and pencils?
How had I allowed my can-never-leave-anything-well-enough-alone-self be convinced I couldn't just mark the fabric... and why are so many other smockers convinced as well?
I don't really know the answer to these questions but I will tell you that I haven't used my pleater since this "great discovery". Its sort of like being on pleater strike. I feel like I was lied to by my pleater. It convinced me I needed it... it lied.
Now, the thought of hand marking fabric with lots of evenly spaced lines may sound daunting but if you're the sort of person who knits or sews or quilts you are already using ridiculously small stitches of some sort to create bigger things so drawing some lines should be no big deal.
All you need to hand pleat fabric in preparation for smocking are basic sewing supplies that you probably already have.
-You'll need a ruler of some sort. A cutting mat with a measure grid and a long quilters/sewers ruler work the best simply because they provide the most accurate way to measure and mark. Accuracy is extremely important but also extremely easy with these tools.
-A fabric marking pen that is water soluble, or a tailors chalk, or even a plain old pencil to mark the fabric.
-A sewing needle (more on this soon).
-Heavy thread... hand quilting thread is best.
If you plan to actually do this little exercise you'll need a small piece of scrap fabric, mine is 10 1/2" by 10 1/2". I highly recommend you use a fabric that is light in color and doesn't have a strong directional print. Plain muslin or cotton will be fine. Also don't use anything slippery or shiny.
Disclaimer: Different things work for different people. The following is what I have found to work for me. Take the info you want... leave the rest, and find what works best for you.
We're going to mark and pleat this small piece of fabric as if the upper portion will be a gathered/smocked bodice area and the lower portion a released, full skirt area.
1. Straight edges and squared up fabric are essential for pleating and smocking. I find that the easiest way for me to get straight fabric edges it to tear the fabric. If you use a good cotton it will rip right along a single thread.
Make a small snip where you want to begin to rip...
Using a smooth movement, rip the fabric down its length. Don't yank a chunk... just rip the length.
You'll be left with a lasagna edge like this...
It doesn't look like much but if you get in the habit of ripping selvedges off of fabric and ripping to measurements you'll find it easier to square up and keep even. The edge will smooth out when the fabric is pressed.
Lay your piece of fabric down on an ironing surface and check to see if it is square. Fabric is woven with lengthwise threads and widthwise threads and should always be squared up.
The way that works best for me is to rip each side of the fabric, lay it out and smooth it with my hands and gently pull the edges out a bit to help alleviate the lasagna effect, then spray with a bit of water. (I don't use the steam setting on my iron, ever. I prefer to use a spray bottle and a dry iron.)
Once the fabric is damp I smooth it again with my hands, gently, as damp fabric can easily be pulled out of shape. Check for squareness with a wide ruler or any other square tool you have available. Fabric that is slightly off can be smoothed and nudged back into shape with your hands. Once everything is where you want it, gently press until the fabric is completely dry. If you slide the iron be sure do so with the grain of the fabric either up and down or side to side but don't go in circles.
2. Move the fabric to a hard surface like a table for marking.
Mark on the wrong side of the fabric.
A note about spacing: Traditional smocking has its traditional spacing. Iron on dots are typically spaced 3/16" apart and in rows that are 5/16" apart. Pleaters typically make spaces that are 1/4" apart and in rows that are 3/8" apart. You can stick to these traditional measurements but honestly when I hand pleat I choose to make my spaces 1/4" apart and my rows 1/2" apart. The numbers are easier to remember and hardly look any different. I like the "balance" of this method. We''l be using "my" spacing for this project.
The first 2 lines will be the most important as the rest of our markings will be dependent on them so if you can mange to do these 2 as perfectly as possible everything else will line up easily. I like to use a pencil for these 2 reference marks and then use a blue water soluble pen for the rest. This makes the original 2 lines easy to spot.
Before you mark the fabric lay it on the mat and position it so it is parallel with the measurements on the mat. When you line up the ruler over the fabric to make a mark, always utilize the lines on the mat to line things up. If you attempt to use just the edges of the fabric or just the marks you make, you risk allowing one slightly "off" measurement to impact the entire project. By lining up the ruler with the mat markings you will keep your measurements true and notice bad marks quickly, so making it possible to fix them before they become an issue.
The first line will mark the vertical center of the fabric piece. The easiest way to find the center is to simply fold the fabric in half and make a mark at the edge of the fold. Open the fabric and use the ruler to make a complete center line.
The line should start at the top edge and run down far enough to go to the bottom of the area we intend to pleat. For this exercise just mark from the top edge to about halfway down the fabric length.
Next is the horizontal top line. This line should be 1/2" from the top edge of the fabric. When you place the ruler to make this mark, align everything that is available to you including the mat marks and the center line you already drew.
These first 2 lines should make right angles where they come together and be parallel to the grain of the fabric.
From here we'll make the "row" lines. The very top row and the very bottom row serve a purpose slightly different from the rest. These 2 outer rows will not be smocked but are rather holding rows and will also be the last threads to be removed when the project is finished. Another important point is that I always pleat an even number of row threads so that when its time to tie them off, it can be done neatly in pairs.
For this project we'll draw 8 row lines. The first is the top line we already made so you'll need to 7 more. Using the wide rule and the markings on the mat place the edge of the rule 1/2" below the first horizontal line. Remember to use the lines on the mat.... not the drawn line... to place the ruler. Draw a line. Now make 6 more lines, each being 1/2" inch below the last one. When you are finished you should have a piece of lined fabric just like lined paper, with each line 1/2" away from its partners.
The next step is to draw the vertical spacing lines. These lines will be 1/4" apart and will begin with the center line. Again, use the markings on the mat to line things up. Start at the center and work to the left, then return to the center and work to the right.
Typically, space needs to be left un-pleated at each side of the fabric for seam allowances and sometimes for things like armholes to be cut out. For this exercise, mark up to about 1" from the fabric edge.
When you are finished marking your fabric and grid should look something like this...
A closer look...
So... the marking is done. Not too bad.
Granted, this is small scale. If we were making, say... a dress... we would have a lot more width and a considerable amount of length to mark. We may even have several pieces, including sleeves we'd like to smock so they would need marked, too.
I really don't see this as monotonous work but rather a ritual of "getting ready" to do something bigger. All the prep moves you one step close to making something entirely hand-made and hand stitched. I always set aside an evening or a weekend afternoon for all this preparatory work.
Now that the fabric is marked, its time to actually pleat it. You'll need a needle and heavy thread.
For this exercise you can use a regular sewing needle and thread, however, for a real project I highly recommend milliners needles and hand quilting thread. Use them if you have them. Hand quilting thread is stronger than regular thread so there's less chance of snapping a thread.
Milliners needles (below) are extra long and thin and have an eye that isn't much wider than the needle shaft. This makes it easier to stack lots of pleats on the needle and to pull the needle through them all with little effort. Really, I tend to use milliners needles for a lot of things, including embroidery. I just like the added length. It seems to give me a bit more leverage and I like the narrow eye. I know there are rules as far what needle is for a certain purpose but I've never really been one for following rules and I'm self-taught in most of the things I do so I tend to use what works for me. Its rather liberating.
Pleating is simply a way of gathering the fabric into neat little gathers. The difference between plain gathering and pleating is that typical gathering is more "rumpled" and doesn't need to be too precise. Pleating, on the other hand, needs to be very consistent. The distance from one "picked up bite" of fabric to the next needs to be as consistent from one to the next as possible. A pleater does this because of the little dents and teeth on the brass rollers. Iron on dots make this possible if they are positioned properly because you use your needle to "scoop" each dot, therefore keeping the spaces consistent as you go from dot to dot.
With our grid method, we'll be taking that little fabric bite or scoop at the intersection of a vertical and a horizontal line. There are few things to keep in mind as you work across:
1. Try to take a small "bite" of fabric but don't think you have to be fanatical and try to pick up only a thread or 2. Do avoid taking a bite that is more than 1/2 of the space as this will bite into the area where the decorative smocking stitches will be worked later.
2. Whatever size bite you take, take the same size bite all the time. No matter if your bites are a little small or a little large just try to keep them as equal as possible throughout. Stitches that are very randomly sized will result in pleats that are very randomly sized and therefore more difficult to smock and they wont look as neat and smooth.
Thread the needle with a length of thread that is several inches longer than the fabric is wide. Do not knot the thread.
Have a look at these little bites on the needle to get a better idea of what we're aiming for...
We are working on the back of the fabric. The bites on the needle will be threaded when the needle is pulled through. The threads will later be drawn up, so pulling the little fabric bites together and resulting in pleats. The goal is for the majority of the pleat depth to be toward the front or right side of the fabric. The key to good hand-pleating is small, consistent bites on the back.
Since we are using lines the best way to keep a good consistency is to enter and exit the fabric for each bite an equal distance before and after the vertical line. Always keep your needle parallel to the horizontal line... always.If you enter the fabric about 5 threads before the line, exit the fabric about 5 threads after the line.
Now... just so you don't think I'm totally nuts... I'm not really sitting here counting threads and I don't expect you to either. It was just a clear way for me to word what it is I'm trying to say. Don't actually count the threads... just try to keep the distance before and after the line equal.
Once there are a bunch of bites stacked on the needle...
pull the needle through. Be sure to leave the tail of the thread hanging and don't pull it through...
Repeat the procedure the entire way across the row, picking up a bite at each line intersection. A completed row will look like this...
Repeat for each row until all 8 rows have been threaded...
The hardest part about this is figuring out how to hold the fabric so its easier to take the little bites of. I'm right-handed so I hold the fabric in my left hand, the needle in my right, and I work from right left. A left-hander would do the exact opposite. I hold the area I am currently threading between my fingers like this...
I keep the fabric held tightly so there is enough tension to keep the fabric flat. This makes it easier to stab the little bites with the needle tip...
Once all the rows are threaded, the pleating threads should be tied off in pairs at the beginning and ends of the rows. Tying them this way keeps the rows even and the fabric edges parallel.
Begin by tying off all the pairs on one side of the piece...
The next step is to begin drawing up the threads to finally form the pleats... after all that's what this whole thing is about. With one hand, grasp all the loose thread ends and with your other hand gently push the fabric toward the tied ends, so bunching the fabric and sliding it along the threads...
Don't worry if it doesn't look very neat just yet, this is normal.
Now, work with just the top 2 threads, the first pair, and use your finger tip to even out and smooth the pleats as necessary. They should fall in line quite easily...
You'll need to tie this pair off at this end just like at the other end. The difference is that where you tie these ends will dictate the width of the piece and how tightly or loosely the pleats are stacked. This is important because if the pleats are stacked too tightly together they will be difficult to smock later, but if they are too loose and too far apart they will be difficult to handle and will tend to move around a lot.
Finding what works best for you is simply a matter of trial and error. For now, tie the ends in such a way that the pleats sit nicely side by side without being smashed together. You should be able to easily pull them apart to see the threads between them.
Repeat this step, tying the threads off in pairs and keeping the width of the pleated area consistent through out. Trim the excess thread only when you are satisfied with the width of the fabric and the threads are all tied securely. The finished piece should look like this...
This is, of course, the back view. Up until now all the work has been on the back of the piece. The pretty stuff, however, takes place on the front. Lets look at that...
This gives a pretty good representation of a smocked garment on a small scale. The upper portion is pleated in to control the width and the bottom or skirt portion is allowed to full out. Quite a nice little sample.
If you've gotten this far... thanks for following along. I know it got ridiculously long and wordy. All I really needed to say was
1. Draw straight lines up and down.
2. Connect with thread.
Well, maybe its not that simple.
And really the whole reason for pleating is to do smocking but since this "installment" has gotten so very long I'm gonna call it a day and save the next installment for another day.
Smocking stitches are pretty much like pleating stitches... they have a few particular traits that need to be kept in mind but are really pretty simple when you get right down to it.
Within the next few days I'll post about doing the smocking stitches and removing the pleating threads. This will also give anyone who wants to actually try it a chance to get a piece of fabric pleated.
Questions are welcome and I'll try to get them answered as quickly as possible.
If there's enough interest after the initial tutorials maybe I'll host a Smock-A-Long or something of the sort.
Even if it seems like mundane work or if I've managed to get so wordy you just can't stand it... if you have any interest in smocking at all I encourage you to work through this exercise so you'll know for yourself if its something you'd like to explore further. There's a great thrill in the moment of cutting the pleating threads away and seeing the decorative smocked stitches bloom into a pretty pattern and a full fabric width.
I hope I have shed some light on pleating by hand. I hope that those of you who were convinced you couldn't try smocking without a pleater that you certainly can. I really don't know when pleaters became the end-all be-all of smocking but it frustrated me for so long that I wanted to pass this method of hand-pleating on to anyone who may be interested.
Smocking in itself may not be the most popular stitching technique out there but it certainly is beautiful and in my opinion underutilized. Its not just for special occasions or well-to-do babies. It doesn't require special fabric, special tools, or special patterns.
Expect to see and hear more about smocking right here in the coming months.