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Smocking Made Easy – Wendy Gardiner

We saw the Great British Sewing Bee contestants grappling with machine smocking on a traditional little dress in week three of this compelling competition. Wendy Gardiner shares some quick tips to make smocking so much easier! Smocking is the name for the decorative stitching on top of gathered fabric. It was traditionally done by hand, first gathering the fabric with several parallel rows of running stitch and then keeping the gathering in place with some decorative embroidery stitches. Whilst it was traditionally used to make commodious garments for workers, it became a delicate decorative detail on girls clothing. But of course it can also be done by machine! There are two quick methods to create machine smocking easily, one is using shirring elastic in the bobbin and the other is a quick trick with cord!

The best fabric for shirring and smocking is a lightweight cotton, poplin etc. If your pattern calls for shirring the extra fabric required will have been included. If not, you can add it yourself:

  • Cut a rectangle 3 times the width of the bodice pattern piece to be smocked.
  • Smock the fabric and then lay the pattern piece on the fabric and cut out.

Shirring Elastic Method

Smocking elastic is a thin elastic cord that can be added to help gently gather fabric. For machine smocking it is used in the bobbin, with a regular thread on the top.

1. Hand wind elastic thread onto a bobbin, stretching the thread slightly as you wind. Wind until the bobbin is quite full because it is thicker, each row takes quite an amount from the bobbin. Place it in the bobbin in the usual way so it goes through the bobbin tension.

2. Mark parallel lines on the right side of the fabric with a marking pen or chalk pencil. Approximately 1cm apart is a good distance. Mark an uneven number of rows.

3. Increase stitch length to 5mm and then holding the fabric taut, sew the first line. Continue sewing the parallel rows, stretching previously shirred lines. (NB: the first one or two rows may not appear to gather that much until you add a 3rd and 4th etc. Sew an uneven number of rows. Do NOT use the auto thread cutter/scissors on the sewing machine to cut the elastic thread as it may jam or blunt the blade. Leave elastic thread tail and cut with scissors.

4. Steam press (do not try to press the gathers to much as you want the fabric to be softly gathered). The steam will help the fabric gather slightly more and set the gathers.

5. Select a simple decorative stitch, and then with the presser foot evenly spaced between the first rows of gathered stitching, sew the decorative stitch in a contrast colour. Continue to sew the decorative stitching between the lines.

TIP: If you pick a delicate stitch, put two threads through the top threading system to make the stitching more pronounced.

NOTE: Shirring elastic can also be use for knitwear. If cuffs on a garment have gone baggy, hand stitch a row of shirring elastic around the inside hemline to bring them back into shape.


Couching Method

Couching is when you stitch over threads or cords, either for decorative effect, or in this case, to quickly and easily gather fabric. This is the simplest method and doesn’t require any specialist thread in the bobbin nor the need to worry about thread breaking as you pull up gathers!

You will need regular thread for bobbin and top and then a thicker crochet cotton or shirring elastic for the couching.

1. Draw parallel lines for stitching as step 2 above but this time o the reverse of the fabric.

2. Make a good sized knot in one end of the crochet cotton/shirring elastic and then lay it along the first marked line. Using a zigzag stitch, set to 3.5 width and 2.5 length, stitch over the crochet cotton, without catching it in the stitching.  Repeat for all the other parallel rows.

3. To ensure the ends with the knots remain firmly in place stitch vertically down the rows of stitching in the seam allowance to anchor the cords in place.

4. Pull up all the elastic/cords from the other end and adjust gathers on right side before steam pressing. Again stitch vertically down in the seam allowance to keep the gathers in place.

5. Add the decorative stitching between the rows as step 5 above.

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