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American Smocking

American smocking

Learn the art of American smocking in this excerpt from the fabulous Ruth Singer Book –  Fabric Manipulation published by David & Charles.  This is one of the many techniques covered, other techniques include trapunto, ruffles, shirring, pleats, tucks, Suffolk puffs and 3D applique. 

American smocking is worked entirely on the reverse of the fabric and creates a dense puckered design on the front of the fabric. Traditionally the design is marked out as a series of dots, but a grid is much more effective. 

Material and design notes

  • Almost any weight of fabric can be used, but fine fabrics may collapse too easily; this can be remedied by using plain or grid iron-on interfacing to stiffen the fabric.
  • Thick fabrics should be stitched using a large, widely-spaced grid, while finer fabrics can be smocked on a smaller grid pattern (5mm/¼in).
  • If you mark out your design with a vanishing pen or tailor’s chalk, the stitched side of the design could be used as the front.
  • There are many more designs possible than it is possible to show here, and you could easily create your own variations.


Preparing fabric for smocking 

The grid can be transferred to the reverse of the fabric using any of the marking methods, including iron-on transfer, vanishing pen or tailor’s chalk. You may find it helpful to transfer the markings from the chart as well as the grid. 

NOTE: Loops show where the stitch is pulled up and solid arrowed lines show where the stitch is left loose.

While the fastest way of preparing the design onto the back of the fabric is iron-on grid interfacing, you will find that it is harder to stitch through. The interfacing will stiffen the fabric, making it hold the shape well and the folds will be much crisper and more defined. However, a softer finish may be preferable and experimentation is the key. 

Grid interfacing is most commonly available in 2.5cm (1in) squares and this has been used for all the samples shown. While 1cm (3⁄₈in) grid interfacing is also available this square size is probably too small except for the finest of fabrics, so lines at 2cm (¾in) would have to be drawn over the interfacing. 

If using grid interfacing, draw the design directly onto it. If using a hand-drawn or transferred grid, mark the row numbers on the fabric for ease of reference.  

Basic American smocking method 

1) Prepare your fabric and transfer your chosen design onto the reverse of the fabric. Thread your needle with a strong thread, such as polyester, ensuring it is long enough to complete one row of the design and that it matches your fabric; make a knot at the end of the thread.

Hand smocking techniques

2) You are ready to begin stitching. Each stitch picks up only a couple of threads, which hardly show from the front. Make the first stitch at the start point shown on the diagram, making two tiny stitches to fasten.

How to do hand smocking

3) Take the needle diagonally to the next point and pull up.

Hand sewing guide

4) Knot the thread by going back through the stitch.

How to tie a knot in thread

5) Make the next stitch, which is an unpulled stitch. Pick up threads at the required point then knot the stitch as in step 4, so that this stitch does not pull when you pull up the following stitch. Continue following the diagram to the end of the row. Return to the top to start the second row, using a new piece of thread. 

Creative hand sewing ideas

Lattice smocking

Lattice smocking technique guide

Note: On the stitch diagrams, loops show where the stitch is pulled up and arrowed lines show where the stitch is left loose.

Arrow smocking

Arrow smocking tutorial
What is American Smocking?

Note: On the stitch diagrams, loops show where the stitch is pulled up and arrowed lines show where the stitch is left loose.

Fabric manipulation techniques from Ruth Singer
Learn American smocking techniques from Ruth Singer

Box smocking

How to do box smocking
Learn creative hand sewing techniques like smocking
Box smocking pattern

Close boxes stitch diagram: loops show where the stitch is pulled up and arrowed lines show where the stitch is left loose. In this variation of Boxes each square is worked. Working on the reverse of the fabric, stitch around the box as marked, picking up a couple of threads at each corner, then pull up all the stitches together. Fasten firmly, then make one unpulled stitch to start the next box. Continue working across in this manner.

Flower smocking technique

Flowers worked on a soft, polycotton gingham which drapes well. It uses the same technique as Unpressed Close Boxes but worked in a different way. It is particularly effective in gingham (2.5cm/1in squares) due to the shading, but it can be worked also on plain fabric if a grid is drawn on in vanishing pen before stitching. To work, stitch the design from the front, pulling up the threads tightly then moving to the next box on the reverse of the fabric. Push the folds to the front to create the flower effect. The lower part of the sample shows how the technique works if you do not push all the folds to the front. 

Box smocking by hand

Unpressed close boxes in cotton voile: the folds have been left to the front and unpressed, while the side folds have been finger pressed and manipulated into shape. The piece is worked with iron-on interfacing, which creates some stiffness in the fabric to allow for manipulation.

Is smocking worked on the reverse of the fabric?

Reverse of flowers: this shows the dark green blobs where the folds have been pushed through to the front. This is also an effective texture and could be used as the front fabric.


Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer (David & Charles)

Find out more about Ruth Singer by visting


Why not read our arrow smocking tutorial next?