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Machine Smocking Techniques

Machine smocking techniques

This machine smocking techniques guide was written by sewing expert Lorna Knight who is the author of Complete Dressmaking Skills and she teaches sewing workshops in Staffordshire and surrounding areas.

The traditional craft of ‘smocking’ is a beautiful technique where embroidery stitches are sewn on the surface of fabric which is pulled up into tiny tucks or gathers. The resulting effect produces an attractive and practical way to shape garments. It was often used at the yoke or cuffs of a labourer’s smock or for babies’ clothes. 

Today we can recreate this effect much more quickly using a sewing machine.  Our modern machines offer a range of decorative stitches suitable for creating the effect of ‘smocking‘. You may not be interested in making smocked romper suits but machine smocking is a great technique for embellishing bags, cushions and corsets/bodices. Try out a small sample for fun then use your imagination and create something beautiful with these machine smocking techniques.

Traditional smocking techniques

Choosing your fabric for smocking

Light and medium weight fabrics are most appropriate for machine smocking as the gathering process means the fabric is pulled up creating depth and thickness.  A thick fabric will be too bulky.  Choose plain coloured silk, cotton lawn or a suitable printed fabric.

What fabrics and threads to use for smocking

What about threads?

Embroidery silk or cotton is used for traditional hand sewn smocking but it isn’t appropriate for threading through a sewing machine needle as it is too thick. However, machine embroidery threads or standard sew-all threads are too thin to produce a quality finish with a bold enough effect for smocking. To overcome this problem, the best approach is to use a reel and bobbin of sew-all thread both fed through the guides and needle as per the image below. This will give the look of a thicker thread. This may not work if you are using a very thin needle (60/70). 

How to use 2 threads on your sewing machine


Preparing your fabric

You will need to gather up your material with rows of stitching to create a bed of tiny tucks to sew on.  Use good quality thread for this as the threads need to be strong so they will not break when pulling up the gathers. It is also useful to choose a contrasting colour as this makes them easier to remove when they are finished with.

The original method was to mark out the reverse of the fabric with a transfer of dots to use as a guide for rows of evenly spaced hand sewn running stitches. This is very time consuming.

Using a pleater machine

If you really enjoy smocking and make lots of smocked projects why not get a pleater?

Although a bit fiddly to begin with, when you get to grips with this little gadget the crimped barrels feed your fabric onto the threaded needles and prepare your bed of tucks much more easily. You just thread up the row of needles, insert the fabric from behind and turn the handle to rotate the barrels. The fabric emerges from between the barrels and onto the needles.

Once through the pleater, the threads pull up ready for stitching.

how to smock/shir fabric using your sewing machine

The easiest way is to prepare your fabric is using rows of long straight machine stitches. Sew several parallel rows of stitches then pull up the threads on the underside to create the bank of tucks. Having gathered up your fabric, secure the ends to control the tucks while you sew.

Decorative stitches used for smocking

Choosing appropriate stitches for machine smocking

Even if your sewing machine has only a small number of decorative stitches you will be able to find suitable ones for machine smocking.

Use a stretch stitch to recreate a traditional cable stitch. A zigzag stitch can be used with two threads through the guides and needle for a bold ‘v’ shaped stitch and using rows of these together produces a diamond effect.

If you have a lot of stitches to choose from you may have specific smocking stitches. These are often illustrated with bolder lines as the needle returns to the same position more than once making multiple stitches in the same position to give a stronger effect. Your sewing machine manual may advise you if you have decorative stitches for smocking.

Beginner's guide to machine smocking

Smocking by sewing machine

When your fabric is prepared, sew parallel rows of decorative stitches across the surface of the gathers. Use the gathering stitches as a guide for making straight rows and work in between them (if you trap them with your decorative stitches they will be more difficult to remove afterwards). Build up your panel of smocking stitches in equally spaced lines.

Machine smocking made easy

What next?

Remove all the temporary gathering stitches from your panels and use them as you choose. They are ideal for cushions but could also be used to make bags and children’s dresses. Be creative and use machine smocking in your sewing projects.

The art of machine smocking

If you would also like to try hand smocking try our hand smocked cushion project.