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The History of Smocking

Painting of a man wearing a long smocked shirtThe smocking that is today beloved on children’s clothing actually had quite different origins.  The pleated smocking itself was often used for cuffs, necklines, and bodices prior to elastic and was originally used on men’s shirts. In fact, it was used by tradesmen such as shepherds and farmers, etc. and was known as a smock-frock, and they often had a tunic like appearance.

Historic Photo of 3 men sitting on a wooden wheel barrel wearing long smocked shirtsThe pleating provided elasticity and protection, and when the shoulder areas were pleated it provided extra padding for the wearer who carried the tools of their trade on their shoulders. These smocks could be soaked in various substances, like linseed oil, to make them waterproof, and the threads were often waxed to waterproof them as well.

Smocking was also incorporated into female clothing known as a  smicket which was a loose garment worn next to the skin.  The name smicket later came to be called a chemise which is French for shirt.  Smickets and chemises served the same purpose as a slip and were not seen so the term smock is more often associated with male occupational clothing from the era.

Little Boy Blue Sleeping against a hay stack wearing a smocked frockSmocking can be traced back several centuries, and we know from many paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries that smocking was popular during the Renaissance in Europe.  Smocking today is generally associated with the English in the 19th century.  Embroidery began to be used to decorate the pleats, and this became known as smocking, and today it’s primarily known as English Smocking.  Embroidery styles varied by region, and specific designs became traditional for various occupations such as wheel shapes for carters and wagoners, sheep and crooks for shepherds, etc.

Kate Greenaway Illustration with girl blowing horn wearing a green smocked dressThe Industrial Revolution brought about the decline in smock-frocks since the billowy designs were dangerous around machinery.  As the authentic tradition was fading away, a romantic nostalgia for England’s rural past led to a fashion for women’s and children’s dresses and blouses loosely styled after smock-frocks.  An example of these can be seen in artist Kate Greenaway’s illustrations as well as other children’s illustrations from this era.

Front cover of vintage McCalls sewing pattern for smocked toddler's dressesBy the early to mid-twentieth century, there was a resurgence in popularity of smocking for its decorative qualities with mothers creating smocked garments for special occasions such as christenings or parties.

Cover of vintage Needlepoint Publication Press Magazine featuring a girl on a swing wearing a smocked dressToday, smocked children’s clothing is still a classic that will never go out of style.  The tradition is passed down from one generation to another, and for those of us who love it – I think we can all agree – there’s nothing sweeter than seeing your little sweetie in smocked!

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