How To Do Smocking On A Sewing Machine? Find out Here!

Written By 

Jessica Da Costa

Last Updated on 4 March, 2021 by Shine

For the more accomplished tailor or seamster, smocking represents a challenge that can result in intricate, beautiful, and very varied embroidery results. But how do you go about doing smocking on a sewing machine? Continue reading to find out!

Sewing is more than merely a practical skill – it’s an art form!

With so many different techniques out there, there’s basically no limit to what you can create. Different fabrics, threads, patterns, and methods make for a creative  wonderland where you can learn, practice, and hone your skills all while creating items that are both functional and fashionable.

Many of the possible techniques can be achieved to excellent degrees of accuracy and precision via hand-sewing, but when you add a sewing machine to the mix, your capabilities increase tenfold!

This is not to say that sewing machines are overly simple or easy to use, and it will take a while for you to get used to the ins and outs of how they work, but they do simplify different tasks and allow for increased efficiency.

If you do know your way around a sewing machine and are looking for a new challenge or project, then smocking could be just the thing you’re after!

If you’ve found yourself on this page then it’s clearly something you have in mind, but how much do you really know about the technique itself?

What is Smocking?

As mentioned briefly above, smocking is a method of embroidery. It is commonly used in clothing – primarily is women’s and babies’ garments – but can also be used for other things such as curtains, cushions, bags, decorative trims, and any other item where gathered fabric can be used. 

Smocking is a very old practice and can be dated back as far as 1175 BC! It was largely used for things like work smocks, aprons, and general clothing items before the invention of elasticated fabrics.

The name itself, smocking, is derived from the smock garment, illustrating how its most common use was for laborers clothing.

The gathering of fabric involved in smocking provided a solution to garment shaping as well as in situations where buttons were inappropriate, as the pleating allowed for some stretching and flexibility that the fabric would otherwise have been incapable of.

Modern Smocking

Whereas in the Middle Ages smocking would have been worn mainly by laborers and poorer people, today, it is more of an aesthetic practice than a practical one.

There are various types of smocking and in terms of finished design, your smocking can take any shape, pattern, or colour you desire. This means that once you’ve mastered the technique, you’ll be able to create smocked clothing that is ornate and attractive, as well as highly customisable – luxuries that were not afforded by most in times gone by.

Whilst smocking is often carried out by hand, even today, the invention and continual improvement of sewing machines has made the job a lot easier. Once you’ve mastered more basic sewing machine uses, smocking is the perfect technique to add to your repertoire.

Equipment Checklist for Smocking

There are several steps to the process of smocking with a sewing machine and it’s important to ensure each one is completed properly before moving to the next in order to get high quality results.

Before talking about each of these steps, here are the thing you’ll need to execute your smocking:

  • Sewing machine and appropriately sized needle.
  • Suitable thread – you’ll want something fairly thick and strong but not too thick that it’ll affect the overall design too much.
  • Suitable fabric (we’ll cover this in a bit more detail shortly).
  • A pleater – if you don’t have a pleater then hand-gathering will be the next best thing.
  • A smocking transfer – used for evenly marking where the pleats will be (you can also hand-mark in which case a ruler and pencil will be required).
  • An iron – for ironing down your pleats prior to sewing.
  • Sewing scissors – for cutting threads and trimming fabric.

With these things in tow, let’s move onto the actual process for smocking with a sewing machine.

How to Do Smocking on a Sewing Machine

Preparing Your Materials

In order to set yourself up to do the highest quality job of smocking with your sewing machine, you need to be fully prepared.

One of the most important aspects of smocking is the fabric itself, and there are a few considerations to make. Firstly, you’ll need to have at least three times more fabric than the desired width of the finished product. This is because the pleats or gathering will take up more fabric than you might realise, and you don’t want to be caught short.

In terms of what types of fabric are appropriate for smocking, there’s really a large variety you can use. Ideally you want something of a light to medium weight as the gathering involved in smocking will create additional volume so anything too heavy or thick will become too bulky when pleated.

You’ll also want to pre-wash your fabric to ensure it is its true size (in other words, if a fabric is liable to shrink, you’ll want to pre-shrink it before you begin).

Some commonly used fabrics for smocking include cotton and silk, or any other lightweight material with a sturdy weave. Things like denim, velvet, and leather are much heavier and so should be avoided if possible, especially if you’re a novice.

Using a checked or plaid-print fabric will help to keep your pleat spacing even, so if you’re trying smocking for the first time, a printed fabric might not be the worst idea.

You’ll also need to ensure you’ve set your sewing machine up to the right settings (this will vary from machine to machine so you can tailor to your specific model) and that you have a suitable thread. As mentioned above, you’ll want something strong but not overly thick – machine embroidery thread and silk thread are common choices.

Marking Your Fabric

The next step in the process is marking when you want your pleats. If you have a pleater then you can skip this step and move onto the gathering phase. If you aren’t using a pleater then this is where your smocking transfer will come in, if you’re using one.

A smocking transfer is a sheet of paper that consists of small, evenly spaced dots that can be transferred to fabric when heat is applied (got your iron handy?).

Once you’ve ironed the dots onto your fabric, you’ll have your pleat points clearly and evenly marked for your gathering to begin. If you haven’t got a smocking transfer then you’ll need to hand-mark your pleat points using a ruler and pencil, being as even and accurate as you can.

Again, using a checked or even striped fabric can help you to keep your hand-marked points even. Once you’ve got your marks or smocking dots done, you’re ready to begin gathering.

Gathering Your Fabric

If you’re lucky enough to own or have use of a pleater, then in addition to not needing to worry about the marking phase, the gathering phase will also be a breeze!

A pleater consists of three rollers that fit together similarly to cogs, that are fitted with needles. You thread the needles with your chosen thread and then carefully and precisely feed your fabric through the rollers whilst turning the crank on the pleater to get the rollers to turn. It’s very important to be consistent with how you feed the fabric into the pleater as this will determine how straight and even your pleats are.

By the time your fabric has all come out the other end, there should be evenly spaced pleats all the way through it, in as straight lines as possible. The job of gathering your fabric is now done!

If you don’t have a pleater and did need to go through the process of marking your fabric either by using a smocking transfer or by hand-marking, you’ll unfortunately have to hand-gather your pleats.

This can be quite time consuming and tedious, but if done carefully can yield excellent results. Take your time and remain focused. Make a running stitch across each line of dots you’ve made and secure the end with a knot big enough that it won’t pull through the fabric.

Then simply pull the thread gently so that the knotted end is drawn towards your hand, causing the running stitch to gather the fabric evenly. When the pleats are pulled tightly, secure the thread ends you were pulling and cut off any excess thread.

Bringing in the Sewing Machine

Once you’ve got your pleats ready, it’s time to begin the real sewing. Before you fire up the sewing machine though, lay out your pleated fabric and iron over the pleats just to make them more defined, flatter, and easier to sew over.

When you’ve done that and have set up your sewing machine, you need to decide what kind of design you’re going to go for and therefore what kind of stitch you’ll be using. Depending on your sewing machine, you might have a variety of types to choose from, but some common options include outline stitch, zigzag stitch, diamond stitch, wave stitch, and cable stitch among others.

With your chosen option set up, you can then begin feeding your pleated fabric through your sewing machine, making sure to keep your lines as straight as you can. You want to work perfectly perpendicular to the direction of the pleats (ie your stitches should go across the pleats rather than with the pleats).

There’s no limit to the shapes, patterns, and styles you can create using your sewing machine to do smocking so get creative and have fun with it!

Once you’ve completed your design, you can then go ahead and remove the running stitches you did in the gathering phase and your pleats should be held by your embroidery.

Now Get Smocking and Make Something Beautiful!

With these steps as a guide, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish using smocking. Whether it be a dress for your baby, a personalised cushion cover for a gift, or revamping an old blouse with some new smocked cuffs, the only limit is your own creativity.

The most important thing you can do when smocking with a sewing machine is to be methodical with your process. Do each step as precisely as you can and make sure you don’t skip any!

Before you know it, you’ll be a smocking pro, so get out there and get smocking!

For some different embroidery techniques, check out this link.

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